Paul Ryan
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The conservative charge to repeal Obamacare is in trouble. House Speaker Paul Ryan has tried to rally the troops by reminding them of the Big Government tyranny of Obamacare. “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need,” Ryan recently tweeted. “Obamacare is Washington telling you what to buy regardless of your needs.”

This is familiar terrain for Ryan. He has warned that the safety net creates a “hammock” of dependency, sapping people of their initiative and autonomy. Barack Obama’s center-left agenda, Ryan argued in 2012, “grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western-civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”

That was the right’s critique of the Obama years: that a decent, modern welfare state quashes freedom and is downright un-American. This line of attack has become so familiar, even omnipresent, that it’s worth remembering how utterly it defies history and common sense. A decent government safety net that guarantees healthcare, guards against poverty, expands access to education, and aids families is far from a menace to individual freedom. In fact, it’s the opposite: for most Americans, personal liberty and individual opportunity are impossible without the safety net.

Conservatives do not own a monopoly on the preservation of freedom. A progressive agenda to guarantee healthcare, subsidize the cost of raising children, and spare students and families from college debt would go far to unburden the lives of millions of Americans. And no matter what Paul Ryan would have you believe, it’s an agenda steeped in longstanding notions of what it means to be truly free in America.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to make sense of American life. Anu Partanen came to live and work in the U.S. as a journalist in 2008 after growing up in Finland. She was surprised to find that the lives of her American colleagues were wrenched by anxiety and dependency. Government simply wasn’t stepping up to meet people’s basic needs. This left many Americans she met highly constrained in their day-to-day lives, and far removed from meaningful freedom.

Partanen wrote about her experience in her 2016 book The Nordic Theory of Everything. In Finland, she had access to a welfare state that provided universal healthcare, extended paid family leave, affordable childcare, and free (and excellent) education from kindergarten through graduate school.  Nordic societies—and their public policies—are structured around promoting “a single predominant goal,” Partanen explains: “[I]ndependence, freedom, and opportunity for every member of society.”

Partanen found these seemingly quintessential American values in short supply in the United States. That’s because Americans were left on their own to fill in the gaps of daily life in the absence of government support. This arrangement has left us increasingly subject to a patchwork of dependencies. We rely on employers for health insurance, making it difficult to leave a job. We increasingly need two incomes to sustain a decent standard of living, making us dependent on spouses for financial security. Children are at the mercy of their parents for basic necessities and opportunity. And in old age, parents grow dependent on adult children for caretaking needs.

Partanen’s time in Finland taught her that freedom meant the absence of dependency. While some degree of dependency is unavoidable, government is the only institution that can truly level the playing field of opportunity. When government promotes meaningful freedom, workers aren’t stuck at jobs for the sake of health insurance. Employers aren’t burdened with the demand of running a social benefits programs. Entrepreneurs—not just ones with rich parents—can take a chance on a good idea knowing that there’s a safety net below them if they fail.

Much of the agenda pursued by American progressive leaders implicitly recognizes this vision of freedom. Bernie Sanders, of course, exhilarated the left with his promise to bring social democratic policies like single-payer healthcare and free higher education to the United States. But even the compromised technocratic policies of the center-left hedge toward a more robust freedom. Obamacare was a major down payment toward universal coverage. In 2016, Hillary Clinton campaigned to give everyone twelve weeks of guaranteed paid family leave. She would also have subsidized the cost of daycare to allow more secondary earners the possibility of work and expanded refundable tax credits to shield more children from poverty. And she would have made public tuition at colleges debt-free, lifting the crushing cycle of savings and debt millions incur for a modern economic necessity.

These programs would each expand the day-to-day freedom of millions of Americans, who would be less dependent on the good graces of their employers or the good fortune of their households. The problem is that progressives don’t talk about their goals in those terms anymore, leaving the charges of tyranny levied by Ryan and company unanswered.

Recent generations of liberals have shied away from speaking about how their policies enhance freedom, as opposed to equality.

There was a time when progressives and reformers did talk about how government programs would free Americans from the constraints of dependency. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years,” declared Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed Medicare into law. “No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.”

But recent generations of liberals have shied away from speaking about how their policies enhance freedom, as opposed to equality. As E.J. Dionne explains in Our Divided Political Heart, the two parties have vacillated between emphasizing individualism and community over the course of U.S. history. Seeking to curtail the supposed excesses of previous generations of liberalism, modern Democratic leaders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have tried to give it a communitarian sheen, emphasizing the bonds forged by their policies rather than advancements in individual liberty.

At the same time, Republicans—once the party most likely to invoke the sanctity of civil society, neighborhoods, and families—have retrenched to define liberty solely in terms of getting government off our backs. Ryan’s idea of freedom, for instance, has withered down to the mere ability to buy what you want when you want it. Even that cramped notion of freedom, of course, is decidedly off-limits to the poor.

