The Precarious State of Liberty in the USA

What is the state of liberty in the USA?

An answer to this question requires that we know what liberty is, and here is the problem, because the word “liberty” is taken to mean different things. The prevailing intellectual culture is becoming more and more convinced that concepts like liberty do not have any reference in reality. Rather, they are just expressions of various ideologies. Indeed, even among some contemporary libertarians, the very idea that to be is to be something—that beings have a nature, including even human beings—is more and more suspect, and hence the whole idea that individual human beings might have basic, negative natural rights to life, liberty, and property is not seen as a viable intellectual option.

Now my own work with Douglas Den Uyl—for example, Norms of Liberty and The Perfectionist Turn—has been and continues to be a defense of not only these natural rights, but the ontological and epistemological realism that supports them. Constructivism and conceptual pragmatism are our current targets, which are, more or less, the Anglo-American expression of what on the European continent often becomes what is called post-modernism. We defend realism and critique constructivism and conceptual pragmatism in our forthcoming book, The Realist Turn.

The defense of liberty as classical liberalism or libertarianism understands it is very much in intellectual disarray, because the appeal to a reality that is both the source and standard for truth has been rejected by many philosophical schools to which many contemporary classical liberals and libertarians adhere—such as constructivism and conceptual pragmatism. Further, many classical liberals and libertarians act as if metaphysics is not important, but they do so at their intellectual peril. As I think of it, that peril may turn out to be not only intellectual. For if there is no basis in reality that supports their championing of liberty, and if such a view does not comport to the demands of so-called public reason, then not only are classical liberals or libertarians without intellectual support but they are also seen as a threat to the prevailing Zeitgeist. Indeed, they are candidates to be shouted down or possibly silenced.

Yet, there is also here a second point that should concern free-market economists. Economics is simply being ignored by many thinkers, and, of course, by politicians, because there is no nature to human action for economics to describe and hence no laws of economics that capture natural necessities. The alleged negative effects of regulations, such as minimum wage law or tariffs, are not seen as anything that must result. Rather, economic laws are only intellectual constructions that derive their necessity and cogency from themselves and not from the real world. They do not describe “facts” to which public policy must conform. Instead, they are seen as a projection of a neo-liberal ideology that is really nothing more than a disguise for the rich and politically powerful. To put it crudely, and in classical Marxian language, economists are seen just as apologists for certain class interests.

The sociological and political scene is no better in the USA. Since the “Great Recession” and Obama’s election, there has been a rising tide of government control of not only greater parts of economic life, but also greater parts of social life. Social justice warriors have been about calling for the dismantling of organizations and structures that do not meet their conceptions of equality, and those who oppose such dismantling often have been labeled as racists. It might be difficult to recall at this time, but it should not be forgotten that the Obama years led to greater calls to remake the attitudes and practices of ordinary, hard-working Americans. Freedom of association, which includes the freedom of disassociation, has been subjected to greater and greater regulatory control.

Not surprisingly, as Stephen Davies has noted, many folks in the USA have not only found their economic way of life threatened by the so-called advocates of social justice but also the very activities that constitute their way of living and identity. And this is, for sure, a large part of Trump’s success, for he has tapped into a growing sense of frustration by many that their social institutions and habits are threatened by a government that not only regulates them more and more but gives folks no recourse when aliens challenge institutions crucial to their very identity.

Trump is the result of Obama. He is the right-wing response to the left-wing push of the Obama years, and Trump, like Obama, has very little concern for what classical liberals mean by liberty or what free-market economists teach. If state coercion can be used to advance that agenda and interests of one group in society against other groups, then it should not be be surprising to see such power used to advance the agenda and interests of opposing groups when they gain power.

Further, the Democratic Party has now taken the label once usually applied to the Republican Party. They are the stupid party—or at least so far—because they continue to offer candidates that want to double down on the Obama years and continue the practice of rooting out institutions and indeed histories that do not fulfill their view of social justice. Hence, unless there is a serious economic downturn—and there may be—I would bet that Trump will be reelected next year.

Trump’s possible reelection in and of itself does not bother me as much as what I perceive as the lack of intellectual ability and moral courage to challenge the rising tide of left- and right-wing collectivism in the USA. As noted at the beginning of these remarks, this seems to be due to an ever-growing sense that truth is merely intersubjective agreement and that what brings about such agreement is the consolidation of economic and political power. We are threatened more and more by a relativism that provides no checks or standards. It is an acid that not only destroys our ability to provide reasons for what is true and what needs to be done, but it also destroys our very confidence in finding answers or indeed in even thinking that anything is worth the struggle.

Power corrupts, and when there is no real standard by which it can be controlled, then it becomes absolute power that will corrupt absolutely.

I think this challenge can be met, but it seems that we do not have much time.