For many—perhaps most—Americans, the meaning of freedom can be found in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, our hallowed Bill of Rights. Penned to secure ratifying votes from states wary of a strong central government, the Bill of Rights enumerated the protections citizens could expect to enjoy in their new nation. Born, as it was, of political revolution—the rejection of “repeated injuries and usurpations” resulting in “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States”—the Bill of Rights seeks to ensure the autonomy of the individual and curtail the coercive power of the state. Indeed, this aim has come to define freedom—“the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action,” as Merriam-Webster has it.
For all its centrality to Americans’ identity, however, the Bill of Rights represents but one understanding of freedom. As figures as disparate in time as Frederick Douglass and Cornel West, Sarah Grimké and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, know, the meaning of freedom in the United States has always been contested ground sprouting with contradictions. At a spring fair in Baltimore, Maryland, three bloody years into the Civil War, President Lincoln addressed the crowd in his thin tenor voice: “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” As historian Eric Foner puts it in The Story of American Freedom, “Freedom has always been a terrain of conflict”: To control the meaning of freedom is to control “our master narrative.”
When it comes to the vicissitudes of freedom, the work of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin provides a useful rubric. Born into a Jewish family in the Russian Empire in 1909, Berlin emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he would attend, and later be appointed lecturer at, Oxford University. It was at Oxford, in 1958, that Berlin delivered his seminal lecture Two Concepts of Liberty, a work that sparked widespread and ongoing debate regarding the meaning of “freedom” and “liberty” (two terms that I, following Berlin, will use interchangeably). Berlin recognized that it’s easy to praise, as everyone across the political spectrum does, freedom. But praise means little when, “like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, the meaning of this term is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.”
To clarify the debate, Berlin proposed two overarching versions of liberty. The first, so-called “negative” liberty, tracks with the Merriam-Webster definition above. It is what is conferred by the Bill of Rights: freedom from coercion, especially by an overbearing state. This is the liberty that animates and guides the work of most commentators on the political right, from David Brooks to David Frum (though they often fail to contend seriously with the coercive power of private employers). At times the left has also embraced negative liberty, for instance in their defense of people’s right to love, and marry, whomever they wish.
But today, the state is no longer (if it ever was) the primary threat to the lives and livelihoods of Americans. Rather, that threat rests in an entrenched economic elite that, by virtue of its considerable political power, has insulated its gains and consigned millions of Americans to poverty and economic precarity. Unconscionable wages, persistent unemployment and underemployment, vanishing social programs, zero say in the conditions of the workplace and the economy at large—these are what constrain choice for the contemporary American. All too many Americans today are “free” only in Marx’s double sense: free to sell their labor power for whatever they can get for it—or free to starve.
To see that poverty and economic insecurity are policy choices, some simple arithmetic will suffice. Here, we can look at the nation’s wealth, which consists of the cumulative assets people across the country own minus the debts they owe. If those riches were distributed equally, each and every adult American would have roughly half a million dollars in wealth to their name. No, we wouldn’t be millionaires, but we wouldn’t be doing too shabby, either.
America’s riches, of course, are not distributed equally—not even close. For any one of Jeff Bezos’s employees to catch up to his net worth, they would have had to stash away their entire income since the Pliocene Epoch, some 4.5 million years ago. Today, more than one in ten Americans are in poverty, and tens of millions more are just one car repair, one emergency room visit, or one layoff away from joining them. This economic precarity fundamentally denies people the ability to lead free lives—to be who, and to do what, they have reason to value.
Which brings us to the second flavor of freedom in Berlin’s taxonomy: positive liberty. For Berlin, positive liberty was not freedom from, but rather freedom to. Specifically, positive freedom is about freedom to have access to life-enriching essentials, like the right to an education through a public schooling system, the right to books through a robust public library system, or the right to life-saving medical care through a truly accessible universal health care system. An Oxford philosopher of an earlier generation, T.H. Green, was more forceful. He believed positive liberty to be liberty, full stop. According to Green, “the mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes, is in itself no contribution to true freedom.” Instead, true freedom, for Green, rested in the “positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying,” and it was “the business of the law of the state” to provide the means to realize this power.
The young nation was well positioned to enact a positive vision of freedom—at least for white men—and indeed many, including Thomas Paine, perhaps the most progressive of the founders, fought relentlessly to realize both democracy and economic equality—for the two, he believed, were inseparable. Democracy required economic freedom, and economic freedom was essential to ensure all “equality of opportunity and results.” This meant that all deserved to feast on a share of the nation’s wealth. For Paine, this was not about charity, but people’s birthright; economic security was precisely what democratic societies owed their citizens.
