Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the surprisingly formidable aspirant for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, recently told The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza that one idea encapsulates her worldview: "liberty." She elaborated: "That's what inspires me and motivates me more than anything—just the concept of freedom, liberty, what it means. Whether it's economic liberty, religious liberty, liberty in our finances, liberty in being able to choose the profession we have."
It would be easy to dismiss Bachmann's statements as self-serving and hypocritical. Bachmann is obviously hostile to many manifestations of freedom. She first rose to prominence as a Minnesota state senator singularly opposed to gay marriage. She appears to adhere to a religious worldview that is intolerant of faiths not her own. She has been an unabashed supporter of the USA PATRIOT Act and other usurpations of civil liberties that have become endemic in the United States. Moreover, while she constantly rails against government, Bachmann and her husband have sought out and secured government subsidies for their various endeavors.
But on their own terms, there is a logic to Bachmann's stances. And it's worth having some understanding of that logic and, more broadly, of Republican notions of freedom and liberty, because we are going to be hearing those words incessantly between now and November 2012.
The provenance of Bachmann's religiously inspired ideas is far outside the mainstream, even on the right. But her arguments about freedom do resonate with a substantial portion of the GOP base, both in their evocation of what she means by religious freedom and in her largely consensus views on economic freedom.
According to Lizza and other chroniclers of Bachmann's theologically inspired outlook, the Minnesota congresswoman believes that a tightly circumscribed world order is necessary to ward off chaos and evil and to see God clearly. In this view, the only authentic human striving, the one true reason to exercise freedom, is to bring individuals and their consciences closer to God—and not to any god, but the one true Lord and Savior. To the extent that government interferes in the process of reaching God, she believes, it is impeding the most sacred and authentic of human strivings, hence a tyrannical and immoral imposition. In this conception, tolerance of difference, embrace of multiculturalism and the like are affronts to God. They don't constitute liberty, but rather its undoing.
So freedom in this view has a very specific meaning: Only those who embrace the teachings of the Lord can really be trusted to exercise it. From this standpoint it's not hypocritical to insist on freedom while obviously denying it to so many.
Bachmann also professes belief in economic freedom, and her views in this realm are more conventional. The standard view on the right, handed down from Ronald Reagan, is that the more government sticks its nose in economic life, the less free we all are. Government's intrusion in the economy hurts economic efficiency. But more than that, it is an affront to our right as Americans to strive to achieve that which our God-given talents would allow us to attain on our own. In this context, as George Lakoff, a neuroscientist and author of The Political Mind, has argued, for contemporary conservatives freedom means that we are free to sink or swim in the ocean of life's struggles, without the lifeline of government to deny us the right to succeed on our own.
This view of economic freedom has had particular policy consequences on the right. Every form of government support or subsidy to individuals should be replaced with vouchers or set-aside accounts. Government health care is bad, for example, because we should be free to choose to what degree we want to be covered if we get sick. Hence, health savings accounts or vouchers. This is the essence of the Ryan Medicare plan and, to a more complicated degree, of the Affordable Care Act, despite all of the right-wing bleating about it. It also informs GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's recent proposal that we should replace unemployment insurance with unemployment savings accounts so that individuals can set aside—as they see fit, of course—in preparation for possible future job loss.
Just as is the case with Bachmann's evocation of liberty, it takes some effort to deconstruct GOP claims that ideas like unemployment savings accounts constitute freedom in the sense that most Americans would find meaningful. The political observer Corey Robin has said about the Romney unemployment plan: "What's so astounding about Romney's proposal ... is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that?"
In other words, one might argue, a world of vouchers, set-aside accounts and the constant burden of wading through myriad impossible-to-understand insurance forms while haggling over them with indifferent bureaucrats, is not freedom, but very nearly its opposite: a constraint on our ability to attend to the things that matter most in life—family life, friendships, time to actually do one's job well, to relax a little bit. In this regard, it's noteworthy that of all the wealthy nations, only in ours, the freest of all countries, is there no federally guaranteed vacation time. And we have far less of it in actuality than citizens in other wealthy nations. For the right, this fact defines freedom. But I am not so sure most Americans would concur that they feel liberated by our relative lack of time off or our longer work hours.
And as Robin notes, the rich don't have to actually engage in the liberatory practices that a world of individual accounts would entail, since they have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants and so on to deal with all of that.
It's fair to observe that these two notions of freedom—one religiously inspired, the other of secular, "libertarian" vintage (though with its own religious roots dating back to Adam Smith)—sit uneasily, or incompatibly with one another. But there is one clear, connecting thread, even if it's not advertised as such by party leaders. Freedom, according to both strains predominant in the GOP today, is a privilege. In other words, whether because of heavenly blessings or merit or some combination thereof, those individuals who thrive in American society ought to be free to do so unencumbered, because in some fundamental sense, they've earned it. Therefore, to burden them with the responsibility of helping their lessers is an impermissible intrusion on a natural, or divinely inspired, order.
If our moral or meritocratic betters wish to be generous and charitable, that's great, of course. But it's ungodly or un-American, or both, to impose upon the deserving the obligation to help those who, either because the divine plan did not work out for them or, due to their lack of talent (usually framed as lack of effort and drive), cannot achieve all that a great, God-, or free-market-fearing society has to offer.
So when the Bachmanns, Romneys and Perrys of the world talk about their love of freedom on the campaign hustings, it's worth keeping some of these meanings in mind.