Freedom for the few: Fighting the right's constricted notion of liberty

Conservatives love to talk about "liberty" and "freedom." Their definition of those terms is callous and negative

By Conor Lynch

Published October 28, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

Ted Cruz (AP/Evan Vucci)
Ted Cruz (AP/Evan Vucci)

During their recent televised debate on tax reform, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz offered sharply divergent views of what kind of role the government should play in society. While Sanders made the case for a social democratic government that provides services like universal health care and free public college tuition, Cruz advocated the direct opposite: slashing taxes for the wealthy, cutting or eliminating social programs and letting the invisible hand of the market work its magic.

At times, the two senators appeared to be living on different planets, and they painted conflicting pictures of American life compared to life in Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark. Sanders pointed to the historic levels of inequality in America and the tens of millions of Americans who lack health insurance, and used a Danish fellow from the conservative think tank Peterson Institute to prove his point about social democracy in Denmark. On the other hand, Cruz romanticized the “American free enterprise system” and demonized “European socialism,” claiming that the former creates “opportunity for everybody” while the latter does the opposite. (In reality, social mobility is higher in Europe than in the U.S.)

The Texas senator’s argument for cutting taxes on the rich and dismantling the welfare state was a familiar one, and throughout the debate, he peppered his rhetoric with the language of liberty. In justifying policies that would make the rich even richer, for example, the senator extolled the free market and associated lower taxes with greater freedom and prosperity for all.

When the discussion shifted to health care, Cruz did his best to portray the single-payer systems found in European countries as nightmarish bureaucracies that infringe on one’s freedom — a classic Republican trope that has long been used to defend the private health care system in America. Last March, for example, House Speaker Paul Ryan employed the same kind of logic while defending the Republican health care plan, depicting a potential increase in the number of people without health insurance as a symbol of freedom:

“The one thing I’m certain will happen is CBO will say, well, gosh, not as many people will get coverage. You know why? Because this isn’t a government mandate,” Ryan said to ABC’s John Dickerson. “You get it if you want it. That’s freedom.”

This narrow conception of freedom may sound callous and dogmatic, but it is the prevailing view among Republicans and right-wingers today. “Liberty does not mean all good things or the absence of all evils. It is true that to be free may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run mortal risks,” wrote economist F.A. Hayek, who was a major intellectual influence on Ryan, in his book “The Constitution of Liberty.”

This negative view of freedom perfectly suits Republicans like Cruz and Ryan: They can present themselves as champions of liberty while serving the interests of powerful corporations and billionaires. Unfortunately, those on the left often fail to challenge this definition of freedom, as if conceding that their conservative opponent’s point is correct and that freedom is invariably at odds with things like equality and security.

In a recent article for Jacobin Magazine, writer Shant Mesrobian challenged this popular notion and argued that universal health care would actually expand freedom and be one of the most “liberating policy advances the US has seen in decades.” Tethering health insurance to employment, Mesrobian writes, “generates enormous economic anxiety and insecurity, shaping and constraining the life choices and aspirations of millions of people.” True freedom, he insists, is only possible when each individual has control over his or her life and the freedom to realize their true potential.

“Health care, as single-payer advocates remind us, is a human right,” Mesrobian concludes. “But it won’t be enough to simply state that health care must be a right. We will also need to make clear why it must be a right: because without it, it is impossible to direct one’s life. It is impossible to be free.”

What Mesrobian offers here is a progressive view of freedom that incorporates both negative liberty — the “freedom from” external restraints (political, social, cultural) — and positive liberty, or the “freedom to” direct one’s life and achieve the “spontaneous realization of the self,” as social theorist Erich Fromm once put it. Under our current economic system, only a privileged few come close to having real freedom in this sense, while the majority are forced to choose between things like health care and fulfilling work.

In his provocative book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin,” political theorist Corey Robin challenged the claim that those on the right stand for freedom whereas leftists stand for equality. That entire premise rests on the idea that equality and freedom are incompatible and in conflict with each other. In reality, conservatives have historically favored “liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders,” Robin writes. “What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.”

This extension of freedom would ultimately be achieved by the kind of democratic socialist policies proposed by Sanders, which makes the Republican case against them — that they encroach on one’s freedom — all the more ironic. Of course, in a certain sense Republicans are defending freedom; it is simply a negative form of freedom that benefits an elite and privileged few.

Rousseau famously declared that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” but this is only partially correct in modern America. Though men and women are all born “free” on paper, everyone is shackled by certain social, cultural, political and economic constraints. Some, however, are granted the keys to unlock their shackles, while others remain everywhere in chains. Race, gender and sexual orientation all play a role in the freedom one is afforded in the modern world, but in America, nothing is more liberating than financial security and independence. Money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy freedom, while poverty acts as a fetter that severely limits one’s ability to be free (unless one’s idea of freedom is the freedom to starve to death rather than the freedom to realize one’s true self).

In America, freedom is universally regarded as an inalienable right, and politicians of every stripe profess an unwavering commitment to liberty and justice for all. But many of the politicians who claim to defend liberty are in fact enemies of true freedom and work tirelessly to ensure that freedom remains a special privilege for an entitled few. It is up to those on the left to challenge these imposters and their regressive conception of freedom. In order to successfully advocate a social democratic and democratic socialist agenda, leftists cannot simply talk about equality and democracy. They must also make the case that liberty for all is an impossibility as long as our society remains as unequal and stratified as it is today.

Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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