In my last article – A Defence of Generation Y – I hailed under 30s as the freedom generation. I copped a bit of flack from fellow lefties who see individual liberty as a right wing concept; something that lies at odds with solidarity and equality. Let me clarify why left wing people should care about individual liberty.
The idea of liberty has been associated with revolutionary leftist movements since the French revolution. Gough Whitlam remarked in 1972 that his new government aimed to “give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy — to liberty, equality, fraternity”. He was slammed by the right wing press for using a revolutionary slogan (even though this slogan is also now the official motto of France). The French revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen defined Liberty in Article 4 as consisting of “being able to do anything that does not harm others”. And this does seem fundamentally important. It is because we value liberty that we argue that LGBTI people should be able to get married. It is not only equality that can explain our belief in gay marriage, for if we were only inspired by equality then we would be ok if marriage was banned for all (and perhaps some would be ok with this). But it is not simply that we want everyone to be equal, it is that we want them to be equally free. Free to do what they want.
Tea Party style conservatives bang on about individual freedom and seem to have been fairly successful in claiming liberty as a right wing concept. Their interpretation of liberty is based on a clear distinction between the private sphere and the public sphere. The public sphere of our lives is an area that is open to all, where what goes on is everyone’s business – such as parliament and the courthouse. Tea Party style conservatives see most of life operating within the private sphere (what I do for work, what I spend my leisure time on, what I spend my money on, how I look after and protect my property, etc) where what goes on is not everybody’s business but my personal business. For these conservative liberals (a confusing term if you’re American), anytime the government intervenes in the private sphere, liberty is infringed upon. So the government can’t tell me not to have a gun, or scream at my wife until she does the dishes, and when they take my money away through taxes they’re really robbing me.
Where these righties go wrong is through this arbitrary distinction between public and private spheres. They’ve basically taken the definition of liberty as ‘being able to do anything that does not harm others’, interpreted ‘harm’ to mean ‘physical harm’ and said the private sphere covers all of your actions up until the point where you are literally physically harming others. This is a pretty simplistic idea of ‘harm’ though. It is stupid in a kind of old fashioned psuedo-macho sense to dismiss the psychological harm someone might get from family or workplace bullying. It is to my mind undeniable that a bank is doing harm to an uneducated person by pressuring them to sign on to a sub-prime mortgage they don’t understand only to sit back and watch that person go bankrupt and lose everything. It is arbitrary to distinguish between the pain of being punched in the face and the pain of losing all your money and not being able to send your children to college. People harm others all the time in the so-called private sphere. And so there is nothing special about the private sphere, it doesn’t really exist and it is certainly not exempt from government regulation. Placing a value on liberty does not mean I make arbitrary distinctions, nor do I see liberty as absolute. Don’t worry, the personal is still political. Gen Y may be the freedom generation – one that celebrates diversity and individual difference without judgement – but they needn’t inevitably fall into the folly of libertarianism. Indeed I will now explain why libertarianism gets liberty wrong.
The other implication of the conservative liberal definition of liberty is that as long as the government is not interfering in your private sphere then you are free. Under this right wing idea of liberty, the homeless person starving in the street may well be as free as a bird. This doesn’t seem right because the homeless person is not ‘able to do anything’ much at all. Her choices are severely limited. She cannot eat when she is hungry, she cannot listen to music when she feels like dancing, she cannot put on an extra layer of clothing when she is cold. She lives at the mercy of others. We are sad for her, and mad on her behalf, not just because she has less than others; we are sad because she doesn’t have enough to be happy. She is not the master of her own destiny, she cannot do what she wants, she cannot be herself. Indeed it is extremely difficult to be oneself without the existence of a supportive society. It is this point that explains why individual liberty and fraternity (or as I prefer – solidarity) are not at odds. Social democrats, of which I count myself, believe in income redistribution not simply because we value money for its own sake; we recognise that money is necessary to make people happy, necessary to live a good life. And we want all people to be able to live good, fulfilling lives. Speaking in terms of freedom, as well as equality and solidarity, is important not just because it enables us to argue in language that conservatives can understand (and be convinced by) but because it helps capture more fully the problem with the situation that we want to help rectify.
Amartya Sen, possibly one of the smartest people alive – Nobel Laureate in Economics and Harvard Professor of Philosophy – equates liberty with capabilities. The conservative liberal would say that the homeless person is free to get a job as long as no one is physically threatening her when she attempts to get a job and as long as the government is not passing any laws preventing her from getting a job. But Sen requires more. It is not good enough that there is the possibility that the homeless person could get a job, to have real liberty she has to be actually capable of getting a job. If she has no education, no suitable clothes for a job interview, an untreated mental illness and/or a reliance on alcohol or drugs, then there is no realistic possibility that she will get a job. And so she is not free to get a job. Her liberty is restricted and it is the job of the government to assist in freeing her from her condition by providing an education, clothes, and health care. I think this is probably what Whitlam was getting at when he stated one of the three main aims of his government was to “liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people“.
This example shows that Tea Party types that pay lip service to the notion of individual liberty in fact fail to take liberty seriously. They do so in more trivial ways too. They claim to believe that an individual should be able to do anything that causes no harm, yet they overwhelmingly insist on conformity. It is the progressive left that stands up for individuals who desire to dress in non-traditional ways, who choose not to go to church, who wish to emigrate from a foreign land, who wish to speak in ways that other people aren’t used to. It is because we value liberty that we value diversity and we don’t judge people for personal choices.
Liberty, real liberty, should not be left out of the set of political values held by the left. We want everyone to be equal, yes, but we want everyone to be equally free.
Elliot Brice is a high school teacher who has an Honours degree in Philosophy from The University of Melbourne.