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May 6, 2008

Freedom’s Power: A New Subtitle (and the Thinking Behind It)

When the paperback edition of Freedom’s Power comes out in August, the subtitle will be The History and Promise of Liberalism. Unlike the original subtitle, The True Force of Liberalism, the new one should make it clear that the book is a history of the liberal tradition as well as an argument about its possibilities.

Here’s my thinking about the change. Many people make an instant judgment about a book from its title and subtitle and never read a word of the text. I wanted to appeal to a broad audience, to put freedom back at the center of liberalism, and to reclaim the idea and image of strength from the right, but the phrase “freedom’s power” carries two primary risks. The first is a mistaken impression of the book’s viewpoint. On seeing the words “freedom” and “power,” some readers may infer the book is conservative. And, second, they may regard the title as mere rhetoric and infer that the book is insubstantial. Both the original and new subtitles clarify the viewpoint, but The History and Promise of Liberalism should help in conveying the book’s substance and seriousness. (I hope it also has the effect of winning more of an audience among historians.)

When I began the book, the working title was “Liberalism and Power,” which I soon realized led to a misunderstanding that I was writing about how liberals could regain power. That misunderstanding would have played into the hands of right-wingers who argue that power is all liberals want. Along the way I tested out various other titles for the book but ultimately arrived at Freedom’s Power because it expresses something important about liberalism that is at the core of the book and that I don’t think other writers have emphasized enough.

Liberalism has an implicit theory of power—that is, a theory about how to create the power necessary to achieve the ends of freedom, equality, and the public good. Constitutional liberalism shows us how a government can be “strong but constrained—indeed, strong because constrained.” And modern democratic liberalism shows us how a more inclusive and comprehensive conception of freedom can contribute further to the overall capacities of a society both to defend itself and to realize its ideals.

Many people will simply read the title Freedom’s Power as referring to the power of freedom—and although that is not the whole meaning, it is not a mistaken interpretation. As I write in the Preface, “The free encounter of conflicting ideas, the methods of organized skepticism, and the system of economic and democratic political competition have been rich sources of knowledge, abundance, and human possibility. They are part of the story of freedom’s power.” But the book is also about the proposition “that freedom requires power in the form of a strong and capable constitutional state … In a sense, the liberal state and its laws are freedom’s power, the indispensable basis of freedom’s survival. Liberalism isn’t just a set of fine aspirations. Historically, it has emerged from the pressures of political conflict, domestic and international, not least of all from the pressures of war. Freedom’s Power, therefore, is about both the power that free societies generate and the power that they demand.”

Did I make a mistake in the title? Is the effort to claim the terms “freedom” and “power” for liberalism too much at odds with the dominant sensibility of “progressives”? Or do people just see the title Freedom’s Power as empty rhetoric? Let me know.


January 10, 2007

The modern liberal theory of freedom's power

Modern liberalism has extended and revised the classical liberal understanding of freedom and its relationship to power. Through various strategies of exclusion and evasion, the classical liberals denied equal rights to unpropertied men, racial minorities, and women. Modern liberals have called for a democratization of citizenship--for equal civil rights and political rights. They have also come to understand freedom as involving a right to basic requirements of human development and security necessary to assure equal opportunity and personal dignity.

To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported an increased economic and social role for the state, but at the same time, they have insisted on stronger safeguards against arbitrary power. Modern liberalism calls, therefore, not just for broader social protections, but also for more robust guaratees of civil liberties and equal rights and greater transparency of governmental decisions.

In addition, whereas conservatives have treated private business corporations as analogous to individuals and deserving of the same liberties, liberals have regarded corporations as a phenomenon of power, requiring control like government itself.

In all of these respects--the extension of democracy and equal rights, the assurance of basic requirements of human development and economic security, stronger protections of civil liberties, and the regulation of business--liberals have come into conflict with conservatives.

So, too, have differences emerged in international relations, where liberals have been more supportive than conservatives of a system of international institutions and norms intended to thwart aggression and war and to protect human rights.

The split between modern liberals and conservatives involves fundamental differences in the conception of freedom and its relationship to equality. But the conflict also involves different theories of power. Modern liberalism has been a way of meeting the demands of power as well as justice. As I put in Chapter 1:

[L]ike constitutional liberalism, modern democratic liberalism seeks to promote
the creation as well as the control of power. Rights for the unpropertied,
racial minorities, and women are not simply a check on the powerful; full
inclusion also promotes a more creative and productive society. The expanded
sphere of state action has enabled liberal governments to contend successfully
with war and other crises and to promote economic growth and stability. In
disciplining the market as well as the state, the central liberal objective has
been not just to circumscribe power in private hands, but also to make the
market more productive within its appropriate scope. A liberal international
order promises to conserve and augment national power as well as properly
regulate it.

