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Whose Freedom?
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I'm currently listening to George Lakoff's recent book Whose Freedom? on audiobook. He's a cognitive linguist from UC Berkeley who carries quite a bit of weight in the academic world, and increasingly, in the political realm, where apparently he's taken to advising the Democratic party on strategy. Woe unto them.

Stephen Pinker, another heavyweight in the cog-sci world, weighed in with his own review, which I found good overall, but distracting in that it often strayed from the central points and contained quite a bit of vitriol (not all of which was uncalled for, though).

Basically, Lakoff seems to be saying that most thought is unconscious (which I'd agree with), and that most of that unconscious thought is metaphorical (which I wouldn't agree with). "Freedom" is a complex, abstract concept, he argues, and its shape in American minds is typically defined by one of two competing frames. The liberal (he uses the word "progressive") frame is that of a nurturing parent, while the conservative frame is that of the strict, do-it-yourself parent.

So conservatives are apparently like the dad who throws you in the water to teach you to learn how to swim, while liberals slowly lower you in the water, murmuring words of encouragement along the way.

Lakoff seems to be claiming that there is a battle in the minds of America over these competing frames, and that due to their pervasive influence and control and consolidation of the media, the Republicans are winning the battle. The way I'm reading him, he says that right now Republicans are the better manipulators, and that to win, Democrats need to be better at framing issues. It's not the superiority of the position, it's who's better at framing.

This kind of focus on the strategizing, rather than the merits of the core issues, turns my stomach, so Lakoff has pretty much already lost me.

But Pinker is also right that much of Lakoff's attempts to frame freedom just don't make much sense:

Freedom comes in two flavors. Negative freedom ("freedom from") is the right of people to act as they please without being coerced by others. It obviously must be subject to the limitation that "your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." Just as obviously, freedom sometimes must be traded off against other social goods, such as economic equality, since even in a perfectly fair and free society, some people may end up richer than others through talent, effort, or luck.

Positive freedom ("freedom to") is the right of people to the conditions that enable them to act as they please, such as food, health, and education. The concept is far more problematic than negative freedom, because human wants are infinite, and because many of these wants can be satisfied only through the efforts of other humans. The idea that people have a right to paid vacations, central heating, and a college education would have been unthinkable throughout most of human history. (And what about air-conditioning, or orthodontics, or high-speed Internet access?) Also, my freedom to have my teeth fixed impinges on my dentist's freedom to sit at home and read the paper. For this reason, positive freedom requires an agreed-upon floor for the worst-off in a society with a given level of affluence, and presupposes an economic arrangement that gives providers an incentive to benefit recipients without being forced to do so at gunpoint. That is why many political thinkers (most notably Isaiah Berlin) have been suspicious of the very idea.

Pinker is absolutely right. The notion of "positive freedom", the "freedom to" is unbounded, and thus absurd and useless.

The one useful thing the book has done for me is got me thinking about the delineations between the major political parties based on the notion of freedom.

I don't agree with Lakoff that Democrats and Republicans have fundamentally different ruling metaphors, and thus fundamentally different conceptions of freedom. I think they just happen to value different freedoms more highly than others, and differ in the agency of freedom.

For example, abortion. Democrats see abortion as having to do with the freedom of a woman to make choices about her own body. They see Republicans as trying to restrict womens' freedom by denying abortion rights. But Republicans simply view the developing embryo/fetus as an agent in itself, deserving the freedom afforded to adult citizens to pursue life. Thus, abortion isn't an issue of freedom, but of agency.

When it comes to freedom in political issues, though, both parties want to restrict it, just in different ways.

Republicans want to restrict freedom to:
--Allow particular people to marry
--Believe any or no religion
--Limit drinking, gambling, and speech rights

Democrats want to restrict the freedom to:
--Spend your money the way you want
--Own guns
--Trade within a free market

Republicans tend to be moral police, trying to restrict activity they see as inconsistent with family values. Democrats tend to try to restrict financial and market freedoms, thinking they lead to unfair abuses and too much of a dog-eat-dog mentality. Democrats are interested in a more communal approach to economics, in flattening out the economic bell curve.

These are the things I dislike about each party, that keep me from becoming an out-and-out adherent to either party. And I guess I should thank Lakoff for helping me frame it in terms of the concept of freedom.

Basically I'm in favor of more freedom in traditionally "moral" realms:

--Let gays do whatever the hell they want, including getting married, as long as they're not infringing on my freedoms.
--Strive to keep government entities secular, so that there is no perceived official or national religion
--Loosen up on gambling, drinking, and general hedonism
--Reduce taxes, and thus the size of the Federal government
--Reduce regulations, allow for free trade between nations

It is essentially where I want more freedoms from, as Lakoff puts it. I don't want the government facilitating for me...for the most part I just want it to get the hell out of my way. And that keeps me from neatly fitting into the slot of either a Republican or Democrat.

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