Reason Podcast

Billy Bragg Wants Three-Dimensional Freedom. But Can We Afford That?

In his new manifesto The Three Dimensions of Freedom, the veteran punk rocker calls out libertarians for focusing solely on economic freedom. Is his case worth buying?

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Over the past four decades, British musician Billy Bragg has carved out a singular position as a modern-day troubadour who takes popular music and politics equally seriously.

Early albums such as Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1986) and The Internationale (1990) merged concerns with the poor and the powerless while updating and reinvigorating older folk forms with punk sensibilities. At the turn of the century, Bragg partnered with the members of Wilco to release new songs using previously unheard lyrics by Woody Guthrie. The Mermaid Avenue recordings occasioned rave reviews and, in Bragg's own telling, were designed to humanize Guthrie, to transform a left-wing legend back into a real person with physical wants, desires, and needs.

For Bragg, like Guthrie, the personal and the political are never exactly separate. In August, Bragg released a full-throated polemic against rising populism and free market globalism, which he denounces as neo-liberalism. In The Three Dimensions of Freedom, Bragg writes, "Freedom has been repackaged as the right to choose, but genuine choice—in housing, in the workplace, at the ballot box—is hard to come by."

Nick Gillespie sat down to talk with Bragg about British and American politics, Donald Trump, Brexit, and his idea that we need to embrace "freedom" in what he says are its three dimensions: liberty, equality, and accountability. Apart from strongly supporting free speech, Gillespie and Bragg didn't agree on much, especially about whether living standards and individual freedom have increased in the 21st century and whether economic liberalization and globalization have helped the average man and woman.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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  1. What’s the point of giving an old wanker like Billy Bragg free publicity? The sooner he’s forgotten, the better. Instead of an interview, your audience would have been better served by a selfie of you punching the old parasite in the face. You seem to attach a disproportionate amount of importance to guitar twanging commies that can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

    1. See, this is why we need a ‘fuck yeah’ button.

        1. Really Yeah! At some point the audio was not clear don’t know if this is an audio issue or something wrong with my earphone.

      1. Press “F” for Fuck Yeah!

    2. Meh – Bragg can carry a tune fine, and his relationship songs aren’t bad. But on economics and politics the man is an utter moron, and his pandering to the political left couldn’t more clearly be a marketing strategy.

      I once read that when Paul Weller first formed The Jam, he expressed support for a conservative political candidate because he wanted to come across as less mainstream. When he found that didn’t go over well, he embraced radical socialism, all while forming a massive collection of $3-4k guitars on the profits.

      1. Bragg is not a bad singer. His Back to Basics Record is pretty good. The two Mermaid Avenue records are great, but that was mostly due to Wilco rather than Bragg, though Bragg sings well on them.

        He is not the greatest but he isn’t bad. Whatever he is, his thoughts on everything but music are absurd.

      2. I am “famous” musician, hear my words of political wisdom and be grateful.

    3. Never heard of this Bragg douche. It’s just another excuse for The Jacket to signal his self-declared enlightened musical preferences. I learned long ago that my musical tastes differ from his.

      1. You are not missing much. He is pretty unremarkable. But he is one of those kinds of acts that posers like to claim as a way of posing their enlightened tastes.

      2. A couple time a year Nick reminds me about this song.

      3. Bragg was the sort of “punk” who appealed to Baby Boomers, like the band X. So, right up Nick’s alley.

        He was aggressively folksy and played up his cockney accent to almost cartoonish exaggeration. Postured as a radical but never really said anything that wasn’t safely British-left-wing.

        In short, B-list ’80s guy. Of historical interest, perhaps, but not much else.

    4. Gillespie showed Bragg’s ideas contradict each other. Such as his defense of freedom of speech requiring censorship and someone deciding what’s true. He didn’t answer Gillespie’s question as to who would decide. Or how about his idea of we should pay the cost of things and not the Hayekian free market way? If he got paid for the cost of his songs, he wouldn’t be rich.

