So alongside my rock songbook, I’m inaugurating here a new series about the American idea of liberty. I have a peculiar framework for thinking about the American idea of liberty, which I first developed for a class, but which I’m now hoping to develop into a book. Here is the beginning paragraph of a possible introduction, part of a prospectus I’m currently working on:

“Thinking about the correct conception of liberty is in all times and places a necessary endeavor. It is also the best way to begin exploring the riches of the American political tradition. This book argues that Americans have held five fundamental conceptions of liberty: first, as the protection of natural rights, second, as the self-governance of the local community, third, as economic individualism, fourth, as the social justice of the national community, and fifth, as moral individualism. That is, what I will also refer to as natural rights liberty, classical-communitarian liberty, economic autonomy liberty, progressivist liberty, and personal autonomy liberty all have a claim to be the correct conception of liberty, as well as the most American one. Over the course of America’s politics, these conceptions have been posed against one another in various ways, and several have also cooperated with or in a sense been combined with one another. But they are theoretically distinct, and thus in opposition at the fundamental level.”

The book will present itself as a thematic course through the American political tradition, using some of the following texts; there will be heavy focus on more contemporary expounders such as Zuckert, McWilliams, and Mayer, interwoven with discussion of classic texts. For example:

Natural Rights Texts
1) The Declaration of Independence
2) Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings
3) The Federalist Papers , esp. #s 9, 10, 38, 51, and 55
4) Thomas West, Vindicating the Founders
5) Michael Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic
Classical-Communitarian Texts
6) John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
7) selections from Tocqueville and others on townships
8) Wilson Carey McWilliams, “Democracy and the Citizen”
9) Wendell Berry, “Sex, Freedom, Economy, Community”
Economic Autonomy Texts
10) John Locke on property
11) Lochner v. New York
12) David Mayer, Liberty of Contract
Progressive Texts
13) Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy
14) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Commonwealth Club Address” and the “Second Bill of Rights”
15) Richard Rorty, Achieving our Country
Personal Autonomy Texts
16) Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
17) William Brennan, “Georgetown Address”
18) Lawrence v. Texas

The basic story of the five conceptions is as follows: the first two of these conceptions arose in the founding era. On some issues, such as revolution against the British monarchy/parliament, they complemented one another, but on other issues, such as ratifying the Constitution, they tended to oppose one another. The second has remained a lesser part of the mainstream American political tradition, and, a half-articulated alternative to it. In the present-day it encourages both the pro-federalism instincts of certain conservatives and the small-is-beautiful instincts of certain leftists. The third grew directly from the first, but arguably took on a life of its own by the late 1800s, fitting the needs of an industrializing economy. The fourth was explicitly formulated as a rejection of the third in the early 1900s, but it boldly criticized the American regime as insufficiently democratic from 1789 on. The fifth has been “in the American air” for a long time, but it awaited the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s for its full practical implications to become evident and for it to become jurisprudentially enshrined in the Constitution.

Today, the typical libertarian combines economic autonomy liberty and personal autonomy liberty, although the more traditional (“classic liberal” types) or “fusionist” libertarians are less committed to the latter. The typical liberal combines progressivist liberty with personal autonomy liberty. The typical conservative, despite a commitment to robust federalism that has roots in the communitarian-classical conception of liberty, combines natural rights liberty with economic autonomy liberty. I of course think a better American conservatism would be one more ambivalent, i.e. “two-cheers-y”, about economic individualist liberty, and more explicitly welcoming of the ideas from the classical-communitarian tradition.

That’s the bares bones beginning points—much of this will become clearer in subsequent posts.

Articles by Carl Scott

Loading...

Show 0 comments