You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Freedom Agenda

Obama’s politics aren’t anti-democratic. They’re liberal.

Our political debates, our public discourse—on current economic and domestic issues—too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces. 

What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

The national interest lies in high employment and steady expansion of output, in stable prices and a strong dollar. The declaration of such an objective is easy; their attainment in an intricate and interdependent economy and world is a little more difficult. To attain them, we require not some automatic response but hard thought.

--John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11, 1962 

We deliberate, not about ends, but about means.

--Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III. iii

Harvey Mansfield, the well-known conservative professor of political philosophy (and—full disclosure—a longtime friend) has penned a serious and civil critique of what he takes to be the animating impulse of the Obama administration. The nub of his argument is that Obama is a “progressive” whose purported non- (or post-) partisanship is designed to put certain issues “beyond political dispute” so that arguments are about means, not ends. And once the argument is about means, the door is opened wide to “rational administration” and the rule of experts.

Take health care. Mansfield interprets Obama’s statement that "I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last" as an effort to take the issue out of politics once and for all—to decide, by side-stepping, the fundamental issue of principle. In his view, that issue is: “Should the government take over health care or should it be left to the private sphere?” The question precedes, and trumps, the myriad technical issues that transform the reform impulse into impenetrable, trust-destroying 2,000-page bills. By pursuing reform without dwelling on that question, he writes, Obama's worldview “wants to put an end to politics. It considers its measures to be progressive, and progress to be irreversible.” The problem with progress, so understood, is that it is at war with political liberty, rightly understood. One cannot seek to place matters of principle beyond politics without wanting “an imposed political solution.” Some human beings—and by implication, political parties—love progress more than they love liberty; others reverse the hierarchy. Mansfield stands with the party of liberty, the republican principle, against the party of progress, the party of rational administration, which is “more suited to monarchy than to republics.”

Where to begin? Mansfield offers an elaborate argument in defense of the proposition that Obamacare represents a government takeover. I disagree and could offer an equally elaborate rebuttal. I could argue, as well, that Obama’s appeal to transcend the division between red and blue America reflects not a desire to end partisan argument, but rather most Americans’ disgust with the contemporary hyper-partisanship that thwarts effective governance and allows problems to fester indefinitely. These are hardly trivial matters. But because they would divert us from the questions Mansfield raises, I shall pursue them no farther.  

As Mansfield knows very well, he does Democrats no favor by framing current disputes as conflicts between progress and liberty. In American politics, the defenders of liberty always occupy the rhetorical high ground. If there really were a contradiction between progress and liberty, progress would surely lose—and so would the party of progress. So there are two questions. First, is there such a contradiction? And second, if there isn’t—if what we really have is a dispute between two competing understandings of liberty—which should we prefer?

I can dispose of the first question quickly: There is no inherent contradiction between progress and liberty. Simply put, removing issues from the political agenda—placing them beyond dispute—often promotes liberty. After political contestation and a bloody war, we decided that slavery was impermissible, and we reordered our laws and institutions accordingly. A century later, we made a parallel decision about racial discrimination, with similar consequences.  

I suppose we could view these questions as permanently open to debate. But we don’t, and rightly so. In that sense, there is a “progressive” component to our political history: While some questions remain open, others don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Settling questions neither ends politics nor denies liberty.

Mansfield might reply that, while some disputes raise such fundamental issues, most don’t, and it disserves political liberty to place the latter beyond the bounds of ordinary political contestation. Fair enough. So what is Obama actually saying—about health care, for example?

As I understand the president’s argument, it goes something like this: Our current health care system’s costs are rising at an unsustainable rate, threatening businesses, households, and our public finances. At the same time, nearly 50 million people go without health insurance—some by choice, to be sure, but most out of necessity. The only way to deal with all these problems effectively is to get nearly everyone into the insurance system, with a mix of subsidies and mandates, while creating a more competitive market among insurance plans. He may be right about this, or he may be wrong. But the key point for my purposes is that he is putting forth his plan as the means to an ensemble of ends—universal insurance coverage in a system that reduces the rate of cost increases—that he takes to be both desirable and essential to the long-term common good.

