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"Taking Liberty"

Bill Galston bridges the fields of political philosophy and actual politics like no other. One could say he's a cult figure among those of us interested in the philosophical dilemmas of political pluralism and the prospects for reformist liberalism, except I'm not sure there are any such people besides me. On the downside, he's got bad teeth. But when he speaks, one would be well-advised to listen. When he writes, one should read. I think his new Washington Monthly article "Taking Liberty" is something I'll have occassion to refer to in the future. For now, just let me recommend it.

April 19, 2005 | Permalink

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On the downside, he's got bad teeth. But when he speaks, one would be well-advised to listen.

But not to look, I guess.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Apr 19, 2005 1:28:42 AM

Huh?!?

Why would I care about his teeth? You're just asking me to read him' right? Seems like there's some school-of-soft-knocks image-obsession leaking into your post.

Anyway, I'll give him a try.

Posted by: three hills | Apr 19, 2005 1:43:05 AM

That article was quite amazing. I hope this analysis gets heard widely. Changing the way progressive candidates understand and present their causes in relation to basic American ideas of freedom would profoundly alter the hearing they receive.

Also, it helped me finally explain to myself why, as social-justice far-left as I am, certain kinds of Europeanist analysis annoy me so much.

Posted by: JoeKelley | Apr 19, 2005 4:26:35 AM

Interesting, but sad, as well; He quotes Berlin to the effect that, “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice.”, which is a powerful observation that liberals frequently are in denial about.

Then goes into denial about it.

There's something deeply wrong about the Democratic party; You just don't understand the very concept of liberty. I think it comes from being bone deep utilitarians; That philosophy never did have much use for liberty, save occasionally as a tool one might use to advance other causes you actually value.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 19, 2005 6:02:45 AM

I completely agree with Brett's analysis: this is one silly piece. "Freedom" is what it is, you silly liberals; quit pretending that social security and national healthcare are "freedom", you're just polluting the language.

There are three fundamental ideals identified by the French 200 years ago: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. We need a combination of all three, obviously, and so stop pretending that everything you like is 'liberty' - it's not. Some things are good and righteous and necessary and they are not 'liberty', in fact you have to sacrifice some (maybe a fair chunk) of liberty to have them.

Be honest, folks, don't try to bullshit, you're just making it worse.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 19, 2005 6:48:26 AM

You just don't understand the very concept of liberty.

I don't think you can reasonably describe the pro-choice position using this metric.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Apr 19, 2005 7:14:11 AM

I like libertarian ideology in principle, but feel the heritable nature of wealth and privilege (over inherent ability) requires some sort of external intervention to prevent the system from devolving into (to some large extent) hereditary haves and have nots.

AFAICT, that's why we instituted governments, to manage what the Invisible Hand can't.

Which is why I'm a lefty libertarian. We do exist, you know, I just consider myself a pragmatist. What good is an abstract principle if it doesn't work in the real world?

Just read that now 1 in 7 single-family homes on the market in California are being bought as income properties and rented out, often by people living out of the area. This is an example of individual liberty contributing to a collective injustice, ie the monopolization of a resource, what Churchill called the 'mother of all monopolies'.

Government has a role here in shaping laws and policy to correct this burgeoning imbalance, like it found a role for itself in the late 19th century in trust-busting.

As for the rest of the article, meh. I think the libertarians have constructed a useful enough model with their social liberty axis and the orthogonal economic liberty axis. The nuts & bolts of constructing a winning narrative I leave to the politicans.

Posted by: Troy | Apr 19, 2005 7:40:00 AM

(funny thing about the article is that if government starts handing out school vouchers to everyone who needs them the market will inflate prices, just like the mortgage interest tax deduction distorts the real estate market... people get ~$400/mo with this deduction, but everyone factors this into their bid on the house, so the end result is all bids (assuming a competitive bidding situation) are $400/mo higher than if the mortgage interest deduction wasn't present! ... similar thing will happen with the market fees for private schools if we start widescale subsidization ... that's the beauty of the free market, it's like a force of nature you've got to work with, not against).

Posted by: Troy | Apr 19, 2005 7:51:07 AM

Just read that now 1 in 7 single-family homes on the market in California are being bought as income properties and rented out, often by people living out of the area. This is an example of individual liberty contributing to a collective injustice, ie the monopolization of a resource, what Churchill called the 'mother of all monopolies'.

