Now that Rick Santorum has made himself a footnote to history by blowing Michigan, I’ll take the opportunity to join the great “do kids make us free” debate. It starts here, with Santorum’s WSJ editorial, continues here with Will Wilkinson’s rejoinder in The Economist, and then goes here and here and here and here with Reihan Salam, Wilkinson Again, Salam again, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

A huge amount of this debate revolves around a lack of agreement on what constitutes “freedom.” Is freedom a formal maximization of choice? Or a maximization of individuals’ ability to take advantage of life’s choices? Or the minimization of the experience of external constraint or control? Or is freedom, as Robert Frost said, “moving easy in the harness?”

I think it’s all of these, and to some degree they are mutually-reinforcing concepts of freedom. But not always.

The first and the second concepts are obviously at odds from a policy perspective. “Freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” are real freedoms. Aristotle thought only propertied men could be free for that very reason. If we want to be a society in which everyone is free in this sense, it’s going to cost money. The money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is taxpayers – and taking their money reduces their freedom in the first sense.

The third and the fourth concepts are also at odds. The experience of constraint, in the process of acquiring a discipline, is what leads to the experience of freedom, in the sense of being able to practice the discipline fluidly. You can say, “well, but the government isn’t going to make you practice the violin” – but education policy is set by the government, and children do have the experience of freedom and the experience of constraint, and I don’t see why their experience is irrelevant if we’re totting up how much freedom a particular set of rules produces.

And I haven’t even gone into the idea that freedom is collective self-government according to the ethos of a particular society, which is what a great many people mean when they talk about freedom.

Will Wilkinson defines his free society thusly:

I don’t actually agree that social engineering through fiscal policy is unavoidable. Of course, every effective legal rule shapes choice. That’s the point of rules. The philosophically liberal ideal is to have rules that more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective. The illiberal idea is to have rules that compel everyone to conform to a substantive idea of how people should live that some of us reasonably reject. To live within such an order defined by such rules is largely what it means to be free, politically and economically.

That’s one definition – as I say, a great many people think being “free” means almost precisely the opposite of this, means being allowed to organize their society according to their society’s ethos without being constrained by outsiders or a class of guardians charged with limiting their free choice of rules (such as the military in Turkey or the Guardian Council in Iran – or, and I’m being deliberately provocative here, the Supreme Court in America or Israel).

And as I’ve argued with Damon Linker before, I think this vision is unworkable except in the context of an extremely minimal state. Should the state teach evolution or not? If you say yes, then you’re having the state “indoctrinate” a new generation in values that a very significant fraction of our society consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.” If you say no, or if you say, “teach the controversy” then, from the perspective of those who care about the integrity of science, you’re “indoctrinating” a new generation in values that they consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.”

When Rick Santorum said the following:

I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

He was talking about a very real experience of freedom, and a real conflict between the state wanting to prepare its citizens for a life that maximizes their freedom (in the sense of being able to take advantage of life’s choices – this is the state’s perspective on the kids’ freedom) and families who dissent from the moral value of some of those choices wanting to raise their kids the way they please.

So: can we get back to subsidizing family-formation?

The easiest way to defend the proposition on the grounds of freedom isn’t to say that pro-natal policies lead to economic growth, but to say that the decision to have children is a profoundly important one for many people, a life-defining choice, and that it is also an economically burdensome one. It’s very simple redistribution, no different, in principle, from the progressive income tax, but it’s a redistribution scheme that accounts for the fact that some decisions are more fundamental than others.

Raising a child, going to college and keeping a boat are all extremely expensive propositions. For pretty much everyone I know, the decision whether or not to raise a child is life-defining. For most people I know for whom this was a choice, as opposed to a given, or who have thought about the choice at all, the decision whether or not to go to college was life-defining. Indeed, it’s not just that they are both profound choices in and of themselves; it’s that they are gateway choices. If you don’t have children, you can’t have any of the wide range of life experiences that flow from having children. If you don’t go to college, a host of options, economic and social, will be relatively unavailable to you thereafter. People who can’t afford a child experience, in a profound way, a lack of ability to take advantage of the choices life offers. Ditto those who can’t afford to go to college. People who can’t afford a boat, not so much.

