Liberty Matters

Final Response


Once again, I’d like to say that it’s a pleasure to take part in this discussion with colleagues from whom I have learned so much over the years. We don’t do enough of this in the academic world and that’s a shame. So thank you also to Liberty Fund for hosting this conversation.
The two Dans’ essays and responses to my own have helped me to clarify my ideas. Circling around the topic for a second time, I find myself agreeing quite a bit with Dan Mahoney in particular.
For example, I completely agree with Dan Mahoney that “there are vital links between personal property and the integrity of individual conscience understood in a morally elevated way.” I also agree that personal property is crucial to a “political and social order dedicated to the sustenance of liberty and human dignity.” I never wished to imply the contrary. What I don’t agree with is reducing our common notion of “liberty” to the protection of a person’s “stuff.” This would be to downgrade what I regard as a very noble ideal. Certainly, Benjamin Constant would never have defined liberty that way.
Constant (and I) would also agree with Dan Mahoney that “[e]very articulation of the liberty appropriate for free men and women in the modern world inescapably contains an appeal to both negative and positive liberty, of the good life and the good society that maintains an ample space for personal and intellectual inquiry, religious liberty, and moral self-development.”
There is a lot packed into that sentence that simply cannot be captured by the word “stuff.”
Am I hung up on a word? You might think so, but, really, it’s not just about semantics. Words have rhetorical force. Confusion and disagreement over their meaning leads to messy thinking and inconclusive debates. This was one of the points I tried to make in my recent book, The Lost History of Liberalism from Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century.
So I stand by what I said in my response to Dan Klein about his use of the word “stuff.” The first definition that comes up in the Oxford Dictionary is “matter, material, articles” and then “a person's belongings, equipment, or baggage.” Informally, the dictionary also tells us that “stuff” means “worthless or foolish ideas, speech, or writing; rubbish.”  Surely, we can agree, then, that “stuff” commonly has a materialist, economic ring to it and a derogatory one to boot.  And surely, the liberty we all believe in and advocate is not about protecting “stuff.”
In any case, I don’t think that that’s what Dan Klein actually means to promote, because he also tells us that he considers persons to be “souls.” To me, that means that he does not see people only as possessive individualists. People have higher goals and aspirations. Studies in psychology show that people are happier when they give to others. It is in our natures to be generous. Nobody aspires to be trapped in poverty and focused on paying rent or on protecting their stuff. Poverty is soul-crushing and coercive; how is protecting a person’s baggage and rubbish protecting his or her soul?
Today we need a more generous, capacious and high-minded definition of liberty, one that encompasses moral imperatives like the recognition that all souls should be able to live in dignity. We need a definition of liberty that is inspiring and elevating and that recognizes the fact that everyone deserves a chance to morally and intellectually improve themselves. This is what many if not most thinkers in the liberal tradition believed. It’s an idea intrinsic to “classical liberalism”--the very thinkers that inspire Dan Klein but that he misinterprets, in my opinion.
Dan Mahoney speaks eloquently about how any concept of liberty “appropriate for free men and women in the modern world inescapably contains an appeal to … the good life and the good society.”  I guess where we disagree is about how this appeal to the good life and the good society should be actualized--and how much government should be involved in it. Dan Klein implies by his words that government should be minimally involved; he wants to convince liberals that “liberty” means “others not messing with one’s stuff [and] particularly the government not messing with your stuff [my emphasis.]”
Personally, I believe that the government of the richest and most powerful nation on earth needs to intervene more than it is doing today to “[a] allow everyone ample space for personal and economic freedom.” An “appeal” without action is just empty words. This is also what early nineteenth century liberals said. Let’s not play “word games,” they said. What is “personal freedom” for people trapped in poverty? (For more examples, see my book.)
When income inequality has risen to obscene levels in the United States and it has been proven that a rising tide does not lift all boats, it is a dangerous error to dwell on the need to protect people’s stuff and keeping the government out of the economy. Moreover, speaking incessantly about the “right to property” and protecting one’s “stuff” encourages the notion that liberalism is a hoax and cover for capitalist exploitation. It contributes to the rising skepticism about the very viability of liberal democracy.
Time Magazine recently reported some profoundly disturbing statistics, which I cite directly here. According to a report by the Rand Corporation, $50 trillion has lately been transferred from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 1%. According to the conservative think tank American Compass, in 1985, the median male worker needed 30 weeks of income to pay for housing, healthcare, transportation, and education for his family. By 2018, that had increased to 53 weeks (more weeks than in an actual year). Two-income families are now working twice the hours to maintain a shrinking share of the pie, while struggling to pay housing, healthcare, education, childcare, and transportations costs that have grown at two to three times the rate of inflation. 40 percent of American households do not have $400 saved for emergency expenses. Half of Americans over age 55 have no retirement savings. 28 million Americans have no health insurance, and many Americans can’t afford the deductibles or copays to use the insurance they have. Is this a “good society”? Do such Americans enjoy “the good life”; do they have adequate opportunity to engage in “moral self-development”? Can the liberal democracy we all believe in survive under such conditions?
I believe that it would be a great shame if any person calling themselves “liberal” adopted such a narrow and materialistic definition of liberty. In today’s climate particularly, we need to draw on other resources within the liberal tradition to articulate and defend a more generous articulation.
We must not forget or downplay what was most essential to the thought of the founders of liberalism--their belief and hope that the world should be a better place for everyone and that liberals should work towards that goal. If policies weren’t working, as the economy evolved, then they should be changed. Nineteenth century liberals believed that society should, if managed correctly, evolve toward a more egalitarian and “good” society. They were cognizant of capitalism’s excesses and cruelties. And most liberals have always believed that the flaws in markets and capitalism could be corrected though legislation. What we need today is more (intelligent and pointed) regulation and transfers of private wealth to the poor and suffering.
Many nineteenth century liberals argued that precisely because human beings have souls and are moral beings with a higher purpose, they need the conditions to understand and pursue this higher purpose. They cannot if they are sunk in poverty. Yes, they would agree, as I do, that breaking into someone’s house to steal their property is wrong; but when a democratically elected assembly intervenes to redistribute wealth, I would not call that theft. And to call it “coercion” is to use a derogatory term for something that is good and enables liberty.
“Governmentalization” is also a derogatory term. I can’t imagine anyone who is for “governmentalization”. A robust social safety net, yes, but “governmentalization” no. The word sounds expressly designed to scare people. It is akin to the word “socialism” today bandied about by certain conservatives to mislead people.
Likewise, Dan Mahoney’s evocation of “collectivism” and “totalitarianism” is, in my opinion, far off the mark. References to Soviet collectivization of agriculture and Mao’s murderous Great Leap Forward are truly over-the-top. I know of no “friends of liberty” who identify political life as “first and foremost an invitation to collectivism and to the evisceration of individual rights.” I don’t believe there is any threat of totalitarianism today. What many call “neoliberalism” is more of a threat than “collectivism” and “governmentalization.”
Let me end with the inspiring words of Madame de Staël, a founder of liberalism if there ever was one. In her Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (1818), one of the first histories of the French Revolution, rightly regarded as a liberal manifesto, she wrote:
Liberty!... all that we love, all that we honor is included in it. Only liberty can move the soul into rapport with the social order… The assemblies of men would be nothing but associations for commerce or agriculture if the life of patriotism did not excite individuals to sacrifice themselves for their fellows.
Why do liberals no longer utter such beautiful words?