The idea of liberty, when truly understood, invites and even obligates us to respect the liberty of others. Yet, as we so often see, the most exalted virtues in the world can give rise to practical vices.
One such vice that has often occurred in American history is the habit of some people to claim that their own endowment of liberty gives them a power to diminish or destroy the liberties of others. Among the earliest examples of this were the people in New England’s Puritan colonies who demanded religious liberty for themselves but used it to destroy the religious liberty of others.
Another colonial example is the liberty-loving people, especially in the Southern states, who insisted that they possessed the right to keep slaves. They created a unique system in which slavery was justified by the liberty of the master.
This way of thinking gradually attached itself to libertarian ideas of maximum protection for private property and minimal government. Long after Emancipation and the end of de jure slavery in 1865, echoes of these ideas remain very strong.
Another vice derived from a distorted notion of liberty appeared early in the history of the American Revolution. In the summer of 1775, John Adams was on the road in Massachusetts and met a man he described as “a common horse jockey” who was “always in the Law, and had been sued in many Actions, at almost every Court.”
“Oh! Mr. Adams,” the jockey said. “We can never be grateful enough to you. There are no courts of justice now in this province, and I hope there will never be another!”
In response, Adams turned to his diary: “Is this the object for which I have been contending?” he asked himself. “Surely, we must guard against this spirit and these principles, or we shall repent of all our conduct.”
Adams, of course, was not the first, or last, to confront those who conflate liberty with anarchy. From a very early date to our own time, some Americans have demanded the benefit of liberty and have denied any responsibility to bear its costs.
Many libertarians in the U.S. are consumed by an obsessive hatred of taxation. In the spring of 2008, when federal income-tax returns came due, hundreds of “tea parties” were organized to protest the payment of taxes, even though the federal rates are lower than they have been for many years, and lower than in most other developed societies.
They claimed to embody the spirit of the American Revolution, which they characterized, inaccurately, as a tax revolt. But the American revolutionaries of 1776 objected not to taxation but to taxation without representation. After 1789, they taxed themselves more heavily than the U.K. Parliament had ever proposed to do. Americans of that time understood that taxes were fundamental to a free republic. In the 21st century, a great many people in the U.S. reject that idea, and politicians pander to their selfishness.
Freedom, another fundamental concept in the U.S., is something distinct from liberty -- and has its own virtues and vices. Liberty is about the rights and responsibilities of independence and autonomy. Freedom is about the rights and responsibilities of belonging to a community of other free people.
This definition applies not only within our own time but also across many generations. It asks us to remember that we are not the first or last generation to walk upon this earth, and that the responsibilities of mutual belonging make us stewards of the land, and of our society, for others who will come after us.
Freedom Means Belonging
The concept of freedom as belonging also has given rise to many practical vices. One of them is to claim a license for one’s self-governing community to persecute strangers -- to exercise freedom in a way that denies it to others. In the 20th century, for example, an astonishing number of U.S. communities outside the Deep South were “sundown towns” that forbade blacks to remain within their boundaries after sundown. Those who refused to leave were expelled, sometimes brutally. In 1970, the state of Illinois had as many as 475 sundown towns, according to research by the historian James Loewen.
On rare occasions when the ordinances that perpetuated these practices were challenged in court, they were usually found to be unlawful or unconstitutional or both. But local governments ignored the courts, and communities continued to enact sundown laws.
With much urging from libertarian conservatives and neoclassical economists, the great U.S. republic has shifted from a view of freedom as a right of belonging in a free society and toward the notion of liberty as an individual’s right to be left alone by government and to have more complete control of his property.
This tendency developed rapidly during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush. It appeared in some of the New Democratic politics of Bill Clinton, who attempted to combine free-market economics with a social conscience. And it continued in more extreme forms during the administration of the younger George Bush.
But while this was happening in Washington, popular currents began to flow in a different direction. In the summer of 1998, for example, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal interviewed Mark Levy, a psychoanalyst in San Francisco, who expressed discontentment despite having done very well by most measures. When he read that a young founder of Yahoo had made a billion dollars, the news ruined Dr. Levy’s day.
“Here I am about to go to work on a holiday,” Dr. Levy complained, “and I’m reading about a guy who is 31 and a billionaire. I don’t know these kids. Maybe they’re not so happy. But it’s hard to stomach this kind of discrepancy.” He wanted to know, “Where is the justice in this?”
Life Is Unfair
Here was a very American conception of unfairness as an idea of relative deprivation of exceptional advantages.
This story demonstrates how people feel when they realize that the American system is gloriously free, but it is not very fair. There has been a growing idea that the politics of both parties have made an unfair system even less fair than it had been before.
The U.S. system has greatly expanded its ideas of liberty and freedom, and it has succeeded remarkably in mediating between competing ideas of what it means to be free. But we have not done well with fairness which, from time to time -- for instance, during the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt -- becomes a preoccupation. The 21st century finds Americans assessing the issue of fairness yet again. Even in partisan exchanges, both sides speak not merely of fairness but of fundamental fairness, which elevates the idea into a moral principle.
Something else has been changing, too: the material condition of the U.S. Now that the country is in its fourth century, the old feeling of boundlessness is not so strong. Many people fear they may lose their jobs, and that this could happen without regard to merit or achievement. More Americans are awakening to the realization that their economic system may be free, but it can be deeply unfair.
In regard to liberty and freedom, though, something has gone profoundly right in America. These great ideas have spread rapidly around the world, changing as they grow. Many nations in the past generation have invented for themselves fundamental laws that enlarge and protect freedom and liberty in various ways.
Democracy also has been spreading around the world. “Fair” and “free” are ideals that can reinforce each other. After titanic struggles against many forms of tyranny and cruelty, the world today is slowly learning to embrace them both. Many generations have learned from the experience of those who came before them. So might we.
(David Hackett Fischer, who teaches at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, is the author of “Washington’s Crossing” and “Champlain’s Dream.” This is an excerpt from his book, “Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States,” to be published Feb. 7 by Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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