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Ro Khanna: ‘Freedom’ has been hijacked by the Right. Let’s take it back

The Silicon Valley Congressman says the US Left should tap into the legacy of FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights

Ro Khanna
26 May 2022, 8.35am
All Americans should have the opportunity to flourish through their participation in our economy, argues Rep. Ro Khanna
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Scott Morgan / Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

Ro Khanna represents Silicon Valley in the US House of Representatives. He is the deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and was formerly the co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Khanna’s new book ‘Dignity in a Digital Age’, where he outlines a vision for distributing the gains of the digital economy across the US. Khanna is also featured in the openDemocracy documentary series ‘US Progressives on a Knife Edge’.

The grand promise of the digital age is the possibility of aligning the aims of political justice with economic growth.

Our nation has created unprecedented wealth in recent decades, and now can invest in the development of “substantive freedoms” for every American to foster even greater prosperity over the long term. Amartya Sen coined this phrase, substantive freedom, to mean our capability to lead a life we “have reason to value”.

Different people will have different life missions and will value things differently. Sen’s philosophy acknowledges that, and his key point is that each of us should have the freedom to pursue the life we envision. To that end, even if we may have different conceptions of the good life, Sen argues there are some basic capabilities that everyone needs to develop to be able to pursue their ends. Ensuring that someone can develop those basic capabilities is to ensure that they have “substantive freedoms.”

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Sen’s thinking echoes Franklin Roosevelt’s famous expansion of the American conception of freedom. As FDR put it, “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights called for the right to medical care, education, adequate food, and a job, and it is a vision for the type of social development necessary to increase the freedom of ordinary Americans.

The frame of enhancing freedom is important. It is mind-boggling to me that progressives have allowed conservatives to appropriate “freedom” as their constant theme.

Conservatives claim to stand up for the freedoms of Americans, but their vision is, by their own admission, limited to restricting state action. It’s freedom from excessive government regulations and interference – but it is silent about the most pressing economic and social constraints that Americans face every day. And these too are questions of freedom.

Think of the contract worker whose schedule is non-negotiable and changed at a whim, who has no bargaining power, no health care, no paid time off. Is this freedom?

Progressives have the opportunity to reclaim a more developed concept of freedom, one that reflects the full texture of American life in the digital age. We are for freedom, not just from state overreach, but also freedom to live up to one’s potential.

At present, we often defend our policies by appealing to fairness. While a fundamental principle, it needs to be married to the rallying cry of freedom. We often rail against billionaires becoming exponentially richer while the working class falls behind. Some start to believe we are for redistribution for redistribution’s sake. But that is not true.

The animating spirit behind many progressive policies is the aim of nurturing the freedom of every American to succeed. We want people to have health care so they can be free to pursue their dreams. We want them to have a quality education so they can be free to explore interesting jobs. We want them to be well nourished so they can be free to study and work hard. Grounding our policies as supporting, instead of curtailing, American freedom is not just true to our goals and beliefs, it will help us win over skeptics to our cause.

Our policies are also pro-growth. They will lead to an increase in national economic output. Amartya Sen, who rejects GDP as our north star, observes that public investments in health care and education create a more productive workforce and lead to long-term prosperity.

Similarly, Gary Becker, a champion of free markets, observes that in the technology era, a nation’s economic success depends on “how extensively and effectively people invest in themselves.” He said that the fuel for modern economic growth are investments in “schooling, on-the-job training, health, information, and research and development.” In fact, Becker argued that human capital, which is the “knowledge, information, ideas, skills, and health of individuals,” is “over 70% of the total capital in the United States.”

Sometimes, people wonder how I graduated with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and taught economics at Stanford, yet advocate for bold, progressive policies. They don’t mean it as a compliment. If I’m looking for a jab, I provoke them further by pointing out that Bernie Sanders is a product of the University of Chicago!

But my substantive answer to critics is that they have not carefully studied the work of economists and scholars like Gary Becker, one of the pioneers of Chicago’s school of economics. This is not to imply that Becker, whom I interacted with as an undergraduate, would endorse any of my proposals. But he would certainly recognize nations that cultivate “more educated and healthier populations” grow faster in the digital age.

The frame of enhancing freedom is important. It is mind-boggling to me that progressives have allowed conservatives to appropriate “freedom” as their constant theme.

This book, thus far, has focused on extending high-technology ecosystems with good jobs to communities left behind to foster dignity and economic growth. I devoted outsized attention to the jobs problem because it is one of the most visible causes of contemporary alienation and despair.

Sen himself holds that the lack of a good job is an infringement on a person’s substantive freedom. He argues that jobless people face “social exclusion” and do not have choices about how to make a contribution to their family or community.

Unemployment, moreover, hurts economic growth “because of a wastage of productive power, since a part of the national output is not realized.” Sen’s focus on employment is echoed by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who sees “being able to work as a human being” as necessary for a meaningful life.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that good jobs policy is sufficient to overcome the stark barriers to opportunity in our society. Even if we make jobs programs available in places like Jefferson, Iowa, and Clarksdale, Mississippi, we still need an educated and healthy population to take advantage of those opportunities.

Sen suggests that every society should deliberate through the democratic process to craft a list of capabilities – what is needed to achieve our life goals. Nussbaum argues that societies can debate the amount of resources to provide for cultivating each capability, but they should guarantee, as essential to promoting dignity, health care, education, nourishment, and a means of generating income.

Influenced by Sen’s and Nussbaum’s work, my argument is that advancing substantive freedoms requires foundational investments. The central aspiration of progressive capitalism is to cultivate the potential of every American. One part of that entails a widely distributed, well- paying job market that allows them to make use of their talents. An equally important part entails developing the capabilities that will allow Americans to do those jobs and pursue their larger life goals.

All Americans should have the opportunity to flourish through their participation in our economy, if they seek that, instead of being confined to look for fulfillment outside of it.


Excerpt from DIGNITY IN A DIGITAL AGE by Ro Khanna. Copyright © 2022 by Ro Khanna. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

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