So, we care a lot about whether, as a society, we are making it possible for everyone with the talent and determination to go to college. And we should care a lot about whether, as a society, we are making it possible for everyone ready to make and see though the commitment to raise a family. And we should care only a little bit about whether, as a society, we’re making it easy or hard for people to keep a boat. (And yet we should care a little bit – I’ve had limited experience sailing, but from that limited experience I can tell you that there is a unique sense of freedom in being on the water, and it is a loss when people don’t have the opportunity to experience that, even once.)

You don’t have to affirm the choice to have children in order to see the case for subsidizing it as a case for increasing freedom, and you don’t have to go into an argument about whether such a policy would increase or decrease economic growth. You just have to recognize that kids aren’t a mere consumer good. They are life-shaping commitment that matters deeply to many, many people, and that we should therefore care about whether, as a society, we’re making it easy or hard to make that commitment.

So I want to go back to Wilkinson’s definition of a liberal society. He says, “The philosophically liberal ideal is to have rules that more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.” And I think that’s too strong. I think the word should be “respect” rather than “affirm.” The stringency of “affirm” is what forces any society with significant moral disagreement – such as ours – either to cease being liberal (whether it acknowledges that change has happened or not) or to devolve into a minimal state (which, contra the more extreme libertarians, I don’t think maximizes human freedom). We want the state to do things that we don’t all agree on. So I think we should relax that stringency. We won’t affirm every rule from our own moral perspective. We should be able to respect them all, though. And because we as a society recognize that not all our rules are affirmed from every moral perspective, we should make room for alternative perspectives to flourish – which doesn’t mean only or even primarily protecting the individual dissenting conscience; it means allowing institutions to develop that promulgate ethoi that are divergent from the hegemonic liberal ethos.

This is what I mean when I say I want a dominant liberalism that is thick and humble rather than a liberalism that is thin and arrogant. Instead of limiting the number of fundamental commitments that a liberal state can endorse, but making those commitments absolutely mandatory (and dissent from them a reason for being banished from public discourse), I want liberalism to have the confidence to promulgate the fundamental commitments that it really believes in without shame, and the humility to recognize that significant numbers of people have good reasons for dissenting from those values, and that those people may, in the fulness of time, turn out to be right.

Finally, a few words on PEG’s and Reihan’s contributions. Reihan’s core argument is that pro-natal policies promote economic growth, and that economic growth promotes freedom because, basically, it makes more of everything possible. PEG’s core argument is that people, as active agents, are the only things that experience freedom, and therefore ipso facto more people equals more freedom, all else being equal.

I think Reihan should consider whether the question of the relationship of population to economic growth isn’t more complicated than that, unquestionably in the short run, but also in the long run. It’s not at all clear that we know the optimal rate of population growth to maximize long-term per-capital economic growth (which is what matters for his equation of economic growth leading to greater freedom). There may be circumstances where it is highly positive; there may be circumstances where it is low or even negative. The “birth dearth” that much of the developed world is experiencing had very positive consequences for economic growth in the short term (as the demographic “bulge” moved into the prime productivity years) and more negative consequences in the medium term (as the proportion of elderly grows larger). We don’t know what the long-term looks like, though. What we can say is that societies that experience population growth that outstrips their ability to provide economic opportunities go through very bad times indeed. You don’t have to be a Malthusian to believe that population growth can be bad as well as good, depending on the circumstances. (And I’m not going to go into the composition of populations – I’m not opening that can of worms in this post.)

As for PEG, I have to say, that perspective is historically un-French. France is notable within Europe for having a lower population density than its major neighbors (half as dense as Germany or the UK, for example). This disparity is not of recent vintage, and relates to a longstanding disparity in fertility rates. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the historically high quality of life in France relates in part to an appreciation precisely of that quality – and to an appreciation that, contra PEG’s contention, stuff is not people; rather, people appreciate stuff, but stuff has an independent existence, and if you have lots more people some kind of stuff will be harder to appreciate, or will even cease to exist. The historic French relationship with the land is in part a product of that relatively low population density. That relationship is very different from the American relationship – which is also related to historically low population density – but it’s also very different from the relationship in, say, the Netherlands.

I live in Brooklyn. I’ve obviously got no problem with living in a very dense space. And there is a unique kind of freedom that one experiences in a big city. But it is not the only kind of freedom. India is a less-free society with over a billion people than it would be if it had only three hundred million, even if per-capita income was the same – simply because there’s less room to stretch out, which is a very basic form of freedom from constraint.