Liberty in Crisis- A Perspective on Political Philosophy from Ryan T. Anderson

Ryan T. Anderson during his keynote address

This Wednesday I had the chance to attend the annual American Public Philosophy Inst hosted by the American Political Philosophy Institute (APPI) from the University of Dallas featuring Ryan T. Anderson from the Heritage Foundation who discussed his take on the state of liberty in the United States.

Headlining Anderson’s address, Christopher Wolfe, professor of politics at the University of Dallas and president of the American Public Philosophy Institute, described the importance of studying political philosophy in 2018, and described how he and the APPI believe the twenty-first century America faces a profound moral crisis, which manifests itself in a variety of deep social fissures (often referred to as “culture wars”) and public policy problems. 

The discussion centered around a variety of issues including what liberty means in 2018 America for individuals, institutions, and forming policy for taxation, regulation, and addressing social inequality, as well as an assessment of some of the challenges affecting families in America, and controversial social issues including how policies regarding abortion, marriage, and transgenderism can sometimes alienate under the guise of expanding personal liberty.

As someone who grew up learning about Hindu philosophy, and studying political philosophy through the format of competitive speech and debate, I found the takeaways of the discussion to be fascinating, informative, and also controversial- I learned a lot about viewpoints that I have not been exposed to.

While I may not agree with all of the points that Anderson and Wolfe’s brought up, they did expose a degree of complexity to the frameworks of public philosophy that we often are not aware of, especially when the media and politicians often frame moral and legal issues as black and white when there are more degrees of uncertainty.

The State of American Political Philosophy 

Prof. Wolfe described his motivation behind the APPI and the state of political philosophy in the United States today.

According to Wolfe, 

We believe that the inability of our political system to deal with many of these problems is connected with a loss of understanding of the principles of the Constitution and, broadly, of the original “American public philosophy.”


Wolfe cites that the public philosophy that the United States was founded on, aimed at a limited but effective government that enabled individuals and institutions to support the integrity of culture, and describes how this framework of government had met with a deal of success, challenges including the elimination of slavery, the integration of immigrants, expanding economic life and opportunity, and the emergence of the United States as an international power.

By this viewpoint, the moderate liberalism underpinning American public philosophy was integral to not only the nation’s growth but in building integrity in our institutions.

Some of the other tenets that the APPI argues is that “American public philosophy has, at least since the 1960s, however, faced a significant challenge, from a competing set of ideas that claim (wrongly, we believe) to be rooted in the Constitution and our national life”.

Specifically, they point to what they see as failures of contemporary liberalism (liberalism as compared to classical liberalism) including the undermining of the family unit and special status given to it in law, driving religion out of the public philosophy, and in emphasizing personal autonomy, fostering rights and entitlements toward individuals versus moral ideals and duties.

The Crisis of Liberty

Anderson’s talked centered around liberty, what this concept means in context of the United States today, and focused on current challenges to liberty today- specifically regarding taxation, regulation, the collapse of the family unit, the decline in influence of the churches and other religious institutions, and also touched on social issues such as transgenderism, and abortion.

On Taxation and Regulation

One of the key points from the talk is that taxation and regulation have flaws in how both the classical liberal/libertarians perceive it, and from the big government supporters on the center and the center-left.

From a purely libertarian standpoint, if we allow the market to decide actions, and take the market’s determination to the just and moral action, we often lead to complications where costs and benefits are not equitably allocated, or occur at the expense of certain groups.

On the flip side, from a big government standpoint, if we value policy outcomes from a purely utilitarian standpoint to maximize the greatest good, and to minimize the overall costs, we still result in an inequitable distribution of costs and benefits.

What this means is that not all taxation is bad, as long as it is reasonably implemented, and not all regulations are bad, as long as they accurately represent the state of policy issues, and are not supporting special interests, or crony capitalism.

This point spoke to me the most from the talk because while I usually maintain libertarian tendencies, it is important to recognize the purpose of why we have public policy and to ensure that it is benefiting the people versus policymakers and their cronies.

When Liberty infringes on Life

Anderson described how liberty from a John Locke-ian sense refers to personal autonomy, the ability of one to make decisions both economically, socially, and politically out of their own volition. The traditional concept of inalienable rights that are enshrined in our founding documents dictates that life, liberty, and property are sacred rights bestowed upon all people, and this concept is central to the principles that our Constitution was built.

 Anderson questions whether this original motivation may be misguided- he looks at Life- in one context, we have a right to our individual lives, and are prohibited legally from taking the life of another e.g murder, manslaughter is criminalized because it infringes on others’ right to life. 

But with the example of abortion, legal principles allow for a future life to be taken (or to prevent it from being initiated in the first place), or presents doctors with the position of preventing a life from existing. (The concept of whether an unborn child is considered to be alive is incredibly controversial, and I will not delve too far into this discussion ).

