I recently came across this article in The Nation arguing that the Left needs to reclaim the language of freedom from the Right. While liberals have espoused values like equality and social justice, since the 70s, the author contends, they have largely ceded the language of liberty to conservatives. The problem with this strategy is that liberty-talk has a unique resonance in the U.S., and liberals are handicapping themselves by tacitly agreeing to the Right’s definition of freedom.
A left-liberal politics of freedom will emphasize two things: first, that private actors (e.g., business) can infringe on freedom and second, that government can be an instrument of empowerment, actually increasing the scope of freedom:
We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.
We must, in other words, change the argument from the abstractions of the free market to the very real power of the businessman. More than posing an impersonal threat to the deliberations of a democratic polity—as the progressive opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision would have it, or as liberals like Paul Krugman and Hendrik Hertzberg have suggested about the unionbusting in Wisconsin—the businessman imposes concrete and personal constraints on the freedom of individual citizens. What conservatives fear above all else—more than higher taxes or lower profits—is any challenge to that power, any inversion of the obligations of deference and command, any extension of freedom that would curtail their own. FDR understood that. In his 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he was careful to take aim not simply at the rich but at “economic royalists,” lordly men who take “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives.”
The way conservatives and libertarians define freedom, it means largely non-interference from the government. But for many people, the biggest problem in their lives isn’t government interference, but other actors and forces that prevent them from pursuing happiness. A more common-sense definition of freedom is simply being able to do what you want to do, or what some theorists have called “effective freedom.” Government–through its powers to tax and regulate, among other things–can facilitate the effective freedom of its citizens. In fact, you could argue that government action is indispensible to the effective exercise of freedom and that the distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberty is largely an illusion. After all, protecting any freedom requires the exercise of government power and the expenditure of public resources.
Conceptualizing things this way has the advantage of avoiding the oft-made charge that liberalism is “paternalistic” and wants to create a vast “nanny state” to control every aspect of citizens’ lives. Liberalism isn’t–or at least shouldn’t be–about telling people how to live their lives. It should be about expanding the range of choices available to citizens regardless of their social or economic status.