An economy has a purpose

In the American tradition, governments have a purpose – a reason or set of reasons that they exist at all. The Founding Fathers felt compelled to make this clear – first, in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Conservatives often argue that government has gone too far and strayed from its true and right purpose. They often use this argument as a justification for cutting government, especially human services, even in better economic times than we have now.
Liberals and progressives absolutely should fight the conservative vision of the purpose of government.
But we must not stop there.
We must make it clear that an economy has a purpose, too.
That purpose is to provide the people within that economy with the necessities of life. And to the degree to which a given economy is not delivering those necessities to its people, it must be deemed a failure.
We can argue about what those necessities are. At the lowest level they would have to include food, water, clothing, and shelter. These should be as fundamental to any economy as liberty and civil rights are to a democratic government.  Beyond those basics, some modern-day necessities of life could include education, health care, transportation and communication. Again, for an economy to be considered successful, it should provide these necessities to its people. If it doesn’t, it’s a failure, even if GDP is growing.
Both government and an economy have a purpose, but it’s important to remember that, in the democratic American tradition, a common singular purpose unifies both of these institutions – freedom.
As FDR reminded us during his 1944 State of the Union address in which he introduced his Second Bill of Rights, “Necessitous men are not free men.” It’s just common sense that, in economic matters, the rich enjoy more freedom than the poor.
It is for us, as liberals and progressives, to fight for a world of true freedom, true liberty, by articulating the purposes not only of government, but the economy, as well.  Economies, like governments, exist to serve their citizens – not the other way around.

Freedom, freedom, and more freedom

And let’s throw in a fourth “freedom” for good measure.

If liberals and progressives want to have any chance of creating long-term and significant change, we need a new approach to our rhetoric, and a great place to start is to reclaim the word “freedom”.  Freedom is fundamental to the American identity and elicits a visceral reaction in people.  No one can be against it.  We need to show that we stand for freedom – that our ideas and policies bolster freedom.

And via Matthew Yglesias, I get a link to an excellent essay by John Schwarz in The Democratic Strategist:

For decades, conservatives hit liberals over the head as uncaring about individual freedom and personal responsibility, given their repeated advocacy of big governmental programs and regulatory planning. The attacks succeeded with such thoroughness that not only were liberals put into a perpetually defensive position, but the word “liberal” itself actually became an unmentionable political pejorative—the “L” word. Unless President Obama and the Democrats learn how to counter the opposition’s call for freedom effectively, it will continue to delimit them and the country in advancing the nation’s agenda over the years to come no differently than it proved able to demonize liberalism, emasculate the public option in the health-care reform bill, and make increasing taxes to finance government practically prohibitive.

Schwarz later writes:

Freedom, today, is often understood to convey a “me-first,“ “self-interest,” or “anything goes” kind of attitude, none of them a transcendent goal. Something morally crucial is missing in the prevailing view. What is lacking is the recognition of our duties and obligations to each other. The prevailing view fails to recognize that freedom, when rooted in the premise that each person has innate dignity and equal worth, carries with it profound moral responsibilities toward others precisely because we are all equals in our right to freedom. Those responsibilities require that we act towards all others with a level of concern that can demand more from us than even the Golden Rule does in asking us to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. 

And we must use all the tools we have at our disposal – markets, voluntary organizations, families, and yes, even government – to find ways to create true freedom for everyone.

I urge you to read the whole article.

I’ve been playing with this idea of reclaiming freedom for some time.  Here are a few imperfect samples of what I’ve come up with:

  1. Liberals and progressives are often the defenders of the “welfare” state.  I think we should start calling it the “freedom” state.  (This one would make the hard-core libertarians apoplectic.)  After all, how free can you be if your sick and unable to get treatment?  That’s the essence of Medicare and Medicaid.  How free can you be if your poor and starving in your later years or because of a disability?  That’s the essence of Social Security.
  2. We need to continue to work on reforming our health care system in order to eliminate employer-based insurance.  After all, how free can you truly be if you can’t leave your employer to start a new business or take a risk on a potentially better job if you’re worried about getting medical care?  This idea of “job lock” didn’t get a lot of play in the health care debate, even though it’s been talked about for quite some time.
  3. If taxes paying for the military protect our freedom, well, then, so do tax dollars for education.  An education is the surest ticket to having the ability to do whatever it is you want to with your life.  Without an education, your choices are severely limited.  Public education is one of America’s best freedom-producing expenditures.

Obviously these are first drafts.  Ideas are welcome.