In the liberal, western tradition, freedom means the absence of constraints, and liberty is considered to be self-determining. Nowhere is this tradition stronger than in the United States. Indeed, the First Amendment defends individual freedom from the government: "Congress shall make no law… prohibiting… abridging… [rights and freedoms]." In political theory, such a conception is defined as "negative rights," because it presupposes that persons have wrestled their rights from the state (Orend 2002:54; also see Berlin 1969). As the American Civil Liberties Union reminds Americans, we must be vigilant lest those rights are taken away.
This liberal conception was advanced by prominent thinkers of the English Enlightenment, notably John Locke and Adam Smith, and by the 18th century, it expansively encompassed political and economic freedoms. We only need to recall the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to understand that freedom provides the rhetorical framework for political life as well as for competitive capitalism. As a social creature, the emblematic American is independent and self-made, free and autonomous. There is abundant sociological documentation describing how freedoms play out in American economic life: the competitive drive to be more successful, richer, better housed and better heeled than others; acquisitive consumption; and materialism. Freedom in the American context also has to do with our ideas about competitive personal gain: to best the others and best the past.
This is not the only conception of freedom. In some, if not most of the world, freedom is what lies beyond insecurities – beyond the constraints of hunger, beyond civil unrest, and beyond meager subsistence. At the end of the rainbow, beyond these constraints, there will be choice and freedom. Thus, we have two very different conceptions of freedom. It is useful to pose critical questions about how the American conception has evolved and how it may be reconciled with other conceptions.
Michael Polanyi (1951) argues in The Logic of Liberty, that Americans lose sight of the distinction between individual freedoms and public freedoms, believing that the former suffice for the latter. For Polanyi, public freedoms are embodied in democracy and reflect the capacity to coordinate independent, individual actions spontaneously in the service of public tasks and projects. Public freedoms, for him, reshape those narrow self-interests that lurk behind individual freedoms.
Although seemingly clumsy at first, I will recast what Polanyi described as public freedoms as public goods. We will see that it gains us some theoretical mileage. As public goods, freedoms benefit everyone because they provide a pool of freedoms that we can all enjoy without using them up, and we cannot exclude any from enjoying them. I will return to freedoms, but here it is useful to explore a bit more how Polanyi's arguments resonate with those of others regarding American exceptionalism, a term that is employed both as critique and as self-congratulation.
American historiography is rich with examples. Just to illustrate, famous defender of the American experiment, Tocqueville (1991) praises American foreign policies and approves the exceptional clarity of the vision that early American leaders had for their new nation. He quotes Washington's Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in this context: "[T]he Americans ought never to solicit any privileges from foreign nations, in order not to be obligated to grant similar privileges themselves" (Tocqueville 1991:233). Yet Jefferson's own letters allow a less benevolent interpretation of his views about foreign allies. His downright contempt for Europeans is clear enough in a letter to George Washington. He churlishly writes, "There is not a single crowned head in Europe whose talents or merit would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America" (Jefferson 1788) Whereas Tocqueville understood Jefferson as the confidant spokesman of the fledging democracy, respectful of European powers, Jefferson's own views reflect downright arrogance. America, for Jefferson was superior. This helps us to understand the roots of American exceptionalism.
Does the country radiate exceptional virtue or exceptional arrogance? Seymour Martin Lipset would admit both interpretations. In his American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996), he focuses on why Americans have always thought themselves exceptionally great, as individuals and as a nation, yet...