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.