In his insightful and important essay “Taking Liberty” (Washington Monthly, April 2005), William Galston, one of contemporary America’s leading social and political thinkers, is right to insist that liberty should be at the heart of American progressive politics. And he is right to caution against “a temptation by many, especially on the left,” to redefine freedom to mean “economic fairness and social justice” with 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.” In the American political tradition, if not in the French or Swedish, liberty is central, not equality or fraternity. Galston deserves credit for emphasizing that it is not enough for thinkers of the center-left to learn to “speak American”; they must learn to “think American” as well even if the kind of progressivism this produces does not necessarily resemble any European model. Given the disorientation of the center-left in the United States today, Galston’s advice could not be wiser or more timely.

But we can accept his premise that liberty must be at the center of our understanding of the history of American reform and at the same time question the details. Many of the achievements that progressives in the United States today are trying to defend from the right or build upon can be defended by two different conceptions of liberty, which might be called individualist liberalism and republican liberalism. These map the same reality in different ways, like Euclidean geometry and Riemannian geometry.

Galston writes, “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 freedomto include the liberties of workers and entrepreneurs to get ahead in the world…. FDR further redefined the concept to include social protection from the ills of want and fear.” This is the language of individualist liberalism, which is the predominant strain of center-left liberal thought today. Natural to individualist liberalism is the notion of progress as a gradual broadening of the conception of liberty, from civil rights to political rights and ultimately to social rights, to use the language of influential 20th-century British liberal thinker T.H. Marshall. While these rights are due to all citizens, no corresponding duty on the part of citizens is necessarily attached. In much center-left thought, social rights, like economic entitlements, are justified because they allow individuals to have more options to order their lives as they choose.

This tradition is particularly powerful in Britain. But while it began influencing American liberalism in the Progressive era, the individualist liberal tradition exists in tension with older American republican liberal ideas which are now found among more populists than self-identified progressives. The basic difference is this: Individualist liberals on the center-left are inclined to justify compulsory universal schooling, Social Security, and the military by redefining individual freedom, while republican liberals do not need to make that intellectual move. For republican liberals, freedom, narrowly defined in terms of civil and voting rights, is secured by a republican form of government, based on elections, checks and balances, the rule of law–and a competent and virtuous citizenry. In a republican liberal society, policies and institutions that strengthen the republican citizenry can be justified even if they do not increase the liberty of particular individuals or, in some cases, all individuals. The premise that republican government generally tends to protect liberty frees republican liberals from any need to justify particular policies that are good for the republic in terms of the freedom of particular individuals.

To illustrate the difference, let us look again at Galston’s examples. “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.” To a republican liberal, this is an oddly economistic and individualistic way to describe the great campaigns to regulate or break up the trusts, the purpose of which, from the republican liberal perspective, was not so much to maximize individual economic mobility as to reduce the threat to the institution of republican government posed by political corruption and an aristocracy of wealth.

A similar point can be made about another of Galston’s examples: “FDR further redefined the concept to include social protection from the ills of want and fear.” It is true that FDR sometimes sounded like T.H. Marshall, for whom social rights followed legal and political rights in a natural historic evolution–for example, when FDR spoke of an Economic Bill of Rights. However, on other occasions FDR spoke the language of republican liberalism, which holds that a republic requires citizens who have a high degree of economic independence from both the labor market and the state. For example, Roosevelt denounced tenant farming as a threat to the republic, using the classic language of American republican liberalism: “In our national life, public and private, the very nature of free government demands that there must be a line of defense held by the yeomanry of business and industry and agriculture…. Any elemental policy, economic or political, which tends to eliminate these dependable defenders of democratic institutions, and to concentrate control in the hands of a few, small, powerful groups, is directly opposed to the stability of government and to democratic government itself.”

