Sunday, August 7, 2011

Rights & Responsibilities

Finally had a chance to go for a swim last night and a walk on the beach and through the park this morning.  I had hoped to get in a bike ride, but the pouring rain nixed that, so I substituted a walk in the wind and the rain instead.

These are the things I missed while I was in SC...

While doing all of the above, I had a little time to think about the distinctions between "Libertarian" and "Progressive."  I find the two groups interesting, because although they currently assert their total opposition to one another, in fact they share a lot of historical and ideological interaction and complexity.

I haven't totally sorted it all out myself, so once again, these are just some cryptic beginnings of ideas and points that I find interesting.

I've been thinking about it in terms of the notion of "rights" and the notion of "responsibilities."  As I mentioned in a previous post ("Get Together"), the history of the Libertarian movement in the United States is marked by a broad spectrum of beliefs, some of which include ideas which we would identify today as distinctly "socialist" and many of which were, at the time when they were proposed, decidedly "liberal."

Interestingly enough, the same holds true for the Progressive movement and its various historical embodiments and manifestations.

For me, the question of the distinction between "Progressive" and "Libertarian" is better formulated not as a conflict between "the people who want government control of everything" versus "the people who want government control of nothing," but as a distinction between two groups that are each grappling with the questions of whether, why, how, and--perhaps most importantly--when the government should get involved in the lives of its citizens.

The answer for most "Progressives" in the U.S. today is not "always."  And likewise, the answer for most "Libertarians" in the U.S. today is not "never."  But because the debate has become polarized, that is often what we seem to be hearing.

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts "the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but it also asserts that it is "Government" which must guarantee and protect those rights for its citizens.

The detailed list of abuses at the hands of the King of England and the British government, along with the repeated evidence of an unwillingness to assume the proper role of a just government and address and remedy those grievances, fosters the collective decision to "secure these rights" by establishing a "new" government.

So far so good.  All Americans, I think, are together on this: we like this damn document a lot, every last one of us--and really, who wouldn't?

Talk about kickin' some serious royal butt.

(If you're interested, the rough draft of the document, showing the changes made along the way as well as who made them, is available here.)

If I could go back in time, I wouldn't want to be at the signing of the Declaration, I'd want to be a fly on the wall when it arrived in King George's royal inbox.  The look on everyone's faces as it was read would be something worth seeing, I think.

"Holy crap... they did what?  It says what?  Oh, shit.  Damn Enlightenment Commies.  Mark my words, that pain in the ass Paine is behind this, I'll bet you anything.  Friggin' Jefferson and his buddies.  Oh, and the French just love that asshole Franklin, so no big surprise there, really... ".

(A humorous version of the "response" to the Declaration of Independence, written by "A Management Analyst to the British Crown" is available here.) 

The problems were only just beginning in 1776, though, because an abstract statement of ideals is not a concrete implementation of them.

In this sense, the humorous "management analysis" is, in some ways, on point: formulating your ideas is one thing, bringing them to fruition is another.

And thus, the history of American politics ensues.  In my opinion, both the Progressive and the Libertarian movements, in their many embodiments over the years, have been looking to figure out how to protect cherished individual freedoms ("Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness") for everyone.

Because that's the problem: if we have minimal government, can we trust everyone to do right by everyone else?  Common sense, historical evidence and contemporary studies in psychology say, probably not.

And if we have maximum government, can we trust everyone to do right by everyone else?  Again, common sense, historical evidence and contemporary psychology suggest, probably not.

So what's a poor Republic to do?  I think we need to do what we have historically done: weave the conflicting ideas and opinions together into a delightfully controversial and complex fabric.

But to do that, we need to get a whole lot better at listening to one another.

One of the things I like best about The Declaration is that it asserts the need for an intellectual and ideological respect for others.  The signers assert, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation" (emphasis added).

The signers didn't just wake up one day and write a note saying, "UP yours!" to King George III.  They systematically attempted to petition for a redress of grievances and when that didn't work, they worked collectively to institute something very new and very radical.

And they did it by including more than one opinion in their discussions and by not getting bogged down in taking sides and feeling like they had to be "right" all the time.

I think the Libertarians need to keep an eye on the Progressives--and vice versa.  In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, it became very clear to everyone with any kind of conscience that Social Darwinism isn't very nice and certainly isn't very fair, and as it turns out, isn't even "necessary" at all, come to find out.

So the muckrakers and trust-busters got to work and we began to see the importance of protecting the rights of the historically underprivileged.  And in hindsight, many of those issues now seem to have been very good ideas.

For example, when we read Barry Goldwater's objection to The Civil Rights Act of 1964--namely, that it included Title II ("Injunctive Relief Against Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation")--I think those of us who actually think today think, "Really?"

While we're willing to grant people the right to be as bigoted as they please in private, most people today would probably agree that public segregation and discrimination are just wrong.

If you can't earn a livelihood or use the nearest and cleanest bathroom or sit wherever you damn well please on the bus, your "Life, Liberty and pursuit of happiness" are definitely being affected and infringed upon, and it is up to the government to stop it.

But when and where does the government stop?  That is the Libertarian question, and I think it is a valuable one to ask of any Progressive issue: to my mind, it doesn't mean we nix the issue, it means we look at it carefully from all sides.

Again, the American government essentially told white American citizens in 1964, you have to award equal rights to blacks: it's the law.  Many people didn't want to do that; more importantly, many whites at the time felt that being forced to do just that would infringe upon their own rights as American citizens.

I think we always have to weigh where the concern--or the fear--is coming from and then evaluate what is fair for everyone.  This means some people will always have to give up a little something, and then they'll just big, fat, have to get over it.

What concerns me is when action and conversation grind to a halt because people feel they have to be right.  I think this is at the root of most people's discontent with the government.

Many Americans are or have been parents, so they know that, if your two-year-old insists that they are NOT going to bed because they DON'T need to sleep, you put them to bed, take the pain reliever of your choice (aspirin or vodka or both) and then collapse on the couch to listen to them scream until they fall asleep.

It's no fun to turn on the TV and crank up the volume to drown out an angry toddler's shrieks, only to hear a bunch of Washington bureaucrats doing something very similar.

Unlike sleep, effective government is not a biological necessity.  But it is a damn good idea.

So how do we achieve consensus and collective good from division and diversity?  We can start by simply setting aside our own preferences and predilections for a moment and listening to one another.

To my mind, this is perhaps the best way to begin to understand, value and assert our rights while simultaneously assuming our civic responsibilities.

1 comment:

  1. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, it became very clear to everyone with any kind of conscience that Social Darwinism isn't very nice and certainly isn't very fair, and as it turns out, isn't even "necessary" at all, come to find out.

    reminds me of a Dennis Miller quote. In referring to the left he observed;

    If you mention Christ they will bring up Darwin. If you say 'OK we believe in Darwin' they will say you should be more Christ like.

    Social Darwinism vs. Sanction of the victim

    not unlike the progressive vs libertarian parallels that you draw.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."