Monday, April 20, 2009

Libertarian .v. Communitarian

The political atmosphere in the United States has been fraught with conflict since its birth. A revolutionary war fought to win independence from Britain, fights between Native Americans and those who would take the land from them, a deeply bloody Civil War fought over the idea of states rights, slavery and the desire to keep the new repulic whole. The last few years we have seen a battle between "red states" and "blue states," liberal and conservative but I think we have failed to frame the current debate properly. When you say it is between states you fail to consider that there are lots of "blue" people in red states and "red" people in blue states. Talking about liberal and consverative is just as useless. Was George Bush a conservative? He expanded government control and spending. What about Ronald Reagan? He, too expanded government. What about Bill Clinton? He declared the era of big government over. The labels we have been using just don't describe what is really going on. We need a better descriptor.

I believe we are caught in a battle between those who see the need for community with those who champion personal rights. With apologies to Amatai Etzioni, who has led the "Communitarian" movement in this country, and to that small but noisy "Libertarian" party which has run a candidate in the last few presidential elections and which was given voice by candiate Ron Paul in 2008, the battle we are seeing in this country is between the "communitarians" and the "libertarians" (small c and small l.) The problem is that the forefathers envisioned both elements as core to this democracy.

The talk of "we the people in oreder to form a more perfect union" envisioned a nation where we are all in it together. That sense of community is one of the two pillars of our democracy. But the founders also suggested that the other pillar should be "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"--clearly a set of personal liberties that gives each of us the opportunity to rise and fall as individuals. But our forefathers also believed that government had to create the conditions for this to happen. This tension between what is best for all and what is best for each forms the core of the debate taking place in this country on nearly every level.

What are gated communities if not bastions for libertarianism? Yes, they are communities but isolated within a larger context. The question is how big is the circle we live in. The battle over school vouchers and choice is another front. Should government pay for the individual choice of parents or are schools a community enterprise created for the greater good? What about the current "tax revolt" evidenced by the tea party thrown last week? Why pay personal taxes to support others? In fact there is more than a little irony that many of those promoting the tax revolt are also those who promote vouchers. By their logic you should only pay taxes for the things you want but it is OK for others to pay taxes for what you want invidually.

It was pointed out by some of the pundits that the states where there is the greatest interest in breaking out of the tax system are those that receive the greatest benefit from it. By their logic, if they left they would get fewer services, not more. Likewise, the states that the are greatest "donor" states in paying more taxes for less return, were states which were some of Obama's biggest supporters and which seem fairly comfortable with being communitarians.

The only way to make sense of all this is to see it through the lens of communitarian and libertarian differences. Do we have government to create a greater sense of community or should it just get off our backs? Last week not only saw the reprise of the Revolutinary War's tea party (except that was about taxation without representation and last week seemed to be about taxation with representation) but we also saw the governor of Texas suggesting that maybe it was nearing the time for Texas to secede from the union. So apparently we are also still not settled over the causes of the Revolutionary War or the outcome of the Civil War. Now while many of us are bemused by Texas' oversized sense of self, there is a darker issue here. It is quite simply whether the system created by the forefathers will endure into this millenium.

The reality is that while we may long for the "good old days" when a six shooter settled all differences and that manifest destiny ruled, we now live in a highly complex world with external threats that require military power for response. You can't rely on vigilantes and a state militia to deal with Iran or Al Qaeda. And we need rules and regulations that will keep us from choking to death on pollution or drowning because of melting oceans. We need to make sure that our food and drugs are safe and that there are means of transporting our necessities over long distances so roads, rails and air traffic need to be provided or and controlled. And as we have seen lately we risk drowning economically because someone decided to use our savings for a gambling spree in the stock market and that needs better controls.

The last eight years were a time when fear of terrorism was used to curtail individual rights and liberties and now fear of economic security is being used to make us less trustful of government.We need liberty from governmental tyranny and from the tyranny of fear. And we have to understand we are in this together. Martin Luther King suggested we are bound into a single garment of destiny and that what affects one directly affects all indirectly. This dance between the one and the all must be conducted carefully and fear isn't not the music we need to follow.

I think the forefathers had it about right. Our form of democracy is always going to be a balancing act between having a deep commitment to community--to the manifestation of that Biblical call to be "our brother's keeper" and that very deep American trait of individualism and self care which makes each of us master of our own fate. It can't be an "either or" proposition. We all have to be communitarians and libertarians and we have to give each side a little more slack.