With neoliberalism’s triumph in the 1980s and ‘90s, negative freedom has become the version of record. But rather than cede the field to the right—which reduces freedom to unfettered markets with a side dish of white nationalism—progressives must remind Americans of the more capacious and affirmative freedom articulated by the likes of Paine. They must offer ideas to realize an alternative vision of American freedom, one that confers Green’s “positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying.”
One such idea is a binding enumeration of the positive liberties Americans ought to enjoy: an economic bill of rights.
Although it can be dated to the very first threads of the fabric that wove the nation into being through the likes of Paine, Hamilton, and Lincoln, the notion of a second, economic bill of rights formally entered the American conversation nearly a century ago. With the tide turning against the Axis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt devoted his 1944 State of the Union address to the U.S. government’s postwar priorities. Having led the country through the Great Depression, Roosevelt was acutely aware of the ravages of poverty; and having seen the rise of fascism in Europe, he recognized that economic want could lead to unimaginable horrors. His solution was a new doctrine of American freedom, one that dispensed with the canard that the “free market” would deliver material comfort to all—the Hoovervilles of the 1930s had done as much already—and that guaranteed, as a matter of law, economic security. For, as Roosevelt told the nation, “Necessitous men are not free men.”
Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights included the right to a well-paying job, a sound home, a robust education, protection in old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and more. For Roosevelt, true freedom centered around freedom from want—one of his famed Four Freedoms, which he had laid out three years before in the 1941 State of the Union address. And if he had to rewrite the rules that governed the economic order to achieve that goal, then so be it. “Economic laws are not made by nature,” he reminded his fellow Americans. “They are made by human beings.”
Such a rewriting is not only still possible, but essential. A contemporary economic bill of rights, designed to meet Americans’ needs now, would actually provide what neoliberalism promised and so resoundingly failed to deliver: the freedom of people to make meaningful choices in their lives, to participate fully and equally in society, and to achieve their full potential—and that of our society.
Realizing economic rights will require embracing a more active role for the government in creating and steering economic activity. This means making the economy subservient to society, ensuring that economic activities are directed to promote human flourishing rather than allowing corporations, which are essentially private governments, to rule the day simply for the sake of amassing outrageous fortunes. This level of government involvement in the economy is far from unprecedented. During the dark days of the Great Depression and the planned economy of the war years that followed, the government—the people—collectively pulled one another up by their bootstraps by legislating shared prosperity and a more equitable economy. For example, in 1934, Harry Hopkins, the social worker tasked with leading the Civil Works Administration, put 4 million Americans to work—improving the nation’s infrastructure, beautifying common spaces, creating essentials for people too poor to buy them—in just 60 days. There was no waiting for “market corrections” or “business cycles” to ensure all had adequate employment, as Hopkins famously quipped: “People don’t eat in the long run—they eat every day.”
In addition to direct provision, an economic bill of rights would institute new bounds on markets, setting reasonable floors to ensure a true social minimum—a federal job guarantee, for example, which would provide jobs at living wages and with meaningful benefits, would force private employers to compete—as well as ceilings through taxation that would implement hard limits on income and wealth. Such measures, which I explore at length in my new book, The Ends of Freedom, would embed the economy in our democratic process while working toward true emancipation. In short, delivering economic rights, including the right to an education, the right to housing, the right to a union, and more, would give rise to a well-being state that prioritizes providing people with the freedom to choose their path.
An economic bill of rights can function as a North Star for those seeking to reclaim a more robust and meaningful conception of freedom with deep roots in the American tradition and progressive movement. But as Roosevelt, and later Martin Luther King Jr., along with the authors of the Freedom Budget, long argued, actually delivering economic rights and the freedoms they convey requires more than a vision; it requires policy.
One may be skeptical that now is the right time to reclaim freedom and put more demands—the right to housing, the right to pre-K and college, the right to a union, and more—on the table. After all, the rights many of us already enjoy—our civil, political, and reproductive rights—are already coming under unrelenting attack. But freedom is not won by playing defense. Democrats are waking up to this fact, as can be seen in the positive embrace of freedom from the likes of Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro and even President Biden, who has made defending freedom a focus of his reelection campaign. But the meaning of freedom is still up for debate, which is precisely why progressives must articulate, and fight for, a positive alternative, one that delivers on the fundamental principles America was built on. And core to that vision must be the freedom from want. “For freedom from want,” as the authors of the Freedom Budget wrote, “is the basic freedom from which all others flow.”