25 April 2011

A 'Politics of Freedom' for the Left

On the assumption that "freedom" has been a rhetorical trump card that beats whatever liberals and progressives have in their hand on any given occasion, Corey Robin proposes that Democrats and their allies cultivate a "politics of freedom" of their own to seize the rhetorical high ground. Specifically, progressives have to challenge the Republican thesis that freedom can be found in the Market. Robin proposes an emphasis on freedom from power that identifies where power is really found.

We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. 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.

Robin warns against envisioning government as a bulwark unto itself against the domination of bosses. That kind of thinking encourages the kind of dependent mentality that conservatives, he implies, rightly criticize. A progressive "politics of freedom" shouldn't envision citizens as passive recipients of government goods; it should envision government as citizens' instrument for enforcing their own freedom from domination by employers. Similarly, Robin prefers emphasizing "freedom" over "equality" because "equality" implies a passive reception of government's distribution of goods. Equality, he argues, is only a means to the end of freedom, not the other way around. Equality secures freedom by limiting the power of employers to control employees' lives. The state, he writes, is "an instrument for disrupting the private life of power," i.e. for disrupting private citizens' power over others.

Robin's argument is forcefully stated, but I'm not sure if his opposition of freedom and power will be compelling for many Americans. I suspect that a lot of us think of freedom as a means to power -- power over things if not necessarily power over other people. In either case, power is probably something many of us think we are free or should be free to earn. If so, then to say that freedom is the absence or constraint of private power might sound like freedom contradicting itself. People are likely to ask what the point of freedom is if we can't reap its fair rewards. The answer is that Robin isn't really arguing for "freedom" in the simple terms in which many Americans understand it, but for a variation on the "ordered liberty" philosophical conservatives and classical liberals have long advocated, under which raw freedom is harnessed by moral or ethical restraints into an instrument for the public good. In Robin's version democracy becomes the vehicle of enforcement, liberty ordering itself. Unfortunately, Robin is less interested in arguing his point on intellectual or philosophical grounds than in seizing a buzzword for the purpose of demagoguery. His plan to appropriate a Republican slogan, no matter whose intellectual property "freedom" actually is, ends up looking like a cynical ploy. There are arguments to be made for ordered liberty -- it's the only kind that's sustainable -- but Robin will need to figure out how to sell "order" to the masses before he can make an argument himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The very root of the problem lies in the inability or unwillingness of people to see the whole picture. Management/labor, Business/Government - we tend to see these as antagonistic or opposing forces, when the fact is, in order for the system to work correctly, these "opposites" must be seen as symbiotic.

As well, the good of the nation MUST be recognized as the one and only trump card. A business should not expect tax cuts during an economic downturn. Management should not be allowed to cut a percentage of the labor force without cutting an equal percentage of management....after all, fewer workers should require fewer managers.

Until we understand the symbiosis and agree to it, we will continue to pull the nation in different directions and there will be no progress or solving of problems.