      I’ll give Bragg credit for having a civil discussion, and standing up for that. But enforcing “accountability” hurts the people paying for the enforcers, and I don’t want to be taxed to pay to put someone in jail for speech. To me, they have just defined who they are by their actions, and I’ve taken that into account.

    5. @Nemo Aequalis AMEN! I am seriously sick of the people at “Reason” thinking they’ll convert some of their leftard “heroes”, that ain’t happening. Fuck Bragg. Quit cow towing to the retard, control freak left.

    6. “You seem to attach a disproportionate amount of importance to guitar twanging commies that can’t carry a tune in a bucket”
      Neo-Reason defined.

  2. Brag is a socialist asshole. He spends his time ranting and raving about the evil rich and capitalism while living in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in London and counting his money.

    Fuck him. Who cares what he has to say. Beyond that, if you don’t have economic freedom and the freedom to make your own living and enjoy the fruits of doing that none of the other freedoms mean shit. Without the ability and freedom to support yourself, other freedoms are ultimately only available to the extent that the government wants to give them to you. Sure, you can have the freedom to smoke pot. But that freedom doesn’t mean very much if you don’t have the money to buy it. And without economic freedom, your ability to enjoy that or any other freedom is no longer up to you but up to the government.

    Fuck him and fuck all socialists selling “freedom”. They are not selling freedom. They are selling welfare and slavery.

    1. counting his money

      Like every other good socialist of his ilk, he almost certainly pays someone else to count it for him.

      1. Handling money is icky, and smacks of greed.

  3. genuine choice—in housing, in the workplace

    Umm – those would be the sorts of economic freedoms libertarianism at least attempts to address, no?

    1. I think when he says freedom he actually means some sort of wish fulfillment.

  4. Freedom is freedom, JackBilly Boy. The very fact that you don’t hold economic freedom in high regard tells me all I need to know about what you think freedom means.

    1. Like I say above, your freedom to do something is only meaningful to the extent you can actually do it. This is why freedom and responsibility are connected. If I don’t assume the responsibility of paying for whatever it is I want the freedom to do and instead shirk it off on someone else, I am not free. I am a recipient of a gift. They are the ones who are free.

      To give an example, think of a child. A parent tells a child that they are free to have any toy in the store. Is the child really free? No. That promise is only as good as the parent’s willingness to keep it. If there is a toy that is too expensive or the parent doesn’t think is appropriate, the child isn’t getting it. Since the decision belongs to the parent not the child, the child isn’t free. The child is just living in a gilded cage.

      So any system that takes away your economic freedom is necessarily taking away all of your freedom. In socialism, you are forever the child. You don’t get to pay your own way. The state does. And that means you are never free no matter how many gifts and favors the state grants you.

      1. So any system that takes away your economic freedom is necessarily taking away all of your freedom. In socialism, you are forever the child. You don’t get to pay your own way. The state does. And that means you are never free no matter how many gifts and favors the state grants you.

        Yes, this is exactly it. Socialism is (at best, which never happens) a perpetual childhood.

  5. “n his new manifesto The Three Dimensions of Freedom, the veteran punk rocker calls out libertarians for focusing solely on economic freedom. Is his case worth buying?”

    Real libertarians will understand that freedom of association applies not only economic associations but personal and others too.

    I do not consider freedom of association to be an economic freedom or argument – although those are included.

    Getting libertarians to understand this intersection can be hard though.

    1. I have never met anyone who thought freedom of association only applied to economic agreements. I have seen plenty of people who thought it applied to everything but economic agreements but never anyone who thought it only applied to economic agreements. So, I don’t know what Libertarians you are talking about.

      1. He’s pummeling a true Scottish straw man. I’m pretty sure the appropriate reaction is just to laugh.

        1. His dickhole must be full of straw dust.

    2. I tuned out when I saw “freedom” and “equality” in the same sentence. There is no freedom in equality, the words are antonyms.

      1. Yeah, there is that. Trusting people who preach equality to safeguard your freedom is like buying your coke from a guy who cuts it with Drano.

  6. Genuine choice is found in the marketplace, not the ballot box. This is a main reason libertarians often focus on economic freedom. There’s also the notion that while social freedom is a good thing, it doesn’t typically meaningfully restrict the state in most cases; economic freedom does.