FDR shared this republican liberal language with Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who asserted in 1826: “The freeholder is the natural supporter of a free government…. It should be the policy of republics to multiply their freeholders, as it is the policy of monarchies to multiply tenants. We are a republic, and we wish to remain so; then multiply the class of freeholders; pass the public lands cheaply and easily into the hands of the People; sell, for a reasonable price, to those who are able to pay; and give, without price, to those who are not.” This reasoning culminated in the Homestead Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, which gave 160 acres of free land to any adult who would live on and improve it. One can say that Lincoln “redefined freedom” to include the right to free farmland. But why torture the word “freedom” until it confesses in this way? The Homestead Act did not necessarily make America more free, but it did make America more republican, something that promoted freedom indirectly, if it is indeed true that a republican society with a prosperous middle class is more likely to be immune to political tyranny and factional corruption.

Most of the policy goals of contemporary progressives can be justified in terms of their contribution to republican citizenship, which reinforces freedom; it is not necessary, therefore, to redefine freedom to promote those goals. Consider the case of adequate taxation. “It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system,” George Washington wrote at the conclusion of the American Revolution, “that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it.” Galston writes that “freedom is seldom without cost. It usually requires sacrifice.” He quotes FDR in his 1941 State of the Union speech, calling for “personal sacrifice” in wartime. But while republican liberals have no trouble justifying the sacrifice of individual wealth, freedom, or even life in defense of the greater good of the republican citizenry, individualist liberals find it impossible to explain how someone who dies for his country is dying for his own liberty or well-being. This problem, which individualist liberalism of the modern center-left kind shares with libertarianism, is often evaded by borrowing the rhetoric of the quite different republican liberal tradition, which is brought in, as Galston brings in FDR’s language, to patch a gaping hole that not even the most imaginative redefinition of personal freedom can cover.

Or consider public education. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, stating the traditional republican liberal rationale. Galston proposes a quite different rationale, which once again requires a somewhat strained redefinition of liberty: “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.” It is an indication of just how far center-left thought has drifted from the American republican liberal tradition that Galston can allude to three rationales–individual social mobility, economic growth, and social justice–without even mentioning what has been, for generations of Americans, the primary rationale for public education: the need to produce citizens of the republic with the intellectual competence to fulfill their civic duties as voters and jurors and, if need be, as soldiers.

As these examples suggest, when we try to justify many institutions that progressives favor in terms of the well-being of discrete individuals, rather than in terms of the institutional interest of the republic, then it is easy to be lost in intellectual contortions. Galston inadvertently illustrates this point when he writes, “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 cars, and so restricts which side of the road others and I may drive on.” As this suggests, individualist liberalism is tempted to justify government authority in terms of coordinated individual goods, rather than of a shared and inherently indivisible public good (res publica is Latin for “public thing” or “thing held in common”). By contrast, the concept of the public interest permits republican liberals to justify public education, policies promoting widespread economic independence, taxation, military or militia service, jury duty and voting, along with public health policies and environmental protection, without needing to show that these programs and institutions could be derived from separate, individual goods or that each individual citizen is likely to benefit.

To be sure, republican liberals in the American tradition are liberals first and republicans second; the unconvincing arguments of some American “civic republicans” to the contrary, Americans have never been intensely communal Spartans. My point is simply that treating republicanism as a means, of which the safeguarding of personal liberty from political tyranny is the end, makes argument much simpler for those who oppose the radical anti-statism of many on the contemporary American right.

Galston is absolutely right that the ideal of liberty must be central to any progressive politics that can resonate with the American people. Fortunately, in order to justify many cherished progressive policies, from universal health care to a more egalitarian system of education, it is not necessary to redefine liberty. It is only necessary to show that progressive policies are calculated to strengthen the great safeguard of liberty, the American republic, or the great safeguard of the republic, a virtuous, educated, and secure citizenry.

