“Freedom” doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
Fifty years ago today, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approached the podium at the original March on Washington, he carried with him a robust sense of what Americans needed to accomplish in order to become a free society. When he stood in Lincoln’s shadow and lamented the “tragic fact that the Negro is still not free,” he was not speaking about a surplus of health care entitlements. When he called for all Americans to be granted the “riches of freedom and the security of justice” he was not concerned that the heirs to their parents’ fortunes might be required to pay a share of those fortune in taxes. Dr. King did not march to get Washington off his back. He marched because he understood that the path to freedom traveled straight through the U.S. Capitol, and that what he labeled the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community” would amount to nothing unless the promise of equality was enshrined in law.
The I Have a Dream Speech is remembered for its soaring rhetoric and for the moral clarity of its vision, but King also came to Washington with a very specific list of policy demands. “We can never be satisfied,” King proclaimed, “as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” And each of these demands were eventually met by imposing an unprecedented degree of federal oversight upon segregated communities and businesses.
The Civil Rights Act ordered private business owners to serve customers they would rather refuse. The Voting Rights Act, as Chief Justice Roberts so recently reminded us, employed truly extraordinary methods to welcome African Americans into the franchise. The Fair Housing Act, which required white realtors and landlords to welcome black residents into historically white neighborhoods, was so controversial in its time that it took the tragedy of Dr. King’s assassination to move the bill through Congress. Dr. King’s dream was built on a foundation of big government. King understood that law and regulation can both lift up the cause of freedom, and the entire nation is better off because he had this insight.
This is not to say, of course, that all government is good. As the victim of Jim Crow laws, King certainly understood the need to be free from an unjust government. But the liberal conception of freedom is both something that the government has an obligation to provide and something that it had a duty not to destroy. One of our greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spoke of four freedoms. Two of these, the freedom of speech and the freedom to worship, are freedoms a just government will not abridge. Yet Roosevelt’s other two freedoms, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear, are enhanced by the domestic agenda Roosevelt laid out in that famous speech — Social Security, adequate medical care and job creation — all provided by the government through reasonable taxation.
Yet this understanding of what “freedom” means and how it must be built has largely disappeared from our political rhetoric. In today’s America, the Koch brothers pour millions into organizations with names like “Freedomworks.” The Club For Growth touts its plan to privatize Social Security and slash taxes on the rich as “economic freedom.” Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) weekly audio program, where he touts his plans to deny health care to millions of Americans, is named “Freedom Minute.” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), with his plans to voucherize Medicare and cut food stamps, contrasts “freedom” with “the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) turns Dr. King’s dream on its head, declaring that segregated neighborhoods and whites-only lunch counters are “the hard part about believing in freedom.”
Though quite unlike King’s notion of “freedom,” this conservative understanding of the word has deep roots in American intellectual history. One of the most influential thinkers of the Nineteenth Century was Justice Stephen Field, who led an economically libertarian insurgency from within the Supreme Court and saw a majority of his fellow justices embrace this vision shortly before his death. Field cared little for racial justice. He voted to uphold segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson and wrote the Court’s opinion endorsing the federal Chinese Exclusion Act. Rather, the driving force behind Field’s understanding of the Constitution was a kind of economic conservatism that would make him a hero of the Tea Party if he were still alive today.
When the United States enacted an income tax applicable to just the wealthiest one tenth of one percent of Americans, Field raged that this “assault upon capital is but the beginning. It will be but the stepping stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich; a war constantly growing in intensity and bitterness.” Similarly, Field was the Court’s leading opponent of business regulation. When Illinois shut down a price fixing scheme used by Chicago businessmen to maximize their own profits at the expense of Midwestern farmers, Field labeled this law a direct attack on freedom — a “bold assertion of absolute power by the State to control at its discretion the property and business of the citizen” — and he fought unsuccessfully to declare the law unconstitutional.
By 1895, Field’s libertarian constitution replaced the Constitution of the United States. In just a few short months, the Supreme Court struck down the income tax, gave its blessing to monopolists, and asserted sweeping new powers to weaken labor unions. Six years after Field’s death, the Supreme Court handed down its infamous Lochner decision, which treated any law improving the conditions of workers as constitutionally suspect due to what the Court labeled “freedom of contract.”
This is the vision of “freedom” so often touted by American conservatives — indeed, Sen. Paul recently held up Lochner as a “wonderful decision” that should guide America’s judges and policymakers today. Freedom, to Paul and other like-minded thinkers, is the freedom to exploit and the freedom to be exploited. And because this “freedom” is rooted in their vision of the Constitution, that means that no law that takes a different view of freedom could ever be enacted.
It’s easy to understand why the modern heirs to Field’s crusade infuse their rhetoric with the language of “freedom” and its close cousin, “liberty.” Freedom and liberty are compelling concepts — Dr. King appealed to these ideals for this very reason. But Field’s intellectual heirs are ultimately advocating for something quite opposite the kind of “freedom” King stood for. Consider the words of Randy Barnett, arguably the most influential libertarian legal thinker writing today, who insists that the Constitution “creates islands of government powers in a sea of liberty.” In this vision, every government action is an encroachment upon liberty. Every law reduces the vast ocean of freedom and fills it with something quite different.
But this vision is absurd. African Americans have more liberty today than they did fifty years ago because government welcomed them into segregated businesses and because government gave them a home in historically white neighborhoods. Seniors enter their retirements free from want and free from the fear that they will be bankrupted by their medical bills because government provides them with a guaranteed pension and a government-run health insurance program. Nearly 45,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance. When Obamacare takes full effect next year, tens of thousands of people will be given the freedom to continue living.
Dr. King understood this essential role that government provides in ensuring freedom, just as he understood that the market is not a panacea for economic injustice. “We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system,” King wrote in his final years of life. “Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.” To meet the market’s failure, King proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.
King entered the national scene as the leader of a famous boycott, and he is often best remembered for the speech he gave 50 years ago today. But he died helping unionized garbage workers obtain decent working conditions and an adequate wage. Between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, he helped America realize a vision of “freedom” that bears no resemblance to the way that word is so often used today. Freedom is not just another word for nothin’ left to lose, no matter how hard conservatives try to pretend otherwise.