Liberty and responsibility can’t be separated. There is no dependence without interdependence. There are no individuals outside of community and society.
This is why a people who can’t be trusted with collective governance can neither be trusted with self-governance. Eliminating big government wouldn’t solve the problem. Corruption and oppression often is even worse with small governments. This is the failure of the libertarian fantasy.
More importantly, those who would take away from others the right and freedom of self-governance are those who lack the moral capacity for good governance. They shouldn’t be allowed to govern anyone, not even themselves. This speaks to the problem of ruling elites, whether in big or small government, whether local or centralized power.
Too often people who speak of liberty speak only for their own liberty while hoping to deny the liberty of others. This inconsistency shows that they don’t even respect the principle of liberty. It is just empty rhetoric and so dangerous rhetoric. We should fear those who use talk of liberty in order to undermine any real possibility of a free society.
The problem, as always, is the lack of functioning democracy. The balance of liberty and responsibility is democracy’s defining feature. If that doesn’t exist, there is no free society and hence no free individuals. Either everyone is free or no one is free.
“Instead of thinking of liberty as a set of natural or individual rights that must be protected no matter what, this other tradition also sees liberty as including a set of obligations, duties, sacrifices, and responsibilities that come into being as members of social communities and as human beings. Liberty in this view means living justly as part of and within a social community and as a responsible member of the human species.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Locations 395-397
6 thoughts on “Beyond Liberty Alone”
Nice. Libertarianism, in my view, is just an ideological rationalization for selfishness and greed — which increasingly plague this country. We need less Social Darwinism, more New Deal socialism. Less Ayn Rand, more John Rawls.
The thing is that the rhetoric of libertarianism is persuasive. It can even be inspiring. Who doesn’t love liberty? It is what America is about.
Yet as Schwartz makes clear in his new book, liberty has always been a greater concept than (right-)libertarians give it credit for. He suggests that we on the left should not cede the word liberty to the right.
Liberalism is about liberty as well, but it offers a broader and more inclusive vision. We need to defend liberty from those who would abuse it.
Schwartz says that he wrote his book primarily for those in the younger generation who have yet to fully make up their minds.
He realizes we live in a society where a one-sided debate about liberty dominates the mainstream. He wants to help the younger generation to have a deeper understanding so as to see past simplistic rhetoric. Chomsky calls this intellectual self-defense.
I like the argument Schwartz makes. It isn’t entirely original, as he admits in the book. He points out that even Jefferson admitted to saying nothing original. Still, the way Schwartz says it is needed. He is giving voice to something too often left silent in our society and he gives it his own twist.
Another reason I like it is that it offers a higher vantage point. It allows us to shift our gaze above the tired conflicts between left vs. right. I think that is why he focuses so much on liberty. He seeks to reformulate the ideal to be something that uniteds, instead of divides.
I know some libertarians, both older and younger. In some ways, they are typical white social conservatives. But they aren’t wealthy ruling elites. The two libertarians I most personally know both grew up in the Midwest, at least one of them in smaller rural towns. They think of themselves as good people and good Americans. Their belief in liberty is principled.
They aren’t closedminded ideologues. They’ll listen to other viewpoints and can even be made to reconsider their own views. It’s just that they grew up surrounded by a particular set of right-wing talking points. They didn’t previously know that there even was another interpretation of liberty.
Because I know them personally, I feel more sympathetic. Like me, they too take liberty seriously. Like me, they have questioned their own beliefs. Maybe instead of division, the ideal of liberty could unite people who otherwise wouldn’t see eye-to-eye.
Maybe or maybe not. I just know that I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand any more than I’d want them to do that to me. I want dialogue. Liberty is a framework that might allow dialogue.
I hope so.
That said, I’m not naive. I can at times have great sympathy, but my toleration has clear bounds.
When I see some of the uses libertarian rhetoric gets put to, I can feel righteously angry to an extreme degree. It pisses me off because the intellectual dishonesty, sometimes straigh up moral depravity, behind much of it. The Koch brothers do not give a shit about liberty. They are worthless scum.
My toleration most abruptly ends when any form of voter disenfranchisement is involved. I’m of the opinion that the GOP leadership should be ousted from power for abuse of power. They should have their voting rights revoked. Using voter purges and making voting more difficult for the poor and minorities should be unacceptable. That is an act of pure political evil. The one thing we cannnot tolerate in a democracy are anti-democratic actions, especially when promoted by politicians.
We are going down a road of authoritarianism and fascism. And it is being done in the name of “liberty”. We have to fight against such cynicism as if our lives were on the line because they are. If we lose our democratic rights, we will lose everything. America will no longer be the land of liberty.
In response to those who use the rhetoric of liberty, we must demand that they live by their own self-proclaimed principle. And we must hold them accountable, if they refuse to hold themselves accountable. Anyone who dares to use liberty as a defense better be willing to be judged by that same standard. That judgment should be harsh and unforgiving.
Looks like a very interesting book, Benjamin! Think I’ll get a copy and study it.
I also agree with everything you say above, including your comment about how we’re going down the road of authoritarianism and fascism. I think most Americans sense this but are either unable to articulate it or are in denial. A huge reason for that, I think, is contained in your comment about hour two libertarian friends, namely, that “they grew up surrounded by a particular set of right-wing talking points.” Unfortunately, those “right-wing talking points” (e.g. about “freedom” and “personal responsibility” and “success” and “the American Dream,” etc.) have become an all-encompassing national discourse that assaults us 24/7 from all directions — TV, radio, magazines, billboards, internet, political speeches, you name it. There’s no avoiding it — it’s become “common sense” for all Americans, encouraging them to strive for a good (i.e. lucrative) career, make lots of money, have a fancy home, fancy cars, etc.
Because of this rampant materialism, Planet Earth — the one home we can’t do without — is heating up and getting more and more polluted. Our finite natural resources are dwindling while our population keeps growing. We’re on a collision course with nature, yet the consumerist ideology that drives this country — and increasingly the world as a whole following our lead — continues unabated. More than anything else, what we need to do is challenge that very ideology; otherwise, we’ll just be re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic.
Does Schwartz do that?
I’ve only read the beginning chapters of his book. I can’t make any conclusive statements about it yet. The main thing he seems to be doing is creating the language to discuss and the framework to understand a broader vision of liberty.
It isn’t a difficult book, but it is based on serious research. He wrote another book that I’ve read parts of (and have been meaning to finish as well). In it, he goes into the history about ‘liberty’. It is a more academic book. This new book is meant to be more accessible, although it still has detailed notes in the back.
His book in some ways is outwardly simple. It is highly focused. There is depth of insight, but he doesn’t wander far from the concept of liberty. He sees that as the heart of the matter and hence the source of our problems, as Americans and as humans on the planet. He is hoping to have a real influence on people by shifting the entire debate.
Still, he is just one voice. He realizes that. In tone and attitude, he sort of reminds me of Thom Hartmann. They both see present problems as being deeply embedded in historical issues. I’ve been recently reading Hartmann’s “What Would Jefferson Do?”. I sense a kind of optimism in Schwartz that Hartmann regularly expresses. It’s a genuine faith in the American experiment.
As far as I can tell, I’m in basic agreement with Schwartz. I have to read more of this book to see how far that agreement goes. I have a radical streak that may go further than the book. Is the concept of liberty really the central issue that Schwartz thinks it is? I don’t know. I’ll have to give it further consideration.
Here is his website:
He blogs. If you comment, he’ll respond.