What does it mean to be free in the United States? I’m looking out my window. Cars pass. There is a business across the street whose lights just went on. Folks will soon be coming to a nearby bar to get a ride to a ball game. The workers in my own business are gathering to start the day. There is no sign of fear, no armed troops, no intimidating presences of any kind. Is that it? Is that what freedom means? Just not being bothered? I think not.
Public discourse on pretty much any political topic — that is, any topic involving the conduct of our government or our communities — has devolved into shouting matches. People actually go to training sessions to learn how to disrupt rational discourse in order to better promote their own points of view. That sad fact is, I propose, the result of a perverse notion of freedom.
There has grown up, or at least become more obvious lately, a notion that freedom is a first principle, and that freedom is defined as license, as my right to do anything I want. Interfering with the rights of others is, by that definition, not wrong in itself but only wrong because it might interfere with my own freedom. So, for instance, I shouldn’t steal from others because I will likely lose my freedom if I do so. I shouldn’t violate the rules of the road, cut others off, go as fast as I want, because I will likely be stopped and fined and thus have my freedom abridged. So the recognition of the rights of others becomes merely a strategy to best preserve my own freedom.
There is, however, an elemental problem with this view. I could calculate that violating the rights of others would not result in the abridgement of my freedom, and, if my calculation was correct, I could, “freely”, violate the rights of others. If I am sure I will not be caught speeding, if I have a device that assures me that there are no police in the area, then I can go as fast as I want and break any rule of the road that I want. If I had enough power to assure myself I would not be caught, I could fleece other people of their money. The possible examples are endless, and they are all played out in the news every day. People think they can get away with killing others, stealing from others, tyrannizing others. All these decisions follow logically from the belief that my personal freedom is the first principle of all action.
The fact, the real, concrete fact, however, is that this is not what freedom means in the United States. The first, the founding, the defining principle of the United States is that it is self-evident, i.e., it cannot be doubted, that every human being has inalienable rights. That means that it is not freedom that is first; it is responsibility for others. My freedom is derivative of that responsibility. I am free to drive our roads because I respect the rights of others to that road. I am free to engage in commerce because I respect the right of others to be treated fairly. I am free to walk the streets, play in the park, and even sleep in my bed because I respect, I insist on, the right of others to do the same.
We are today witnessing, not a constitutional crisis, but a far deeper crisis, an attack on the very principle that gave birth to the Constitution. We are witnessing a political attack on the very idea of responsibility to and for others. By shouting over others, by abandoning real and meaningful discourse for insult and propaganda, we are ourselves participating in turning our back on this defining principle of the United States. This is not a struggle between true conservatism and true liberalism. That struggle recognizes the value of both views in promoting the rights of all human beings. We are rather witnessing, and participating in, the tearing down of the very foundation of this country.
I promise not to do that, and if I have done it before I apologize. I will listen to those whose views differ from mine, and I will respectfully ask them to listen to mine. Most of all, I will vote, and I will encourage others to vote, for elective officials who will do the same. In the name of preserving the greatest experiment in political history, I hope you do the same.