VENUE: The Wall Street Journal
OPINION: THE TILTING YARD
DATELINE: SEPTEMBER 16, 2009
The Left Should Reclaim ‘Freedom’
The Right was wrong about FDR too.
By THOMAS FRANK
There are few things in politics more annoying than the right’s utter conviction that it owns the patent on the word “freedom” that when its leaders stand up for the rights of banks to be unregulated or capital gains to be untaxed, that it is actually and obviously standing up for human liberty, the noblest cause of them all.
Equally annoying is the silence of Democratic Party leaders on the subject. They spend their careers hearing this fatuous argument from the other side, but challenging conservatism’s claim to freedom seems to be beyond their powers. Or beneath their dignity. Or something.
Today they’re paying for that high-mindedness. While Democrats fussed with the details of health-care reforms, conservatives spent months telling the nation that the real issue is freedom, that what’s on the line is American liberty itself.
Any increase in the size or duties of government, the right tells us, necessarily subtracts from our freedom. Government is, by its very nature, a destroyer of liberties; the Obama administration, specifically, is promising to interfere with the economy and the health-care system so profoundly that Washington will soon have us all in chains.
“What we’re going to end up with is higher taxes, bigger government and less freedom for the American people,” House Republican Leader John Boehner said on Fox News in July. “We’re going to have a real fight for how much freedom we’re going to have left in America.”
People working the freedom vein were numerous at the large protest that took place in Washington on Saturday. Sponsors included the Institute for Liberty, Let Freedom Ring, Young Americans for Liberty, the Campaign for Liberty, the Center for Individual Freedom, and BureauCrash a.k.a. “the Freedom Activist Network.” FreedomWorks, the grass-roots pressure group, prepared a video for the occasion which encouraged people to believe that the administration’s many policy “czars” revealed its kinship to the Russian autocracy of old.
That our ancestors could ever have understood freedom as something greater than the absence of the state would probably strike protesters as inconceivable. But they did. You can see it in that famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting from 1943: “Freedom from Want,” an illustration of one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” Strange though it might sound, this is a form of freedom that pretty much requires government to get involved in the economy in order to “secure to every nation,” as Roosevelt put it, “a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.” The idea is still enshrined today in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I doubt that a U.N. endorsement is a seal of approval that today’s right will find reassuring, however. It’s far more likely that they would see it as a confirmation of the satanic wickedness of the “Four Freedoms” and the Roosevelt presidency generally.
Conservatives of the 1930s, led by an upper-crust outfit called the American Liberty League, certainly felt that way. “That Roosevelt was a dictator there was no doubt; but Liberty Leaguers were not quite sure what kind,” wrote the historian George Wolfskill in “The Revolt of the Conservatives,” a 1962 study of that organization. “Some thought he was a fascist, others believed him a socialist or Communist, while others, to be absolutely sure, said he was both.”
Today, of course, we know that the right’s tyranny-fears were nonsense. Most of Roosevelt’s innovations have been the law of the land for 70 years now, and yet we are still a free society free enough, that is, to allow tens of thousands of protesters to gather on the National Mall and to broadcast their slogans and speeches to the world via C-SPAN.
Even such pits of statism as Britain and Canada remain free societies, generally speaking, despite having gone skipping blithely down the universal-health-care road to serfdom decades ago.
For the sort of people who gathered on the Mall last weekend, however, I doubt that such observations would matter in the least. Their conception of freedom soars on by a force all its own, carried aloft on the wings of pure abstract reasoning: Government intervention equals tyranny. Liberalism is forever a form of despotism-in-waiting.
The reality of misgovernment, meanwhile, is not something you can grasp simply by donning a tricorn hat and musing on the majesty of Lady Liberty. It requires, among other things, close attention to the following irony: That many of the most destructive and even corrupt policies of the past few decades were engineered by exactly the sort of people who claim to be motivated by freedom and liberty. Our friends on the Mall no doubt imagine themselves as guiltless accusers, but if they really want to understand how our country got to this sorry state, they need to take a long hard look in the mirror.