I have long deplored the fact that there seems to be so much more intellectual energy on the right than on the left. While conservatives have spent decades debating, and occasionally agreeing on, first principles, liberals have remained mired in the details of particular policies and programs. Many liberals believed (and some continue to believe) that at the level of basic political morality, the New Deal represented the permanent victory of moderate social democracy over market-based individualism. Because we took this triumph for granted, we lost the inclination, and then the capacity, to defend our political morality against principled assault. We exemplified the truth of John Stuart Mill’s dictum that he who knows only his own side of the case does not even know that.

I wrote “Taking Liberty” as a modest contribution to changing this situation. It was my hope that thinkers uncomfortable with the current conservative hegemony would be moved to criticize my argument and put forth their own recommendations. Only that kind of engaged dialogue can jar somnolent progressives out of their hyper-tactical defensive crouch. Michael Lind’s response, which pivots on a contrast between “individualist” and “republican” liberalism, is a model of what I hoped to evoke.

To identify what I think is the real issue between us, let me begin by clearing away some underbrush. Lind and I do not disagree, at least not fundamentally, about the nature of a free society. (Indeed, most Americans agree on this, regardless of other disputes.) A political community we deem free is not oppressed by external forces; its governing institutions are responsive to the people’s will; its laws protect each individual from the arbitrary exercise of public power and from the depredations of other individuals; its economy permits individuals to work and innovate without asymmetries of wealth so large as to subject some people to the unchecked will of others; its society allows for the development and exercise of personal and group differences and teaches its members how to live together in peace, if not in harmony, despite these differences. Lind’s critique clarifies the real subject of my piece–namely, individual rather than public liberty.

Nor do we disagree about the theory and practice of public liberty–republicanism, for short–as a means to securing individual liberty, or about a “virtuous, educated, and secure citizenry” as a foundation of sustainable republican institutions. On the contrary: I have long emphasized the duality of our Madisonian legacy. On the one hand is Madison’s classic justification of constructing a Constitution with checks and balances and divided powers in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” This was, he declared, “a policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect [that is, the weakness or absence] of better motives.” On the other hand, Madison insisted just four essays later in Federalist 55, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. [Far from denying or denigrating these qualities,] Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Along with most other Founding Fathers, Madison understood that education was indispensable if these more estimable qualities were to be nurtured into civic virtues. Liberals today should remember their Madison and take civic education seriously. A research institute I founded in 2001, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), does this; one of our reports, “The Civic Mission of Schools,” has helped catalyze a new movement for civic education in states around the country.

Nor do Lind and I disagree about the importance of a sense of duty and responsibility as well as rights and liberties. To take only the most obvious point: The rule of law is at the heart of a decent free society. But no political system possesses enough carrots or sticks to induce its citizens to obey the law. Fear may induce obedience for a time, but in the long run, most citizens will obey the law most of the time only because they believe they have a responsibility to do so. This is even truer when civic activities are voluntary rather than mandatory. On the basis of rational self-interest alone, it is virtually impossible to explain why anybody takes the time and trouble to vote. For the most part, we vote because we think we should, or not at all.

To account for the presence of this belief, a good Aristotelian (which I am on alternate Tuesdays) would call attention to the importance of forming such habits when young; not only to civic education in schools, but also to the influences of family, law, and the everyday practices of the community. But while habit may help explain belief, it cannot justify it. Here is one point on which Lind and I may genuinely disagree. After noting my endorsement of FDR’s call for personal sacrifice, especially during times of war, Lind contends that individualist liberals “find it impossible to explain how someone who dies for his country is dying for his own liberty or well-being.” Perhaps so. But I cannot help noting that, in making this argument, Lind rejects in a single clause the classic liberal account of social obligations that stretches from John Locke to John Rawls.

