One of the favorite slogans of the town hall protesters has been “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” a statement from Thomas Jefferson. I’d like to propose that the tree of liberty has many branches, and that the teabaggers, freepers, birthers, and deathers are fixated on just the lower ones.
We’ve been discussing liberal feminism in my feminist theory class, and so we’ve looked at competing conceptions of liberty. Early on, until the years following World War I, a liberal was someone who believed that humans were naturally endowed with liberty and that any restrictions on liberty needed to be justified. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…” For early liberals from John Locke forward, the purpose of government was to protect liberty, and to restrict it no more than that goal required.
The teabaggers subscribe to this, which is basically a negative conception of liberty: freedom from interference.
In the twentieth century, though, a concept of positive liberty has emerged. “Positive liberty” can refer to the capacity for autonomous, self-directed action; young children and alcoholics thus can’t be said to enjoy liberty, because they are subject to internal compulsions and lack the capacity for critical reflection. “Positive liberty” can also refer to having the means to act and exercise one’s liberties; this may require economic, social, and political resources.
For proponents of health care reform, such as myself, the second definition of positive liberty is crucial. If you don’t have decent health, your liberty may be starkly constrained. If you’re tied to an employer just to keep your insurance, your liberty is likewise highly restricted.
I’d love it if the opponents of reform could see that we’re all in favor of liberty, we just subscribe to different understandings of it. I don’t suppose this is gonna happen, but it should would take some of the venom – and potential blood – out of the debate.
(Anyone interested in reading more about the various notions of liberty might check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “liberalism,” which I drew on for this post, and which gives the citation for the quotation from J.S. Mill.)