Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reflecting on Liberty

It's the Fourth of July after all and I just read with some interest a short New York Times piece on the costs and benefits of liberty.

With respect to liberty, the writer identifies the 1960s as a watershed in American history:
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won. 
From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell.
While I'm usually first in line when it comes to blaming so many of that decade's "triumphs" for what is currently wrong in America, I don't think the author has it quite right.

For two-hundred years and more, no sensible person ever saw a serious tension between the liberty of the individual and the "demands of the commonwealth."  Instead, the liberty enshrined in the Declaration was understood to mean that the individual, regardless of station in life, could, by right, fully participate in attending to those demands.  What happened in the Sixties was a conflation of liberty with narcissism.  In an earlier, more sane period, the latter would have been immediately recognized for the servitude it actually is.  That is, to be a narcissist is to be a slave to one's passions.

No one has ever seriously celebrated selfishness, not even Ayn Rand, I'd argue.  No one has ever maintained that "greed is good" and no one has ever thought that bragging about one's wealth was anything but gauche.  These charges and countless more like them are but the strawmen constructions of those that would in the name of balancing the costs and benefits of liberty, eliminate it altogether.

On the other hand, genuine liberty, liberty born of self-discipline and self-reliance, is perfectly consistent with attending to the "demands of the commonwealth,"  And oh what a commonwealth it would be if it were populated with a majority of just such genuinely free men and women.

Happy Fourth of July everyone! 

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