The key is that understanding that the liberty for a person to have the right to privacy to obtain medical care also has moral consequences in that our moral decisions are ultimately not just an individual action since every individual exists in a continuum with others. 

One person’s liberty in this instance could infringe on another person’s life- something which from Anderson’s perspective should be taken into account from a philosophical standpoint.

I personally believe in a pro-choice standpoint that we should allow individual women to decide what medical decisions to take with their bodies, but also agree that if a physician does not believe in the principle of a procedure, that they should refer the patient to another provider, and neither be coerced to perform an act that they do not want to commit (which would infringe on their liberty), or to prevent the patient from taking an action that they intend to (which would infringe on the patient’s liberty).

When Liberty Infringes on Personal Principle

To this point, Anderson also brings up the case of the baker Jack Phillips in the Masterpiece cake shop case, where a Christian baker who refused a same-sex couple who had approached his shop to bake a cake for their wedding was sued on the basis of discrimination.

On December 5, the Supreme Court heard Phillips case, which centered around a First Amendment right against discrimination coming from the case of Obergefell v. Hodges where the state of Colorado upheld that “opposition to same-sex marriage was tantamount to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation”.

According to Anderson

Agree or disagree, but Phillips believes he is serving Christ with every cake he makes. He has previously turned down requests to create Halloween-themed cakes, lewd bachelor-party cakes, and a cake celebrating a divorce. He was never reprimanded over those decisions, but the same-sex-wedding cake plunged him into hot water.

In the Obergefell decision, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that in the same way that same-sex couples ought not to be discriminated against, “the states should not disparage people and their beliefs”.  Anderson argues in this case that “Not every disagreement is discrimination. And our law shouldn’t say otherwise.”

On Transgender Rights

One of the main parts of Anderson’s discussion centered around the argument of his book When Harry became Sally, and his criticism of the concept of gender-reassignment surgery, hormone therapy, and puberty-blocking drugs for young children.

Anderson discusses some of the issues facing transgender people, namely higher rates of suicide and depression, and discussed his take on why we should not allow young children to pursue gender reassignment surgery.

In many cases, as he describes, young children may grow out of their phase of gender fluidity, and the surgeries and procedures may force doctors who do not agree on principle to perform these procedures to avoid facing discrimination lawsuits. 

Under the guise of personal liberty, Anderson argues, individuals are taking potentially unjust actions.

Instead, Anderson argues, we should push for psychotherapy instead of gender reassignment surgery.

While this point was discussed at length, this was also one of the points where I disagree with Anderson’s treatment of the issue, because it reminded me of some of the arguments commonly held against same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage where historically therapists and camps were used to “get the gay out of people”.

Again, Anderson’s point here is that the decision to allow a child to change their gender or to be gender fluid is under the realm of personal autonomy, but has other consequences that could impact the individual’s liberty in other ways.

However the evidence and examples that Anderson provided outlined why he held his viewpoint, which he articulated with finesse, despite my personal disagreement with it. 

On the decline of the Family Unit

Another major focus of Anderson’s address was his argument about the state of the American family, which he argued was essential to the growth of the nation, and emblematic of the apparent moral decline in our nation.

Again, this is a controversial point and could be the subject of a correlation versus causation discussion, but to recap the points that Anderson discusses, he brings up data on higher rates of children being born out of wedlock and compares it across ethnic groups, as well as across communities.

He notes the opiate epidemic, childhood poverty in American cities, which has ravaged communities in states like Ohio, New Hampshire, and West Virginia and attributes it to a failure by public institutions to responsibly prescribe medicine but also to the collapse of the family unit.

This was another area which I would not agree with Anderson’s viewpoint because family structures have evolved over time, and we cannot fully correlate social problems like urban poverty and widespread opiate addiction to an issue of morality.

I wrote a piece regarding the opiate epidemic explicitly, which according to the data that I analyzed, pointed more to an institutional problem more so than a moral problem. 

Overall thoughts

Overall I found Anderson and Wolfe’s discussion to be eye-opening and thought-provoking and definitely helped me think more about the philosophy that underpins how we look at social, political, and economic issues.

One of the points regarding the role of religious institutions that was discussed is how religion can play an important role in framing philosophical discussions, and in community building- a point which I think many would agree with. Many people of my generation no longer find value in religious institutions, because we feel they do not speak to our values. 

Anderson argues that the solution is for more effective evangelization from churches, and to return to the roots of philosophy. I would partially agree, but on a more abstract basis that people should look to religion as one source of content pertaining to philosophy, and become more tolerant by exposing themselves to different viewpoints. 

After dinner pic with Joseph Formella, and his cousin Gonzalo


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