In declaring, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” President Bush picked up a rhetorical battle standard of freedom first carried by Woodrow Wilson and later lofted by Cold War liberals and Ronald Reagan. But he went his predecessors one better. In a grand rhetorical stroke, Bush sought to terminate the venerable debate between foreign policy “idealists” and “realists”: Not only does the promotion of democracy reflect our values, it also advances our interests. It is the resentment stimulated by tyranny, he argued, that produces terrorism, and the only cure for tyranny is freedom. Thus, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
President Bush’s language effectively taps a deep vein of the American psyche. It is the way we like to think of ourselves. Even more, it is the way we wish to understand the world–as an orderly cosmos where our ideals and our interests coincide. If only it were so. International conditions have almost always forced presidents, to one extent or another, to choose between protecting the nation’s interests and advancing the borders of freedom–and an unswerving devotion to the latter has often led to disaster. Recall how Wilson’s conception of national self-determination helped sow the seeds of an unstable, punitive peace and the most destructive war the world has ever known. Recall also the unsavory alliances Cold War presidents of both parties were forced to make. The hard truth is that it’s not always possible to promote the ends of freedom with the means of freedom. To prosecute the global war on terror and to minimize the chances of an even more devastating strike on our homeland, we will often be forced to compromise with the Putins and Musharrafs of this world. We should not assume that democracy will always drain the swamps where terrorism breeds. Sometimes autocratic governments will do more to suppress terrorism than to stimulate it; sometimes elections will empower radically anti-American leaders and create more space in which terrorists can operate. And it is tunnel-visioned to believe, as the president does, that a democratic offense is always the best defense. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, it is sobering to reflect on its opportunity costs–on the quantity of loose nuclear materials we could have secured around the world and the number of facilities we could have hardened at home with the hundreds of billions of dollars we are spilling in the sands of Mesopotamia.
Nonetheless, it was impossible not to be moved by the sight of 8.5 million Iraqis braving threats and violence to vote, or to be heartened by the signs of democratic self-determination in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. President Bush’s faith in the transformative power of freedom may be extreme and un-nuanced, but it is not wholly misplaced.
Much the same may be said of freedom in the domestic sphere. The president’s speech invoked the “broader definition of liberty” he saw at work in historic programs such as the Homestead Act, Social Security, and the GI Bill of Rights. Appealing to classic civic republicanism, he rooted citizenship in the “independence” that stems from “ownership.” And he boldly appropriated Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” for his own purposes: “By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny,” he declared, “we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear.” Whatever may have been the case 70 years ago, he asserted, conservative individualist means are now better suited to serve classic liberal ends than are New Deal programs of social solidarity.
Here, as in the international arena, a vast gap exists between President Bush’s abstract rhetoric of freedom and real world conditions. In the case of Social Security, for example, the problems are far less severe than the president has suggested. And his proposed cure–private accounts–does nothing to address the solvency of the system, even as it risks plunging millions of retirees into poverty while adding trillions of dollars in transition costs to the government’s already mountainous debt. The more voters learn about the president’s plan, the less they like it. Still, its core idea–freedom understood as increased individual choice and control over one’s own destiny–has an undeniable appeal.
After all, the idea of freedom is at the heart of our nation’s creed. Edmund Burke famously observed that Americans “sniff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Even today, the extraordinary value Americans place on individual liberty is what most distinguishes our culture, and the political party seen by voters as the most willing to defend and expand liberty is the one that usually wins elections. Conservatives have learned this lesson; too many liberals have forgotten it. And as long as liberals fool themselves into believing that appeals to income distribution tables can take the place of policies that promote freedom, they will lose.
The questions before us are, what is the meaning of freedom in the 21st century, and what are the means needed to make it effective in our lives? Those of us who oppose the conservative answer cannot succeed by changing the question. We can only succeed by giving a better answer.
