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The Tea Party Idea of Freedom Is Anything But

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Right-wing libertarians, Tea Party activists, and the cynical corporate front organizations that love (and fund) them all like to talk about "individual freedoms." For them, human beings are born with an innate quality of liberty, and this liberty is degraded by the authority of government. The Constitution, therefore, recognizes only negative rights, not positive ones - what the government cannot do to us, rather than what it must do for us, or what we must do for each other. We are atomized individuals seeking only to maximize our own interests, with no responsibilities to each other. Our relations should therefore be governed by the impartial and always-just judgments of the market. A fair price, with all the implications that concept has for human social and political organization, is always and absolutely the price at which a buyer is willing to buy and a seller to sell. Any government intrusion that imposes obligations or regulates market forces is tyranny.

This model of the individual and of society is not, by the way, the social model of Adam Smith. Nor, contra Glenn Beck, of the American Founding Fathers, who were deeply influenced by the communitarian culture of Presbyterianism. Nor even of the right-wing hero and political philosopher of the market Friedrich Hayek, if you read him carefully, although he has been much misunderstood by the right.

But beyond its historical precedents, this individualistic, negative-rights-and-obligations model of human society is a failed model. It fails because while we do live our lives as individuals - and while individual rights are clearly fundamental to freedom - we do not exist solely as individuals. Human beings, as a species, have been profoundly shaped by evolution to be social animals, and we cannot escape each other. Our obligations to each other are not discretionary, as Smith well understood. Freedom - or the lack thereof - is a social phenomenon.

This is easy to prove. Imagine a man all alone on a desert island. Is he free or unfree? The question is meaningless. Freedom is something that happens between and among people.

If government were the only threat to human freedom, the right-wing libertarians would be justified in opposing any positive conception of rights. In the real world of complex social and economic relationships, there are many other threats to freedom. Players in the market - and especially in the labor market - rarely negotiate at the table of the price mechanism from equal positions of power. In the absence of any positive regulation, the "freedom" that the right-wing absolutists envision is the freedom of the rich and powerful to control, crush, and humiliate the less-rich and less-powerful.

Let's be clear: The free market is a necessary condition of freedom. You don't have political liberty without it, for reasons that Smith and Hayek explained very convincingly. But it is not by itself an adequate condition of freedom. Consider what our social and economic relations looked like when we indeed had a less-regulated economy and no positive obligations, no social safety net. We had 8-year-olds working 12-hour shifts in coal mines. And why not? The mine owners could pay them less than adults, and their families were grateful for the necessary income.

When child labor was fully ended by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the mine owners were outraged. "Communism!" they screamed. How dare the government tell them whom they could employ?

The point is not only that the families of child mine workers had nowhere near the coercive power to put a price on labor that the mine owners had. It is that these children and their families were, in very meaningful ways, less free to make choices about their lives - less free to develop themselves as autonomous individuals - then workers are today, now that the government has interfered with the mine owners' "personal liberty" by banning child labor and insisting on schooling for all children, now that there are options other than child labor or starvation, now that we have some minimal public retirement security. Perhaps libertarians Ron Paul and Dick Armey and Pat Toomey - the free-market absolutist running for the Senate in Pennsylvania - don't see children working in coal mines as a freedom issue. But if it concerns them at all, then the onus is on them to explain how a completely free market could stop it.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that social democracy (the non-totalitarian, democratic form of socialism) has done more for human freedom than all the free market activism of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. Social democracy has given us unions and labor laws, which have, in turn, given us weekends and allowed workers some minimal say in the return to labor on production. It has given us workplace grievance procedures and workplace safety laws: The management practices of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory are now illegal, a grievous infringement on the rights of employers. It has, in the rest of the developed world, given people socialized medicine that, contrary to Republican propaganda, has led to populations that are healthier and longer-lived than ours, at far lower cost than American expenditures on health care. And social democratic ideas were behind the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was social democracy that insisted that equality and human dignity trumped even the right of private business to discriminate, and that government was justified in making laws to that effect (a position that Ron Paul's son, Rand, rejects.)

I am not saying - or not only saying - that improved material conditions are the same thing as greater freedom. Freedom is more than material conditions. But improved material conditions do make greater freedoms possible, because they allow for expanded individual autonomy. What the rich people behind the Tea Party movement really don't want to address is the fact that freedom is often zero-sum. The freedom of the mine owners to make choices about their own lives is inversely and inextricably proportionate to the freedom of the miners to do the same thing.

The "freedom" that Pat Toomey represents is very definitely the freedom of the mine owners, of the rich and powerful. It's the freedom to roll back environmental legislation that protects the health of workers' children, the freedom to pay women less than men. Ultimately, it's the freedom of large corporations to write their own regulatory legislation, as Newt Gingrich invited them to do in 1995. It is plutocracy.

It is a measure of how little American society has preserved its industrial-era class consciousness that the working-class Tea Party activists don't see this, that they believe that greater freedom for their bosses means greater freedom for them. It doesn't, but FreedomWorks and the Koch Brothers aren't exactly rushing to share their real plans with those they have deceived. Gramsci was right.

For many of us, however, freedom does not mean complete freedom for some at the expense of any meaningful freedom for most. It means maximizing freedom, the possibility of controlling our own lives, for all. This may sometimes require restricting the freedom of the powerful to control others. Social democrats do not object to this. Freedom-hating bullies like Pat Toomey do.

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