Why on earth is somebody buying a house to rent out 'a collective injustice'? When my wife and I were young, we wanted a house to live in, but were not settled enough nor financially ready to buy a house yet, so we rented houses for a few years. Were we being exploited? Would it have been better if there WERE no rental houses owned by 'evil' landlords?

Those landlords in California are counting on appreciation to make them money. But a lot of people are predicting the popping of the housing bubble in California. If that happens, the 'evil' landlords will be the ones losing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and their tenants won't lose a dime. Why shouldn't people prefer to rent and avoid exposure to such downside risks?

As for the article itself--it is ridiculous as noted. It recommends not trying to redefine liberty and then proceeds to do exactly that in spades (to the point where 'doing something about high school graduation rates' is redefined as an issue of freedom). Gack.

Posted by: mw | Apr 19, 2005 7:53:37 AM

mw, it depends on the market effect for people who want to buy, but can't because the market is being priced up by monopolists and speculators. That's all.

Why shouldn't people prefer to rent and avoid exposure to such downside risks?

suffice it to say this is a complicated subject deserving its own blog and not hijacking MW's fine comment thread. I just consider absentee landlordism and the general structure of property ownership to be rather signficant ongoing inefficiency/injustice...

Posted by: Troy | Apr 19, 2005 8:21:22 AM

The article mentions school vouchers, which I am ready to be convinced could be good policy, if the one question I have is addressed:

What is done about the incentive to provide bad services for the expensive kids to educate?

The solutions I can see are classifying kids into price ranges, but unless those ranges are fine grained there would be enormous incentive at the margins to disuade cost ineffective vouchers.
Giving vouchers to expensive kids to service that are more than adequate might be a solution (those kids probably have more needs), but then there is a perverse incentive for parents to get their children classified as such. Like I said, I do not have an answer to this problem, but I am prepared to be convinced taht it would be an experiment worth having if that issue were, at least addressed.
I am not following the advice of the article very well, but it was a very good article. I wonder about freedom being the ultimate trump card.
Bellmore and MW it is your definition of freedom that is deficient, as is well pointed out in the article -- just because the "state is not forcing you at gunpoint" or whatever libertarian buzz phrases do not apply, it does not mean that it is not related to freedom. "Freedom from" is freedom, whether you want to acknowledge it or not.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 19, 2005 9:17:09 AM

After all, the idea of freedom is at the heart of our nation's creed. Edmund Burke famously observed that Americans “sniff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Even today, the extraordinary value Americans place on individual liberty is what most distinguishes our culture, and the political party seen by voters as the most willing to defend and expand liberty is the one that usually wins elections.

Simply not true, and a vocabulary clusterfuck to boot. You can throw liberty, freedom, free markets and all the sugar you want into a blender and it still ain't gonna be maple syrup, and the american people ain't gonna prefer it on their pancakes. And the American people like pancakes. Much more than politics.

The common thread linking the various conceptions of freedom, from Teddy to MLK, is that, to boil it down to a dichotomy, freedom is on whatever side that power is not. And ain't many Americans sniffing that out (but how could poor Burke know that, the chap being dead for 2 centuries?)

Posted by: oysterhead | Apr 19, 2005 9:53:24 AM

The only straussian to write a dissertation on kant. and as boring as his teeth are rotten.

Posted by: bjr@yahoo.com | Apr 19, 2005 10:23:57 AM

I think it is difficult to carry the “freedom from” argument very far as an argument for increased liberty. In reality it is a trade off between freedom and security. Galston argues that SS provides freedom for seniors and the people who would otherwise have to support them. Yes, but the economic liberty of workers is reduced by 12.4% to provide the “freedom” that $1000 per month, say, will buy.

Likewise he suggests government run health care allows one the freedom to more freely change employers. Sure, but so would insurance plans paid for entirely by individuals. Government run health care trades the security of having some health care for all for the freedom of the individual to choose how much to spent on health care and what to pay for.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Apr 19, 2005 11:03:39 AM

Really excellent article, Matt -- thanks for the pointer towards it.

Posted by: philosopher | Apr 19, 2005 11:17:47 AM

Government run health care trades the security of having some health care for all for the freedom of the individual to choose how much to spent on health care and what to pay for.

