Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Redefining Freedom

A couple of weeks ago, Thomas Frank, the WSJ’s resident leftist op-ed writer produced a column titled “The Left Should Reclaim 'Freedom'”. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203917304574415232884495424.html

As a general rule, so I won't be tempted to throw a baseball through a (closed) window, I tend to ignore left wing opinion pieces. However, I was intrigued by the title of Frank's piece. The fundamental premise of “liberalism” or “progressivism” today is the expansion of state power at the expense of individual freedom. It takes a village and all that. Yet Frank’s complaint is that the term “freedom” has been hijacked by the right and should be returned to its rightful owners on the left.
Frank tries to contrast the morally repugnant freedoms promoted by conservatives, “the rights of banks to be unregulated or capital gains to be untaxed” with the high falutin’ ideals of the left, “standing up for human liberty, the noblest cause of them all”.
This is why I shy away from reading these things. Frank is ascribing views to his opponents that either are outright false or greatly exaggerated in importance. I would like Frank to name one (responsible) conservative who says banks shouldn’t be regulated. And while there are conservatives who believe that capital gains should not be taxed – to promote the risk taking and innovation that have given us the high standard of living that we currently enjoy – this is at best a minor component of the essential characteristics of freedom, which are, 1) life; 2) liberty; and 3) the pursuit of happiness.
Webster defines freedom, as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another”. There is no way any rational person can say that the Democrats’ agenda meets that description. That sacred triad of progressive policy making – regulation, taxation, and litigation – necessarily requires coercion and constraint; necessarily requires individuals to be subject to the power of others. So Frank needs to engage in some linguistic gymnastics to try to wrestle the terms freedom and liberty over to his side. He does this by utilizing a secondary definition, (again from Webster), “the quality or state of being exempt or released, usually from something onerous”. In other words, freedom means the absence of bad things. Bad things that (conveniently) only the government can eliminate.
So, by this reasoning, freedom means freedom from hunger, freedom from homelessness, freedom from low wages, freedom from inadequate health care, freedom from ocean levels a few inches higher than they were last century, freedom from (fill in the blank). Indeed, Frank invokes FDR’s “freedom from want”. (Wisely eschewing the other three – two of which are legitimate freedoms mentioned already in the Bill of Rights – speech and religion – and the other, “freedom from fear” meaning freedom from fearful armaments - this from the man who, correctly and responsibly, initiated the program to develop the most fearful armaments ever assembled).
Frank writes :

Strange though it might sound, this is a form of freedom (from want) that pretty much requires government to get involved in the economy in order to "secure to every nation," as Roosevelt put it, "a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants."

Actually this does sound strange because it’s not true. Government is not responsible for the astonishing improvement in our health, quality of life and prosperity over the past century and a half. Private enterprise (aka – free market capitalism) is. This is explained quite nicely in the 2006 WSJ op-ed piece that I’ve cited previously,

Frank is referring not to freedom but to policy outcomes. And putting aside whether they’re desirable (many are), achievable (some may be), or can best be realized through liberal programs (no), they are separate from the topic of freedom. Advocating for programs that may or may not bring about endpoints that may or may not be worthwhile is not the same as advocating for freedom.
And what about Frank’s emphasis on “human liberty” as opposed to mere economic liberty? He writes :

Even such pits of statism as Britain and Canada remain free societies, generally speaking, despite having gone skipping blithely down the universal-health-care road to serfdom decades ago.

Oh really? Do free societies deny licenses to major news networks as Canada has to Fox News? (While allowing Al-Jazeera – all hate, all the time - to operate). Do free societies ban journalists, as Britain banned Michael Savage from visiting in June? Or bring charges against another as Canada did to Mark Steyn for “offending” the Canadian Islamic Congress with an article published in Maclean’s magazine? (Steyn, who was born in Canada and raised in England, now chooses to reside in New Hampshire. Libertarian P. J. O'Rourke also lives in the "Live Free or Die" state). How about the Brits refusing to allow Dutch Freedom Party MP Geert Wilders into their country to show his controversial film “Fitna”?
Compared to societies which exert even more state control like Russia and China, Britain and Canada are relatively free. But Frank shouldn’t smugly assume that economic intrusion by the government is not related to the level of liberty it grants its citizens. It is.

Two recent articles, by (who else?) Mark Steyn in National Review (9/21) and Theodore Dalrymple (9/26) in the WSJ, testify to the level of decrepitude to which Britain has sunk. This is what happens, Mr. Frank, when freedom, in its correct sense – the conservative sense, the classical liberal sense, is restricted.
And calling an apple an orange doesn't make it so.



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