This combination—a shift toward communitarianism by liberals and toward don’t-tread-on-me individualism by conservatives—has left us with an oddly underdeveloped conception of freedom in our current mainstream discourse, one that too often leaves us calculating our liberty as little more than the absence of government intervention into the economy.

That wasn’t always the case. As Dionne explains, the founding fathers “understood that preserving the liberty they so prized depended upon virtues and forms of solidarity that an individualistic conception of freedom could not sustain on its own.” Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 27 that a government that visibly interacts with the everyday lives of its citizens would gain popular legitimacy without having to rely on the “violent and perilous expedients of compulsion” via military force.

During the antebellum period, labor reformers piggybacked on the abolitionist cause to resist the inequalities and injustices of the industrializing economy, arguing that workers were increasingly condemned to wage slavery. Abraham Lincoln, of course, wielded the power of the state to free millions from bondage. In less dramatic fashion, the rest of his domestic program expanded freedom, too. The Homestead Act gave government handouts in the form of free land to new farmers. The Morrill Act subsidized the expansion of higher education. Far from restricting liberty, these federal interventions created new pathways to individual self-determination.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however—the Gilded Age—the political establishment had retreated from faith in collective action, embracing a Darwinian theory of free-market individual freedom highly reminiscent of what conservatives aspire for today. Liberty now meant the right to contract and sell one’s labor free of government interference, no matter the imbalance in bargaining power. This bred extreme inequality, producing outsized gains for the few and a hollowed-out freedom for most.

It took the progressive movement of the early twentieth century to restore the foundations of broadly shared freedom. The preeminent concern of progressivism, according to New Republic co-founder Herbert Croly, was how Americans could protect their freedom in a modern industrial economy. Progressives, Croly explained, believed that the Hamiltonian means of government intervention into the economy were necessary to achieve the Jeffersonian ends of democratic self-determination and individual freedom. Heavily influenced by Croly’s approach, former president Theodore Roosevelt vied for the office again in 1912 as the Progressive Party candidate, pledging to expand individual freedom through a robust national welfare state including health and labor regulation, an eight-hour work day, a living wage, union protections, and a system of social insurance for unemployment, healthcare, and old age.

Woodrow Wilson defeated Roosevelt, but he, too, preached a “New Freedom” in 1912. “Freedom today is something more than being let alone,” Wilson believed, for “to let [the individual] alone is to leave him helpless.” Two decades later, this idea would form the basis of  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Social Security, unemployment insurance, the G.I. bill, and a national minimum wage constituted a new welfare state to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of the economy. These programs promoted “freedom from want,” as Franklin Roosevelt put it. Without these necessities, freedom was merely theoretical for most—an illusion. As Roosevelt declared in his famed Second Bill of Rights address, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.  Necessitous men are not free men.”

There is a rich American tradition of reformers touting the ability of government action to intervene on behalf of personal freedom. Most obvious are the (ongoing) civil rights revolutions expanding equal citizenship to women and racial and sexual minorities.

But when it comes to defending the safety net, modern progressives do a disservice to our traditions and discourse by failing to connect equality to freedom. Welfare state protections strengthen our communal ties, but they also liberate us. The ability to take leave from work, to gain affordable health insurance, to send your child to college without mortgaging her future—these things free us to pursue the lives we want. Hamiltonian means toward Jeffersonian ends. Freedom through togetherness.

That’s what Paul Ryan and other conservatives miss about Obamacare. They dwell on the law’s supposed core infringement on personal liberty: individuals are denied the freedom to buy shoddy insurance products or to go without insurance at all.

But for millions of Americans, Obamacare has in fact helped cultivate a much richer sort of freedom. People with the misfortune of bad genetics and pre-existing conditions are no longer condemned to existential limbo at the hands of insurance companies. Fewer people who fall ill face financial ruin from medical expenses. By giving people an alternative way to obtain insurance outside of their employers, more people have been able to pursue new jobs; others have staked out as entrepreneurs. Those freedoms are all jeopardized as Republicans lumber toward repeal.

Paul Ryan would have our conception of freedom stop at the American Revolution: casting off the yoke of oppression by a faraway government. But the totality of our history tells us otherwise. From Hamilton’s nation-building through Johnson’s poverty-fighting, targeted government action has been essential to expanding the reach of individual liberty. And as the strains of growing inequality squeeze more and more Americans into lives of restriction and unsecure dependency, government’s failure to keep up with the times is felt with greater and greater urgency.

Our history and traditions tell us that freedom is more than just the sum of all untaxed income, and independence means something deeper than the absence of government regulation. Freedom means the ability to define your fate and chase your hopes—to live life the way you want to, not just the way you need to. It’s time for progressives to take back the terms of the debate and reassert the role of government to aid in the pursuit of happiness.

Joel Dodge

Joel Dodge is a writer and attorney in New York City. His work has appeared in Quartz, The Week, The New Republic, and The American Constitution Society.