In describing these ideas as a theory of freedom’s power, I don’t wish to give the impression that liberals first formulated the theory and then carried out policies consistent with it. Rather, modern liberalism emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a series of ad hoc responses to the challenges of war, economic crisis, social degradation, despoliation of the environment--and political competition. Liberals are committed not just to high ideals, but to making them work in practice. In that sense, “theory” has played a more limited role in liberal politics than it has in the more ideologically driven spheres on both the left and the right.

In speaking of theory, therefore, I mean only to refer to the interrelated political ideas that gradually emerged as characteristic of liberal thought. Liberals continue to disagree about the deeper philosophical basis of these ideas--and some would not admit the creation of power as a relevant consideration. But liberalism would not be around today if the liberal democracies had not satisfied the imperatives of power and overcome the threats of totalitarian regimes and economic collapse. And liberalism will not be around tomorrow if it does not continue to summon the power to meet new threats to our freedom, prosperity, and survival.

Paul Starr

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January 9, 2007

The classical liberal theory of freedom's power

I follow the historical convention of dividing liberalism into two broad phases of development: classical liberalism, dating from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and modern democratic liberalism, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In discussing the classical phase, I emphasize the priority of classical political liberalism--constitutional liberalism--as it was elaborated in the work, for example, of Locke, Montesquieu, and the American founders. Classical economic liberalism--the liberalism of laissez-faire--was largely a nineteenth-century development. Modern liberalism rejected laissez-faire but built on the political foundations of constitutional liberalism.

From its beginnings, rather than simply being antistatist, constitutional liberalism offered a strategy for creating legitimate and effective governmental power. Indeed, the two classical liberal revolutions--1688 in England and 1776 in America--led to the rise of what became successively the two most powerful states in the world. But how did constitutionally limited states ever become more powerful than states with unlimited powers? A key part of the answer lies in the concept of an enabling constraint. As I put it in the Introduction:

By binding those in power, making their behavior more predictable and reliable,and thereby increasing the trust and confidence of citizens, creditors, and investors, constitutionalism amplifies the long-term power and wealth of a state. Constitutional liberalism imposes a further discipline by dividing power within the state and between state and society and requiring public disclosure and discussion of state decisions—all of these serving as limits on the ability of officials to pursue their own private interests and enabling the citizens to control their government. Liberalism wagers that a state so constructed can be strong yet constrained—indeed, strong because constrained. This is the classical theory of freedom’s power.

Chapter 1 adds the following:
[Constitutional] constraints protect citizens from tyranny, but that is not all they do. They also serve to protect the state itself from capricious, impulsive, or overreaching decisions. A central insight of liberalism is that power arbitrarily exercised is destructive not only of individual liberty but also of the rule of law. Limiting arbitrary power encourages confidence that the law will be fair and thereby increases the state’s ability to secure cooperation without the imposition of force. Limiting the scope of state power increases the likelihood of its effective use as well as the ability of society to generate wealth, knowledge, and other resources that a state may draw upon in an hour of need. That, at least, has been the theory of power—of freedom’s power—implicit in constitutional liberalism.

The enabling constraints of a liberal constitution work in a variety of ways. Guarantees of rights, including property rights, enable individuals to plan their lives and make long-term investments. Guarantees that the government itself will abide by its laws make it more likely to repay its debts and enable it to borrow at lower interest rates (a source of advantage to both Britain and the United States at key points in their history). Freedom of public discussion generates new information that makes it more likely that a government will correct its mistakes. The transparency of representative government makes liberal states more reliable partners for other countries and better able to assemble and sustain international alliances.

In other words, it is a mistake to believe that freedom comes only at the expense of power; constitutional liberalism is a method of using freedom to build a society and state capable of exerting immense power. I am not suggesting that liberalism is the only method of power creation or that it will always triumph over the illiberal alternatives. But for the past several centuries, it has been a surprisingly effective strategy for both the creation and the control of power.

The classical liberalism of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, had major limitations. It was not democratic: the great majority of people were excluded from political rights. Although it called for limits on arbitrary power, including equality before the law, classical liberalism left most people without an equal chance in life, and it had no effective means for dealing with the economic dislocations and periodic panics and depressions in an industrializing capitalist economy. These problems threatened the stability and survival of liberal states, Only by overcoming these problems was liberalism able to become the dominant strategy for building successful modern states.

Paul Starr

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