Later this morning, I will speak–via Zoom–to the Danville Unitarians on the subject of freedom. Here’s a lightly edited version of that talk–a bit long, so my apologies.
There’s an inevitable tension between Americans’ love of freedom—understood as our freedom from government rules dictating our behaviors—and the obligation citizens have to contribute appropriately to the common good. That tension has manifested itself most recently in a series of conflicts in which self-styled “freedom fighters” have challenged government mandates to wear masks and observe social distancing, but we have seen similar conflicts when government has required us to wear seatbelts or to refrain from smoking in restaurants and bars.
That tension also motivates our continuing political arguments about tax rates and social welfare programs.
Where do we draw the line between our right to personal autonomy and the government-enforced duties we owe to others? What are those duties, who gets to prescribe them, and how important is our willingness to discharge them? What is our duty to contribute to what academics call social solidarity, and most of us would call a sense of community?
The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is our list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) an equally fundamental question: what is government for? To put it another way, what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should we expect government in the 21st Century to provide—and what are our obligations in return?
We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. Even then, even with physical infrastructure, there is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” What’s worse, despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, our electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns; problems with lead in the water are not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.
The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are much less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, they resist repair.
By “social infrastructure,” I mean programs that help citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making, most definitely including the right to vote.
Aristotle thought that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing– create an environment within which each individual can live, grow and pursue his or her own particular telos, or life goals.
Americans currently face considerable challenges: a rapidly morphing information environment that facilitates spin, disinformation and outright propaganda, an increasingly overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the accelerating corruption of America’s legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.
What comes next? Where does America go from here? Do we fix our problems, or relinquish our place on the world stage and terminate our historically uneven efforts to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?
Clearly, we’re at a turning point. We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our own historic civic aspirations. We could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit America’s existing social contract and evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions—reaffirming those that have stood the test of time, and modifying those that no longer serve us.
America has always defined freedom in the negative–as the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless she is harming the person or property of someone else. That view of freedom has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?
Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population and diversity have increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more global and more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty, genuine freedom, requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that all citizens have both the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information to inform those choices.
Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably limited, inescapably constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities. Individual agency—the ability of each person to formulate and pursue his or her life goals– is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I’m call ing“social infrastructure.”
I hate to argue with my libertarian friends, but in today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.
Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the ability of individuals to rise above social and structural impediments, and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure in which we are all inevitably embedded contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement.
In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with at least a basic social safety net that supports human freedom and allows citizens to reach their potential. That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Look at the widespread, negative attitudes toward welfare programs, and then consider the massive support that exists for Social Security and Medicare. Why the difference? Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations about lazy poor people who are “driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma and much less likely to arouse resentment. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers in a diverse polity should evaluate proposed programs and other government actions by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to create unity, an important and often overlooked argument favoring programs like single-payer health insurance or a Universal Basic Income.
A workable social contract must respect individual rights and subgroup affiliations, but must also connect citizens to an overarching community in which they have equal membership and from which they receive equal support. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance—to create a society that genuinely respects individual autonomy within a renewed emphasis on community and the common good, a society that both rewards individual effort and talent, and nurtures the equal expression of those talents irrespective of tribal identity.
That society would have the right to expect its members to pay their dues—taxes, of course, but also a stint of military or public service, and discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.
How do we get there? How do we turn our cantankerous and tribal society into a cohesive community? There’s a Native American parable that I think is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial, pro-democratic, humane behaviors and norms. Assuming we emerge from the angry and difficult period we are going through—assuming that we vote decisively for democracy and decency on November 3d, it will be time to come together and figure out how government can “feed” the good wolf.
It is past time to honor America’s original motto: e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.