04 August 2010

Does Government Enhance or Inhibit Freedom? It depends on your definition

Douglas J. Amy, a blogger and professor at Mount Holyoke College, has written an op-ed in which he attempts to refute what he takes to be the Tea Party contention that bigger government means less freedom for citizens. While his academic pedigree alone might disqualify him from hardcore TPs' attention, Amy's argument seems to miss the point of their concern with freedom. He doesn't seem to notice that he and they can talk about "freedom" and mean two different things.

For Amy, freedom means two things: civil liberty and control over one's life. Plausibly enough, he finds that expansions of government services have not impinged on civil liberty. "Nearly all of the common activities of the modern state -- building roads and highways, fighting disease, treating sewage, funding basic scientific research, providing medical care for the elderly, preventing crime, supplying clean water, feeding the poor, educating our children, sending out Social Security checks, and so on -- are not inherently coercive or oppressive at all," he writes. In some cases, he adds, the expansion of federal government power has been the precondition for the full enjoyment of civil liberty by people who had been discriminated against by local governments. In addition, he points out that Europeans don't seem short on civil liberty despite proportionately larger bureaucracies and more comprehensive social-welfare programs.

As for control over one's life, Amy observes: "Tea Partiers want to believe that if government were small and left us alone, we would all be freer to control our own lives. But this is often not the case. On our own, we are frequently powerless against the larger social and economic forces at work in our lives. As lone individuals, we are helpless to deal with such things as economic bubbles, worldwide epidemics, soaring college costs, stagnant wages and global warming." Government attempts to master or mitigate such forces, and by giving individuals the means to do so empowers them in a way nature, by comparison, doesn't provide.

To the typical Tea Partier, however, freedom is rooted in nature and can't be created by governments. A TP might answer the preceding paragraph with the observation that the individual obviously can't solve global warming (if it exists) or epidemics, unless he's a unique genius. The individual might be able to save himself, however, and his right to save himself is near the heart of the TP idea of freedom. A Tea Partier might want to deny that individuals are ever so powerless as Amy suggests; if they are, they have their own weakness, stupidity or lack of morale to blame.

I assume that Tea Partiers believe that civil liberties, while arguably rooted in nature or "nature's god," ultimately depend in this world on economic liberty. Back in the Founding era, many Americans believed that a man who depended on another for his survival could not have a mind of his own, or could not speak his mind or act on its promptings if that meant risking the wrath of the other on whom he depended. To the extent that they believe that expanded government undermines economic liberty, they most likely believe that civil liberty will come crashing down after it.

Amy doesn't really address economic liberty in terms Tea Partiers would recognize. The closest he comes to the subject is when he praises workplace regulations and laws legalizing strikes, developments many on the right regard as inimical to real freedom. He seems unconcerned with TPs' almost-defining concern with self-sufficiency (or "personal responsibility") as a moral imperative. What he deems "freedom" they would condemn as dependence upon the state or an entitlement mentality. But if I've guessed their feelings right, the feelings are mutual. Amy closes by dismissing the TPs' idea of freedom as an "illusion."

We would have the illusion of freedom, but in reality we would be more at the mercy of the many outside forces that are buffeting our lives. It would be like being dumped in the middle of the ocean in a row boat and being told that you are now free to go wherever you want. You might be the captain of your boat, but in all likelihood if the storms and the sharks didn't get you, the sunstroke and dehydration would.

Tea Partiers would object to this prose portrait of individual helplessness as just the sort of propaganda liberals spread to make people feel dependent on the state and surrender their freedom. But if people choose "dependence," it's still a free choice as long as they depend on themselves in the form of an accountable representative government. The real issue between Tea Partiers and people like Douglas Amy is that the former see the latter's freedom threatening their own. But can freedom contradict freedom? If two notions of freedom appear incompatible, does that mean one of those notions isn't freedom? That question would probably take more than an election cycle to answer.


Anonymous said...

"...and his right to save himself is near the heart of the TP idea of freedom."

I guess that would explain why so many of them are outspoken in their advocacy of war, but are so unwilling to join the military and fight.

d.eris said...

It's pretty easy to argue that government "enhances" freedom when you ignore how it threatens freedom. Amy conveniently fails to note the other side of the big government coin: warrantless wiretapping, endless global warfare campaigns, ongoing construction of the police state and surveillance society, complicity with corporate elites, not to mention the bipolarchy, ballot access laws etc. etc. etc.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., the problem is that none of your arguments, valid though they may, refute Amy's examples of expanded (federal) government enhancing freedoms otherwise threatened by chaos, corporate power or tyranny of the majority. On the subject of government we may be damned if we do and damned if we don't. Of course, Amy may not mention the problems you cite because he doesn't consider them necessary to his idea of big government. He might agree that they're problems, but not problems inherent to expanded government.

d.eris said...

hmmm, well I'd say, since the US military budget accounts for the greatest chunk of the federal budget, is more than twice the size of the next largest military budget, and since this budget only ever increases in size with no prospect of ever being scaled back, then you cannot reasonably exclude military spending from any talk of "big government." To do so would seem ignorant or disingenuous. I would guess that just a 10% cut in the military budget would fund everything Amy could imagine for some time.

And one can't argue that military spending only impedes other people's freedom either (i.e. by killing them, occupying their countries etc.) because: 1) we're paying for it through the nose, and 2) that money is also going to fund unconstitutional wars, illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, torture, militarization of local police forces etc.

Anonymous said...

It appears that we can agree on at least one thing (military spending) although your figures are off. The latest report I found online claims that the US spends 690 billion dollars/year on defense. The next highest nation, China, spends 90 billion dollars/year. According to this report, out of the top 10 highest budgets, if you add the bottom 9, we still outspend that total by about 100 billion dollars/year.

Since most of our military budget is spent on defense contracts, I say we change things. Rather than the government funding private corporations' research and development, we tell those corporations that THEY do all the R&D on their own dime and once they have a working prototype, they go to the Defense Dept. with a demonstration and a price quote. That way we can eliminate all of those "projects" that end up not being workable, after millions or billions of tax payers' money has been squandered.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., whether Amy can reasonably exclude military spending from an abstract discussion of big government depends on whether he considers a giant military a necessary outgrowth of the kind of freedom-cultivating state he idealizes, and whether you believe a giant military establishment is an automatic outgrowth of a commitment to big government. That's an issue between you and Amy, of course, but I'm curious about your opinion on that point.

d.eris said...

Thanks for checking those numbers Crhyme, the size of the disparity between the largest and second largest military budgets only makes the case in favor of reigning in the warfare state that much stronger.

The question about the relation between the "giant military establishment" and the "commitment to big government," as you put it, Sam, is a difficult one, which I'll have to think about. Is it a necessary relation? That seems to be the question here, no? Is it a cop out to say it is not necessary in theory but appears to be so in practice?