How Sen. Mike Lee Could Improve His Pitch for Freedom

The fiscally conservative Republican, a sometimes friend to civil libertarians, would be more persuasive with less muddled rhetoric

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It's time to talk freedom with Sen. Mike Lee. The Utah Republican is author of a new book, The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Government. Interviewed Tuesday on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, he laid out his account of American history:

The Revolutionary War wasn't just about getting rid of a king. And it wasn't just about taxation without representation. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were subject to tyranny, under the oppression of a large, distant, national government. I think a generation came away from that experience with the very real understanding that tyranny lurks and presents its ugly head under the banner of large, national governments. And so that's why, when our founding fathers put the Constitution together, they went out of their way to make sure that our national government would have only a few limited powers... including national defense, immigration, weights and measures, regulating trade between the states, declaring war, and just a few basic other powers.

And if you look at our acquisition of debt in this country, if you look at the era in which individual liberty has been most eroded in this country, it has occurred over the last 70 years, since the New Deal era really went into full swing, when our federal government started ignoring those Constitutional boundaries about what Congress is supposed to be doing.

This won't due. America's indebtedness and deficit spending alarm me. I wish that the federal government would intrude less into American life, the commerce clause ought to be reined in, and I am all for adherence to the constitution. But an effective advocate for liberty must do better than a dubious narrative that has the Founders rebelling against something that resembled the New Deal and freedom peaking in the years just before Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought its alphabet soup of programs into American government.

A persuasive account of freedom must acknowledge that America is a much freer place in 2011 than it was in 1930. Freer for women. Freer for ethnic and religious minorities. Freer for gays and lesbians. Freer for the handicapped. Freer for having an all volunteer military, the ability to legally purchase alcohol, access to contraception, literature that is never banned by censors, and technology that has facilitated freedom of association. Tell the average American people were freer back then.

She won't believe you. 

A persuasive account of freedom must also refrain from conflating it with adherence to the U.S. Constitution. It is prudent to adhere to that document. Doing so is an important bulwark against lost liberty, and a legal requirement.

But it's possible for freedom to be expanded through unconstitutional or unlawful behavior, shortsighted as it is to do so, and constitutional behavior can reduce freedom. Were Congress to declare war on North Korea, re-institute a draft, and send every male between the ages of 18 and 45 to go fight the country, jailing all who refused, it would be legal, and wouldn't violate anyone's constitutional rights. But it wouldn't be freedom maximizing for the men involved.

Actually making the case that freedom should be expanded, that economic freedom is important, and that certain aspects of the federal government unduly reduce our freedom is much harder than invoking the Founders and the Constitution. If it were that easy, the people doing so would've triumphed long ago -- it isn't as if there's any shortage of their rhetoric. And if you soberly looked at the eras when individual liberty was most eroded, you'd come up with the Alien and Sedition Acts, slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears,  the Espionage Act, and the Japanese internment, just for starters, before you got to FDR's New Deal programs.

In that telling, it sure seems as if war is the biggest threat to American freedom. And to Sen. Lee's credit, he's been an opponent of extending the Patriot Act. As I said, I favor cutting federal spending, reducing the federal role in national life, and coming closer to balanced budgets. But Sen. Lee's account of freedom is too clumsily and narrowly drawn for my taste, and incapable of explaining the fact that we're more prosperous and free than the Americans of seven and eight decades ago, even though our federal government is many times bigger. Lee is a former clerk to Judge Alito, friendlier than a lot of senators to civil libertarian concerns, and well-versed in history. So even in his talk radio pitches, I insist that he can and should do better.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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