Monday, November 25, 2002
Why am I bothering to come (briefly) out of my shell to debate Jonah Goldberg? Because his most recent column is so bad that it demands a response.
Recently Jonah wrote a column arguing the proposition that we are now more free than we have ever been in human history. A defensible proposition to be sure, and he made a decent if not terribly distinguished show of defending it. In his response to critics linked above, however, he manages to throw overboard just about every conservative principle I can think of, and winds up defending a concept of freedom that would be far more familiar to a liberal Democrat than to any conservative.
He argues, for example, that the level of taxation (and, presumably, the character of taxation) is less important than the aggregate wealth of an individual. Thus, if the average American now earns, say, $35,000 per year after taxes, and has a VCR, a cellular phone, and an automobile, that ipso facto outweighs the fact that this same average American pays a far greater percentage of his income in taxes than did his grandfather.
By this logic, the courtiers of Kublai Khan were freer than their rough contemporaries, the Vikings of Iceland. Sure, the Vikings paid essentially no taxes, were subject to virtually no central government, did whatever they liked, owned their own ships and their own arms which they used to raid the coasts of nearby (and far flung) nations, vigorously explored and colonized new territories (including in the New World), and, incidentally, lived with a relatively high degree of sexual freedom and status for women. And sure, the Chinese were under the absolute rule of a foreign potentate, lived lives subject to the rigid rules of court etiquette, were restricted in bearing arms, restricted in speech, vastly restricted in association, and kept their women in a state of virtual slavery. Nonetheless, China was arguably the richest and most technologically advanced society in the world, while the Vikings were primitive and dirt-poor, and therefore the Chinese were freer than the Vikings.
Another counter-example: who was freer, Huck Finn or a modern slum-dweller? Finn owned nothing: no home, no vehicle, not even shoes to call his own. His father abandoned him when he wasn't beating him. He had virtually no schooling, had no access to decent hygiene or medicine. The modern slum-dweller, by contrast, may live in public housing, get public-funded meals, may own (as Jonah notes) a television, VCR, telephone, refrigerator - a whole host of modern conveniences. Starvation is almost inconceivable. Health care and education may not be great, but they are available. But who is freer? Huck had his self-confidence, his friend Jim and his river; he could fish or sing for his supper and spurn any authority. By contrast, the slum-dweller may never have left the narrow confines of his immediate neighborhood. He lacks the basic skills to earn a living in his world. He is subject to a reign of terror from criminal gangs, whom he may have to pay for protection to avoid bodily harm. He lacks Huck's basic dignity along with his broader horizons. But he is supremely wealthy by comparison. Who is freer?
It is true that Aristotle felt that to be free one had to be sufficiently wealthy to be free of material cares. But how many Americans are so free today? How many gentlemen do we have who rest of their accumulation and devote themselves to civic pursuits? We worked harder and longer than ever. Perhaps we want to - or perhaps we cannot but do so to pay our taxes and to maintain ourselves at a level of social status to which we have become accustomed. Moreover, Aristotle also thought that freedom was a matter of character and education - that freedom was an inner capacity, not simply a condition of lack of external restraint or economic and technological prowess. Are we ahead of our grandfathers on this metric?
Jonah does talk about certain liberties that have unquestionably advanced: freedom of speech, sexual freedom, greater rights for the accused, and so forth. But he passes over rather quickly how these revolutions came about: by judicial fiat. These advances for freedom came at the cost of a loss of popular sovereignty. Similarly, he glosses over what are unquestionably the most important advances for freedom in America in the past 100 years: the end of legal segregation and the extention of suffrage and then social equality to women. These were fundamental advances because they extended the mantle of popular sovereignty over a larger segment of the populace. The common thread in these omissions is that the freedom involved is the dignity of self-government and membership in the sovereign people. This freedom is the cornerstone of our Republic, what most essentially makes us a free people. By contrast, even the libertarian freedom included in FDR's big four - freedom of speech - is arguably secondary, since true popular sovereignty is likely to bring this freedom in its train, whereas if such a freedom is ensured only by judicial overlords it is likely to be undermined. The hollowing-out of the political core of freedom of speech in recent years is testimony to my argument.
Even the libertarian freedoms Jonah cites are not an unmixed bag. Let's take Jonah's example of sexual freedom. Today, we have abortion on demand and no-fault divorce; our grandparents had neither. Who is freer? On the first, it depends on the moral status one accords the fetus. If it has one, and that status is at all commensurate with a human being, then we are less free, in the same way that the antebellum South was less free than the North. The former may have had a leisure class with pretensions to Aristotelian freedom, but it was freedom purchased with the lash, and therefore worthless. On the latter, it again depends on whom you ask. Men are clearly freer: they are not bound to their wives if they tire of them. To some extent, women are freer, but to some extent less. When their men leave, they are expected, by law and custom, to care for the children. They are not free of that burden. On the other hand, if they have sufficient means, they are free to leave an unloving marriage and find a better one. I don't know which has the greater impact on freedom. But on children, the impact is unquestionably negative. Jonah thinks well-being is an index of freedom. Well, divorce makes children poorer in material goods and in emotional nourishment, and no-fault divorce has unquestionably increased the incidence of divorce. Moreover, even in "good" divorces children are condemned to shuttling endlessly between households, a prima facie infringement on their own freedom. So has this libertarian advance really represented an increase in freedom? Or its diminution? I don't think the answer is clear.
The freedoms Jonah highlights are FDR's four freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Any good conservative will be able to tell you why the last two aren't really "freedoms" in the same sense as the first two - not that they are irrelevant, but that they are not comparable and shouldn't be discussed in the same breath, and certainly shouldn't be netted against the other two. After all, the Chinese Communist Party has, since 1979, provided a good measure of the last two freedoms (at least, if you don't cross the Party), while utterly eliminating the first two. But even advances in the libertarian freedoms are clearly an insufficient accounting from a conservative perspective, since they leave out any dimension of popular sovereignty. What's so infuriating is that Jonah has blithely accepted FDR's conception of freedom. He doesn't talk about character, about whether we are freer in dignity, which would have made sense to the ancients, and which arguably has decreased. He doesn't talk about our freedom to dispose of our assets as we wish, and build our own little realms free of external constraint, which would have made sense to Locke, which has certainly decreased. He talks about how many consumer goods we have and how free we are to consort with as many women or men as we wish. No doubt about it; we've got more of these kinds of freedom than any generation past. But are they really the measure of human freedom? More to the point: does anyone else at NRO think they are? Does Jonah understand the nature of the argument he's deploying? That he has the audacity to quote Hayek in defense of his relativistic argument, when Hayek was attacking precisely the positions that Jonah advances, suggests that he does not.