Why Freedom Should Be the #1 Issue for Progressives

The right has long co-opted the idea of freedom for its political advancement. What if progressives took it back?

Freedom — that’s what America stands for, right?  It’s the value most deeply carved in the American psyche, and has been the rallying cry of American “conservatives’”  for as long as I can remember.

And with what value are progressives most associated? Probably social justice, a term which carries a lot of baggage. “Social justice,” wrote Iain Duncan Smith and Rick Santorum in the Wall Street Journal, has been used by “the political left …as a Trojan horse for its big-state agenda.”

Beyond such obvious distortions, there’s a second challenge for progressives in being tied so singularly to justice. While it's absolutely vital to human thriving, justice is essentially defensive. It suggests resistance.  It’s the righting of wrongs. Freedom by contrast feels positive, expansive and full of open-ended possibility—giving it a clear edge in stirring the human heart.

So, as Tea Partiers and newly re-energized Republicans take up the term anew, now’s a perfect time to ask: What is freedom, anyway?

Is it the absence of interference from others? Grover Norquist calls his allies the Leave Us Alone Coalition. Certainly, the “get government out of you-name-it” folks embrace this view. The assumption is that government, by definition, means interference in our lives.  So the less government, the more freedom.

That’s one view.

Or, is freedom really much more about power—our power to make real choices, about not only our personal lives but about the forces determining the quality of life in our communities? Whether, for example, there’s general access to quality education,  public transport,  parks,  clean air and health care, all of which so shape our opportunity to thrive.

In their simplest forms, these contrasts reflect a debate philosophers and the rest of us have been waging for centuries.

Let’s keep at it. The debate is often summed up as that between negative freedom (freedom “from”) and positive freedom (freedom “to”).

For me, the first, embraced in most Tea Party language, is the weakest. Yet it is foundational. For, unless we are defended from interference by the intruding thief, for example, or the abusive boss driving us to ill health, we’re unfree.

But the “freedom from interference” enthusiasts seem unaware that we can’t even achieve the state of being “left alone” – alone.  That, too, depends on a fair and functioning society. At the most basic level, good street lighting is helpful if we want to be left alone by thieves; and to be left alone by that boss driving us to distraction? Legally enforceable workplace rules, including the right to organize, sure help—not to mention a strong economy that allows us to tell that intolerable boss goodbye because we know other employment is available. Both depend on government enforcing fair rules.

Without the second, positive definition of freedom understood as our capacity for meaningful choice and action, our lives and communities will always be stunted, sometimes literally and painfully.

How free are we when our choices are narrowed by the fear of being without necessities? In very real ways, basic economic security established through social rules we create together isn’t a threat to freedom; it's essential to freedom. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t hesitate to use the freedom frame:  Of his Four Freedoms articulated in 1941, the third is "freedom from want,” which he later spelled out in his call for an economic bill of rights.

As the political philosopher Harry Boyte writes, freedom is "the liberation of talents." In that vein, think about this assault on freedom: One-half of America’s kids will be dependent on food stamps at some point in their childhood. That means real poverty, depriving many of them of the stimulation and experiences needed to manifest their potential individuality, exactly the self-fulfillment most Americans see as the essence of freedom.

And keep in mind Boyte’s definition in light of a recent survey of college-age youth.  It found a big shift in what they are seeking from a job. Good pay and benefits used to be high on the list; and for earlier generations, meaningful work ranked up there, too.

Now, however, job security comes first, as in today’s economy we feel our choices diminishing. And with them, freedom is shrinking, too.

Our diminishing freedom goes all the way to the freedom to stay alive. A recent study found that a man in the U.S. laid off from a job suffers a measurably earlier death than those not suffering this setback.

Freedom. What if progressives embraced it as our foundational value? And in so doing we were to forego slogans, encouraging ourselves and others to think about what freedom really means and what diminishes it.

Am I free to follow my dreams with $50,000 in student loans? Am I free to move to pursue that new job if my house is “under water”?  Am I free, if I work my tail off in two jobs and still can’t feed my kids?

Progressives should challenge all Americans to a useful debate about what really restricts our choices and what actually does make us free.

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Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet.