I want to suggest a new way for liberals and progressives to think about their arguments for government-delivered social programs – economic liberty.
It strikes me that most often we see arguments supporting everything from Social Security to health care reform framed in three ways: security, equality of opportunity, and a question of rights. These are all valuable ways to look at social programs, but I’m not sure that these frames are always persuasive to political independents, upon whom so much long-term political success depends. However, freedom and liberty are persuasive and have been so for more than 200 years.
Thomas Jefferson’s vision for America was rooted in individual liberty, and this vision was expressed economically by celebrating the “yeoman farmer,” who could sustain himself through working his own plot of land and thereby interact with other people from a position of freedom, strength, and equality. But the modern economy doesn’t permit this kind of independence. Instead of providing for ourselves, we enter into the marketplace or rely on our collective actions through governments to get the modern essentials of civilization – food and water, shelter, clothing, education, health care, energy, transportation, and security. Because we get most of these through the marketplace, we need cold hard cash to purchase these essentials, which means we absolutely need a job, which means that our economic liberty is reduced.
Think of it this way: who has more economic liberty – the average individual or household that is desperate to hold on to or get a job so that the flow of essential goods and services won’t stop, or the independently wealthy person who can work as desired and still buy everything he or she needs? Most of us live lives of quiet economic desperation, especially in recessionary times like these, and because we live in the modern economy, we can’t just go back to our farms and till our own soil for sustenance. That economic desperation is antithesis of liberty.
Liberty is an essential American ideal and goal, but when it comes to economic liberty, liberals and progressives have almost completely ceded that rhetorical territory to the right. Do a quick Google search for the phrase “economic liberty,” and you’ll find the results heavily skew toward libertarian and conservative viewpoints. Same goes for “economic freedom.” It’s not a stretch to say that the right owns this concept.
That has to change. Liberals and progressives need to redefine and claim the idea of economic liberty. Universal health care is about economic security, but it’s also about economic liberty – giving people more power to walk away from jobs they don’t want and try new things. Providing for education equalizes opportunity, but it is also about economic liberty – giving people the power to achieve whatever their will and good fortune provide to them in life. And having adequate food, water, and shelter is a human right, but having those also serves economic liberty – giving everyone a stable, equal material platform from which to exercise their power in a democratic society.
As always, the trick is how to make this kind of economic liberty real. Certainly one way would be for every individual or household to earn enough wages so that they, like the independently wealthy, could buy all they need and save enough to sustain their independence. This is an attractive option, seeing as it would give everyone the ability to choose the exact mix of goods and services they want, further enhancing liberty. But it’s hard to envision this kind of distribution of wages becoming a reality.
A second alternative is all of us working together through taxation and government guarantees of the needs of life. We have already traveled far down this path through our social safety net programs and public education. We are currently engaged in a battle to expand this approach through universal health care.
Whatever the approach, the goal should be the same: the expansion of true economic liberty to all. We take it as a given as Americans that we are guaranteed civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and religion, and generations of Americans of every political persuasion have been inspired to rise up to defend and expand these liberties. Now it’s the time to build a new American consensus to demand and expand our economic liberty, and thereby ensure our security, opportunity, and rights.