Arguments

David Brat Would Like to Share Some Thoughts on Freedom

David Brat has a few thoughts about freedom and American history.

By Nathan Pippenger

On Monday, I wrote about David Brat’s 2011 article on capitalism and usury. The post focused on Brat’s badly distorted account of the financial crisis, but as I said, that’s hardly the weirdest part of the article. Even more revealing (and disturbing) is Brat’s take on American history.

It’s tempting to say that Brat’s history is the standard Tea Party narrative, only more so, but that would be too simple. Precisely because Brat is better-educated and more intellectually sophisticated than many other Tea Party politicians we’ve seen, I want to suggest that there’s something besides simple flag-waving going on in his thinking. To be sure, Brat never strays from the basic line that things were great before Wilson (and especially FDR) came along. Under the Founders’ plan, Brat declares flatly, “individuals were to be free to pursue their own goals. They were not allowed to interfere in the goals of others.” His lone qualification, which doesn’t appear until the next paragraph, reads as follows: “this basic social contract fit the times, with notable exceptions (i.e., slavery).” Indeed.

Given what follows, the reader might be grateful that Brat gives any qualification at all. Slaves at least play a bit part in his great American drama; women, Native Americans, and non-propertied white men are left out entirely. This is important context for what follows, when Brat asserts that “severe cracks are emerging in the body politic”:

[Tea Partiers] note that as we have voted for higher and higher taxes, the initial vision of liberal America has been lost. Liberty is lost. We now have rights to health care, welfare programs, retirement benefits, thirteen years of education, and unemployment benefits. And there is not an item you can think of that is not regulated by the Federal Government. These positive rights bring benefits to many, but the new wrinkle is that someone else must pay for the benefits that are received. We have continually voted to force some to pay for the benefits of others. That is likely the key issue and the key line in this essay, and the one line that animates our current conversation on capitalism. A key line in ethics has been crossed. Morality, as traditionally conceived, allows the moral actor free will when making ethical decisions. It appears that we have left the realm of morality and entered the realm of power politics with the expanding role of positive rights.

Yes, it is indeed strange that the Founders didn’t envision a right to health care at a time when medicine hardly existed; or retirement benefits in an era where the average male life expectancy at age 20 was about 41. Since the country hadn’t yet industrialized, a system of unemployment benefits designed for modern wage-laborers would have been prescient indeed. And since the Founders saw education as a requirement for effective political participation, it would have been quite odd for them to guarantee and fund it for whole classes of people—including blacks and women—who they never imagined participating in political life. Brat’s got a point: if you ignore nearly every development in American history since the 1780s, this is all quite baffling.

There’s an ethical angle to this as well, and it merits comment. To wit: Brat portrays antebellum America as a paradise of liberty, writing that only in the era of the welfare state has “a key line in ethics been crossed.” Now, he writes, we are the subjects of power politics. The “live and let live” ethic is extinct, and the tax code coerces citizens into supporting welfare benefits, public education, and more. This dawn of positive rights heralds the decline of free will in political life. In other words, Brat’s view is that freedom flourished in American politics while women were trapped in the house and African-Americans in slavery—but now it’s in decline. This is the sick moral argument usually left implicit in Tea Party rhetoric. It’s worth bringing out in the open.

Amazingly, there’s more to explore in this lone article. I’ll have more on Friday about the tacit political philosophy (and lurking paranoia) in Brat’s account of democratic politics.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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