For much of the 20th century, progressives took the lead in both defining freedom and advancing its borders. Teddy Roosevelt expanded the 19th century laissez-faire conception of freedom, in which government was seen as the greatest threat, to include the liberties of workers and entrepreneurs to get ahead in the world, freedoms restricted by concentrations of economic power and protected by the exercise of public power. Woodrow Wilson boldly reversed the inherited belief that America’s national freedom was best secured by abstaining from foreign entanglements, insisting that the liberty of other peoples would strengthen our own. FDR further redefined the concept to include social protection from the ills of want and fear. JFK invoked service to country in freedom’s cause. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to civil and political freedom that included all Americans, rooted in universalistic concepts that included every human being. Women fought for opportunity by bringing private oppression into public view. What united all these new visions of liberty was the idea that freedom is not necessarily diminished by government but can often be advanced only through the vigorous actions of government.
And then, the cause of liberal freedom ran smack into Vietnam and the counterculture. The war in Indochina represented, for too many progressive critics, not just a monumental blunder, but also evidence that the entire enterprise of advancing freedom through an anti-communist foreign policy was suffused with self-delusion and hypocrisy. These critics rejected the belief that, on balance, American influence was a force for good in the world. On the domestic front, what began honorably in the early 1960s as the effort to expand freedom of speech and self-fulfillment was transformed just a decade later into an antinomian conception of freedom as liberation from all restraint. Enthusiasts could no longer distinguish between liberty and license, and so lost touch with the moral concerns of average citizens, especially parents struggling to raise their children in what they saw as a culture increasing inhospitable to decency and self-restraint.
As the public reaction to these events shifted the balance of political power toward conservatism, some liberals reacted by relying excessively on the courts as counterweights against democratic majorities. Others, disappointed by what they viewed as the failure of civil rights laws to bolster the economic status of African Americans, tried to redefine the progressive enterprise around values such as fairness and equality of results. Still others, the spiritual heirs of the Port Huron Statement and the New Left, opposed what they saw as the inherently competitive and anti-social individualism of American-style freedom.
As progressives abandoned the discourse of freedom, conservatives were more than ready to claim it. They had spent decades preparing for this opening. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, fired the opening salvo by identifying government intervention in the economy as a threat to individual liberty. A decade later, Hayek pronounced himself puzzled that conservatives had allowed the left to control the definition of liberty, “this almost indispensable term.” During the 1950s, says historian Eric Foner, “a group of conservative thinkers began the task of reclaiming the idea of freedom.”
At a 1956 conference, Milton Friedman argued that a free market was the necessary foundation for societies in which individual liberty flourishes. What had begun as the precondition of freedom soon became its template: Libertarian conservatives redefined freedom as the right to choose and extended this understanding far beyond the market, to social relations and public policy.
These thinkers encountered a challenge within the emerging conservative movement, from traditionalists who focused on values such as order and virtue and who questioned the social consequences of the unfettered market. This tension was not in all respects an outright contradiction and thus proved to be manageable. In his classic Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman acknowledged that every form of social organization–including the market–relies on a framework of generally accepted rules, and that “no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions.” Not only must participants internalize rules, he continued, they must also develop certain traits of character. These requirements are especially demanding in systems of liberty: Freedom can be preserved, he concluded, “only for people who are willing to practice self-denial, for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility.”
This line of argument raised a key question: If virtue was needed for a free society, and if we are not born virtuous, how are we to acquire it? Here entered the second premise of modern American conservatism, the proposition that civil society will generate a virtuous citizenry if only government leaves it alone to do its vital work. Not government, but rather families, neighborhoods, and faith communities sustain the moral foundations of freedom. This conservative synthesis of markets and civil society, which suffused Ronald Reagan’s first successful presidential campaign, achieved lapidary statement in George W. Bush’s second inaugural. “In America’s ideal of freedom,” he declared, “the public interest depends on private character–on integrity and tolerance toward others and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran and the varied faiths of our people.”
