Summer reading: 'New Threats to Freedom' 

Fusionism is alive and well. Despite attempts to divide and conquer this sometimes delicate coalition of libertarians and conservatives, the bonds are holding. Of course, there's nothing like a statist juggernaut, some troubling trends and a good editor to unite people in common cause.

One such cause is a new book called New Threats to Freedom. I have a chapter in the book so I'm admittedly biased. But I think readers will find editor Adam Bellow has assembled a group of writers who tackle not only the question of what constitutes freedom's subtler and more insidious threats, but the question of what freedom means. Despite its diversity, this group keeps the virtue of toleration intact while challenging the reader in ways that both enlighten him and leave him wanting more.

Indeed, Bellow chose his authors with the artfulness of a good casting director. One can almost hear him thinking to himself as he imagines which writers might work: What would it be like if I put Christopher Hitchens (the atheist) and Mark Helperin (the believer) together and asked them to talk about the same broad theme? Like a game with cellular automata, it starts out deceptively simple but turns out in ways no one can predict. Still, there is unity to the volume--organic unity, perhaps. I think Bellow wanted it that way.
Consider some of the voices and their topics:

  • Christopher Hitchens worries about multiculturalism. Even as intolerant radicalism looms, multiculturalism confuses group rights and individual rights. The former threatens to supplant the latter.
  • Katherine Mangu-Ward warns of a reflexive willingness to give up on Isaiah Berlin's "negative liberty," the idea that freedom is a sphere of non-harm, rather than a state guarantee of fulfilled potential.
  • Christine Rosen observes the reemergence of discredited behaviorism in new strands of socioeconomic thought. Under this view, people are to be conditioned by wiser elites.
  • Robert D. Kaplan laments our twenty-four hour news cycle, especially in its tendency to produce a "populist dictatorship." This mob can destroy critical information, context and connection to longer-term narratives upon which freedom depends.
  • David Mamet happily lets Bellow direct the show while he plays the role of iconoclast, raging against the so-called Fairness Doctrine. 


Heck, there are a slew good writers in this volume. See for yourself. (Many of these folks are my intellectual heroes. To write alongside them means I scratched an item off my bucket list.) 
Glenn Reynolds sees the tea parties as an antidote to complacency. He reminds us that "Complacency, it turns out can't be counted on. When liberties are threated, Americans will still "rise up almost as a natural force, much as night follows day," and that's a very good thing--at least for those outside the political class."  

Consider this eye-opening passage from Chris Norwood, founder of Health People, describing mass dependency--specifically the co-dependence between the welfare-state bureaucracy and its wards:

In many AIDS residences clustered in the South Bronx, for example, the hundreds of "clients" routinely had three, four or five "case managers" -- that is, social workers. There would be a case manager at the residence, another at the medical clinic, another at the drug treatment center, and yet another at the city welfare agency; clients were well advised to keep an endless succession of appointments with all of them lest they be found "out of compliance" and have their benefits suspended. 

What sorts of perverse incentives arise when an army of social workers become dependent on people in need? Norwood suggests its not clear that need creates 'demand' for the entitlement state--but the reverse in fact. 

Elsewhere, Richard Epstein, who quite sensibly cuts the Gordian Knot on the question of gay marriage, asks: "[W]hence comes the state power to license marriage, an institution that long antedates the modern state[?]" I've wondered that myself. If we get the state out of marriage licensing altogether, contracts and civil procedure can address the details associated with "unions" between and among people. Marriage would remain the province of churches and private groups alone, who can make their own rules about same-sex ceremonies.

In any case, solidarity is often an unsavory word for individualists. But that's clearly what we need right now. Adam Bellow offers us a means to lock arms, not just around a common concern, but around an organizing framework of liberty--however vaguely that framework might be sketched by thirty, very different thinkers. I'm reminded of the elephant allegory: Put enough smart, freedom-loving folk around the beast and we'll start to get a pretty good picture.
If I had a critique of the book, it would be that it should be twice as thick. As Michael Gibson writes, he'd like to see more on "democratic sclerosis and the decline of nations, increasing centralization of power, democratic fundamentalism, [and] the church of unlimited government..." Gibson's primary criticism is that "it doesn’t examine the tensions between democracy and liberty." I agree. As honored as I am to have written for the volume, there are so many more chapters to be written: one called "Democracy as Golden Calf;" another called "The Centralization of Happiness;" and another called "The Specter of Keynes." There are just so many threats to freedom.
But in this book, you'll find plenty to keep you concerned and engaged -- until, perhaps, a Volume II comes out.

(Note: I'll be discussing the book tonight on Hugh Hewitt's radio show if you want to tune in.)

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Max Borders

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