Sort by

When It's Freedom vs. Fairness, Which Wins in America?

David Callahan

Nate Silver takes an interesting look today at how U.S. politics is starting to revolve more around a clash between the ideas of fairness and equality on one side, and freedom and liberty on the other. 

This has been an on-and-off flashpoint since the dawn of the Republic, of course, but ideological combat along these poles has waxed and waned. Until just a few years ago, for example, Democrats weren't talking all that much about inequality. And there have been times when the Republicans weren't using freedom in every other sentence. 

Silver cites the use of key words in the party platforms going back to 1948 as evidence that the great meta debate of American politics has been really heating up lately. Perhaps needless to say, the Republicans have been hitting their core ideological message a lot harder than the Democrats. 

Silver doesn't address the truly important question raised by his article: Which value has more traction in America, freedom or fairness? 

The answer is clearly freedom. But before saying more on that score, let me also say that Americans care enormously about fairness, too. It's that just when push comes to shove, and Americans perceive a trade-off between these two values, they'll tend to go with freedom.

That's due to certain core features of the American identity that I and others -- most notably John Schwarz -- have discussed in detail elsewhere, so we can skip covering that ground here again.

Instead, I want to make a different point: Which is that a central goal of progressive strategy should be to ensure that freedom and fairness are not pitted against each other. 

Every day, conservatives and Tea Party types wake up and plot how to juxtapose the great American ideal of liberty against an extreme "collectivism" that's "alien" to U.S. soil. And progressives routinely play into their hands by not paying enough homage to freedom as they spell out their plans for greater fairness. Worse still, progressives have yet to figure out how to grab freedom back from the right and harness it to their own agenda.

The debate over healthcare and social insurance is a case in point. One of the most powerful arguments for universal healthcare, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is that such basic security frees up individuals to take risks to pursue their own destinies. Likewise, one of the best cases for Social Security and Medicare is that has liberated seniors from the traditional restraints of old age and allowed them to lead independent lives -- as opposed to being beholden to their kids and charity, which is still the case in much of the world.

But you don't hear these points so often from progressives -- much less the kind of deeper argument that John Schwarz makes that an equitable access to economic opportunity is intrinsic to American freedom as the Founders envisioned it. Schwarz's point is simple: If you can't make a living, or get the return on your labor that you deserve, you're anything but free. 

The way the Obamacare debate was quickly framed as a clash between freedom versus the road to blue jumpsuits is an example of the bad things that happen when the right defines and monopolizes the value of freedom. 

It wasn't always so, of course. Teddy Roosevelt and other progressives used the freedom frame to attack corporate power and "the trusts" a century ago, arguing that concentrated private power was squashing liberty for the little guy. And, of course, freedom was the signature theme of the civil rights movement and other rights movements. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn't say "let equality ring from every mountaintop," even though equality was obviously the central goal of the movement. He played the freedom card, and played it brilliantly.

That card is the Ace in the deck of American politics. Fairness is the King. And, alas, "equality" can easily be demagogued to the point of being the Joker.

If progressives want to win, they need to play their cards better.