President Bush’s reference to the Sermon on the Mount reminds us that synthesizing the market and civil society does not fully resolve the tension between libertarians and traditionalists. After all, it was on that occasion that Jesus advised his listeners not to heap up earthly treasure because no one can pursue more than one master: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” At this point, the third premise of contemporary conservatism comes to the rescue. This is the thesis, developed by American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Novak, among others, that capitalist markets, far from undermining individual virtues and social bonds, actually fortify them. Capitalism, Novak insists, both depends upon and builds virtues such as initiative, enterprise, and social cooperation. A government that minimizes the appropriation of wealth for public purposes maximizes the scope for acts of Christian charity. And more than that: Life in capitalist societies promotes the highest form of freedom–namely, the creativity of the human person. There are also echoes of this argument in President Bush’s second inaugural, especially when he claimed that moving from social provision to individual ownership strengthens individuals’ moral capacities to meet the “challenges of life in a free society.”
This is, let us admit, a powerful and evocative conception of freedom, blending a constellation of ideas with deep resonance in American culture. It serves, moreover, as the basis of a powerful coalition between economic interests seeking less regulation and lower taxes and moral traditionalists disturbed by the cultural changes of the past 40 years. Whether we think of ourselves as progressives, liberals, or New Democrats, we cannot evade the challenge posed by these ideas and by the political currents they have set in motion. If we do not meet them head-on, we will prevail only infrequently and accidentally. And when we lose, which will be most of time, we will deserve it.
There will be a temptation by many, especially on the left, to think that this fight can be won merely by “reframing” the debate–that is, using the word “freedom” to shift the discussion to other philosophical terrain, like economic fairness and social justice, on which today’s left is more comfortable. That temptation should be avoided. Because freedom has its own context and logic, we cannot make it mean whatever we like. As the great British philosopher of freedom Isaiah Berlin reminds us, “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice.” When conservatives promote their tax and fiscal policies as advancing economic freedom, liberals cannot expect to get very far by complaining endlessly that such policies are “unfair.” They certainly are, and more scrupulous leaders would be ashamed to propose them. But if we have learned anything since the collapse of the liberal hegemony in the 1960s, it is that the appeal to freedom trumps the appeal to fairness.
Instead of dodging the issue, an effective center-left strategy should begin with a critique of the fundamental conservative conception of freedom because that conception is fatally flawed. Experience gives us no reason to conclude that government is the only, or always the gravest, threat to freedom; clerical institutions and concentrations of unchecked economic power have often vied for that dubious honor. Nor has the ideological synthesis of markets and civil society abolished the very real problem at issue between libertarians and traditionalists: The unchecked market regularly produces social outcomes at odds with the moral conditions of a free society. Thus, it is that a conservative FCC chairman pledged to media deregulation ends up imposing new restraints in the name of decency. Nor is it easy to believe that capitalism reliably produces, or rewards, the good character a free society needs: Perceptive observers from Charles Dickens to Tom Wolfe have given us ample evidence to the contrary. And while it may be that long-term dependence on government saps the spirit of self-reliance that liberty requires, there are other forms of dependence–economic, social, and even familial–that can, and often do, damage character in much the same way.
At the heart of the conservative misunderstanding of liberty is the presumption that government and individual freedom are fundamentally at odds. At the heart of any liberal counteroffensive must be a subtler but more truthful proposition: Public power can advance freedom as well as thwart it.
In the real world, which so many conservatives steadfastly refuse to face, there is no such thing as freedom in the abstract. There are only specific freedoms, which differ in their conditions and consequences. FDR famously enumerated four such freedoms, dividing them into two pairs: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. The first pair had long been recognized and enshrined in the Constitution. The second were a new formulation, and Roosevelt made them concrete when he signed Social Security into law, justifying it as a way of promoting freedom from want: “We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family… against poverty-ridden old age.” Three years later, he declared that Social Security payments will “furnish that minimum necessity to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want.”
