Friday, January 08, 2010

John Dewey and Freedom

Schools of education love to quote John Dewey, amongst others. The current issue of National Review has lengthy articles on 4 early progressives, including Dewey, and I thought these passages about freedom speak loudly to us today:

The progressives’ view on this matter is particularly obvious in the scorn they heap upon the free market, an economic system animated by the selfish, and hence base, profit motive, but they viewed virtually every aspect of life in America — e.g. the prevailing interpretation of Christian Scripture and worship of God, the aim and methods of education, the physical layout and architecture of our cities and towns, the pattern of rural settlement and the character of life within it, the use of our natural resources, etc. — in the same light. The way of living inherited from the American founding was, in short, a cesspool of selfishness.

When freedom is redefined in terms of spiritual fulfillment, the “problem of achieving freedom” radically changes. Freedom is no longer secured by constraining government interference with “the liberty of individuals in matters of conscience and economic action,” as Dewey notes, but rather by “establishing an entire social order, possessed of a spiritual authority that would nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.” The problem with limited government — with a government dedicated to securing the natural rights of man — is that it does not perform the more positive role of “nurtur[ing] and direct[ing]” the spiritual lives of the governed. Rather, it secures mere “negative freedom.” “Negative freedom,” Dewey clarifies, is “freedom from subjection to the will and control of others . . . capacity to act without being exposed to direct obstructions or interferences from others.” In practice, freedom understood as natural rights is “negative” because government puts individuals in the enjoyment of their rights (e.g. the right to acquire and use one’s property, to speak, to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, etc.), primarily by restraining others — and, importantly, itself — from interfering with the individual’s right to make such decisions. While interference with individual decision-making is certainly not altogether illegitimate in a limited government, freedom is the normal case and restraint the exception.

At best, Dewey argues, such a government secures to every individual the mere legal right to realize his spiritual potential, a right that for many is essentially worthless...

If mere negative freedom is to be transformed into what Dewey calls “effective” freedom, accordingly, negative government must give way to positive government. That is, the legislative power of government must expand in whatever ways are needed — and hence however far proves necessary — to effect a wider and deeper distribution of the resources essential to the actualization of every American’s spiritual potential. As Dewey presents it, and as subsequent political practice confirmed, this process is basically synonymous with the implementation of the positive conception of individual rights. In this new order, individuals are entitled to whatever resources they need to attain spiritual fulfillment.


The government big enough to give you whatever you think you want or need is big enough to take from you whatever it wants or needs. That may sound like a platitude, but its truth is undeniable.

11 comments:

allen (in Michigan) said...

This is the sort of story that's caused me to come to believe that lefty politics in all it's incarnations, from the watery pink of your average, university English department tweed-wearer right through Pol Pot and Mao, is motivated less by intellect and more, if not entirely, by innate drives.

In our genes might still makes right and lefties express that behavior in all their interactions.

If John Dewey wasn't beating anyone up with his fists it still wouldn't be all that much of a stretch to describe the quoted passage as violence of the intellectual kind.

Being hemmed in by laws that don't allow for the use of violence and a political system that doesn't provide advantage to one set of beliefs over another Dewey resorts to verbal thuggery and an implicit call to arms of all like-minded individuals; people who don't see much point in bandying words with their intellectual inferiors.

mazenko said...

Of course, it's important to remember with your paraphrase of Ford at the end, that he was a true conservative, a Burkean conservative, like Nixon and Kristol and Will. And that is what's missing on the national stage these days.

The problem is that too many "conservatives" are using that quote today in the absence of any practical understanding of government. (That's not meant as a slight on you, Darren. I think you're far more pragmatic).

Hopefully, the tide may shift, and if so, the GOP might have some better candidates. Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush are far superior to Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal. In fact, Crist and Bush are legitimate conservatives.

Not sure what Palin and Jindal are - other than a little confused.

Darren said...

Good to have you back!

I like Palin and Jindal. I'm not sure how conservative Bush is, although I'd prefer him to someone like Huckabee. I'm hoping Mark Rubio bests Crist for the Florida Senate seat.

Honestly, I'm not sure what a "moderate" conservative is. You either believe in lower taxes and smaller government or you don't. You either believe in limited government or you don't.

I understand having to make compromises with the opposition in order to get things done, but compromising too much makes you not "moderate" but "whorish".

Did you read my post on Governor Arnold's proposed state constitutional amendment to always spend more on higher education than we do prisons? That doesn't match any definition of "conservative" that I've ever heard, it's just foolish.

Law and Order Teacher said...

Darren,
Anyone who espouses spending more money, regardless of the destination of the money is not a conservative by definition. The only way to be a conservative is to adovocate spending less for everything. Spending is spending. The government is required to protect us. Other than that all spending is a toss-up.

mazenko said...

