Yesterday was the anniversary of the opening of the Statue of Liberty. But what is liberty? And if we’re all for it, why do the two parties here seem so at odds with each other? One common explanation goes back to Isaiah Berlin and the distinction between “negative freedom” (freedom from coercion) and ‘positive freedom” (possession of resources necessary to attain one’s goals). This distinction is certainly relevant to the fact that the advocates of larger government and redistribution have called themselves “liberals” and in response, classical liberals have had to rebrand themselves as “libertarians.” The historical experience that lies behind the entry of this conflict into American politics is probably the defection of some classical liberals from the Democratic Party in the wake of the New Deal, triggered by FDR’s unprecedented decision to seek a third, and later, a fourth term, and perhaps only prevented from an endless reiteration of this un-Washingtonian stance by death. But I think there is a deeper historical experience behind the conflict. (I also think that political concepts and ideals are created by historical experience rather than discovered in them, which is why I place such an emphasis on history here, but nothing will turn on this in what follows).

The ancient Greeks experienced political life as lived in city-states. There is much to be said for politics at this scale: much smaller and there’s too much you can’t do effectively (including defend yourself) and much bigger and the organs of state begin to drift away from the control of those whose state it is. Empires, from the Persian one that tried to subjugate the Greeks on down, have always sought to conquer such cities, to govern and tax them. When that happens (and it is still happening, as witness Hong Kong, right now) the ability to control the political affairs in your community dwindles, for it is at best self-government with permission, and your influence comes to depend not only on the support of your neighbors, but on your connections to the foreign empire and its local agents. There are also some advantages to empire (as Monty Python memorably pointed out: the aqueducts, the roads, etc.) but something vital is lost.

In one sense of the word, we can say what is lost is freedom. But notice that the freedom lost is not primarily individual freedom, or if it is, it is so derivatively. It is my city that is not free, and as a citizen of it, I am therefore not free. One of the central obligations of a citizen of a city-state is to do their fair share to prevent such a loss of freedom, and if necessary, what they can to regain it. The goal, simply put, is to send the agents of the empire away, to send them back home, so that one can say “no one rules us here, no one but ourselves.”

This is both an ancient and a modern experience, whether it is Greek cities warding off Persians, German tribes warding off Romans, Americans warding off the British, or any number of modern, non-European societies warding off colonialism. The freedom earned is the freedom of collective self-governance. It is not “libertarian” freedom, which is freedom from government, regardless of its domestic or foreign origins. And it is this notion of freedom, even deeper than the Rooseveltian freedom from want, that inspires liberals in the United States, and why liberals return, repeatedly, to the issue of campaign finance reform, because in so doing, they wish to assert that: no one can buy our state, no one rules us here, no one but ourselves. It is also at the root, deeper than any twentieth century ideology, of many liberals’ and progressives’ revulsion at foreign adventures; for how can one experience pride as a self-governing people and at the same time lord it over others who live far away? Won’t one be obliged to treat others who fight for their freedom as criminals or worse? Won’t the revulsion right-thinking people feel at a bully become self-revulsion?

It is a notorious fact about this kind of freedom that it is compatible with forms of subjection within the self-governing city. This is not just an American experience (i.e., slavery). It is a recurring experience throughout history that some who suffer under their own governments cannot help but be pleased by the thought of the destruction of their own government by some empire’s conquest. Because this is a genuine phenomenon, conquerors for I don’t know how long have characterized their conquests as “liberation” and sometimes they are right. Napoleon was greeted by many of the non-French he invaded as the solvent of local and antiquated forms of subjection. Even Hitler was initially received by some in this way (recall that he warred with another  totalitarian state), until he made it clear that he came as a solvent, not of local oppression, but of everything that is.

A “good invader,” however, reaches around the local powers that subjugate locally, to protect the interests of the least powerful among the conquered. To some degree, Napoleon was a “good invader” but the best invader of this sorts in our experience was Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln was not exactly a staunch advocate of local rule. He became a symbol of the liberation of the individual from local subjugation, and by virtue of his influence (and the influence of those more radical members of his party who tried to revolutionize the South after conquering it) brought into our tradition the idea of freedom for the individual from his own government. It is the peculiar optics of nostalgia which makes us think that the Founding Fathers wanted freedom from their own government. Rather, those who thought of the new federal government as their own government saw little need to be free from it, and those who wanted to be free from it saw no reason to think that it would ever be their own government. Or so I claim.

It is one of the great ironies of our history that when a faction of liberal Democrats concluded that FDR had gone too far, they came to seize on this Lincolnian tradition, came to champion the individual’s freedom from his own government, and eventually called themselves “libertarians.” For, having to choose a party, many of them fled to the Republican Party. And when the Democratic Party decided to take up the long neglected cause of revolutionizing the South a couple of decades later, the South, for largely unsavory reasons, also fled to the Republican Party. And Southern conservatives have been championing the individualistic conception of freedom, and casting their predominantly white selves as slaves, and characterizing the civic republican, collective self-governance ideals of the Left as “socialism” ever since.

I do not tell you what to do. I show you your tangled and confused history. The task is, to create something worthy out of its legacy. A good starting point, if you have the trust and optimism necessary for it, is to realize that as a political being, you and your opponents are in a conversation about the meaning of freedom, and the meaning of freedom is a complex, obscure, and contestable thing. To do that, however, would mean to recognize your political opponents as fellow citizens, as those who dwell with you in a common, self-governing “city”. That may beg an important question, but even if it didn’t, I see almost no one strong enough, generous enough, hopeful enough for it, today.


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