The liberal’s freedom problem

I was not one of those who were seduced by the poetry of President Bush’s second inaugural speech.  I’m uncomfortable with glittering generalities, wary of soaring ambitions, skeptical when ideals match perfectly with self-interest.

But give the President credit.  His speech, on further review, is probably the most intellectually formidable statement by an American politician in my lifetime, while also reaching out into the real world of power plays and human wretchedness – and changing it.  I’ve called it the President’s “freedom policy,” but it was really a coherent vision of how his interpretation of the cosmic order, and human nature, must inform the war on terror.

The President has laid claim to the ideal of freedom.  His is a Jeffersonian, and therefore very American, view of the question:  a free people will be virtuous, and a virtuous people will be peaceful and prosperous.  If, by magic, the world should become democratic tomorrow morning, the war on terror will be won.

These are untested assumptions, but they are, to most Americans, profoundly appealing.

Politically, the President’s opponents find themselves in a quandary.  How can Democrats argue against democracy?  Or liberals oppose the liberalization of feudal societies in the Middle East?  This Washington Monthly article by William Galston, a Clinton Democrat, argues persuasively that they can’t and shouldn’t.  The cause of freedom, Galston recalls rather wistfully, was once the exclusive property of progressive liberals.  So what happened?

We know what happened.  The 1960’s happened.

And then, the cause of liberal freedom ran smack into Vietnam and the counterculture. The war in Indochina represented, for too many progressive critics, not just a monumental blunder, but also evidence that the entire enterprise of advancing freedom through an anti-communist foreign policy was suffused with self-delusion and hypocrisy.  These critics rejected the belief that, on balance, American influence was a force for good in the world. On the domestic front, what began honorably in the early 1960s as the effort to expand freedom of speech and self-fulfillment was transformed just a decade later into an antinomian conception of freedom as liberation from all restraint. Enthusiasts could no longer distinguish between liberty and license, and so lost touch with the moral concerns of average citizens, especially parents struggling to raise their children in what they saw as a culture increasing inhospitable to decency and self-restraint.

Galston’s piece flexes intellectual muscle on the liberal side of the freedom equation, and is well worth reading.  I add three “buts” to go along with this recommendation.

First, Galston constructs a conservative ideology that covers Life, the Universe, and Everything, much like Marxist doctrine used to do.  No such thing exists (read David Brooks’ take on the subject).  The conservative flavor put forward by Galston tastes libertarian:  free markets make virtuous persons.

I suspect the President, a deeply religious man, would reverse the terms:  free markets depend on virtuous persons.  “In America’s ideal of freedom,” he told us on Inauguration Day, “the public interest depends on private character – on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.”  In the President’s thinking, the moral order must precede political arrangements.  That is not the ideology criticized by Galston.

Second, Galston has nothing to say about the world or its perils.  Is preaching freedom to Arab countries a policy or moonshine?  Does liberalism offer an alternate ideal of freedom for the Middle East?  Promoting democracy, a safe enough proposition, was a pillar of foreign policy during the Clinton Administration, but Galston is mum on the subject.  There’s a huge hole in the piece, where 9/11 ought to be.  We were attacked.  We must respond.  But Galston’s liberal reclamation of freedom is a domestic project.  The war on terror, on this account, becomes a reason for raising taxes.

Finally, in his justifiable desire to escape the 1960’s, Galston overleaps his mark and lands in the Great Depression.  He quotes FDR uncritically, as if it were self-evident that his circumstances were similar to ours, and his solutions still applicable.  But that is questionable at best.  In the matter of taxes, Galston praises FDR’s call for “sacrifice” in increased taxation to pay for “this great defense program.”  In fact, FDR imposed tax rates of 79 percent, something even the French would gag on today.  The proposition that greater freedom requires higher taxes will sound singularly lame and unconvincing to most Americans, embued as we are with the Jeffersonian spirit.

The Depression was a strange moment for America, full of disillusionment and fear.  FDR ranks as a great president precisely because he returned us to our natural condition:  idealistic and competitive.  We have since led the world in the spread of freedom and the growth of wealth.


The problem of freedom we face today is largely not one of deprivation or discrimination – as it surely was in 1933 – but of the corruption of virtue, of failing in that “governing of the self” of which the President spoke.  This problem radiates outward from the places where our immense wealth intersects the self-absorbed attitudes hung over from the 1960’s.

Liberalism’s store of wisdom has much to contribute in the eternal struggle to preserve both freedom and virtue, but Galston’s article, for all its strength of purpose, strikes off in another direction.



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