The Left has re-defined the term, “freedom.” Here is how it happened.
- Ancient Roman version of the “social contract:” Give up some of your individual freedoms and submit to the authority of the state, and, in return, the state will ensure that you retain most of the rest of those freedoms. Give up the privilege of raping your enemy’s wife, and we will make sure no one will rape yours while you are away from home, and we will throw in rudimentary plumbing and a ticket to sit in the bleachers at the coliseum on weekends to watch a live human get eaten by a lion. (How cool is that.) Rome was built on a standing offer of its social contract to the less-civilized peoples surrounding the core of the empire (the barbarians). For a lot of those people, over many centuries, that was considered a good deal.
When the ancient notion of the social contract was revived in 17th century Europe, it became somewhat more evolved than it had been in Rome – at least, with regard to a refinement of the things a citizen was or was not allowed to do. A distinction arose between the freedom to misbehave, by doing things that might be considered socially harmful or religiously sinful (such as murder or robbery), and the freedom to do things that were considered conducive to the development of a more civilized and advanced state (such as political speech and the practice of one’s chosen religion). In other words, a citizen gave up the right to do bad things, but was given the right to do good things. Less attention was paid to a refinement of the obligations of the state to the citizen; there was little or no advancement beyond the Romans’ notion of providing national and domestic order and security. Likewise, the application of social-contract principles to commercial activity (e.g., free markets vs. regulated or mercantilistic commerce) and to the issue of slavery, did not come until later.
- Modern American version of the social contract: one of the freedoms you get, in return for submitting to the authority of the state (i.e., becoming or remaining a citizen), is the “freedom” from having to pay for the purchase of protection against the “punishment” (our President’s term) of the birth of an unwanted child. Just asking: How in the world did we get from What you get to do, to What the government must do for you?
In modern America, the re-definition of the social contract remains a work in progress. A sharp distinction has arisen between “freedom” as the term is used by the political Left, and “freedom” as the term is used by the Right. For nearly a century, the Left has devoted most of its attention to the issue of the obligations of the state to the citizen. The Left tends to identify these obligations euphemistically as freedoms, by phrasing them as freedoms “FROM” something – freedom from want or need – as distinct from the literal definition of freedom, which is, the absence of limitation, constraint, and coercion. In the lexicon of the Left, freedom from poverty is not analytically different from the freedoms enunciated in the Bill of Rights.
One casualty of the application of Soviet-speak to the analysis of the social contract and the definition of the role of 21st century government, is, rational discussion of fiscal policy and economics issues in general. It is almost impossible to compare the history of free-market economies (e.g., the US during the Reagan years) with the track record of centrally-planned economies (e.g., the Obama years) when “freedom from poverty” is viewed as an issue of economics, rather than one of politics or morality. When the Obama record of assaults on market freedoms is viewed in terms of how much “help” is awarded to non-rich citizens in the form of governmental transfer-payments funded by money borrowed or created by the government, rather than in terms of the decline in the real incomes of such citizens from employment, we are no longer talking about economics, in any useful sense of that term. Unfortunately, non-rich citizens are, understandably, less inclined than conservative academics to care all that much about whether their income comes from a government handout or from a job.