Corey Robin on the politics of freedom

Freedom is a keyword in American politics, writes Corey Robin in the Nation. It lies at the centre of every successful political movement from the abolition of slavery, to civil rights and feminism. The secret of conservatism’s success is that it identifies freedom with market and constraint with government:

Instead of confronting the allure of the free market, as conservatives understand it, liberals have tried to co-opt the discourse of traditional values. Painting themselves as the new Victorians, they’ve claimed, We stand for thrift and family, God and country. We put people to work rather than on welfare. We don’t spend recklessly; we reduce the deficit. We provide security: not just the physical security of cops on the street, crooks behind bars and troops in Afghanistan but the economic security of shared risk and protection from risk. We stand for responsibilities over rights, safety over freedom, constraint rather than counterculture.

This strategy might have something to recommend it if it worked. But it hasn’t.

Robin argues that liberals "must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom." It’s an idea philosopher Elizabeth Andrerson explored in a 2005 post on ‘contract feudalism’. In the US some employers have tried to ban their workers from smoking, not just at work, but also at home.

How does it advance the cause of liberty to allow employers to control their employees’ behaviour off the job? For Anderson this isn’t about some inalienable right to smoke, there’s a principle involved — "it’s the right to conduct one’s life outside of work independently of one’s employer’s arbitrary will."

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