This is a political argument, pure and simple. The president never intended to side-step politics, and he certainly did not succeed in doing so. He hoped that his articulation of the good to be achieved through his plan would outweigh the objections—such as cost and complexity—that he knew would be arrayed against it.

There are several ways to disagree with the president’s proposal. One is to say that while his ends are defensible, his means are defective. This is the line that Representative Paul Ryan takes, as the president has acknowledged. But note that this debate lies squarely within the arena of deliberation as Aristotle defines it. Nothing apolitical or liberty-denying about that--unless deliberation itself suffers from these defects, which would be an odd contention.

Another way of disagreeing with the president is to say that his ends are less important than he thinks—otherwise put, that we can better serve the public interest by giving priority to competing ends. In this vein, many Republicans contend that because even people without insurance get care when they need it, through emergency rooms or charitable organizations, it is unnecessary to use either legal coercion or public funds to universalize insurance coverage. And many fiscal hawks argue that the mechanisms the president uses to fund his proposal—tax increases and Medicare cuts—should be used instead to reduce the long-term federal budget deficit, which is projected to soar unsustainably. Again, a classic political debate, of the sort Aristotle analyzed in the Rhetoric, and the president has done nothing to short-circuit it.

Mansfield gives short shrift to both these sorts of disagreements, focusing instead on a third, which is (to repeat) whether government or the private sphere should take the lead. He describes this as a question of “principle.” Is it? No doubt this question frames a major disagreement between the two political parties, and among Americans. And, as I’ve argued repeatedly, public mistrust of government has done more than anything else to weaken the president’s health reform effort.

The deeper question concerns not public sentiment, but, rather, the basis on which government may legitimately act under the Constitution. In 1933, FDR argued that that only the powers of government could be adequate to the exigencies of the moment. If so, he said, it could not be the case that our Constitution had disabled us from meeting a grave threat to the general welfare, and potentially to constitutional government itself. He won that argument: We live today in the legacy of his victory, and (I say this at the risk of sounding “progressive”), we’re not going back.

The alternative formulation of the dispute--Mansfield’s, I think--is that the issue isn’t the relation of means and ends, but rather the right of government to act in certain ways. If government doesn’t have the right, then considerations of efficacy are irrelevant. Even if government could bring about a good result by acting ultra vires, doing so would be an invasion of liberty, which is the most fundamental good. Rather than invade liberty, we should be prepared to live with the consequences of government forbearance. (I note for the record that if Abraham Lincoln had accepted this view, we’d probably be presenting passports at the Virginia/Maryland border.)

This brings me to the second question: If the issue is liberty, what is the nature of liberty, rightly understood? And does the Obama health care plan invade liberty, so understood?

To begin, experience gives us no reason to conclude that government is the only, or always the gravest, threat to freedom; clerical institutions and concentrations of unchecked economic power have often vied for that dubious honor. The unchecked market, moreover, regularly produces social outcomes at odds with the moral conditions of a free society. Capitalism does not reliably produce, or reward, the good character a free society needs: Perceptive observers from Charles Dickens to Tom Wolfe have given us ample evidence to the contrary. And, while it may be that long-term dependence on government saps the spirit of self-reliance that liberty requires, there are other forms of dependence---economic, social, and even familial---that often damage character in much the same way.

At the heart of the conservative misunderstanding of liberty is the presumption that government and individual freedom are fundamentally at odds. At the heart of any liberal understanding of freedom is the proposition that public power can advance freedom as well as undermine it.

In the real world, there is no such thing as freedom in the abstract. There are only specific freedoms, which differ in their conditions and consequences. FDR famously enumerated four such freedoms, dividing them into two pairs: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. The first pair had long been recognized and enshrined in the Constitution. The second were a new formulation, and Roosevelt made them concrete when he signed Social Security into law, justifying it as a way of promoting freedom from want: "We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family ... against poverty-ridden old age." Three years later, he declared that Social Security payments will "furnish that minimum necessary to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want."