According to the essentials of this tradition, individuals realize that they have goals they cannot hope to achieve on their own. To reduce violent conflict, which impedes the attainment of private aspirations (recall the Lebanese civil war), and to promote positive-sum cooperation in pursuit of those aspirations, individuals band together in political communities. The terms of association, whether explicit or implicit, ask all individuals to forego certain liberties of private action and judgment in the name of creating institutions and practices that benefit those same individuals, and invest those institutions with the legitimate power to punish the non-compliant. There can be no guarantee, of course, that every public act will benefit every individual. But that is not the right standard, any more than conventional contract law is invalidated by the fact that individuals often enter into enforceable agreements that they later have cause to regret. For individualist liberals, in short, many rights and duties arise through consent to a system that is seen as mutually advantageous, not always moment by moment, but in the long run.

It is not entirely obvious why Lind rejects this account, or what he seeks to put in its place. The crux of the matter seems to arise in his discussion of my traffic metaphor, during which he distinguishes between “coordinated individual goods,” on which individualist liberals rely, and a “shared and inherently indivisible public good,” which is the heart of the matter for republican liberals. At the threshold of the argument, note that coordination rather than indivisibility is by far the more natural and plausible explanation for traffic regulations. By extension, I do not take Lind to be denying that the need to coordinate individual goods justifies a substantial range of general and enforceable public norms. The real question, then, is whether this strategy of argument, despite its many successes, nonetheless fails to account for important public institutions and policies.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist, let alone a neo-classical economist. Still, there is a sense in which the concept of an indivisible public good fits comfortably into that highly individualistic body of thought. As I understand it, such a good is indivisible in the sense that if it exists, all individuals within a particular sphere enjoy unimpeded, non-exclusionary access to it. When we walk outdoors, the air we breathe is either clean or polluted. The air quality provided to each individual is the same for all individuals. But it does not follow from the bare fact of indivisibility that only some individuals benefit from clean air.

Nor, it seems to me, do we need Lind’s thesis to justify vital institutions such as public education. Public education fosters two kinds of goods. First, if the system is working as it should, every child benefits (that is, after all, the moral force of “No Child Left Behind”). In addition, public education done correctly generates positive externalities that benefit the rest of us. A better-educated workforce means more taxpayers to help bear the costs of a civilized society. More civic-minded cohorts of high school and college graduates mean that the rest of us spend less on systems of legal oversight, enforcement, and punishment. And so forth.

The heart of our difference probably comes out best in Lind’s discussion of FDR and Thomas Hart Benton. What they had in common (at least during Roosevelt’s republican liberal moments) was a belief in the “yeoman” or “freeholder” as a key guarantor of self-government. This thinking, Lind suggests, undergirded the Homestead Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862: This act “did not necessarily make America more free, but it did make America more republican.”

To this, two responses. First, I do not agree that saying that the Homestead Act made America freer involves any torture of the word “freedom.” At the very least, the tidal wave of American families who enjoyed its benefits won a substantial increment of freedom. Second, it is hard for me to see how FDR intended Social Security to generate more freeholders. Just the reverse: He carried the day with the argument that, by itself, individual ownership in a dynamic market society did not suffice to guarantee all citizens freedom from want and fear in their old age, let alone the freedom to live apart from their children if they chose. Only collective provision could get the job done. Republican liberalism may have been an episodic feature of Roosevelt’s rhetoric, but it was hardly the long pole in the New Deal policy tent.

Not surprisingly, it is the opponents rather than the supporters of Social Security who invoke the image of sturdy, independent yeomen today, just as they did 70 years ago. The rhetoric of the “ownership society” is meant to suggest that Social Security as currently configured somehow renders us less free than we would be if we all relied instead on individual retirement accounts. The alleged opposition between individual freedom and collective provision is a thesis that liberals of all stripes, republican as well as liberal, must reject. My fear is that the language of republicanism inherently looks backward to a system of economic provision and social class structure that is gone for good and that applying it to the economic and social problems of the present will often lead to damaging results. Despite his manifestly thoughtful and well-intentioned contribution, I am not yet persuaded that Lind avoids that trap.

Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of, most recently, What Lincoln Believed.
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).

Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of, most recently, What Lincoln Believed.
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).

William A. Galston

William A. Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.