The conservatives of Roosevelt’s era disparaged the second pair as “New Deal freedoms” rather than “American freedoms,” as do many conservatives today. But those who have experienced the freedoms made possible by the New Deal are not so dismissive. It is often observed, rightly, that Social Security has virtually eliminated poverty among the elderly. But this noble achievement has an equally profound flip side. Throughout human history, those who reached the age where they could no longer work have typically depended on their children or on charity for their basic subsistence. Social Security broke this age-old dependency by giving the elderly a minimum degree of economic self-sufficiency. It is almost impossible to exaggerate how much this independence means to seniors. It is why Social Security has become the third rail of American politics. Seniors react with ferocity to efforts to “reform” the program not merely because they are defending a source of income, but because they are defending their freedom.
Liberals seldom talk about Social Security or other programs in terms of freedom. But they should. George W. Bush certainly does. In his second inaugural address, Bush accepted the validity of Roosevelt’s concept of Four Freedoms. But he went on to contend that in today’s circumstances, his brand of conservatism–his so-called “ownership society”–offers more effective means to traditional New Deal ends: “By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear.” In essence, the president was saying that his solution to Social Security’s fiscal problems would provide seniors with the freedom from want and fear they had come to expect, but with two additional liberties: freedom of choice, and freedom from government dependence.
On the face of it, this is a very appealing promise. But as a matter of actual policy, it is a deeply dishonest one. Allowing individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market necessarily exposes those individuals to greater financial risk, and therefore puts their freedom from want at risk. Yet any attempt to minimize those risks–by having the government pick which funds individuals can invest in, or requiring the annuitization of those investments upon retirement, as the president has suggested–necessarily erodes the freedom of choice and freedom from government control that are the selling points of private accounts. Indeed, the more conservatives add such risk-minimizing features to their proposals to mollify the public’s legitimate fears that they may be left penniless in their old age, the more those proposals will come to resemble the traditional Social Security program that conservatives are trying to escape.
The president’s promises are unsound not just on the level of policy, but on that of principle. “Freedom of” and “freedom from” have distinctly different structures and implications. “Freedom of” points toward spheres of action in which individuals make choices–for example, which faith to embrace, or whether to embrace any faith at all. The task of government is to secure those spheres against interference by individuals, groups, or government itself. By contrast, “freedom from” points toward circumstances that (it is presumed) all wish to avoid. In such instances, the task of government is, so far as possible, to immunize individuals against undesired circumstances. Here government acts to protect not individual agency and choice, but rather individuals’ life-circumstances against outcomes that no one would choose, or willingly endure. We do not suppose, for instance, that slavery is a matter of individual choice; rather, after much struggle, we have come to a collective decision that no one in his right mind would prefer slavery to freedom, and we have ordered our laws and institutions accordingly. Similarly, during the New Deal, we made a collective decision that no senior would willingly live in penury and shouldn’t have to.
It follows that libertarian freedom, the “right to choose,” is but a part of freedom in the fuller sense. As a motorist, I am rightly free to choose my own route and destination. But government correctly infers that I also wish to be protected from smashing into other cars, and so restricts which side of the road others and I may drive on. My desire to avoid an accident is no less real than my desire to drive where I please. Similarly, the desire to avoid want and fear is no less real than the desire to speak and worship without interference. The point is that any society that takes freedom from want and fear seriously has made a collective decision: Certain conditions are objectively bad; its citizens should not have to endure them if the means of their abatement are in hand; and individual choice is not a necessary component of and may be a hindrance to attaining these freedoms.
In addition to presuming that freedom must always involve individual choice, conservatives tend to mischaracterize and misunderstand many aspects of freedom, in particular, its costs. Freedom from want and fear often requires citizens to contribute some of their individual resources for collective purposes and makes better-off citizens contribute more. Conservatives have a tendency to focus on these costs without factoring in the benefits, and thus they often do not see or acknowledge that the net result is an increase in freedom. It has often been observed, for instance, that freedom for the pike is death for the minnow. Curtailing the freedom of the pike is often the only way of securing the freedom of the minnow. And there are usually far more minnows than pikes. So when government leans against the depredations of the powerful, it is enhancing freedom, not curtailing it. When government acts to ward off, or break up, excessive concentrations of private power, it does not diminish, but rather enhances, liberty rightly understood.
