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Katherine Kersten: How liberals reinvented 'freedom'

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN
  • Star Tribune
  • December 4, 2010 - 7:15 PM

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed a constitutional right to abortion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. A heated national debate about the court's conclusion followed. But fewer Americans -- on both sides of the abortion divide -- took issue with the court's now-famous articulation of the meaning of liberty.

"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life," wrote a three-justice plurality. Liberty, in other words, is first and foremost about personal autonomy. What's important is not so much the way we live and the ends we pursue, but the fact that these reflect our free choice, and authentically express "who we are."

Today, the idea of freedom as self-fulfillment is pervasive in American society. If you ask almost any parent what he or she wants most for a child, you'll hear it confirmed: "I just want her to be happy."

But though it may now seem self-evidently correct, this view of liberty is in fact of recent vintage. Its advent in American political life can be pinpointed to a particular leader -- no, not President Obama or his immediate predecessors. We have to go back to 1912, and Woodrow Wilson.

Lawyer and author Joshua D. Hawley tells the story in an essay entitled "America's Epicurean Liberalism" in the journal National Affairs. Hawley named what he calls America's "reigning creed" after Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that individual happiness is the goal of living, and that pleasure is the measure of happiness.

According to Hawley, "epicurean liberalism" came to the fore in 1912 -- the peak of the Progressive era, and the year when Woodrow Wilson successfully battled Theodore Roosevelt for the White House. Wilson believed that the American Founders' vision of democracy was outdated and had to be changed.

In the Founders' view, liberty meant being free from the arbitrary rule of others, so one could rule himself and order his own life to gain the fruits of his labor. But individual freedom was only possible, the Founders believed, in a political regime of ordered liberty, with the rule of law, checks and balances on power, and a widely shared vision of the common good. A free government of this kind requires citizens of a certain character -- self-reliant, self-disciplined and public-spirited.

Wilson rejected the Founders' idea of liberty, which he believed was based on the out-moded agrarian ideal of the yeoman farmer. In an urban, industrial age, he believed, the threat to individual freedom came from the impersonal forces of big business and big government.

In redefining freedom for the modern age, Wilson took a cue from the rise of psychology: The individual must decide for himself what the good life is, he said. Liberty was no longer to be conceived of as the freedom to govern yourself and all your passions, but the freedom to discover and develop yourself and follow your passions. Self-fulfillment became a right -- the highest right -- and the role of government became to encourage individual flourishing by removing constraints on individual choices.

Wilson's idea of liberty spread rapidly, well beyond politics. Hawley traces it through philosopher John Dewey and Franklin D. Roosevelt to the present day -- culminating in the Supreme Court's "mystery of human life" statement.

But in 2010, it's clear that Wilson's "progressive" vision -- with individual choice as the measure of freedom -- has brought both serious social dysfunction and much personal unhappiness. When we behave as if our own pleasure is the highest good, we ignore the fact that our personal choices have consequences for the larger society, and thus for the conditions in which our freedom is grounded. The consequences of "following our bliss" range from the breakdown of the family to social ills such as drug abuse and pornography to malfeasance on Wall Street. As civil society erodes, a large and increasingly intrusive government picks up the pieces.

If the trajectory of epicurean liberalism continues, our democracy will be undermined. But there is an alternative way to think about freedom, and it could yet win the day. Hawley calls it freedom conceived, not as "self-development," but as "self-determination."

Self-determination requires, first and foremost, that citizens think -- not only of their own desires -- but of their obligations to one another. It requires "not just freedom from coercion for the individual," but "personal discipline, planning and hard work from the individual," says Hawley. Only by exercising these virtues can a citizen begin to control his own life, and thus be fit to help rule the community.

Self-development "is a blind alley," Hawley concludes. "Whatever judges may say, none of us can define our own universe. And a public philosophy that fails to help us live well ... is not a means to liberty -- it is a delusion."

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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