Thursday, June 29, 2006

Taking Your Income for Freedom

Laura Miller on Salon has a review of George Lakoff's book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea. The thesis is that freedom is actually a progressive value rather than a conservative one. OK, I read the review expecting to see some concrete examples. There are a lot of claims that Conservatives falsely claimed freedom by framing and repeating their message. In theory this book is an attempt to do the same for the left. To show them how to refrain the argument.
So, what do we get?
Lakoff wants his progressive readers to understand that when conservatives like George W. Bush talk about "protecting our freedoms" by, say, trying to eliminate Social Security, they aren't being simply hypocritical, cynical or "mean"; within their own moral framework, what they are saying is true. It's just that their concept of freedom is "so alien to progressives that many progressives cannot even understand it, much less defend against it." There is no single, shared definition of what "freedom" looks like because it's a contested concept.
Of course, Bush never suggested eliminating Social Security, he proposed partially privatizing it in order to put off the coming fiscal crisis. Somehow the concept that a pay-as-you-go, tax-financed entitlement might run out of money is beyond progressives.
What else do we get?
Instead of allowing conservatives to define, for example, taxes as a restriction on a person's economic freedom, progressives should seize the initiative and characterize taxes as each citizen's contribution to a commonwealth that provides more freedoms than most of us could afford on our own. Government regulations don't limit the freedom of business, they free citizens from threats to the commonwealth like pollution or defective products. They liberate citizens from unfair discrimination that would otherwise prevent them from freely realizing their dreams and potential.
Here we have it. Taxation = freedom. The more of your money the government takes the more free you are. Miller expands on this.
Progressives could demand that the wealthy pay their "fair share" to enjoy the "freedoms" guaranteed by such government-funded infrastructure as the highway system, the Internet, the court system, the banking system and so on. (Lakoff points out that the rich tend to use more of these resources than others do.) Instead of allowing themselves to be portrayed as anti-business, progressives should say that they want to protect citizens from the sway of big corporations -- like HMOs and oil companies -- which, unlike an elected government, have no accountability to the public.
Here we at least have some concrete "freedoms" although I wonder about calling a highway system a freedom. Our highway system was inspired by the German Autobahn which was built under the Nazis. Hitler also provided banks and courts.
What about government protecting the average person from the depredations of big business? Progressives might have a potential message here but it's not about freedom. It's about protection. There is a legitimate debate over government vs. business. Government is elected, but only at intervals. Big business might seem anonymous but it is nowhere near as immune to market pressures as progressives think. Just look at General Motors. Regardless, protection is not freedom.
The whole argument is a perversion of the term "freedom". To say that we will take your money, limit your actions and call it freedom is to lie. This entire exercise is an example of progressives congratulating themselves on how much better they are than conservatives and wondering why the rest of the world doesn't recognize their superiority.
The real problem with the progressive's message is that they don't know or will not admit exactly what they stand for. They want to expand government but how far and in what direction? Are they socialists? What vision do they offer?
Possibly progressives can craft an appealing message but they need to be honest about what they are offering. They are not offering freedom. They want us to give up freedom in exchange for security,

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