Freedom of Thought

Freedom of Thought

Individual freedom may well be a particularly American illusion, but can it be used to support progressive politics?


On the campaign trail in 2012, Barack Obama gave a speech that would launch a thousand super PACs. The subject: individual achievement. Making what should have been a perfectly banal observation—that many of his fellow citizens had become successful through some combination of individual initiative and social advantage—Obama argued, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Pundits gasped. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, which captured the wider handwringing elicited by Obama’s speech, James Taranto declared: “The president’s remark was a direct attack on the principle of individual responsibility, the foundation of American freedom.” For Obama’s many detractors, American politics appeared to have sunk to an unimaginable depth of moral depravity. Then came 2016.

Donald Trump assaulted many norms. He mocked a disabled journalist and a POW. He praised his own genitals, and shared his tips about grabbing women’s. Whereas Obama had walked back his supposedly offensive words, Trump rushed to Twitter to commit his next offense. Here, however, was a man who built things. Forget that Trump’s business credentials included a defunct New Jersey football team, repeat casino bankruptcies, and a brief stint as a wrestling heel. In gilded letters erected across the globe, he had embraced the myth that Obama dared to challenge—that regardless of how many unpaid bills had paved its way, economic success was patent proof of personal responsibility. As Raoul Martinez’s Creating Freedom and Yascha Mounk’s The Age of Responsibility indicate, so long as “personal responsibility” continues to undergird America’s national imagination, there will be many more Trumps in our future.

Of the two books, Martinez’s offers, on its face, a more radical break from contemporary political thought. Creating Freedom takes a simple fact as its starting point: No one chooses to exist. Instead, the human condition is a rude and unforgiving one. It takes shape in a universe that likes to play games but lacks the basic decency to ask the participants if they want to join. Each player is conceived by other players who did not choose to exist themselves, but who, perhaps in an act of cosmic fist-shaking, decided to visit the same fate upon a child.

Throughout life, modern citizens find that every action they take is already subject to an endless run of rules. They move in a body whose basic functions often malfunction, thinking through strategies with a brain that they did not design. No one really knows how to play the game of life—though some players act as referees anyway. What it means to win is still a matter of debate; nevertheless, players usually continue to think it involves adding another name to their roster. Despite this impulse, it’s obvious that some teams get a more favorable start than others.

Such ruminations are wide-ranging, if basic. But in them, Martinez sees a particular insight that contemporary political thought misses. “A sharp distinction,” he argues, “is often drawn between questions of free will and those of political and economic freedom.” On the one side are philosophers and psychologists, who contest the basis for free will by pointing to the idea’s logical incoherence or to facts that undermine it. On the other side are politicians and economists, who extol the virtues of free markets and free individuals choosing freely among goods, services, and beliefs. Neither side has much effect on the rhetoric of the other; nor are the two evenly weighted. All the good arguments and evidence, Martinez thinks, belong to the skeptics of free will.

According to his account, unrestrained freedom is an illusion, one whose hollowness is covered by the intellectual “fig leaf” of personal responsibility. Living in a political culture that obsessively explains the macro by way of the micro, modern individuals take their achievements, unsurprisingly, as entirely self-generated. But peek behind the rhetoric on bootstraps and you’ll see that the emperor of free will is nude. Too bad that all the power rests in the emperor’s court.

This lopsidedness leads to some confounding social outcomes. For instance, educational psychologists often assert that social conditioning and class play a role in divergent schooling outcomes; mainstream politicians, on the other hand, point to individual ambition, merit, and strength of will. In another scenario, cognitive neuroscientists point to the psychological sources of illicit behavior, concluding that rehabilitative prisons like those found in the Scandinavian nations are a more effective and humane solution to crime. The US Supreme Court, however, remains wedded to its decision in United States v. Grayson (1978), which declared that a “belief in freedom of the human will” is the cornerstone of the criminal-justice system, and has countenanced mass incarceration and capital punishment ever since.

