Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t*

A propos our discussion of libertarianism, birth control, and women’s autonomy, this, from Benjamin Franklin (A Conversation About Slavery), seems relevant:

You Americans make a great Clamour upon every little imaginary Infringement of what you take to be your Liberties; and yet there are no People upon Earth such Enemies to Liberty, such absolute Tyrants, where you have the Opportunity, as you yourselves are.

It’s hardly unprecedented in the American experience for the greatest cries of liberty to be heard among those who would most deny it to others.

*Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t is the title of a wonderful book about jazz and the civil rights movement by my friend Scott Saul. It’s got no real connection to the theme of this post; I just liked the title and wanted to plug Scott’s book. And plug Scott, too: he’s currently working on a biography of Richard Pryor, which is going to blow your mind. If you want to get a taste of Scott’s writing, check out this essay he did in Book Forum on the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana in 1979. I’ve read it about ten times; every time, I see something in it I hadn’t seen before.


  1. Vance Maverick February 25, 2012 at 12:27 am | #

    Garbled http address in the BookForum link — easy enough to edit….

  2. Krishan Bhattacharya February 25, 2012 at 6:20 am | #

    You do know the joke about the Jonestown massacre, don’t you?
    Oh that’s too bad. I’d love to share it with you but the punch line is too long.

  3. s. wallerstein February 25, 2012 at 8:32 am | #

    I still can’t get the link to work.

    Maybe my computer is too slow?

  4. casino implosion February 25, 2012 at 8:33 am | #

    David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed”, has a great section about the “Cavaliers” of Virgina dealing with this peculiar Southern notion of liberty.

  5. Shane Taylor February 25, 2012 at 9:05 am | #


    With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

    The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.

  6. Freddie February 25, 2012 at 9:55 am | #

    It’s always important, when discussing libertarianism, to remember the extraordinary influence that the major think tanks and funding apparatus have within the ideology. Libertarianism is extremely over-represented in political media and blogging relative to the number of its adherents in America writ large. In part, that’s because libertarianism attracts exactly the kind of college educated, white intellectuals that are most likely to become politicos. But it’s also a function of the funding advantage that these think tanks and media organizations provide. Libertarian writers provides an intellectual justification for the corporate agenda; the people who profit from that agenda provide a livelihood for those writers.

    The problem is that your average libertarian blogger cares more about the social side of libertarianism than those who underwrite the libertarian enterprise, at least ostensibly. I mean, the Koch brothers, who are major funders of organizations like Cato and Reason, don’t really give a shit about civil liberties for women. They just want someone out there dreaming up a moral justification for their rapacious business interests. There’s too much to lose for your average libertarian blogger to really vocally support a liberal organization like Planned Parenthood. So when push comes to shove, those supposed socially liberal commitments are the first to go out the window. It’s precisely why Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey were pushed out the door at Cato for apostasy, and it’s why someone like Matt Welch is forever firing people for a lack of pro-corporate bona fides. Being well-funded is an advantage, but it comes at a cost to autonomy.

    Of course, libertarians also tend to freak out when you bring up the Koch brothers or Peter Thiel or the other plutocrats that fund the ideological apparatus. But, I mean, the Kochs founded Cato and sit on the board at Reason. They’re sensitive to the criticism precisely because its apt and relevant.

    • Corey Robin February 25, 2012 at 10:15 am | #

      I’ve been trying to make a similar argument re WW. And in his case, it’s even more interesting. B/c he’s not just about pushing the social liberal side of things; he’s also in favor of certain forms of transfers that would make the situation of the poor more tolerable. No social democrat or anything like that, but just some modest transfers to make libertarianism a reality, as it were. Or closer to a reality. And he’s basically admitted it’s a failed project within libertarianism.

    • Matt Welch March 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm | #

      Freddie — What you just said about me is a bald-faced lie. I have fired exactly one person from Reason, and “lack of pro-corporate bona fides” had exactly zilcho to do with it.

  7. Josh K-sky February 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm | #

    Thanks for the update on Scott Saul, whom I remember fondly from my AmStud days. I’ll have a sip of that Kool-Aid.

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