Place, Limits, Liberty (In That Order)

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Herewith, some thoughts about the arguments to be had here on the Front Porch, on the occasion of its first birthday.

About a month ago, Harvey Mansfield–one of the very few living scholars of political theory whose ideas and arguments have had a real-word impact–wrote a thoughtful essay for The Weekly Standard, alleging that the central problem with President Obama’s and the Democratic party’s determination to reform our nations health insurance systems was that it betrayed a love for “progress” over a love for “liberty.” Mansfield writes: “[Obama’s] politics is apolitical; it wants to put an end to politics. It considers its measures to be progressive, and progress to be irreversible. Only through this conception can one recognize, and understand, the pretentiousness of wanting to be the last president to take up health care.”

The idea of putting an end to politics would–and should–of course inflame anyone who subscribes to at least some of the principles avowed by FPR; after all, while localism certainly does involve a purely aesthetic or historical affection for one’s own community, it also involves the political recognition that it is within one’s own community that genuine democracy, and real self-government, is possible. To attempt to “put an end to politics,” in the name of moving the whole conversation forward to some progressive end, would thus appear to be an attack on one of the central purposes of localism, and there something that anyone who writes for Front Porch Republic ought to oppose.

So how is it that I, someone who has pleasantly participated at this site since only a couple of weeks after its beginning, have regularly defended it?

Well, William Galston–himself no slouch when it comes to scholars of political theory influencing real-world debates–provides a bit of an answer. In a strong rebuttal to Mansfield’s accusations, Galston brushes aside Mansfield’s specific characterization of Obama’s and the Democrats’ proposals as tendentious, and hones in on his basic presumption: that there is an “inherent contradiction between progress and liberty.” This he simply rejects: “Simply put,” Galston asserts, “removing issues from the political agenda–placing them beyond dispute–often promotes liberty.”

I think Galston is correct. I think that the push against a government reform in how insurance companies offer coverage and how costs are to be controlled–about which there are, to be sure, innumerable and important political disputes–too often, and wrongly, seems to partake of an attitude which presents “liberty” primary in terms of a private contest between interests, and “progress” primary in terms of government agencies intervening (presumably in an authoritarian manner) into those private contests to “resolve” issues, and thereby take them out of the people’s hands entirely. Galston summarizes this stance succinctly:

If government doesn’t have the right [to intervene], then considerations of efficacy are irrelevant. Even if government could bring about a good result by acting ultra vires, doing so would be an invasion of liberty, which is the most fundamental good. Rather than invade liberty, we should be prepared to live with the consequences of government forbearance. (I note for the record that if Abraham Lincoln had accepted this view, we’d probably be presenting passports at the Virginia/Maryland border.)

I say that I think this conception of the argument between liberty and progress is wrong–and wrong in such a way that has implications for the kind of debates which keep me interested in what goes on at FPR–because I think it fails to respect the deep logic (and not just the euphonious quality!) behind the particular arrangement of terms at the top of FPR’s masthead: “Place. Limits. Liberty.” I think this conception (which I’ve yammered about before, and which in perhaps unavoidable in a country whose bone-deep individualism was diagnosed and fretted over by Tocqueville close to two centuries ago) fails to appreciate that liberty is often, necessarily, a positive and empowering concept, which flows from being able to (politically!) establish and “resolve” ones place, accept and work within the community limits which any such place would entail, and find greater liberty of real opportunity, action and accomplishment accordingly. Galston elaborates upon this distinction at length:

In the real world, there is no such thing as freedom in the abstract. There are only specific freedoms, which differ in their conditions and consequences. FDR famously enumerated four such freedoms, dividing them into two pairs: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. The first pair had long been recognized and enshrined in the Constitution. The second were a new formulation, and Roosevelt made them concrete when he signed Social Security into law, justifying it as a way of promoting freedom from want….The conservatives of his day dismissed the second pair as “New Deal freedoms” rather than “American freedoms.” But those who have experienced the freedoms made possible by the New Deal are not so dismissive. It is often observed, rightly, that Social Security has virtually eliminated poverty among the elderly. But this noble achievement has an equally profound flip side. Throughout human history, those who reached the age where they could no longer work have typically depended on their children or on charity for their basic subsistence. Social Security broke this age-old dependency by giving the elderly a minimum degree of economic self-sufficiency, expanding their range of effective control over the conditions of their post-retirement years….