The conservatives of his day dismissed the second pair as "New Deal freedoms" rather than "American freedoms." But those who have experienced the freedoms made possible by the New Deal are not so dismissive. It is often observed, rightly, that Social Security has virtually eliminated poverty among the elderly. But this noble achievement has an equally profound flip side. Throughout human history, those who reached the age where they could no longer work have typically depended on their children or on charity for their basic subsistence. Social Security broke this age-old dependency by giving the elderly a minimum degree of economic self-sufficiency, expanding their range of effective control over the conditions of their post-retirement years.

"Freedom of" and "freedom from" have distinctly different structures and implications. "Freedom of" points toward spheres of action in which individuals make choices--for example, which faith to embrace, or whether to endorse any faith at all. The task of government is in part to secure those spheres against interference by individuals, groups, or government itself.

It is also to police the boundary between actions that principally affect individual agents and actions that impose costs and restrict the liberties of others. Suppose a healthy young man making a good living chooses to go without health insurance and then, while speeding helmetless on his motorcycle, incurs a severe injury that is treated at vast public expense. Because his choice imposes costs on others and restricts their liberty to use their resources as they choose, government has the right—and in some circumstances the duty—to intervene.

So when the Tea Partiers complain that a government health insurance mandate invades their liberty, they reveal a defective understanding of the logic of liberty in a modern society. Individuals who choose to go without health insurance could try to resolve the contradiction by signing a document foreswearing all reliance on health care they didn’t pay for themselves. But, because our medical norms don’t permit us to leave injured accident victims at the side of the road, such a document couldn’t be enforced. To be a citizen of the United States today is to live in a community where individual health care choices can have social consequences, a fact to which government can legitimately respond.

The other face of freedom--"freedom from"--points toward circumstances that (it is presumed) we all wish to avoid. In such instances, the task of government is, so far as possible, to immunize individuals against undesired circumstances. Here, government acts to protect not individual agency and choice, but rather an individual's life circumstances against outcomes that no one would choose, or willingly endure.

It follows that the "right to choose" is but a part of freedom in the fuller sense. As a motorist, I am rightly free to choose my own route and destination. But government correctly infers that I also wish to be protected from smashing into other cars, and so restricts which side of the road I and others can drive on. My desire to avoid an accident is no less real than my desire to drive where I please. Similarly, the desire to avoid want and fear is no less real than the desire to speak and worship without interference. The point is that any society that takes freedom from want and fear seriously has made collective decisions: Certain conditions are objectively bad; its citizens should not have to endure them if the means of their abatement are in hand; and individual choice is not a necessary component of, and may be a hindrance to attaining, these freedoms. The current debate over health care only underscores these truths.

None of this is to deny that government can, and often does, overstep its bounds. And when it does, the friends of liberty must resist. Nor is it to deny that the progressive impulse Mansfield criticizes can go too far. In his June 11 commencement speech at Yale, JFK was surely wrong to claim that government’s role in a modern economy reduces to “management” based on “technical” issues. It is that, but it is more than that. No wonder that the end of ideology Kennedy reflected and celebrated quickly gave way to a rebirth of deeper disagreement. To the extent that the managerial ethos evades or suppresses these disagreements, it does a disservice to politics in a free country.

Still, when Kennedy declared in 1962 that “the national interest lies in high employment and steady expansion of output, in stable prices and a strong dollar,” he elicited little disagreement. Nor would anyone making that statement today. Modern politics is in part technical, a matter of fitting means to undisputed ends. When Democrats assert, and Republicans deny, that last year’s stimulus package is boosting output and employment, they are not arguing about goals. They are arguing about means and about facts. And, more than that, they are arguing about competing understandings of how the world works. Liberals are more apt to focus on the good government can do and to fasten on the inadequacies of markets. For Republicans, it is just the reverse.

The debate over health care reform reflects this competition. How could it not? But to say, as Mansfield does, that the president’s belief in the ability of government to improve our health care system reflects a preference for progress over liberty only obscures what is really at stake. The president’s stance threatens neither political liberty nor individual liberty. His argument does not remove—and was not intended to remove—the issue of health policy beyond the bounds of political argument. It seeks, rather, to ground his proposals in considerations that most citizens would regard as weighty if not dispositive.  And his proposals reflect an understanding of individual liberty in the modern state that has far more to commend it than does the understanding to which Mansfield appeals.

William Galston is a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.