Examples abound of such discrepancies between the popular belief in freedom and its hollow reality, many of which Creating Freedom diligently traces and juxtaposes. Martinez’s point pushes Obama’s insight to the hilt: “The kind of responsibility that would make us deserving of punishment or reward, credit or blame, is an illusion.” What many of us perceive as unalloyed individual actions are the outcome of a long series of links in a causal chain. Your promotion at work might have come from sustained diligence and know-how, but those traits developed out of the combination of a quality education, good health, inspiring role models, and more. Or perhaps it was due to the head cold that caused your rival to call in sick the previous week. Or maybe your boss had indigestion the last time he spoke with her. Whatever the reason, you didn’t build that. 

So what can you build? If freedom and, with it, responsibility are illusions, are the Trumps of the world destined to win simply because everyone else is fated to fail? No, Martinez implores: People do make choices. These choices are just more limited than common sense perceives. The experience of selecting between two options on a restaurant menu is real. But so, too, is the fact that you didn’t write the menu. Nor did you choose the economic system that set the prices. You likely didn’t even choose to like the sort of food the restaurant serves. In isolation, our individual choices simply don’t mean much. Such frankness, however, is not fatalism. On the contrary, Martinez argues, it could be the beginning of a radical new conception of freedom.

What exactly this conception of freedom would look like is difficult to discern. While Martinez provides a clear-eyed analysis of the limitations on individual choice, he is fuzzier when he turns to the future politics of freedom. His final chapters do lay out the beginning of a framework, arguing that the United States should democratize swaths of the economy, gear education toward self-development, and make elections more responsive to citizens’ demands. He also cites models like the Spanish corporation Mondragon, which is organized around cooperative principles; the Escuela Nueva approach to minimizing educational hierarchies that Colombia has experimented with; and the “democracy card,” a yearly $50 credit provided to all citizens that can only be spent on funding political campaigns, which has been proposed by the American legal scholar Bruce Ackerman. But these ideas are suggestive at best, and intended to be so. “This book is not the place to look in depth at alternative systems,” Martinez concludes. That is unfortunate: The future freedom that Martinez envisions seems closer to something like self-determination, and such a society won’t come without struggle and a clear vision to inspire it.

Still, the roots of this fight lie in the intellectual terrain that Martinez has covered. For once people relinquish their belief in responsibility, they can begin to cultivate the basis for a new sense of human freedom: empathy. “The problems we face are enormous and each of us has limited time, energy and resources,” Martinez writes. On the basis of renewed social solidarity, Americans might achieve faith in the sort of political experimentation and creativity that an overemphasis on individual success has stunted. Once we stop divvying up society into groups like the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, or “grateful” and “ungrateful” welfare recipients, or along any other moral line guarded by the cudgel of responsibility, then individuals will be more likely to pool the limited resources they have to accomplish collective tasks like fighting economic inequality, racial injustice, and environmental catastrophe. In the process, the significance of each person’s choices might expand, too.

If many Americans fulminated over Obama’s benign comments, and a substantial number venerated Trump’s business “credentials,” how likely are they, as a whole, to trade in the tough love of personal responsibility for the open relationship of social solidarity? The response that Mounk offers to this question in The Age of Responsibility is considerably more measured than Martinez’s.

Over the past 50 years, the meaning of “responsibility” has shifted dramatically. During the Cold War, American political rhetoric was saturated with exhortations of duty. Freedom came at a high price. Citizens had to do more than just ask what they could do for their country; they had to do it, regardless of the cost. While this logic upheld support for the Vietnam War longer than its misguided aims warranted, the idea of responsibility-as-duty also underwrote programs like Medicaid, Head Start, and other postwar liberal initiatives.

By the early 1980s, however, something had changed—even though the language remained the same. Politicians like Ronald Reagan still belted out paeans to responsibility, but the connotation was different. Accountability took the place of duty as responsibility’s synonym; the term’s subject became personal rather than social. “Whereas, in an earlier age, talk of responsibility primarily evoked the individual’s duty to help others, it now primarily invokes our responsibility to take care of ourselves—and to suffer the consequences if we fail to do so,” Mounk laments.