Specific freedoms often have conditions for their effective exercise, and government must sometimes act to ensure broad access to those conditions. A familiar but not trivial example: Nothing safeguards liberty more than the rule of law; fair trials are essential to the rule of law; and the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the “assistance of counsel” for every accused is essential to fair trials. Many Americans cannot afford to pay for defense lawyers, and the legal profession does not contribute enough pro bono hours to fill the gap. The government therefore taxes better-off Americans to provide legal counsel for the disadvantaged. In the process, it unavoidably restricts individuals’ freedom to use those tax dollars for other purposes. But does anyone seriously doubt that this use of government’s taxing power enhances the sum of freedom in our country?
Another example: Under modern conditions, the freedom of individuals to participate in the labor market requires the mastery of work-related knowledge and skills, many of which can only be acquired through formal education. The government uses its power of taxation to ensure that this education is within the reach of all families regardless of their private resources. While this policy restricts the ability of wealthier families to use those tax dollars for private purposes, the overall result is to advance freedom within the wider society.
Undermining the conservative vision of freedom is the essential first step for a liberal recovery. But no movement ever built a governing majority just by criticizing its adversaries. To regain the initiative, liberals must return to their historic mission of modernizing and promoting freedom. In this effort, they should be guided by three principles.
First, liberals must recognize that many of their traditional policy goals hold the promise of advancing freedom and should begin to talk about them as such. Consider universal health care. The left typically stresses the social justice side of this issue: In the most prosperous country on earth, it is an avoidable wrong that 45 million citizens lack health insurance. While this point is both accurate and morally admirable, invoking it has not moved the nation any closer to the goal. A more effective argument would focus on the ways in which our current system of employer-provided health care limits individual freedom. Countless Americans today are stuck in unrewarding jobs which they would like to leave–to start a new business or go back to college to upgrade their skills–but dare not, because doing so would deprive themselves and their families of health insurance. A system of universal health care would allow all Americans to pursue their dreams and take more risks.
Or consider post-secondary education. During the past three decades, young Americans with no more than a high school education have seen a steadily narrowing range of occupational choices. In that respect, they are less free than were their parents with the same level of schooling. This isn’t just an economic growth issue (though it is), or a social justice issue (though it is that, too); it is at its core an issue of individual freedom. While supporting reforms of grant and loan programs to diminish corruption, enhance efficiency, and improve targeting, liberals should insist on unfettered access to post-secondary education and training, regardless of socioeconomic status. This means getting serious about high school dropout rates, which recent studies show are much higher than is generally understood (about 30 percent nationally, and 50 percent in many black, Hispanic, and low income neighborhoods). It means getting serious about the alarming numbers of students who drop out of college by the end of freshmen year because their high school diploma didn’t prepare them for entry-level college courses. And it means getting serious about the millions of talented poor and minority kids who don’t continue their education after high school because no responsible adult ever told them that they could–and should.
If there was ever an area crying out for what FDR called “bold, persistent experimentation,” this is it. Just last month, Yale announced a new program: Students from families earning less than $45,000 would be admitted tuition-free. Only a handful of other institutions, public or private, can afford to follow suit. But a new federal-state partnership could offer all colleges and universities substantial support for recruiting, retaining, and graduating students from families below the median income. Or maybe we should move AmeriCorps closer to what its founders intended it to be: A universal opportunity for young people to serve community and country while earning substantial funds for post-secondary education and training. One thing is clear: We can’t sit idly by while the educational barrier to individual freedom rises higher and higher for so many Americans.
