Freedom Fighter?

Joseph W.H. Lough

My Economist just arrived with the post. It bore the caption “Freedom fighter” above a black and white image of Margaret Thatcher peering above my head and clear out into space.

Not that I was altogether too surprised. It highlights one of the reasons why I feel annoyed with the editorial decisions of this otherwise superior weekly. You see, as an historian, I am often deeply troubled by the deficit among my economics colleagues in critical historical reflection. And “freedom” is one of the touchstones that casts that deficit in a particularly harsh light.

You see, the problem is that the editors at the Economist believe that, by attaching this term to Ms. Thatcher, they are making a bold and controversial claim: the Prime Minister who made a quarter of the British workforce redundant, who drove down real British GDP and hastened the flight of world capital in Great Britain from investment in wealth to investment in financial instruments, thereby depressing wages and consumption and therefore production throughout the UK – that Prime Minister the Economist calls a “Freedom fighter,” making no attempt whatsoever to conceal their identification of Ms. Thatcher’s economic policies with the U.S. use of right wing death squads to overthrow democratically elected leaders throughout the developing world.

Controversial? No. Not really. Such claims are de rigueur for the Economist. Yawn.

No. Instead, what the editors have overlooked is how the notion of freedom that they attach to Ms. Thatcher bears no relationship to the canonical understanding of freedom that for well over two thousand years overcame all the odds only to be usurped over the last century by this novel, specious and quite literally vacuous double.

It is novel because prior to the fourteenth century, except among a handful of stray desert ascetics, freedom always bore a substantive and never a purely negative connotation. That is to say, it always carried the sense, brilliantly described by Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, of the conditions that make for freedom, and never the absence of constraint. Freedom in latter sense only arose in the specific context of western Europe’s emerging market society, where markets, rather than serving secondary and tertiary supporting roles to religious, political, and economic institutions, instead came to dominate the latter. As this transformation moved forward, it prompted entrepreneurs to advance the novel position that “freedom” entailed not conditions, but the complete absence of conditions, so that absolutist governments began to enact a sweeping array of laws and regulations designed to monitor and enforce “free” markets against trade groups, religious organizations, political organizations, and other public interests that formerly had played central roles in shaping public space and public policy.

In three short centuries, between 1450 and 1750, western European absolutist governments had, with near complete success, rid western Europe of the economically inefficient and politically cumbersome laws by which their societies had for centuries been governed. According to these now obsolete laws and traditions, freedom consisted of the wealth, leisure, and education universally thought necessary to govern responsibly. Indeed, so powerful were these traditions that even the framers of the US Constitution, while moving in nearly the opposite direction, felt nevertheless compelled to appeal to them in 1783 when drafting their new Constitution. By the time France came to draft its post-Revolutionary constitution less than a decade later, in 1791, virtually nothing was left of the substantive freedoms that had inspired their American counterparts. In France, “universality” was the watchword and “universal rights” and “universal liberties” already bore next to no meaningful relationship to the actual substantive conditions of the individuals who were to assert these rights and liberties before judicial panels whose justices and legal codes were, in any case, blind to such conditions.

Across the Atlantic, in the new United States, constitutional framers had adopted a different model. There, where res publica, “the wealth we hold in common,” was the watchword, public representatives instead set to work ensuring that all individuals with a right to participate in public office would also have the wealth, leisure, and education that would enable them to do so responsibly. This explains why, in contrast to France, where a universal male franchise was granted almost immediately irrespective of wealth, education, and leisure, the United States set up innumerable barriers to prevent either private wealth or public penury from winning a seat in the legislature. Those eligible for office had already to have earned their wealth. Those without wealth were thus prevented from using public office to accumulate it.

Not that this sat particularly well with all Americans. It sat specially poorly with those who had actually carried a rifle (who were not the framers) during the Revolution. But those who today count themselves the guardians of freedom quickly forget – assuming they ever knew – that the enemies of the more substantive, federalist notion of freedom enshrined in the US Constitution called themselves Democrats, not Republicans (although the championed the same vacuous notion of freedom).

Evidently the editors of the Economist are similarly confused. Like their eighteenth century precursors, just as they confuse substantive freedom with the absence of constraint, so they also confuse substance with privilege. We admire Ms. Thatcher for any role she might have played in emancipating the Conservative Party from its wedding to social class and economic privilege. The framers of our own constitution likewise faulted privilege, private law, and the role that it played in preventing individuals from acquiring land, leisure, education, and wealth. But what they did not fault – indeed could not and would not fault – was land, leisure, education and wealth as such. For without land no individuals could reproduce or sustain their own livelihood; without leisure they could not give public affairs the time and attention they deserved; without education they lacked the tools they would need to critically reflect on public policy; and without wealth they could not purchase any of the others.

But what the framers considered the goal, the anti-federalists and Democrats considered the means. Grant us freedom, they cried, and we will take care of the rest; arguing, in effect, that they would use public office to seize the wealth, land, education, and leisure that the framers had won through their private enterprise. The framers, by contrast, had argued that it would be the aim of res publica, of the wealth they owned in common, first to ensure “General Welfare,” as the Preamble puts it, and only thereby ensure the liberty that only substantive freedom can secure.

When Ms. Thatcher deregulated and privatized British society, when she championed freedom as the absence of constraint, she reversed over a century of careful, painstaking, thoughtful public work directed specifically at generating the kind of substantive freedom that might of transformed British society from a society characterized by class and privilege into a true Republic. In the name of the French variety of abstract, vacuous, specious freedom she trampled upon the substantive freedoms of real, concrete working English women and men: the freedom to education, the freedom to leisure, the freedom to a living wage and good health.

Moreover, having confused substance with privilege, Ms. Thatcher no doubt believed that by ridding her Conservative Party of the former, she also delivered them from the latter. When, in ever larger numbers, landless, underemployed, undereducated, unorganized workers began to cast their ballots for her party, Ms. Thatcher no doubt believed that this was evidence of freedom; when, in fact, it was evidence only of a growing lack of substance – a lack of education, land, leisure and wealth.

Yes, to be sure, voters for her Conservative Party were less privileged. But that was not because Great Britain’s social and economic elites had targeted their considerable wealth to the realization of republican values and institutions; not, in other words, because they had decided to use their private wealth to expand Great Britain’s franchise. Hardly.

No. Insofar as freedom depends on the conditions that make for freedom – upon substantive education, health, land, and leisure – Ms. Thatcher actually did more to undermine than to expand freedom.

In this but only in this sense, to be sure, Ms. Thatcher was a “freedom fighter”; not because she fought for freedom, but because she fought against it. Remarkably – or perhaps not so remarkably – the editors of the Economist seem not to know the difference.

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