  7. the veteran punk rocker calls out libertarians for focusing solely on economic freedom.

    Talk about starting with a false premise…

  8. And Kirsty MacColl sang your songs better than you did.

    A New England

  9. “the veteran punk rocker”

    That’s another way of saying that either you never grew up or you didn’t save for retirement. I just checked and he’s playing venues where a capacity crowd isn’t much at all. I’ve played venues those sizes and I was terrible. He’s probably much better, but sometimes you should just stay inside at home.

    1. “Punk” is generally a term for “can’t play your instrument or sing”. Actual musicians quickly move on from that stage and become something else.

      1. +5 Meat Puppets

      2. Kind of like how Danzig left the Misfits and went and did something better.
        The Misfits play larger venues than Billy and more importantly, they shut up.

  10. n his new manifesto The Three Dimensions of Freedom, the veteran punk rocker calls out libertarians for focusing solely on economic freedom. Is his case worth buying?

    I’m not going to bother watching the video, but did you actually disagree with his premise, that libertarians focus solely on economic freedom?

    Because from where I’ve been sitting over the last couple of years of watching y’all, that’s a fair criticism. There’s all sorts of barriers to freedom that y’all are A-OK with, as long as no one is eyeing your pocket-book.

    1. There’s all sorts of barriers to freedom that y’all are A-OK with, as long as no one is eyeing your pocket-book.

      List them.

    2. Na, I see a lot of people here defend freedom of speech, protest, assembly, religion, association, etc.

    3. “There’s all sorts of barriers to freedom that y’all are A-OK with”

      Are you confusing the commenters with Reason writers? Freedom of speech and the right to bear arms arms are probably the biggest issues for most people here.
      The ones that hate freedoms are Tony, Chemleft, Kirkland and grb (except for babykilling, pedophilia and buggery). But they hate economic freedom too, so they shouldn’t count either.

  11. Freedom comes with responsibilities. They don’t like that, so they want freedom from responsibilities. But since those responsibilities don’t just go away and someone must take care of them for you.. you give that person all the leverage. You end up enslaved when you have no responsibility.

    1. Well said.

    2. Libertarians don’t want freedom from responsibility, we simply don’t want to have our responsibilities dictated to us by corrupt socialist functionaries. Yet that is what people like Bragg advocate.

  12. “Freedom has been repackaged as the right to choose, but genuine choice—in housing, in the workplace, at the ballot box—is hard to come by.”

    To what extent is that problem related to the government restricting the choices available to developers and landlords?

    It takes 24 months to get plans approved in California, and now it’s unclear whether you’ll be free to charge market rents when the project is complete.

  13. Bragg is just repeating standard socialist/communist talking points. Tedious. All Reason proves with this article is that it ceased to be a libertarian publication some time ago.

    1. “Bragg is just repeating standard socialist/communist talking points.”

      It’s worse than that. If you look at his history he has always catered to the “oppressed youth” so he’s just doing it again all while trying to sell them a book he wrote where he focused on saying things that would appeal to them.

      We see your plan Billy. Make it less obvious next time. Also, if you want punk cred then don’t praise the establishment.

      We live in a weird time where being just mildly conservative is like being in the counter-culture.

  14. For the record, the drummer in the Dave Clark Five was … Dave Clark.

  15. If his ideas are as solid as his crooning, hard pass.

  16. Humanize Woody Guthrie?

    Every leftist halfwit singer has already done that.

    How about someone point out that he was a Commie stooge who sold out his anti-War “principles”, that were all en vogue during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the day after Germany invaded the USSR. And he was such a committed “artist”, he sold out his own artistic integrity by immediately demanding that his anti-War records be pulled. Just like Commie Dalton Trumbo.

    1. It really is long past time Fonzie GTFO of any pretense of being Libertarian. He is is Stalinist about as often as he is Libertarian.

    2. The entire “folk movement” was a hoax. There is no such thing as American folk music. What there is is a different kinds of ethnic music from Europe, Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean that combined in various ways to form country, blues, and jazz and then later rock.

