July 4, 2013


Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? (Robert J. Samuelson, 7/03/12, Washington Post)

The backdrop to this struggle is long-standing. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, Americans venerate both liberty and equality. Our entire history involves this tension between preserving freedom and promoting equality. If you are defending either, you naturally think that you are the legitimate heir of the country's core beliefs.

In a democracy, de Tocqueville argued, Americans would ultimately favor equality over freedom, because its material benefits are more immediate and tangible. Not so, countered the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. Americans strongly value freedom, far more than do citizens of any other democratic country, he argued.

There's plenty of evidence he is right. A recent Pew poll asked people to pick between "freedom to pursue life's goals without state interference" and the "state guarantees nobody is in need." Americans selected freedom 58 percent to 35 percent. European responses were reversed: Germany's 36 percent to 62 percent was typical. By wide margins compared with Europeans, Americans believe that "success in life" is determined by individual effort and not by outside forces. Yet, in their voting habits, Americans often prefer security.

The inconsistencies and contradictions won't soon vanish. But in today's politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount. Each side, whether "liberal" or "conservative," Republican or Democrat, behaves as if it has a monopoly on historical truth. The fear that the existence of their version of America is threatened sows discord and explains why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite.

Actually, the partisanship these days is so bitter precisely because the historic tension has been exhausted.  There are practically no serious figures in the Anglosphere (nor much of the rest of the West) who advocate a return to either the First Way (freedom in the form of naked capitalism and a lack of a welfare net) nor the Second Way (security in the form of Socialism/Marxism).  Instead there is a near universal consensus that one component of a modern democratic state must be a thorough economic/social safety network but that it must be funded via more capitalist means if we are to be able to afford it and have a productive economy.  Note that this is not the complete equality that de Tocqueville feared and Marxists dreamed of, but rather the establishment of a rather comfortable minimum living standard.  So both sides have had to accept a significant compromise to their core ideologies.  The right has had to acknowledge that one can not be said to be truly free if so impoverished that many choices lie beyond one's grasp.    Meanwhile, the left has had to accept that the quest for absolute equality of results only serves to impoverish all and to limit freedom to such a degree that the demos rejects the project, meaning that some considerable scope must be left for individual choice and action rather than centralizing decision making entirely in the hands of the state.

Happily, the Third Way compromise that is emerging throughout the developed world, while inconsistent with these dead ideologies, is entirely consistent with the republican liberty that is at the heart of the American experiment.  While the Right laments that laws rob us of our freedom, what they are lamenting is a loss that has little to do with the Republic.  As Mauricio Viroli describes in his essential text, Republicanism:

Action regulated by law is free...not when the law is accepted voluntarily, or when it corresponds to the desires of the citizens, but when the law is not arbitrary, that is, when it respects universal norms (when it applies to all individuals or to all members of the group in question), aspires to the public good, and for this reason protects the will of the citizens from the constant danger of constraint imposed by individuals and therefore renders the will fully autonomous.

So long as the Third Way project remains universalist it will enhance both equality and liberty.  Indeed, because liberty depends on a fairly high degree of equality among the citizens, it will help to realize American republicanism.

If we apply these ideas to our current political situation and the kerfuffle of the moment, we note, first of all, the Right's furor over the Democrats use of the individual mandate in health reform.  There is even the absurd claim that the mandate suddenly became unconstitutional--once it passed from conservative think tanks and Republican legislative proposals into a Democrat passed law.  Meanwhile, there is no question that the coming Republican reforms of health care will, likewise, depend on the mandate.  The key difference is just that they will push it further towards being a free market mechanism, by favoring (or requiring) HSAs and similar plans that turn patients back into consumers and have the added benefit of building the savings of the citizenry, empowering all, but especially the least advantaged in society.  

Only the worst sort of true-believing psychosis can turn this kind of social progress into an existential threat to the Republic.

Happy 4th, ya'll. 

[originally posted: 7/04/12]
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at July 4, 2013 12:26 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus