Political Animal


January 23, 2013 11:16 AM Liberalism and Freedom

By Ed Kilgore

Whatever else you think about the president’s second inaugural address—its combative tone, its choice of issues to emphasize or ignore, its relationship to current disputes in Washington, and even its treatment of the Declaration of Independence—all subjects of great controversy during the last two days—its basic framing deserves a bit more attention that it’s getting.

In particular, Obama made the long-lost liberal case that collective action is necessary to the achievement of individual freedom, instead of implicitly conceding that social goals and individual interests are inherently at war. Consider these lines:

[W]hile freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people….
[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action….
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.

Even this concluding line, which may have initially sounded like a throw-away, repeated this theme:

With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.

Obama chose to embrace an old but often-forgotten tradition of closely associating liberalism with the “positive freedoms” necessary to make “negative freedoms” meaningful (remember FDR’s “Four Freedoms?” It’s the same idea). And he articulated the progressive conviction that there are forces just as if not more powerful than government with threaten freedom—notably privilege and prejudice.

In doing so, Obama took the advice most notably offered in a much-discussed 2007 essay by Bill Galston for the Washington Monthly entitled “Taking Liberty,” urging progressives to reclaim the rhetoric and substance of their own championship of freedom as integral to the case for collective action through government:

In the real world, which so many conservatives steadfastly refuse to face, there is no such thing as freedom in the abstract. There are only specific freedoms, which differ in their conditions and consequences. FDR famously enumerated four such freedoms, dividing them into two pairs: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. The first pair had long been recognized and enshrined in the Constitution. The second were a new formulation, and Roosevelt made them concrete when he signed Social Security into law, justifying it as a way of promoting freedom from want: “We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family… against poverty-ridden old age.” Three years later, he declared that Social Security payments will “furnish that minimum necessity to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want.”
The conservatives of Roosevelt’s era disparaged the second pair as “New Deal freedoms” rather than “American freedoms,” as do many conservatives today. But those who have experienced the freedoms made possible by the New Deal are not so dismissive. It is often observed, rightly, that Social Security has virtually eliminated poverty among the elderly. But this noble achievement has an equally profound flip side. Throughout human history, those who reached the age where they could no longer work have typically depended on their children or on charity for their basic subsistence. Social Security broke this age-old dependency by giving the elderly a minimum degree of economic self-sufficiency. It is almost impossible to exaggerate how much this independence means to seniors. It is why Social Security has become the third rail of American politics. Seniors react with ferocity to efforts to “reform” the program not merely because they are defending a source of income, but because they are defending their freedom.
Liberals seldom talk about Social Security or other programs in terms of freedom. But they should.

Obama did just that, though not as crisply as Galston suggested (nor has he done much to embrace the less defensive and more forward-looking “freedom” agenda Galston urged on progressives in 2007). But beyond its immediate context or the specifics of his speech, it is clear Obama has begun to fight for a liberal interpretation of the meaning and requirements of freedom, and in a country that has always imagined itself as an exceptional “land of the free,” that matters.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent, following up on a conversation with former presidential speechwriter Michael Waldman, had an early and parallel observation on Monday:

Today, Obama quoted extensively from the Declaration, and declared that it is our challenge to “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” He then went on to make the case for robust government activism in the economy — precisely in order to preserve individual freedom, i.e., the ability to pursue happiness. He linked this to the need for more government investment in infrastructure and education. For rules designed to ensure fair market competition. For maintaining the social safety net (in the form of Social Security and Medicare, achieved by two great Democratic presidents). For the need for a greater push for equal pay for women and full equality for gay Americans (which Obama linked to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans by invoking Martin Luther King).
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Mimikatz on January 23, 2013 11:39 AM:

    So you're saying that government benefits don't create dependency but rather create the freedom to be otherwise self-sufficient? But but Paul Ryan said they make us dependent!

    Really, what's the difference whether your parents or children take care of you or you get a government check, especially if you paid into a fund to earn it? To me Obama's and Roosevelt's argument rings truer. The whole notion behind entitlements is that they can't be taken away on a whim. They are secure, which is probably why SS has so many defenders.

  • c u n d gulag on January 23, 2013 11:44 AM:

    For too long, too many Democrats, have, over the objections of their Liberal and Progressive base, let Republicans frame issues.
    Time after time, Republicans were allowed to frame things to their own advantage. Everything from economics, to social issues, to debates over military action.

    It's about time we started to frame things our way.

    And I think President Obama gave the most fully-throated Liberal speech since Walter Mondale was a candidate.

    Every human being, and EVERY American is inter-related, and dependent on others.

    Note to Libertarians: Unless you were born, and immediately left totally alone, and raised totally alone(without the help of wolves, or other woodland creatures), then, you too have been, and will continue to be, dependent on others.
    You're just either stupid, ignorant, or greedy bastards, who don't want to share your toys - or, your money.

  • exlibra on January 23, 2013 11:58 AM:

    A synonym for "freedom" is "liberty". Which shares its etymology with the word "liberal". If the teapubs weren't so dead set against education, they might have noticed that...

  • bigtuna on January 23, 2013 12:31 PM:

    I started to see this message in the address, and others, but for too long, dems have shunned this. SS, medicare, etc., provide a decent floor of income to provide eldery freedom from poverty ahd no health care. It also provides a level of freedom for the families - taking care of eldery parents on a fulltime basis is freedom limiting, making it hard for the younger family members to be job creators and small business owners that the republicans want.

    THe same can be said about health insurance for all. MANY people stick with jobs they don't like, or are inhibited to strike out on their own, to be innovators and entreprenuers, or quit and go to work somehwere else, because of their fear of losing or not having health insurance, esp. for their families. A rational universal system might invigorate parts of the economy, by giving people MORE freedom to move, strike out on their own, etc. w/o fear of losing health care.

  • Anonymous on January 23, 2013 12:33 PM:

    Consider how the country is poorer for people who who need healthcare, food, education, etc. and are not productive (or happy!). I recently read an article about a woman who had worked her whole life caring for the elderly and had never had health insurance (she lives in Louisiana IIRC). Fortunately she was healthy... until a few years back when a bunch of problems converged making her ill and unable to work. She was able to get Medicaid, got on a plan of medications that made her well enough to work again... until she made "too much money" (read: barely enough to live on) and was dropped from Medicaid. So she could no longer afford the expensive meds, became extremely ill again, had to quit work and basically now sits around her house, feeling terrible and will probably die too early. This makes no sense whatsoever, obviously. I'm sure we can multiply this example by the thousands. How does this help our country move forward, wasting human lives like that?

  • Shane Taylor on January 23, 2013 12:49 PM:

    Exactly, social insurance is an example of what John Gray called the "enabling welfare state." By securing the elderly against poverty, social insurance enables them to retire not only with greater dignity, but with greater autonomy. The "enabling welfare state" is one that attends to the preconditions of liberty and increases our means to choose.

    As for negative and positive liberty, it is worth recalling what Isaiah Berlin said in response to some of the early misreadings of his essay on the two concepts. In the introduction to Four Essays on Liberty), Berlin said:

    It is doubtless well to remember that belief in negative freedom is compatible with, and (so far as ideas influence conduct) has played its part in, generating great and lasting social evils. My point is that it was much less often defended or disguised by the kind of specious arguments and sleights-of-hand habitually used by the champions of ‘positive’ freedom in its more sinister forms. Advocacy of non-interference (like ‘social Darwinism’) was, of course, used to support politically and socially destructive policies which armed the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak, the able and ruthless against the less gifted and the less fortunate. Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not, I should have thought, today need stressing. Nevertheless, in view of the astonishing opinions which some of my critics have imputed to me, I should, perhaps, have been wise to underline certain parts of my argument. I should have made even clearer that the evils of unrestrained laissez-faire, and of the social and legal systems that permitted and encouraged it, led to brutal violations of ‘negative’ liberty—of basic human rights (always a ‘negative’ notion: a wall against oppressors), including that of free expression or association without which there may exist justice and fraternity and even happiness of a kind, but not democracy. And I should perhaps have stressed (save that I thought this too obvious to need saying) the failure of such systems to provide the minimum conditions in which alone any degree of significant ‘negative’ liberty can be exercised by individuals or groups, and without which it is of little or no value to those who may theoretically possess it. For what are rights without the power to implement them? I had supposed that enough had been said by almost every serious modern writer concerned with this subject about the fate of personal liberty during the reign of unfettered economic individualism—about the condition of the injured majority, principally in the towns, whose children were destroyed in mines or mills, while their parents lived in poverty, disease, and ignorance, a situation in which the enjoyment by the poor and the weak of legal rights to spend their money as they pleased or to choose the education they wanted (which Cobden and Herbert Spencer and their disciples offered them with every appearance of sincerity) became an odious mockery. All this is notoriously true. Legal liberties are compatible with extremes of exploitation, brutality, and injustice. The case for intervention, by the state or other effective agencies, to secure conditions for both positive, and at least a minimum degree of negative, liberty for individuals, is overwhelmingly strong. Liberals like Tocqueville and J. S. Mill, and even Benjamin Constant (who prized negative liberty beyond any modern writer), were not unaware of this. The case for social legislation or planning, for the welfare state and socialism, can be constructed with as much validity from considerations of the claims of negative liberty as from those of its positive brother; and if, historically, it was not made so frequently, that was because the kind of evil against which the concept of negative liberty was directed as a weapon was not laissez-f

  • Shane Taylor on January 23, 2013 1:24 PM:

    My apologies. My previous comment was too long. The full quote can be found here:


    Also, given the libertarian claim to a copyright on "liberty," we shouldn't forget the public side of ever private property:


  • Gretchen on January 23, 2013 1:25 PM:

    That's something I've recently noticed about conservative arguments. They want to talk about "the sanctity of life" or "preserving traditional marriage", and their arguments are very theoretical. And when I ask "what if my daughter has a life-threatening problem during a pregnancy, and can't get anyone to end it?" or "what should my gay niece, who was obviously going to turn out gay since she was 5, do about love? Should she live her life alone since she doesn't fit in the traditional marriage box?" I'm accused of playing the emotion card, and arguing childishly, because I want to consider how policies affect individuals before enacting them. Conservatives think that's weak, go back to espousing policies in the abstract, and want policies that don't conflict with their sweeping theories.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on January 23, 2013 2:18 PM:

    The GOP, as usual, has created for themselves a pretzel logic regarding entitlements. If you didn't work hard enough to buy your own health insurance, you're a leech, and if were too sick to work then you should have somehow worked harder at not getting sick or worked hard enough to afford yourself some insurance in the event that you got sick... You'd think the party of so-called capitalists would love having a maximum number of able-bodied citizens who can work and buy things. But I fear that our economic titans are so dull-witted that they'd rather rely on Want and Ignorance to keep us in our lowly places.

    Anywho, at the beginning of this year my dad had a major stroke that left one side of his body paralyzed (for the time being). Fortunately he's a military retiree, so he has pretty good benefits and he doesn't really have to worry about heading for the poor house after leaving rehab.

    Now my father isn't the type to fear death. As a matter fact he's been quite nonchalant about his death and what he wants done with his remains (cremate him asap and no long-winded funeral services). But the thought of his living the remainder of his life dependent on others to wipe his own ass definitely put the fear of god in him. He's always been stubbornly independent, so this was a major blow to his psyche. And I imagine it's the same for most older people: to have worked hard your whole entire life to provide for your family only to be reduced to a state where you can't even provide for yourself. And then to have some P.O.S. GOP dunder-head say that your economic security is expendable...