It's not that simple. Government run health care insurance, ie single payer, is a different kettle of fish than your "government run health care". In nearly all single payer systems freedom is preserved for those wishing totally private care, too.

Sure, but so would insurance plans paid for entirely by individuals

and here we have the root of the health insurance debate. Individuals (apparently) lack the market power to secure insurance plans comparable to group rates.

Why this is, dunno. But what is clear is that our current health insurance system needs some sort of rearchitecting. The free market is theoretically ruthlessly efficient, but, IMV, it is only efficient at reaching local maxima (dependent on initial conditions and contigencies), not global maxima or the most optimal state.

To push market forces into a stable global maxima requires some sort of external intervention, and our system of democratic representative government seems the least worst tried so far.

Posted by: Troy | Apr 19, 2005 11:21:40 AM

Robert Brown,
All freedom has the same or similar tradeoffs. It is not possible to be free of any consequences.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 19, 2005 11:51:46 AM

"AFAICT, that's why we instituted governments, to manage what the Invisible Hand can't."

Individual governments may have been instituted for that purpose, in specific instances, but government itself exists as something that evolved from, essentially, protection rackets. And then had to provide real protection.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 19, 2005 11:55:34 AM

We should accept Bellmore's definition of 'freedom' because it's simple and logical. And then we should consciously trade a portion of this 'freedom' - to the extent we're comfortable with - for equality, for security, for fairness, for solidarity, for the general welfare, etc.

Otherwise, by calling everything 'freedom' the liberals are just muddying the water. I don't think it's even helpful politically, most people will see thru the bullshit and they'll just smell trickery.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 19, 2005 12:10:41 PM

Troy: “It's not that simple. Government run health care insurance, ie single payer, is a different kettle of fish than your "government run health care". In nearly all single payer systems freedom is preserved for those wishing totally private care, too.”

The devil is in the details, of course, but the single payer will certainly control the quality and quantity of health care available to all, while requiring those who are willing to pay for private care that better fits their needs to pay for the single payer system as well (like the public schools). It seems to me it is difficult to make a liberty argument for single payer health care rather that a surrender of some liberty in exchange for some security.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Apr 19, 2005 12:46:01 PM

but the single payer will certainly control the quality and quantity of health care available to all

Not "certainly". Single payer is not a national health service! You want an operation your insurance won't pay, you pay your own money!

while requiring those who are willing to pay for private care that better fits their needs to pay for the single payer system as well (like the public schools).

yeah, oh well. Welcome to the more just societal model of the 20th century already.

It seems to me it is difficult to make a liberty argument for single payer health care rather that a surrender of some liberty in exchange for some security.

libertarian babble.

Posted by: Troy | Apr 19, 2005 1:34:51 PM

There is more than enough cold, black heartlessness to go around, judging from the goals expressed in the "ownershop society" theories. Bah.

Posted by: wishful | Apr 19, 2005 1:37:33 PM

Troy:

Fine, but you can't sell this as an increase in liberty as Galston suggests. Unless you can find some realy good PR firms, people will see through the argument. You need to clearly state that you want people to give up their liberty in excange for securiety.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Apr 19, 2005 2:00:08 PM

You need to clearly state that you want people to give up their liberty in exchange for security

Well for one, group health insurance administered by a government agency results in better care outcomes for less money/waste than private insurance.

This is a fact of the industry.

Your framing it as liberty vs security is hogwash. Private insurance is less efficient than government (mandated group) insurance.

What you're missing in your rugged individualist argument is that benefits accrue indirectly to those who pay taxpayers.

Eg. your school issue, good schools result in more desirable neighborhoods, regardless whether you have kids, or have kids attending them. School taxes are a form of community collection of this marginal increment of increased rent (in the economic sense).

In this country we're not going to turn away people who can't afford treatment to remain productive. Our job is finding out the most effective public policy for this, since charity and profit seeking ain't going to cover it enough.


Posted by: Troy | Apr 19, 2005 3:00:13 PM

The intellectual dishonesty of the article is best illustrated by the part where he claims, seriously, that making elderly people into welfare dependents increases their "self-sufficiency". Truly this is a claim that would please the architects of Newspeak. Whatever self-sufficiency may mean, and whatever the problems with defining it may be, it cannot possibly be the case that a welfare dependent (of the Social Security type or any other type) is self-sufficient.

Posted by: Nicholas Weininger | Apr 19, 2005 3:58:30 PM

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