“Freedom of” points toward spheres of action in which individuals make choices–for example, which faith to embrace, or whether to endorse any faith at all. The task of government is in part to secure those spheres against interference by individuals, groups, or government itself….The other face of freedom–“freedom from”–points toward circumstances that (it is presumed) we all wish to avoid. In such instances, the task of government is, so far as possible, to immunize individuals against undesired circumstances. Here, government acts to protect not individual agency and choice, but rather an individual’s life circumstances against outcomes that no one would choose, or willingly endure. It follows that the “right to choose” is but a part of freedom in the fuller sense. As a motorist, I am rightly free to choose my own route and destination. But government correctly infers that I also wish to be protected from smashing into other cars, and so restricts which side of the road I and others can drive on. My desire to avoid an accident is no less real than my desire to drive where I please….

The point is that any society that takes freedom from want and fear seriously has made collective decisions: Certain conditions are objectively bad; its citizens should not have to endure them if the means of their abatement are in hand; and individual choice is not a necessary component of, and may be a hindrance to attaining, these freedoms. The current debate over health care only underscores these truths.

It is worth noting that while Galston’s formulation of this debate might strike some readers as accommodating a degree of collective action and communitarian “intervention” and “resolution” that might seem a poor fit for the United States of America (which, if true, doesn’t necessary speak well for our political culture, I suspect), Galston himself has insisted that he does not believe positive liberty should be, and would not want to see it, carried too far. In an old debate with Michael Lind, in fact, Galston insisted that “freedom” was the central value for the great majority of Americans, meaning that we are all individualists of one fashion or another, and hence have to think carefully about how we want to speak of providing collective goods so that communities, families, and individuals can enjoy the liberty which a secure and supportive and fair environment can provide. He agrees with many of Lind’s civic republican ideas, particularly Lind’s observation that a more explicitly communitarian or “public interest” language “permits republican liberals to justify public education, policies promoting widespread economic independence, taxation, military or militia service, jury duty and voting, along with public health policies and environmental protection, without needing to show that these programs and institutions could be derived from separate, individual goods or that each individual citizen is likely to benefit”…but he concludes that, as valuable as the concept of public liberty may be, “the language of republicanism inherently looks backward to a system of economic provision and social class structure that is gone for good and that applying it to the economic and social problems of the present will often lead to damaging results.” In other words, as I would say it (putting my own preferred spin on Galston’s words), the revolutions of mobility, technology, and individual choice–all diagnosed long ago by Marx so very well–have so disrupted the permanence of our socio-economic ties and traditional relations that all we can do is to empower people in their chosen publics and places, rather than work to instantiate a public liberty that truly belongs to us all. There can be, of course, egalitarian provision and protection on a broad, general, even national scale, for the sake of promoting the aforementioned positive liberties…though the particulars and extent of such are and should be subject to continuous political debate (it is pretty settled that the United States will have a national defense, for example, while the debate about health insurance regulation remains unsettled). But to to really go deep into the ability and the right of a people to democratically govern themselves, to truly create a “beloved community” and truly exercise sovereignty over public things–to go, in other words, fully republican (or socialist, if you prefer)–requires, in today’s world, a turn to local places, and their limits. That is where all the more general collective actions will enable the greatest, and most valued, liberty of all.

So the arguments–and they are political arguments–over what it means to value and wish to preserve one’s front porch are going to continue, and they will, I think rightly, include arguments that can incorporate possibilities of action that range from the most personal and individual of decisions to some (not many, but some) that will properly involve the highest and broadest levels of government. To argue that there is something illegitimate, something by definition apolitical, and thus opposed to liberty, in an attempt to respond to a particular political issue through the national government, is no more inherently sensible, I think, than claiming it is apolitical to allow a neighborhood council to make a decision about the maintenance of the sidewalks on your street, or to allow a county election to determine policies about the sale of alcohol in your town, or to allow a state legislature to make a decision about gambling in your county. Any of those decisions could be bad, of course, and any might deserve to be protested. But to deny the value of the kind of positive, collective liberty they demonstrate (though, as I said above, I would suggest that you arguably need to see the more interventionary of those demonstrations limited to communities where the relevant scale allows the residents to express themselves more directly and democratically) is to fall, intentionally or not, into a more privatized and negative notion of liberty, one that sees it as an individual possession, and not something that also obtains in places themselves.

About a month ago, Caleb Stegall pointed to a particular taxonomy that he found to be particularly relevant to figuring out where different folks stand at the Front Porch Republic. Suggesting that while some on the left side of FPR might “make common cause against certain Classic Liberal centrists” along with localists like himself, the fact remains that folks like him and me may be “miles apart on a more fundamental level.” I’m not entirely in agreement with his taxonomy (I’ve thought about some of my own), or his conclusion, but he’s probably more right than wrong. The Jeffersonian-individualist strain in American localism (and populism too, for that matter) will probably always be far distant from (and far more common than, as well) my own preferred Laschian-communitarian strain. But we go along. And it makes for good discussions–and good politics too–all the same.

  • Share: