If the American Left believed in sainthood, they would have resolved to beatify George Lakoff by now. They adore the Berkeley linguist as an intellectual hero. His brilliant innovation, as they see it, has been to harness the power of cognitive science to unlock the mysteries of conservatism — that dreaded mental disorder that plagues the brains of half the country.
Outside of academic circles, Lakoff first made a name for himself by explaining how the right wing has used mind tricks and manipulative language to dominate American politics. It is he who is chiefly responsible for the Left’s recent obsession with the terminology of “framing.” On any day of the week, you can read throughout the ranks of left-wing bloggers the following fervent incantation: “We need to reframe the debate.” This already-trite new jargon apparently expresses nothing more than the old truism that arguments can be made more or less appealing depending on the way they are presented. Lefties have become strangely fixated on this basic idea, perhaps because it offers a comfortable explanation as to why they have been losing so many arguments and elections lately: It’s not that their ideas are tired and discredited; it’s just that they haven’t been so good at “framing the debate.”
Lakoff’s approach to politics makes him a pioneer of what might be called “clinical liberalism.” Instead of engaging conservative arguments directly and seriously on the merits, he treats conservatism as an affliction that needs to be cured. Thomas Frank took a similar approach in his recent book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, in which he essentially took it for granted that Republican policies are bad for most people, and then puzzled over why these people continue to vote for Republicans anyway. One way to resolve this paradox is to divide conservatives into two rough taxonomic categories: the small elite of evil geniuses who spend their days spinning sinister plots, and the masses of ignorant dupes who can be tricked into following them. Conservatives can thus be diagnosed as either evil or stupid — masters of sinister language manipulation, or hypnotized victims of it. In either case, Lakoff wants to conclude, their ideas can be dismissed out of hand.
Lakoff’s latest proposed cure for the common conservative is on display in his new book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. Reading it, one has to struggle mightily to suppress the impression that the author is an intellectual charlatan who specializes in passing off banalities as genuine insights. The book is a conceptual muddle, with a persistent strand of historical inaccuracy; Lakoff’s popularity is an indictment of his admirers.
A few short sentences from the book capture Lakoff’s central argument: “Freedom and liberty are progressive ideas that are precious to Americans. When the right wing uses them, it sounds as if aliens had inhabited, and were trying to take possession of, the soul of America. It is time for an exorcism.” Lakoff is thus claiming that leftists are the guardians of the traditional American idea of freedom, and that conservatives are using their dark arts to try to trick the American people into embracing a new and dangerous definition of freedom.
Lakoff is mercifully clear in explaining what his “progressive” conception of freedom includes: “Freedom is being able to achieve purposes,” he writes, “either because nothing is stopping you or because you have the requisite capacities, or both.” He elaborates with a barrage of italics: “Freedom is the freedom to go as far as you can in life, to get what you want in life, or to achieve what you can in life.” This, he explains, means that freedom has a significant positive component: “Freedom requires not just the absence of impediments to motion but also the presence of access. . . . Freedom may thus require creating access, which may involve building.” What Lakoff is describing, in other words, is a type of “positive freedom,” in the sense that it requires the provision of certain goods and services to citizens to ensure that they have the capacity to achieve their goals. On this view, you aren’t “free” unless you have been provided with what you need in order to be successful.
To illustrate this concept, Lakoff considers what it would mean to have the freedom to “pursue a career as a visual artist.” Among other things, he says, you would “need access to an art school to develop your talent. That means a school will have to have a place for you, you will have to be admitted, you will have to have the money to attend . . . In short, the freedoms required to pursue a particular purposeful life may be extensive.”
“Extensive” is a fitting word for what Lakoff advocates in the name of freedom. For the sake of “freedom from want,” he deduces the necessity of “Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, public housing, homeless shelters.” To secure “freedom from harm via disease, unhealthy food, and dangerous pharmaceuticals,” he calls for “food inspectors, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control.”
By the time Lakoff gets to this point, it hardly comes as a surprise that his conception of “freedom” has boiled down to nothing more than a left-wing wish list of big-government programs. As you wade through his book, you steadily develop the sense that it is something quite different from a serious analysis of the concept of freedom. It is instead a how-to guide for left-wing rhetoric — an exhibition of how progressives can manipulate language to advance their political agenda. At one point Lakoff boasts: “You give me a progressive issue, and I’ll tell you how it comes down to a matter of freedom.”
Here Lakoff reveals his grand design: to show his fellow left-wingers how to perfect the very type of sophistry that he claims the Right has used so effectively. In an effort to harness the emotional force of the term “freedom,” he’s willing to twist the word’s meaning to serve his political ends without any concern for the underlying truth: How has freedom actually been understood throughout American history? How do most Americans understand freedom today? What is the most sensible way to define freedom, apart from partisan goals?
Lakoff doesn’t seem to care much, and the result is disastrous for the book. To begin with, his historical claims are wildly inaccurate. America was not founded with anything like a Lakoffian conception of freedom that would necessitate the creation of a massive federal network to cater to citizens’ every need and ambition in the name of “freedom from want.” Such an idea is the product of utopian thinking that first gained popularity in the 19th-century Progressive movement, and ultimately culminated in the New Deal and the Great Society.
The American Revolution was fought in the name of liberty, conceived as a basic type of freedom quite different from the one Lakoff describes. The freedom of the American Revolution was understood as liberty in the negative sense, defined by the lack of external interference and the absence of tyranny. The Founders had no interest in a sprawling welfare state. The Constitution was carefully crafted to limit the scope of government, the powers of which were narrowly defined within a federalist framework. There wasn’t even a provision for a federal income tax — it had to be added by constitutional amendment in 1913.
Perhaps because he is dimly aware of such uncomfortable facts, Lakoff occasionally attempts to account for them by portraying his “positive freedom” as simply a more robust and updated version of the original American ideal — much like the “living Constitution.” But in fact, the Founding Fathers anticipated the possibility of a government powerful enough to provide substantial entitlements to its citizens — and they were adamantly opposed. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson explained that “the policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.” The Founders were wary of government power because of its coercive nature and its susceptibility to abuse; as George Washington famously wrote, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Lakoff’s conception of freedom is thus in direct conflict with that of the Founders. When government seeks to provide entitlements for some in the name of “positive freedom,” it must necessarily interfere in the lives of others. This is because all government action is predicated on taxation and coercion, which by definition entail infringements on liberty. The state can’t give a welfare check to one person without taking money from someone else; it can’t fund a Social Security system without forcing people to pay into it.
People who don’t have food or health care or education have not been deprived of freedom. What they lack is not freedom but material goods and services. This is a matter of vocabulary, not ideology. The court of common word usage simply rejects Lakoff’s claim that being free means having the capacity to achieve one’s aims. It would be wrong, for example, to say that Lakoff lacks the freedom to write an insightful book about politics. What he lacks is the ability.
— Anthony Dick is an associate editor at National Review.