Defining Freedom: Issues in the Conservative and Liberal Approaches

This week’s readings highlight the stark contrast between how conservative and liberal Americans viewed the role of government in the 1960s. A shared theme on both sides was the idea of freedom. For conservatives, states’ rights was an essential aspect of maintaining this freedom. They were concerned with limiting the control of the federal government and letting the smaller levels of government establish what will best maintain individual freedom. On the Left, racial and class equality were the core objectives to achieving freedom for all, and to do this required action in the federal government. The Right and the Left were at odds over the affects the federal government had on freedom, and both approaches had good points and significant issues. Here, I will look at how both ideological perspectives defined freedom, considering the issues of each respective interpretation.

One major component of freedom to conservatives in the 1960s was the maintenance of states’ rights. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater discusses his discontent with the federal government interfering with this, specifically regarding the issue of desegregation. Goldwater goes as far as to say there is “an imagined conflict between states’ rights… and what are called “civil rights””, claiming integration and other acts to establish racial equality were not actually civil rights, as they were not rights already incorporated by common, local, or Constitutional law (Goldwater, 60). He says that, regardless of his view that schools should actually integrate, he is “not prepared, however, to impose that judgement of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina, or to tell them what methods should be adopted and what pace should be kept in striving toward that goal…” (Goldwater, 61). The basis of this argument is that actions of the federal government to do things such as integrate schools impeded on states’ rights and, in turn, individual freedom. The issue is that this seems to imply that black Americans were not individuals, as the refusal of states to grant them the right to equal educational opportunities impeded on their individual freedom. Relying on the states to desegregate and take other measures to ensure freedom for different races would lead to prolonged inequality in many of them, especially in the South.

The issue with these statements and the understanding that freedom comes from states’ rights is that it excludes the historic oppression that prevents people of different races, classes, and genders from enjoying this same freedom that the Right is concerned with preserving. John F. Kennedy evoked this sentiment in his 1963 “Report to the American People on Civil Rights”, saying that the black population “are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice… from social and economic oppression” and that freedom is derived from equality, from the possibility “for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race” (Kennedy, 58). Lyndon B. Johnson echoed JFK’s words in his “And We Shall Overcome” speech, saying that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote… [but] men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes” (Johnson, 94). And again in “To Fulfill These Rights” he says that “in far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope… Negroes are trapped – as many whites are trapped – in inherited, gateless poverty” (Johnson, 95). Kennedy and Johnson highlight the major issue with the conservative emphasis on State’s rights: it failed to address the ongoing oppression that many states imposed on their black citizens.

Despite the validity of the Left’s claim that total freedom would not exist until equality is shared among all races and classes, the Right’s concerns over the federal government’s influence on freedom was also justified. There were issues at the federal level in the implementation of many of their programs and regulations intended to help achieve more widespread freedom. LBJ’s Title I, for example, tried to address the  “local control [that] not only created vast inequities between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods but perpetuated them, because without good schools residents of poor areas were unlikely to break free of poverty” (Shulman, 101). However, as Robert Kennedy raised concern over, perhaps it was not wise “to trust the very people who created the inequities with the funds to remedy them…” as with the government’s allocated money, “the districts selected which schools, students, and programs received the funds”; many pocketed the money or spent it in ways that did not benefit the poor population (Shulman, 99). Despite good intentions, as in the case with Title I, some federal government actions were ineffective in spreading equality and freedom; instead, some led to further corruption.

Both the Left and the Right oversimplified the role of the different levels of government in maintaining and achieving freedom. To the Right, states’ rights were crucial, but this ‘leave it as it is’ mentality allowed for oppression and inequality to continue; thus, federal government regulation and action was necessary. Conversely, the Left overestimated the ability of federal government programs, coming up with good plans that they failed to effectively execute.