Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Foundations II: Substantial Freedom

[Originally posted at Speak Out California, 20 May 2006.]

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every from of tyranny over the mind of man."
   -Thomas Jefferson

One of the most destructive legacies of the conservative movement is the diminishing they have inflicted on the concept of freedom. This seems counterintuitive, perhaps, but all the relentless yammering that emanates from conservatives about freedom is perhaps a signal of their weakness on this issue, one of fundamental and historical importance to the American project.

Since the beginning of the conservative movement, the conservative conception of freedom has been intimately and intrinsically tied up with property rights, almost to the point of excluding anything else. This goes back all the way to Russell Kirk: "...conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked" is one of his ten principles, and the only mention of freedom throughout his ten conservatives principles.

One of the obvious attributes of the idea of freedom that this misses is its incredible breadth. True freedom goes far, far beyond just the connection to property, or stuff. The connection between stuff and true freedom is even tenuous since we don't just own our stuff, our stuff owns us as well. Who is more free: the apostle who owns nothing and lives in an intentional community, or the typical American, surrounded by the amazing output of our consumer economy, but saddled with levels of debt not seen since feudal Europe?

There may be no answer to this question, but conservative thought would have us believe the answer is definitely the latter...

Yet a major facet of the perennial wisdom (the core wisdom that most religious traditions share) is to not get too connected to stuff. All major religions have vigorous, unambiguous warnings about becoming overly concerned with property, such as this from Matthew 6:19: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal."

What conservatives have done with freedom is pulled out this tiny slice of what freedom really is, just the parts related to property rights, and elevated just that as being practically the whole notion. It's as if, in the process of trying to define life, they took one species of fern out of an entire complex rainforest ecosystem and said "this is it -- this is life."

The progressive understanding of freedom is far more broad. True freedom is an unbelievably broad concept, a whole ecosystem of understanding. It encompasses practically every aspect of the human condition, so much so that it's difficult to even get one's head around it. FDR's four freedoms are a good start: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship. Sexual and bodily freedom are critical to progressives too. Freedom of the press and freedom of thought (or cognitive liberty) are also critical, and figure into our understanding of this in an even more important way.

It's a little tempting to leave the progressive notion of freedom at this point, with just an emphasis on the true breadth of it. But freedom of thought is key to this in a certain way that has been explored much further by Harvard economist Amartya Sen. In his Development as Freedom, he lays out an idea of substantial freedom that is much more useful for progressive expansion than simply appreciating the true breadth of the idea.

It would be difficult for me to do justice to this whole concept, and the link above is a succint and clear deeper explanation of it. The basic notion of substantial freedom is that the objective of civilization is for citizens to become "fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions [capacities for deliberate choice] and interacting with--and influencing--the world in which we live." Maximizing and expanding that kind of freedom is what progressives are about.

Like with interdependence, this is an idea that touches a lot of progressivism. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, for example, are the philosophical underpinnings that give rise to unionism. It's impossible to restrict unionism without severely curtailing one or both of these basic freedoms. Freedom of the press underlies a lot of what's happening on the internet. Freedom of religion translates into defending the establishment clause, because a secular public society is the best and only way to truly protect this cherished freedom. Coginitive liberty underlies our strong belief in education, our understanding of culture, the importance of mental health and is the basic criticism of the socially destructive war on drugs.

Substantial freedom is also is a pointer to progressivism's relationship to capitalism. Obviously capitalist societies can generate great amounts of substantial freedom. But it has its limitations, so progressives just want to housebreak capitalism, not smash it.

But at the root of it all is this idea of substantial freedom, and closely linked to it, cognitive liberty. The two ideas laid out so far, interdependence and substantial freedom, form what could be the backbone of the progressivism that's developing now.

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