The second principle that liberals should remember as they try to reclaim the mantle of freedom is that individual choice, while not always synonymous with liberty, and sometimes contrary to it, is also highly appealing to most Americans. Liberals should therefore look for opportunities to embrace individual choice in ways that embody their principles and promote their objectives. A good example–one several Democrats have already gotten behind–is individual retirement savings accounts added on to, rather than carved out of, Social Security. Another promising, if treacherous, area in which more choice could be promoted is public education. Liberals recoil at school voucher proposals, in part because conservatives openly favor them as a back-door method of undermining public schools and teachers’ unions, but also because of a not-unreasonable belief that such measures really aren’t the answer to improving failing urban schools. But there is plenty of room short of vouchers for more personal choice in K-through-12 education. Minnesota, for instance, has long permitted its families to choose among public schools across district lines; Britain does much the same.
Moreover, there are ways of structuring vouchers that even liberals might find acceptable. In the pages of this magazine (“Pro Choice,” September 2003), Siobhan Gorman has proposed that parents of students from failing public schools be given “accountable vouchers” that could be redeemed for education at private as well as public schools. Every participating school, private or public, would have to adhere to the same mandatory testing regime, to comply with strict anti-discrimination laws, and to accept all voucher-bearers (as long as seats are available) rather than picking among them. Government would have the right to remove from the program private schools whose students fail to meet yearly progress standards, just as it can currently shut down failing charter schools. Such highly-regulated vouchers might, in fact, be anathema to many conservative voucher proponents. But by supporting them, at least for manifestly failing systems such as Washington, D.C.’s, liberals could put themselves on the side of disadvantaged parents eager for better educational choices for their children.
The third principle that should guide a center-left freedom agenda is the notion that freedom is seldom without cost. It usually requires sacrifice. Contemporary conservatism, with its free-lunch mentality, has a hard time admitting this. Liberals should embrace it.
In his recent inaugural address, President Bush eloquently invoked the sacrifices made by young Americans fighting for freedom abroad. Unfortunately, he asked nothing of the rest of us. By contrast, in his 1941 State of the Union speech, at the threshold of the greatest struggle for liberty in the history of the world, FDR forthrightly stated that “I have called for personal sacrifice. I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes…. I shall recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying today. No person should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of this program; and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes.”
We have never heard that kind of candor from President Bush and his supporters, only the continuing pretense that freedom comes free. Americans are perfectly capable of grasping and agreeing with the proposition (should a leading political leader actually present it) that raising taxes in wartime is a sound way to protect our freedom, and borrowing the money we need to fight from the Chinese government is a good way to put that freedom at risk.
Not only do our overseas commitments drain our treasury, they also strain our armed forces almost to the breaking point. Is it responsible leadership to pretend that we can defend freedom with the armed forces we developed in the balmy days after the end of the Cold War? The issue is more than the size of those forces; it involves their structure as well. In his speech, President Bush refers to the idealism of our troops, which “all Americans have witnessed…some for the first time.” Can freedom be sustained by a handful of troops cheered on by a nation of spectators? In a country worthy of freedom, all citizens would share the risks and burdens of its defense. And that is what a courageous leader of a free people would propose.
Above all, a new agenda of freedom calls for a new patriotism. In recent decades, too many liberals have given up mobilizing effective coalitions of their fellow citizens and have resorted to anti-majoritarian strategies. Too often, liberals whose hopes have been thwarted by the historic individualism of our culture have pined for an alternative culture more akin to French statism or Scandinavian social democracy. Too often, liberals whose hopes have been thwarted by the historic individualism of our culture have pined for an alternative culture more akin to French statism or Scandinavian social democracy. Too often, liberals have reacted to exaggerated claims of American exceptionalism by rejecting the idea outright. These responses are patently self-defeating. We must begin from where we are. We must go with–not against–the American grain. As FDR did three quarters of a century ago, we must mobilize and sustain a popular majority with the freedom agenda our times require. We must love not another country’s dream, but our own–the American Dream–and we must work to make it real for every American who reaches for it.
William A. Galston is Interim Dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and was Deputy Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Domestic Policy from 1993 to 1995. His most recent book is The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2004).