Last month in the Wall Street Journal , Thomas Frank proffered an interesting claim he doesn’t flesh it out enough to be an argumentthat the left needs to reclaim the concept of freedom from the grasp of the right:
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.
[ . . . ]
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.
Frank makes a limited, though valid, point. When pundits and protestors on the right drone on about government intervention leading to socialism and/or fascism it makes them look clueless and histrionic (particularly since few of them would be willingtruly willingto dismantle Medicare and Social Security). When Americans are given the choice they almost always trade their abstract concept of freedom for a concrete social welfare program. Even Ayn Rand-loving college libertarians find it hard to hard to turn down Federal Pell Grants.
But while government intervention (read: overreach) doesn’t necessarily lead to tyranny, it does tend to lead to a form of soft despotism. But its a self-inflicted slavery, a tradeoff made by people who willingly allow their values and community bonds to be undermined in order to gain a modicum of economic “freedom.”
How then could we reframe the debate about government expansion and freedom in a way that truly resonates with the American public? In fifty words or less, how would you attempt to change the mind of someone persuaded by Frank’s underlying thesis that freedom from any economic wants is the greatest of freedomsa freedom so great that it must be backed by a government guarantee?