What you call a "moderate" conservative is simply one who knows how to govern. He holds principles of low taxes and limited government while still governing. Rather than having contempt for the body he leads, a conservative sees it as "conserving" societal institutions. As I said, Nixon and Ford and Eisenhower, and to an extent Reagan and the Bushes were conservatives - what you'd call "moderate conservatives."

A good place to start would be George Will's "Statecraft as Soulcraft," or most of the early work of Irving Kristol. A conservative knows that taxes can be too high, but they can also be too low. A conservative knows that government doesn't have a spending OR a revenue problem but a spending AND a revenue problem. This is true nationally, as well as in California.

I think the difference is that what you are calling conservative is actually libertarian. Though you do have a little cultural Christianity thrown in there, which can confuse the issue. The libertarian confusion is seen here in Colorado, too, where that mentality has hijacked the GOP. The Colorado Union of Taxpayers has a "pledge" for candidates to never vote for a tax increase. Never. That's just absurd. Especially, during a revenue problem when receipts are down, but the snow is still raising hell with the roads. Hell, Reagan raised taxes six times as president alone. That's because, for all his rhetoric, he knew how to govern.

Darren said...

Reagan also had a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives during his entire tenure. That changes things.

I'll admit to a libertarian streak, but I'm no libertarian--I'm ok with national parks and a military, thank you very much :-) But taxes here in California are too high, and there's no way around it. As I said in another post, our experiment in socialism is crashing down all around us and too many people want to whistle past the graveyard.

Even Keynes said that governments needed to have a surplus so that they could continue to spend at the same or even slightly higher levels during an economic downturn. Our problem now is a political class that whores itself to whomever will pay so we get no fiscal discipline at either the state or national level. This is not, to use a popular word of the day, "sustainable".

mazenko said...

L&A Teacher - you mean libertarian, not conservative.

Darren, he still set the budget and could have cut government in a myriad of ways. He could have cut jobs and departments. But he didn't. Not because he was simply compromising his ideals, but because he knew how to govern.

Government is about more than parks and the military. That's where you get off track from realism. It's not that your taxes are too high - they are too low to fund the programs which your voters and representatives have approved. Taxes can be lower when costs are - but your costs are higher, and because you won't fund them, you have a deficit. At least Ahhhnold understands that, which is why he can govern.

And, of course, it's not socialism, but you and Hannity can keep on confusing the issue if it entertains you.

Darren said...

Arnold hasn't governed, sadly. Economically we're in the same condition we were in when Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold.

California's "spending" problem comes from socialists who promise people "free" health care and the like. It's the legislature that is giving away the productive sector's money to the unproductive sector; yes, the people voted for the legislature, but they didn't vote for each expenditure. But the people have sure voted for some expensive boondoggles thinking that "the government" is paying for them and not the people themselves--a $10B "bullet train" from the Bay Area to LA (projected to cost $40B *if* it were started today) and $6B in stem cell research (as if that's a California issue).

Much like a citizen who's maxed out his credit cards and HELOC--that person has a spending problem, not necessarily an income problem. California isn't poor. It's like Michael Jackson or Nicholas Cage in bankruptcy court.

mazenko said...

California is in the same condition because of revenue problems. The spending is set - and much of it is voter-led referenda, not a legislature ignoring the people's will. If that were the case, the big spenders could be just voted out ... but they're not. It's called representative democracy - and the problem is again revenue. It doesn't take 60% to pass the spending, but it takes 60% to pass the revenue. I think we both agree that a disconnect from reality like that is stupid. You're right in that CA is not poor - but they do a poor job of allocating the money and funding the state. It's really sad.

(Heavy sigh) It's not socialism. Stop letting Hannity and Beck confuse you.

Darren said...

I don't get cable, so I don't watch (or read) either Hannity *or* Beck. There's one straw-man down.

California's legislative districts are gerrymandered beyond all comprehension. Our legislators are safe.

And we have plenty of socialists here who genuinely believe "the government" can and should do whatever they want it to, and that "the rich" or "the corporations" can pay higher taxes to fund it.

Again, it's a *spending* problem, not an income problem. In a recent post I showed how California has among the highest sales, income, and corporate taxes in the country.

If your wife goes out and charges diamonds and pearls, a Lexus or two, and some prime ranch land in Bozeman, it would be silly to say that you have an "income problem" when you can't afford it all. That's what we have in California.

Anonymous said...

mazenko has the cart before the horse. . .you don't set your spending limit before you assess your income. you assess your income and alocate the money based on what you are receiving.

unfortunately, various governments at each level of our nation have chosen to spend money, then figure out how to bring in more money to make up for the spending. . .it's all backwards.

now, you can say that the people voted for it all you want. but if 60% voted for it that means 40% didn't. and therefore, 40% of constituants will be unhappy with the results, let alone the ones with "buyer's remorse" after the fact.

~maia_orual