Friday, September 23, 2011

Liberty and Folkways

I highly recommend this excellent piece by David Fum on how most people define liberty. Frum points out that when people talk about their rights and freedom they are generally not talking about anything so abstract as the rights set forth in the Bill of Rights or any other universal concept. What they mean, ultimately, is their accepted folkways.

The occasion of the post was the City of Chicago attempting to save money on its employee health insurance costs by charging an extra $50 per month unless they engaged in a regular exercise program. On the one hand he found the outraged reaction, treating this as a totalitarian nightmare amusing. On the other hand, he said, there is a serious insight here. When these people say freedom, they don’t mean, say, the criminal procedure protections offered by the Bill of Rights. After all, what are the chances they will ever actually be charged with a crime? Freedom to them means the right to their favored lifestyle, unhindered. And, although he does not add this, probably unchallenged.

On the one hand, I suppose I’ve known this all along. On the other hand, having it put in such stark relief explains a lot.

It’s easiest to understand when the coercive power of the state is implicated. After all, one of the commenters on the thread pointed out, any number of corporate employers do the same thing. And insurance companies may offer discounts for healthy lifestyles. But these meet with less resistance because, after all, you can always find another job or another insurer. But then again, no one forces city employees to work for the city; they are free to take another job, too. It explains the NRA crowd who seem utterly unconcerned about any part of the Constitution except the Second Amendment – nothing else infringes on their folkways. It explains the sense that freedom is being threatened even when the state coercion is very slight – use of taxpayer dollars to build trains and other public transportation, discussion of relaxing zoning laws to allow higher density housing, requiring posting of calorie and nutrition information in restaurants, and so forth. To people who identify a personal car with freedom, who like the quiet and roominess of the suburbs, who don’t want to be nagged about their food, these things feel intrusive even if there is no force involved.* People’s favored lifestyles are being criticized and officially disapproved of. That is intrusion enough.

It may explain part of what is behind Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. In interviews he has argued that nothing Republicans do is as intrusive as, say, a ban on smoking in bars because they don’t seek to impose a lifestyle. (As the Religious Right influence in the Republican Party continues to grow, it will be harder and harder for Goldberg to deny that conservatives, too, seek to impose a lifestyle). It explains the reviewer who said the very embodiment of liberal fascism was Jimmy Carter going on TV in a sweater urging people to turn the thermostat down.

It also explains the hostility and that the sense that freedom is being threatened ever when the coercive power of the state is not implicated – switchboards that say, “For English, press one,” fast food restaurants offering healthy alternatives, store clerks who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and,, of course, any visible (or invisible) presence of Islam. The state is not involved in any of these, and the greatest coercion at stake is having to press one to get English. People make up elaborate PC conspiracies (presumably abetted by the state), but what is really happening, for the most part is that familiar folkways are being challenged and criticized. That feels intrusive enough.

Fum does not explore why this rage over a threat to one’s folkways is so much a right wing phenomenon. Why don’t you year it on our side? Right wingers I assume would say the answer is simple – ours is the officially favored lifestyle and theirs is the one under siege. I think there is something to this. In particular, our side has been highly successful getting part of its agenda, in the form of abortion and gay rights, enacted by the courts. What right wing lifestyle concern (other than gun ownership) has ever been constitutioalized? And our side is, after all, the beneficiary of building trains, nutrition labels, smoking bans, and so forth. But is it all as one-sided as right wingers often think? Their side has been the beneficiary of road building to accommodate more automobile traffic, density restrictions on housing, separate residential and commercial zoning, loopholes in fuel efficiency standards for SUV’s, various privileges given to churches, abstinence education, and so forth. The War on Drugs is a whole lot more intrusive expression of disapproval of a lifestyle than most conservatives will ever know.

I am inclined to think that our side’s reaction is not rage because instead we prefer condescension. We don’t so much reject any other lifestyle as illegitimate as feel smugly superior to anyone who doesn’t share it. And we do treat other lifestyles, such as suburban sprawl and heavy car traffic as social ills to be overcome. I think our side would do well to overcome its self-righteousness and acknowledge that yes, some people like living in suburbs, sprawl and all, and some people equate private cars with freedom and some people feel really threatened when you speak of their favored lifestyle as a social ill to be overcome. Try to imagine how it would feel if someone talked that way (in similarly smug and patronizing tones) about your favored lifestyle. And stop equating your consumer choices as marks of moral superiority instead of, you know, consumer choices.

This being said, not all folkways are worthy. Some really do have to be changed. Frum offers the example of outlawing thatched roofs in Boston in the 1630’s (a fire hazard) and building sewers in New York in the 1840’s (this encountered a lot of resistence!) And, although he does not mention it, a much less benign and amusing example was the resistance to desegregation, often expressed in terms of a threat to liberty. Even unhealthy lifestyles are not purely a matter of personal choice if they raise everyone’s insurance rates (much less are taxpayer subsidized though Medicare). But we are well-advised to keep in mind the extent to which most people do equate freedom with preservation of their folkways – and be sensitive to this before rushing to be too judgmental.



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