Though the name of this blog was sort of a last minute panic to have some place to announce while I still could, I did pick it because it means something to me (though considered some kind of irreverent or semi-comedic name but nothing funny or original enough came to mind). I first explored the concept of autonomy in my post "One Liberalism through the ages" where I used Alan Wolfe's definition for liberalism: "As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take."
Baked into that phrase is the need not just for "freedom" or "liberty" but the need for something beyond the mere absence of formal restraint those concepts entail. That extra thing is the positive means to act on goals in addition to the negation of barriers. That's what one needs to have that say over the direction taken in life. That's what autonomy is, and I think it is at the heart of liberalism.
I thought then and think now that autonomy is a powerful concept that liberals* should promote more often. As it is a superset of freedom or liberty, we could dispense with those terms as insuffient to describe our goals. As I noted in the piece linked above, I have never liked the term "liberty" very much. At least partly because it is abused so insincerely by right wing demagogues but also because it really is loved by the powerful as the absence of restrictions on their ability to take from the powerless.
This peculiar use of "liberty" by conservatives could be better broadcast to the public if liberals had a competing and powerful concept to promote, one which allowed them to critique the limits of liberty and point out how it allows conservatives to insist on deregulating business and regulating women's bodies or which consenting adults can get married. This isn't inconsistent for them: They're powerful (or wish to be) and regulations on business harm them. Regulations on women or gays do not (and even empower them in some ways).
One of the powerful tools of persuasion employed by conservatives all these years is the ease with which their pundits and spokespeople can easily link complex policy discussions to simple principles. They're often wrong or deliberately misleading, but they're good at it, and leave liberals in the disadvantaged position of trying to demonstrate how some small sacrifice of nominal personal choice or money would lead to disproportionately greater net social benefits. So let them have freedom and liberty and instead sell autonomy. Does policy X sacrifice autonomy for many to support freedom for a few? Having comprehensible philisophical grounds to say why right wing policy ideas generally do just that can only help win the message war without trying to fight it the way conservatives do.
Finally, just being able to demonstrate and explain what liberalism is, while challenging conservatives to do the same would make for an important constrast. One of the themes at Open Left was this idea that most self described conservatives and moderates actually believe in a lot of liberal policy ideas. Decades of rigorous social science research undoubtedly bears this out, but now after listening to moderate and centrists beat the left up for two years that we can't expect too much from Obama because the country is so right wing, maybe it's time to try and change that imbalance. We hoped to convert the persuadables by demonstrating the power of liberal ideas in practice (the whole "governing well" thing), but we didn't really get to implement the good ideas that would measurably improve their lot in life. The New Deal model is a pipe dream for the time being, and America really can't afford to wait for another collapse caused by implementing right wing ideas. We need a better option than waiting for another Great Depression in order to persuade America to try again for a Great Society. Autonomy probably isn't the end-all of that but I had to start somewhere, and an attempt at a first principle seemed like the place.
* - I generally use liberal and progressive synonymously even though I know some see a distinction. I slightly prefer liberal so I tend to use it for both.