the left and liberty

Bill Galston has an important article in the Washington Monthly entitled, “Taking Liberty: Liberals ignore and conservatives misunderstand America’s guiding value: freedom.” Although Bill is my boss and friend, we have never discussed this essay or its arguments. I basically endorse it, but I would put the matter in a slightly different way.

The deepest political change in North America, Europe, and East Asia since World War II has been a great increase in the importance and value of individual choice. We can observe this change in family structures and courtship practices, labor markets and educational institutions, media offerings and cultural identities, and religious denominations and political parties across the industrialized world. It is bad news for traditionalists, communitarians, trade-unionists, and democratic socialists, but good news for libertarians of all stripes.

Indeed, three major libertarian groups are influential today:

1. Right-libertarians argue that unregulated markets are the linchpin of all freedom. To be sure, markets require certain virtues that do not arise naturally or automatically. However, right-libertarians are confident that voluntary associations can promote these virtues better than states. Governments are prone to use their financial and police power to restrict choice in insidious ways.

2. Liberal libertarians argue that people are freer when they receive government financial support; but state funds should come without strings attached. For instance, schools, welfare systems, and arts programs should provide students, poor individuals, and artists (respectively) with economic resources, but should not intervene further in their individual decisions. I think that liberal libertarianism has been the dominant ideology of the national Democratic Party since the 1970s.

3. Radical libertarians and anarchists criticize both states and markets for restricting liberty. In contrast to liberal libertarians, they are deeply suspicious of governments, so instead of decrying cuts to welfare and education, they try to build private non-market alternatives.

I am somewhat libertarian myself, but I worry that choice isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Choice trades off against solidarity, equity, and security. It can even be a kind of trap, when we make decisions based on our own past experiences and preferences and are never forced to expand our horizons. It seems to me unfair to give young people lots of choices and then expect them to bear the consequences of their mistakes. As for poor people–I’m not sure that they can gain substantial political power without belonging to disciplined organizations (like unions) that restrict their choices. Finally, there is something to be said for what Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients”, that is, the ability to participate in weighty group decisions. To the extent that individuals make all the important choices for themselves (the “liberty of the moderns”), collective decision-making becomes inconsequential, and then we lose a kind of liberty.

Notwithstanding all these worries, I agree with my boss Bill that the tide is running with individual freedom. To criticize choice in favor of equity or solidarity is a losing strategy. Galston recommends: (1) emphasizing that classic liberal programs, such as Social Security, actually benefit individual freedom; and (2) revising some progressive programs so that they promote equity in maximally libertarian ways (for instance, via vouchers). I’m afraid that this strategy will never allow us to address some of the real disadvantages of choice. In fact, to paraphase Churchill, I suspect it’s the worst strategy–except for all the others that we’ve tried already.

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3 Responses to the left and liberty

  1. PW says:

    When I returned to the US after a long absence, I found that I’d changed from a liberal into a liberal libertarian. It seems clear that both sides of the liberal-conservative divide have become increasingly conservative and, since 1970, each has become somewhat authoritarian in its own way. I agree with pretty much all you have to say about individual freedom…

  2. I agree and appreciate all the qualifications and reservations you include in regards to Galston’s thesis. As something of a social democrat and a traditionalist communitarian myself, his essay bugged me a lot. But the primary reason why it did so was because I recognized the basic wisdom of the piece–between technology and ideology, the normative political force of “choice” in our society is perhaps insurmountable. I’d rather talk about social justice, but when all the indicators point towards individual freedom, then progressives probably need to make sure they’re ideas are amenable to such realities.

    From the perspective of political philosophy, I would want to argue that the emphasis on freedom needn’t be fundamental, but rather prudential–that is, rather than making a certain kind of liberty one’s central value, you show how liberty is a wise way to reach toward one’s actual central values. I don’t think a liberalism that is, at its center, purely about maximizing choice can support much of a progressive program, but one which affirms liberty as a route to other ends may be able to do so.

  3. niq says:

    See especially “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz

    Schwartz argues that in many, many cases people do not have enough information to make informed choices, and that this phenomenon is only worse as the number of choices increases.

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