Given the centrality of responsibility rhetoric to American politics, a shift in its meaning was not mere wordplay. Reformers in both parties sought to realign public institutions to match responsibility’s new definition. Nowhere was this more salient than in welfare programs. When Bill Clinton pledged, throughout the 1990s, “to end welfare as we know it,” he was pledging to end responsibility-as-duty, too. The practical thrust of this promise was for the federal government to hand off the administration of welfare programs to state and local governments. Their officials could keep closer tabs on applicants, and they still do: Welfare programs have mutated into Big Brother–esque institutions whose goals appear to be less about helping recipients to collect aid and more about collecting their urine. Prison guards have taken the place of social workers, as jails have filled to the brim with drug-related offenders. Long before Trump’s ascent, responsibility became the justification for punishing others, not caring for them.

While conservative politicians and corporate CEOs have benefited from this moral and linguistic shift, they may not be primarily to blame for it. Mounk instead traces the change to academic sociologists and theorists of the 1970s and ’80s. For example, James Q. Wilson, the political scientist who originated “broken windows” policing, urged criminologists to abandon the search for the social factors that cause crime and focus instead on how to deter individual criminals. Ann Swidler nudged sociology away from structural explanations for behavior and toward less traceable cultural theories. While she admitted that people were born into premade contexts, Swidler thought of culture as a “tool kit” that individuals could use to build meaning—and perhaps businesses. Even John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice (1971) provided a robust defense of political equality, conceded that the duties we owed to others were more limited than previous generations of philosophers had conceived.

The modern-day age of responsibility has brought with it a diminished sense of solidarity in American society. Indeed, this contraction of social obligations would seem to set the stage for Martinez’s rebellion. Once success and failure became wholly of one’s own making, the space for discussing external constraints on individual liberty—poverty, racism, sexism, and other structural issues—largely disappeared. Left in its place was a hollow notion of freedom, one premised on boastful proclamations about personal success and wealth creation, all of which conveniently omit the advantages, big and small, that chance affords the braggart. No wonder Martinez pays few compliments to contemporary notions of freedom and responsibility.

Despite this fact, Mounk doesn’t want to toss responsibility entirely out; the concept has become far too ingrained in the American psyche to dismiss. Plus it has its uses for critics of contemporary politics: Resistance requires commitment, and commitment requires a sense of responsibility. But as we see in Mounk’s book, arguments that deny the philosophical basis of responsibility (which Martinez does by way of surrender) are inconclusive. The belief that we must control every facet of our lives, from birth to death, in order to be responsible for any of it is, according to Mounk, fallacious. An impulse to act is not the same as an endorsement of the action. The Age of Responsibility outlines various theories that eke out a philosophical basis for responsibility in this gap between causality and morality. Yet Mounk ultimately bypasses this metaphysical tangle. Observing that reasonable people disagree about the concept’s ultimate grounds, he urges Americans to return to their former understanding of responsibility-as-duty and set about the practical business of rebuilding the welfare state that once rested on this intellectual foundation.

As history shows, however, responsibility-as-duty proved to be fragile at home—not to mention the immoral wars and foreign-policy actions it supported abroad. Why wouldn’t it do so again? After all, American politicians during the heady days of the Cold War didn’t exhort their fellow citizens just to look out for one another. These proclamations also pressed Americans to keep an eye on the Other: the Soviets, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, or some other ever-present enemy. In this sense, at least, responsibility-as-duty appears to have retained a paranoid afterlife in contemporary US foreign policy. On the other hand, if responsibility can truly take on a social expression, then far more ambitious reforms than merely reinstating the welfare state of yore could be achieved to bolster this sense of obligation. These polices might include a federal job guarantee, a universal basic income, or programs to facilitate worker ownership of businesses. And, perhaps, that sense of a collective destiny can even extend beyond US borders in ways that don’t include prolonged military occupations with unclear objectives and high body counts.

While Mounk doesn’t go so far as to ponder these policies or issues, his philosophy doesn’t preclude thinking about them. Indeed, both Mounk’s and Martinez’s books leave open many questions about what a post-personal-responsibility politics would look like. As frustrating as that might be for a reader, this restraint is ultimately to their credit. If what has made the age of responsibility so punitive is a rigid, institutional enforcement of moral worth, and if this age has proved so enduring because individuals have assimilated these values to judge not only others but themselves, then there can be no easy exit. “The first obstacles to overcome on the path to creating freedom,” Martinez argues, “will always be internal.” For taking this initial step, we’re all responsible.

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