    I think the GOP fails to realize the many of the economically vulnerable want nothing more than to be able to take care of themselves. They're not leeches and probably never were. Fortunately my dad is seeing improvements and has already threatened to make a great escape from rehab so he can go back to his house, in his car, to live his life on his own terms--rather than on the Rehab Center's... And the GOP would have us believe that the benefits that he receives have no bearing on his freedom. Or that he'd be much freer if we handled his paralysis the old-fashioned way: by locking him in a back bedroom and letting him waste his remaining days away helpless, unseen and forgotten. As my dad says: "That's for the birds."

  • Blacksaint on January 23, 2013 3:12 PM:

    Do you think Obama and Democrats really care this Nation is getting getting poorer and deeper in debt every day and the quality of life is decreasing and the misery index is increasing?

    The more that flee blue States like Calif. the more Control and Democrat voters the Democrats have in the State. With Democrats it not about the Citizens Welfare, Jobs, Living standards, or the future of this Nation or State, it is about Power, Control and the Democrat party!

    If reducing Calif. and this Nation to a suburb of Mexico and this Nation to a bankrupt Third World Slum is necessary to accomplish their goal that is a price they are more than willing to pay.

    Normal people thinks no one would be diabolic and sick enough to purposely use policies to reduce the Nation and its population to a state of Poverty, Crime, Misery and Corruption, but you would be wrong!

    That is exactly where the Democrats are taking this Nation!

    The more Democrats can decrease Education achievement, Reasoning ability, Punish success, Reward failure and increase the Liberal idealogy, Poverty, Welfare and the Entitlement mentality the more Democrat voters they make and the closer they get to a Third World Socialist Food Stamp Paradise controlled Lock, Stock and Barrel by the Democrat party!

    The last piece to achieve their goals is nearly in place. Amnesty for the 12 to 30 million criminals and uneducated invading Illegal Aliens. That with chain Immigration for the ones still left in Mexico and Latin American and with a Prolific breeding rate will assure Red States are turned blue and a Democrat majority forever with a Third World Slum here of Crime, Corruption, Poverty and Misery modeled on Mexico and controlled by the Socialist/Democrat party of Northern Mexico!

    It is all about Power, Control and the Democrat party and how to use lies, false compassion, poverty and dependency to enslave a free people and a great Nation!

  • CharlieM on January 23, 2013 3:29 PM:

    I think it's in our original "Mission Statement". That line about "...that to preserve these rights, governments are instituted among men".
    Love throwing that line back at my TeaTard relatives when they start going on about Founders intent, "government is the problem", and the usual prattle about freedom and rights and tyranny and socialism ad nauseum.

  • Anonymous on January 23, 2013 3:34 PM:

    Blacksaint: you have no power here. Be gone before someone drops a house on you!

  • Tough Choices on January 23, 2013 3:42 PM:

    All nice words, nice thoughts, wonderful anecdotal examples. But there's one enormous problem: there simply isn't enough money to pay for everything the liberals want.
    If you took every penny of the so-called rich's wealth, it would only pay for current government spending for a relatively short time--and then it would be gone (where would they find more rich people to take from? Who would bother trying to build up wealth if they knew it would simply be taxed away?)
    It is a cruel but simple fact: the government cannot pay for the housing, food, medical care, education, retirement, etc., etc., etc., of every single person who needs help with such things. To begin with, as soon as the government starts offering to pay for such things, more and more people suddenly discover they are unable to do without public assistance.
    Look at disability payments--as work has become far less physically strenuous and dangerous (fewer factory workers, miners, farmers, etc.), the number of people claiming they are disabled and unable to work has grown enormously. Look at schools food programs: where once schools were places where children learned, now they are places where some children eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner (with liberals lamenting the fact that such publicly provided meals are not yet available during winter and summer breaks).
    So where will the liberals find the money to pay for all they want to do? Already we are borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar we spend. Will it soon be 50 cents on the dollar? 60 cents? We have absolutely no plan for paying back what we've borrowed, yet like the drunk who

  • tough choices on January 23, 2013 3:46 PM:

    Whoops--last line cut off. It should read:

    We have absolutely no plan for paying back what we've borrowed, yet like the drunk who thinks he can keep on drinking just because the bartender keeps on serving him, we think we don't have to worry about borrowing more just because someone will still lend us money...

