On Liberty and Civil Society

As far as I've been able to tell from my reading of various right wing political critiques of late, the fundamental fear of socialist policies seems to stem from a concern that socialist policies are a curtailment of liberties. The placards and talking points of the right seem to hover around this idea of loss of liberty and for me, as a socialist, I find that very confusing. The easy answer of course is one I suggested in a previous post, that this stems from false consciousness. That's easy, but on reflection I think it isn't the whole picture. To be sure, there's an element of being misled by ideology in the tea party movement, and there is definitely an aspect of manipulation in the various astroturf groups that have worked to organize people who are involved with the tea party movement. But that doesn't explain all of it. Because for any of that to work, there has to be a fundamental, basic fear that's being tapped into and manipulated, and more to the point I do believe that there are honest, intelligent people who support this right wing movement who are not being manipulated but who genuinely see in socialist policy a threat to liberty. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in a sense, there is something true about the critique. There is an element to socialism that is a curtailment of liberty. But what sound bite politics of the moment miss is that liberty is such a loaded term that when one speaks broadly about liberty, then one actually says very little at all.

So I'd like to take a moment to tease out what liberty is, how it works, and what it means to be free and to live in a free society. First to the language: liberty is a word that was introduced to the English language with the Norman conquest from the Old French liberté. It comes from the Latin libertatem as derivative of liber and as near as I can tell, that use originates in the Roman slave economy. To be a libertatem was to be a free man, as opposed to a slave. Liberty, at least etymologically, is a word for the condition of not being enslaved. Liberty, for law makers, then is the natural state. It is the default condition of existence. The state of nature. For some.

It's that "for some" part that causes the problems. Because when you look at it closely you see that what this concept of liberty is in its genesis is a concept that is necessary in a society with laws, legislators, rulers, and slaves. Without slaves, there is nothing from which to distinguish the free man. Without such a system there is no benefit to the status of non-enslavement. Liberty, then, cannot be the state of nature. To even understand the idea, one needs to be in a society where people are not free. Liberty is the illusion of control over one's own fate. This is an idea that the Romans, with their superstitious reverence for Fortuna and Fata, had no such illusions about. They made an easy distinction between the fatalism of their religion and political status and social class of liberation. These things occupied different spheres, the divine and the political, and it is only with the coming of the Empire and its confusion of the head of state with the Godhead, an idea fruitfully co-opted from the deific God-Emperors in the conquered pharoahs of Egypt, that this notion of a metaphysical ab initio freedom hoves into view.

This is also, notably, a problem within the early Church, itself wrestling with the metaphysical implications of its dogmata at the same time that the Caesars were becoming gods of the mortal world. Because apparently as Paul would have it, salvation is all about faith, and faith is all about choice. It was something that all people, whether they be wealthy patricians like Priscilla and Aquila, or lowly slaves like Philemon, could choose for themselves if only they were given the choice. This is a new sort of freedom. It is the freedom that no Roman had ever had, that is, to choose his own fate. To defy the viscissitudes of Fortuna and say of his own will "I choose this fate, I will live and die for the Crucified Son of God who is God and Spirit, and in so doing I have chosen everlasting life in paradise."

Is it any wonder that lots of the roman god-emperors felt like throwing these people to the lions?

The two notions of freedom come into existence at roughly the same time. First a political freedom that reveals itself in the influence a person has over law and lawmaking. Under this regime, judge and legislator have more liberty than free citizen, and the despot has perfect liberty while those under his rule have none at all, no matter how left alone by the state they are. Second a personal freedom that reveals itself in the way a person chooses to live despite or in the face of the circumstances in which he or she finds him or herself. This is a liberty that is bound by material constraints, but that can never be usurped in the way that political liberty is and always will be.

Notably, these notions of liberty have come into extensive conflict over the history of western civilization. The competition for the spirits of mankind have always been waged by the twin forces of church and state. At the founding of the United States of America, no principles mattered more than the Revolutionary ideals of political liberty and what the generation of founders described in their Whig tracts as "freedom of conscience." The right to obey, without coercion or incentive of one kind or another, the dictates of one's own moral judgment and view of what constitutes the best life is the essence of that sort of liberty.

So crucial is the resolution of this fundamental tension between the two classical liberties in the eyes of the Founding generation, that the Constitution can in many ways be read strictly as an effort to institutionalize the proper protections for these two fundamental propositions. Unfortunately, in their intense focus on these matters, the founders had failed to notice the emergence of a third type of liberty, and it would be that question of liberty that would determine the life, if not the birth and constitution, of our nation.

The crucial, defining issue of modern and postmodern politics is found nowhere in the US Constitution. No one, not Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, or Heny, their arch rival, ever insisted that the Constitution address economic liberty, something we have been fighting about since the Second President insisted on creating a National Bank. It makes little reference to money beyond giving the federal government the exclusive power to mint coin and placing control over interstate commerce in the hands of the congress. As far as the central economic theory goes, our founding documents are startlingly unsophisticated compared to the deep and intense consideration given to guarantees of personal and political liberty. Economic liberty receives no protections from the US Constitution because as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it "the constitution does not embrace any one particular economic theory."

This is a problem because this framing of the issue of liberty as a matter of the personal and the political alone has obscured the fact that guarantees of personal and political liberty in the contemporary world may have to come at the expense of economic liberty. To put it another way, the framer's of the Constitution may have unwittingly got the balance right because personal and political liberty are far more valuable and essential to the general conception of individual freedom than is economic liberty. That isn't a statement that is maximally true of course, and there are certain aspects of economic liberty, such as the security of one's property and the freedom of contract are generally speaking important aspects of maintaining control over one's life. But other sorts of choices such as how best to fund public education, what sort of tax code will we have, how shall we as a society reward innovation and entrepreneurship, are all areas that may curtail economic liberties in some manner.

So how does this relate to socialism? Well, I think that what people fear about socialism is that economic liberty may be reduced too much as a result of socialist policies. But because our civic discourse has not adequately distinguished the three sorts of liberty at play in our society, it is easy to confuse the loss of economic liberty with the loss of political or personal liberty.

In fact, some limitations on economic liberty are protections of the other categories. Limits on generational wealth instituted in the form of the tax code are extreme restrictions on the liberty to create long family dynasties of ever increasing economic power. Because such a dynasty is inimically threatening to political liberty and as such potentially personal liberty, such controls are protections of one sort of liberty at the expense of another. Socialism is fundamentally a recognition of this interplay and to be a socialist, it means that you have taken the view that while all liberty is valuable, the best society is one in which personal and political liberty are maximized, even at the expense of economic liberty if necessary.

That position is debatable, obviously, and reasonable people can disagree with the socialist analysis. I myself find it compelling and see little problem with it as a goal of society. But we can't have a reasonable debate about those issues unless and until those people who disagree with me and see greater value in economic liberty than I do can recognize that what they see as a curtailment of liberty in general is not something I recognize as among the most fundamental liberties that our nation has always valued and has built protections for. That is, we can have the argument about economics without seeing a threat to the liberties that I think we all value most highly.

To accuse a socialist of being anti-liberty is an unproductive opinion and position because it takes the wrong grounds and forces the debate into a realm where there can be no productive compromise. And when that happens, we all lose, no matter what we believe, because we will then turn our governance over to the unconcerned, the uninvolved and the craven. And that is a true threat to democracy that no socialist or libertarian should care to experience.