      The idea that there was a seperate American “folk music” beyond that was literally a commie hoax. The CPUSA tried to dream up an American folk music for the proletariat. This is why all of the folkies were Stalinists. The whole thing is a fucking joke. It is all just fake bullshit made up music by upper class white leftists.

      For the record Bob Dylan, the greatest folkie of them all, understood this. That is why he went electric. He used the folk movement to get famous and then seeing it for the hoax it was, ditched it and went electric.

    3. @NashTiger YES!!! Well said, Woodie Guthrie was a tool and a piece of commie shit. Yet his songs are praised and talked about.

  17. Good interview. It would be nice if there were more opportunities for people with differing ideas to discuss those ideas. Like his idea of accountability being part of free speech, but recognize that it may be hard to apply for subtle untruths.

  18. Sounds like a commie piece of shit — freedom to do things HE wants done … with someone else footing the bill.

  19. So, let me get this straight: Billy Bragg thinks that people should be thrown in prison for saying things that are obviously not true. And he believes that it’s obviously true that democratic socialism is the best form of government. I can’t possibly see anything going wrong with this.

  20. What a jack ass. I remain entirely unconvinced that he actually read an Hayek, if only because he seemed utterly incapable of expressing anything resembling even one of Hayek’s views or observations correctly.

  21. Wow. Billy Bragg is a person of our time who should be honored and listened to for his experience, but instead all of the commenters on this site view “freedom” and “capital” as the same thing. They’re not, bootlickers. Sometimes, some small amount of money can help you achieve allele higher goals, but money isn’t freedom, can’t buy you freedom, and you’re all fools.

    1. Of course they’re not, but without property rights there is no freedom.

    2. Freedom means respect for private property and non-aggression; “capital” is simply a consequence.

      For you to put a gun to my head so that you can achieve “higher goals” is simple highway robbery, and that’s what you and Bragg are advocating.

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  23. Shocking to see how clueless Bragg is to the necessity of free speech. Just another example of THE LEFT chipping away at liberty for the sake of the common good.

  24. I knew nothing about Bragg before hearing this interview. Now what I know about Bragg is that he is an idiot. He seems to have spent his years learning exactly the wrong lessons from the world around him. All of his proposed solutions would have exactly the opposite effect that he thinks they would, and represent a roadmap to tyranny and poverty. But he uses a lot of big words doesn’t he?

  25. Bragg revised his 1989 Internationale lyrics, in order to better suit the contemporary leftist.

    Stand up rich victims of oppression
    Let the workers fear your might
    They owe you all their possessions
    And should be stripped of any rights
    Virtue signaling’s our motto
    Divide and conquer great and small
    Freedom is privileged and racist
    To be destroyed for one and all

  26. I would hesitate to conclude that Bragg even shows much support for free speech when it is speech with which he does not agree. When Morrissey voiced support for Brexit and Euroscepticism, Bragg opined, “Liberty without accountability is impunity, which is the most dangerous kind of freedom. Freedom isn’t a universal good. There are kinds of freedom that are really, really dangerous.” It sounds to me like disagreeing with Billy Bragg (of whom I had long been a fan; the first time I saw him, ironically, was opening for the Smiths in Boston) might be considered dangerous. Happily, not all ’80s punk rock icons are so craven: Nick Cave made no apologies or excuses about defending Morrissey’s right to express his political views, regardless of whether he agrees or disagrees with those views.

    1. I do not know of whom you post, but this comment is important:
      “Liberty without accountability is impunity, which is the most dangerous kind of freedom. Freedom isn’t a universal good. There are kinds of freedom that are really, really dangerous.”
      Those are the words of an ignoramus and possibly a dangerous human being; we do NOT negotiate our freedom with some nitwit who presumes to know what it costs.
      Simply: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,..”
      See that “unalienable” right there? That means that if you don’t think I’ve fulfilled my ‘obligations’ to ‘be granted’ those freedoms, you have not read that document and/or, you are full of shit.
      Nick, quit. You were ‘clever’ when the commies collapsed; now you’re just tired.
      Long past that.

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