A New Birth of Freedom

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while (especially while taking a break from writing over the last few weeks), and as an important one, it seems an altogether fitting topic with which to close 2011. In brief, it’s time for us to reclaim one of the most important words in our political vocabulary.

A few years back, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) filed his bill proposing a “Liberty Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution. Call it a presumptuous title for a mundane bill, for despite its nod to grander first principles, Paul’s amendment speaks to nothing so noble as what we generally mean when we invoke  “freedom” or “liberty” — such as the more stirring guarantees of self-determination, won at such great cost over the previous 200 years. The amendment neither provides a textual home for the assumed constitutional right of privacy, nor gives shape to its amorphous contours; nor does it propose some necessary limit to the executive’s wartime powers over American citizens, foreign or domestic; it doesn’t even speak to equal protection of the laws, or “rights” in any classical sense. In short, the Amendment skips right over the many, serious affronts to personal “liberty” posed by the problems of twenty-first century life, and fails to consider “freedom” in any recognizable sense.

No, nothing so important. What the “Liberty Amendment” does do is end the income tax.

So in Ron Paul’s hands, the greatest watchword of American democracy reduces to a buzzword for radical, Norquist-style libertarianism, “liberty” of the pocketbook, the “freedom” from filling out forms. If this strange act of legerdemain were blissfully confined to the periphery — to a candidate so thoroughly sidelined by his party that he can’t win a caucus by winning it — it would merit a laugh, and a sad shake of the head, but not a post. Instead, Paul’s gimmick represents the clearest iteration of a growing Republican trope, that the defense of economic liberty — from government interference in personal and corporate finance, or from paying that sum of money necessary for the maintenance of an advanced society — is the highest, and not the lowest, calling of the patriot.

This is not to say that freedom doesn’t contain a monetary component; it does. The ability to dispose of one’s assets as one sees fit, and for one’s own benefit, is an indispensable part of the bundle of rights that together comprise “freedom,” in the American sense. And economic compulsion at the hands of a tyrant is, tautologically, tyranny. As a people, we have always said so. But there is a vital difference between the extraction of wealth from a nation in service of an unelected foreign king, and the extraction of wealth that occurs pursuant to a law, duly enacted by a legislature serving in the peoples’ interest and at the peoples’ pleasure, to sustain a free society. The former is tyranny; the latter simply a fact of life in any civil society, for no civilization has ever defended and enabled the property rights of its citizens and not asked a price for the service. This distinction should be obvious from history: the founding generation didn’t fight taxes. They passed taxes. What they fought was taxation without representation.

The prepositional phrase isn’t an afterthought; it’s the entire issue. Similarly, human society and the American people have always signed off on measures that, while restricting the few, inure to the benefit of the many. To the extent that there has ever been any dispute on the issue, it was resolved long ago in the favor of the people over the oligarchs. No private citizen possesses a “liberty” or “freedom” interest in any  activity that enriches him at the expense of the larger society. To say so is not “socialism,” or a denial of basic American freedoms. It’s a bedrock principle of our constitutional system, tracing (at least) to Justice Holmes’ ultimately triumphant dissent in Lochner v. New York:

The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not. The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.

We may differ as to the amount of regulation, or the amount of taxation, needed to strike a fair balance between the rights of the few and the needs of the many. But the resolution of those debates in the favor of regulation does not implicate the “freedom” of the regulated, or the “liberty” of the taxed. Reasonable economic policy speaks the pocketbook, not the spirit. “Freedom” and “liberty” demand that the people have a say in how we as a society (“we the people,” to deploy a previously stirring phrase whose appeal the Tea Party has all but killed by overuse) regulate each others’ economic activity. They emphatically do not prevent the government from taking up the vital work of compelling all economic players to adhere to basic rules against sophisticated theft, nor do they prevent the peoples’ representatives from asking that we all contribute in kind to the very government that such makes economic activity possible.

This is to say, assuming a society defined by laws, neither freedom nor liberty are about what we possess. They’re about who we are. This is a distinction we must draw in the coming year.

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6 comments

  1. It seems logical to me that if there can be no taxation without representation, there can also be no representation without taxation. As the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation demonstrated all too clearly, a political body with no independent power to tax is essentially impotent. But I guess that’s their point.

  2. You are right and therin lies the problem. Any governance, any civilization, any society, restricts and lessens the individual’s potential liberty. It is only in the state of nature that anyone’s freedom can be fully realized, because freedom means personal sovereignty. And yes, it is zero-sum: the only way I will ever be fully free is when all the world are my friends, my slaves, or dead. The only way you will ever be fully free is when you achieve the same. Winning the bellum omnium contra omnes is a prerequisite for freedom to be fully realized.

    And Holmes’s description of the Constitution may have been accurate, but I am of the opinion that it should enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics*. Or Mr. Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own. Or a non-racist version of Mr. Ragnar Redbeard’s Might is Right.

    *Debateable: based on the excerpts I’ve read Social Statics doesn’t actually stand for what Holmes said it does. And of course I don’t think the Constitutional Suicide Pact actually has text backing Holmes up.

    1. So your ideal of total freedom is to live in a cave, scavenge for food, and die of the flu when you’re 35? Sounds really appealing.

      1. No, it’s to be Alexander or Shaka or Cyrus or Augustus or Mao or Stalin or etc. Right this moment Kim Jong Un is perhaps the freest man on earth.

        1. My personal theory is that Kim Jong Un is actually one of the un-freest men on Earth at the moment. He probably had to take over power much sooner than expected and before he could have had time to establish a power base of his own, and now he’s facing the problem of how to get control of (in particularly) the military which probably holds most of the actual power in the country. Not exactly a position with a whole lot of manouvering room.

          But it’s not really that simple, either. Even well-established autocrats like Alexander or Stalin are part of a society which by definition puts limits on what they can do. They have to deal with political and social expectations, different factions, traditions and customs and so on. If you want absolute, totally unfettered freedom, you have to be consistent – no society whatsoever, and that means living in a cave.

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