Instituting Liberty: Contested, Changing, Conflicted Definitions

By Robert Jensen

Published in Common Dreams · September, 2021

Common Dreams / September 27, 2021

News that the University of Texas at Austin has been courting donors for a Liberty Institute is a reminder of the danger of ideology undermining university life. Provost Sharon Wood, responding to faculty concerns, said the goal of such an institute would be to “consider problems from multiple points of view,” but skepticism is warranted.

Records of UT administrators describe an institute that would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets” and promote “intellectual diversity.” Most people, myself included, support individual liberty. The remaining phrases are highly ideological and should be in scare quotes.

Does “limited government” enhance individual liberty, or does it really mean using government power to protect concentrated wealth and limit our collective ability to create a decent society? Does “private enterprise” really mean allowing corporations to use that concentrated wealth to undermine democratic decision-making? Do those corporations champion “free markets” only as long as they can extract profit, running to the government for bailouts when they fail?

If an institute doesn’t make space for those kinds of questions, what kind of liberty would a Liberty Institute be championing?

I am a retired UT professor and no longer have a direct professional stake in the outcome. But during my 26 years in the School of Journalism, I regularly taught media law and the First Amendment. For the last seven years I taught a course called “Freedom: Philosophy, History, and Law” in the university’s interdisciplinary first-year program. We started by reading John Stuart Mill’s classic book On Liberty to set the philosophical terms of the debate, then focused on U.S. history with Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom, ending with readings on the contemporary debate about pornography.

My thesis was straightforward: The definition of freedom and liberty is always contested (at any given moment, people within a society disagree); always changing (over time, societies’ understandings will shift); and always conflicted (we struggle because there are no simple policies to maximize liberty).

The goal was to go beyond slogans and dogma to grapple with the challenges of modern life in large, complex societies, which should be one of the core missions of higher education. I never hid my own political and moral conclusions, explaining to students that everyone’s teaching has a politics but that teaching is more than politics. I thought Mill had done a good job of defining freedom. I thought Foner had done a good job of pointing out how white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism had often distorted understandings of freedom throughout our history. And I thought the radical feminist critique of pornography and men’s sexual exploitation of women was compelling.

In a course on freedom, I was especially careful to remind students that other conclusions were coherent and defensible. Some right-wing and conservative students disagreed with points I made, as did some left-wing and liberal students. My mantra in the course was “reasonable people can disagree,” repeated so often that at the end of one semester a student gave me a coffee mug with that phrase. That gift was a highlight of my teaching career, because the student was acknowledging that I wasn’t trying to impose a “correct” definition of freedom but rather challenging students to think more deeply about the concept, to go beyond slogans and dogma.

Back to the Liberty Institute: I don’t reject the promotion of individual liberty as a goal, just as I don’t reject racial justice, sex/gender justice, economic justice, or ecological sustainability as legitimate goals of scholarly work. A university should be relevant to our collective effort to create social systems that are more just and more sustainable, and groups of scholars should be able to come together to pursue differing perspectives on how to accomplish that.

My question is about “intellectual diversity.” Would the faculty in such an institute ask questions about the relationship of individual liberty to contested, changing, and conflicted notions of limited government, private enterprise and free markets? Or, would an institute settle for slogans and dogma?

Today, right-wing forces are challenging liberal and left ideas about justice and sustainability, which is part of a healthy intellectual and political culture, when done with respect. In my experience at UT, there was too much dogma and too many slogans on the liberal/left side of the fence. Are those right-wing forces willing to hold themselves to the same standards? I always believed that I could defend my own teaching on these issues as consistent with the university’s mission of promoting critical, independent thought. When I was challenged—and I got criticized from both the right and the left during my career—I always took those challenges seriously and responded.

Reasonable people can disagree, and a university should be a place where those disagreements are celebrated. That would be a good starting point for a Liberty Institute.