  • trex on January 23, 2013 3:48 PM:

    Blacksaint: If reducing Calif. and this Nation to a suburb of Mexico and this Nation to a bankrupt Third World Slum is necessary to accomplish their goal blah blah blah

    Um. I guess you haven't been paying attention but since the Democrats regained control of California they fixed the fiscal mess left by Repubkucans and are now looking at a two-year BUDGET SURPLUS of over a billion dollars.

    And you're probably too witless to remember that Clinton left the country with a budget surplus - only to have Republicans give it away to the wealthy in the form of gigantic tax breaks, chasing it with unfounded wars and runaway spending that created deficits and enormous debt.

    The problems with this country are largely Republican-originated. Own it.

  • Doug on January 23, 2013 3:51 PM:

    While all the comments were interesting, and MOST of them to the point, Anonymous @ 3:34 PM wins the thread!
    I would like to add that, in my opinion, the major difference between liberals and conservatives is that the latter, apparently lacking any ability to conceive of anything that isn't corporeal, believe that there's only a finite amount of "freedom" available, sort of like oil. Therefore, if anyone else receives some "freedom" (from want, fear, whatever), then the conservative has less "freedom".
    No, it doesn't make sense...

  • BestandBrightest on January 23, 2013 4:36 PM:

    Obama always talks as if the government isn't looking after you, you're "on your own". This is nonsense. What about civil society? Churches, free associations, family. Clubs, friends. Just silliness..

  • G.Kerby on January 23, 2013 5:10 PM:

    Blacksaint: you have no power here. Be gone before someone drops a house on you!

    @Anonymous: BEST comment EVAH !

  • Mooja on January 23, 2013 5:56 PM:

    My how far we've come with the definition of freedom. Lets find out how popular and "free" Social Security really is and make it voluntary instead of mandatory.

  • b52apl on January 23, 2013 6:27 PM:

    Collective action, as defined by liberals, seems to mean government action. Positive freedoms for some mean negative consequences for others, with the government deciding who gets assigned to which group. Giving the government this kind of power subverts the limited government vision of the founders. It replaces God given rights with government given rights. Consent of the governed becomes compulsion by the government. In Chicago, we used to have a saying, "If you don't vote right, you don't get your streets fixed." Under Obamacare, we’ll get to test whether not voting right means you don’t get your health fixed. Remember, Chicago style is to reward your friends and punish your enemies. Since the president’s style is pure Chicago, I expect to see my healthcare deteriorate. I confess. I didn’t vote right.

  • anon on January 23, 2013 9:19 PM:

    To use the word freedom in this sense is simply an abuse of language, nothing more. Can I define my "negative liberties" as entitlements?

  • cjones1 on January 23, 2013 11:23 PM:

    The government has expanded beyond using collective arguments to better the lifestyles of individuals. It pursues policies that pick groups more deserving of government largess while punishing others. Political rights evolved to include disenfranchised groups denied them because of race or gender. Economic rights beyond private property guarantees were a construct of political factions in societies outside of the United States nand now consumestoo much economic capital and political thought in ways detrimental to the countries future.
    When we spend $3 trillion and borrow 43% of that, our future is in peril. That $4 billii// day borrowed by the federal government levies on the 134 million working Americans of $30/ day...$900/ month...$10,800/year...$21,600/year per couple...unsustainable. This forbides loss of economic and political rights for our children and grandchildren.
    I find the new age emphasis on enumerated sexual rights amusing because while advocating gay marraige, other consenting adult behaviour with historical precedent such as polygamy is discriminated against...group centric rights to the extreme.