Friday, July 21, 2017

Flavors of Freedom

What David Brooks meant to say ("Republicans Can't Pass Bills"):
Freedom is like ice cream: it comes in many different flavors. For example, you can have freedom in the future or you can have it right now.
Freedom in the future is what philosophers whose names escape me refer to as "freedom as capacity". Thus you should encourage your friend to practice the piano hard, which will increase his piano-playing capacity. In the same way you should feed your kid nutritious meals, make her do her homework, and see that she plays sports and performs volunteer work, so that she will have the capacity of getting into the college she likes. 
I have no idea how philosophers refer to freedom in the present, so I'll call it "freedom as detachment", which sounds kind of Buddhist but is not. This is when you let people alone to do what they want, based on the belief that people are freer when they are unimpeded. It is defined as a kind of absence—the absence of obstacles, stumbling blocks, speed bumps, and things that get in the way.
Back in the day, when the Republican Party used to be interested in running the government, it embraced both flavors of freedom, but its congressional priorities were all about freedom of capacity. When you consider the party's major legislative accomplishments since 1988, you can see it working to provide people with more capacities.
For example, in 1990, when Democratic majorities in the Senate and House passed Tom Harkin's Americans with Disabilities Act over the opposition of the Association of Christian Schools International, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Republican president George H.W. Bush was willing to sign it. This totally illustrates my point, because "ability" and "capacity" are synonyms, I think.
Arguably even more Republican was the welfare reform of 1996, which forced welfare recipients to get jobs so that they would develop the capacity to get jobs without benefits when their welfare benefits hit the time limit. And then in 2003 there was Medicare Part D, which gave older Americans the freedom to buy insurance that would cover their drugs if they spent less than $2,970 or more than $4,750 and gave pharmaceuticals manufacturers the freedom to set their prices without any kvetching from pointy-headed government bureaucrats.
These programs acted in a positive way by widening people's options. They had the same aims for society as the Democrats—getting people more health care and less poverty—but in a less top-down manner, sometimes, I mean at least in the Medicare thing as it affected drug companies. I don't mean to say Democrats hate freedom but you can draw your own conclusions.
But in the last few decades—I don't have my calculator, how many decades has it been since 2003?—Republicans have abandoned the freedom-as-capacity flavor and become exclusively devoted to the cult of freedom-as-detachment. They have become the Party of Let Me Alone and Drown Government in the Bathtub.
Philosophically you can argue that this was a good idea, but politically speaking it has led to problems. For example, the Republicans have not passed a single major program in I don't know how long. Nor have they gotten rid of any programs, entitlements, or agencies. Now, in the most humiliating defeat of all, they have failed to reform health care in spite of controlling all the levers of power, and there no longer seems to be any normal legislative process at all.
My novel and adventurous idea is that this is an intellectual problem. The freedom-as-detachment philosophy is too negative. Apparently if you don't want government to do anything there is some danger that it might do nothing........
Hey, ya think?

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