THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
One Man's Freedom is Another's
European Socialist Dictatorship
"And why are we, by world and historical standards, and to the limit of our willingness to give meaning to the word—why are we free? To make hard laws out of doubtful theories, and impose them and obey them at any cost? Nothing good can come of this. Great harm has come of it already."
— Marilynne Robinson
"The Children of Adam"
The announcement last week that the United States and Russia had agreed to a new arms control agreement must surely have confused an awful lot of people who thought the Soviet Union was dead. Why exactly the rusted relic of our old enemy poses a threat to us, even with its nuclear weapons, is anyone's guess. What next, a non-aggression pact with the Third Reich? Evidently there is a surreal logic to the Cold War that persists to this day in our relations with other countries. One supposes that the Russians and their neighbors over whom they once held dominion, now that they have tasted the sweet fruit of freedom, are disinclined to return to the bad old days of bread lines, unfashionable shoes and the gulag. On the other hand, the destitution in which so many people in the former Soviet Union are forced to live understandably makes many of them, especially the elderly, nostalgic for the relative, if illusory, prosperity of Stalinism. Being a prisoner in your own country is not a hardship if you can't afford to go anywhere anyway. Never mind Russia: consider our own country, where only a small minority of our fellow citizens even owns a passport [figures are hard to come by, but the highest estimates are little more than 20 percent], and foreign travel is viewed with suspicion by many as an elitist activity through which dangerous ideas like socialism are brought back into the country and spread through the body politic like parasites. The harassment and detention to which countless people, included many American citizens, have been subjected at U.S. airports since September 11, 2001 is of little concern to the hundreds of millions who have never been farther than Tijuana. As if the rest of the world didn't have enough reasons already to be wary of our commitment to human rights, this sorry episode has badly damaged not only our own freedoms, but, by emboldening the Chavezes and Ahmadinejads of the world, the prospect for greater liberty in other places that badly need it.
For the better part of the last two and a half centuries, people throughout the non-American parts of the planet have heartily scoffed at America's claims to be the world's defender of liberty. Regrettably, we and our forebears have given detractors no end of grist for the anti-American mill. We are, after all, the freedom-loving nation that only abolished slavery at the point of a gun, that ethnically cleansed the territories it coveted of the native peoples who were inconveniently living there, that interned its own citizens of Japanese descent during the Second World War, and that responded to the outrages of Muslim absolutists, who represent a threat immeasurably less existential than the ones posed by either European fascism or Soviet totalitarianism, by passing laws to restrict the very freedoms that supposedly make our lives worth living and dying for.
The traditional response to this hefty ledger of evils is a weighty resume of magnanimity: the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods, the Berlin airlift and the liberation of various subject peoples, massive doses of aid for the victims of hunger and disaster, the defense of prisoners of conscience, and so on. But this is the wrong response, and for two reasons. In the first place, every gracious gesture performed by a government (or an individual, for that matter) can be easily reduced in argument to an act of naked self-interest. Would we have bothered to stand up so fiercely to Communist totalitarianism, for example, had the Soviet Union not built an arsenal of nuclear weapons and perpetually threatened to invade Western Europe? Our former enemy's ideology and methods may have indeed been repulsive to us, and rightfully so, but so are those of the dictators of many less worrisome nations whose cruel abuse of their own citizens, in themselves, provide insufficient cause for military action. As far as foreign policy is concerned, the only difference between the despots of Myanmar and their equally despicable counterparts in North Korea is that the latter have nuclear warheads and long-range missiles with which to deliver them. As the Russian arms negotiator says to his American counterpart in the play A Walk in the Woods, "Without nuclear weapons, we will be nothing more than a rich, powerful Canada and an enormous Poland." And what reason could Canada and Poland possibly find to make war against each other? So much for ideology and decency as the driving forces behind international relations.
The second reason why we ought not to defend ourselves with a recital of random acts of kindness is that it is completely beside the point. America's real gift to the world is not our generous selves, but our system of government. Every nation can claim its share of crooks and humanitarians, but there is not a single country practicing democracy today whose establishment was not inspired, at least to some degree, by the example of the United States Constitution. The world is not so replete with worthy role models for good government that America, for all of the many shameful episodes that mar our history, can be so easily dismissed. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment has been our determination to stick by our fragile experiment in self-government despite the many setbacks that could have easily broken it. Our founders understood a basic principle that today's paper patriots are utterly incapable of grasping: that there is nothing the least bit exceptional about us. Jefferson, Madison, Adams and their contemporaries were entirely realistic about the depredations of mankind, including that of their fellow citizens. They reckoned that the best antidote to the ubiquitous tyranny that had ruled over humanity since its emergence was to create a way of running a country that protects its people from the mercies of mere mortals and their worst impulses — greed, the quest for power, indifference to suffering. Too many of us imagine our success to be owing to some superiority in our natures, to our "entrepreneurial spirit" or "love of liberty", as though these qualities are not found in abundance among all the peoples of the world. All the more inexcusable that we should trample on our own freedoms, which the Founding Fathers, who literally risked their necks for the revolution, valued far more highly than mere safety.
I and Thou
This begs the question: whose definition of freedom? The grand American experiment has never adequately resolved the clash between individualistic and communitarian impulses. With each succeeding presidential administration, we seem to veer from one notion of liberty to another. A proposal that one politician professes to be for the good of "the American people" raises hackles in another as an example of government overreach, the most recent obvious example being the rancor over health care reform. Conservatives in America claim the individualistic ground while liberals tend to advocate the communitarian view, but there is such a mishmash of competing interests within each of our two major political parties that neither comes within light-years of ideological purity. For example, Republicans are generally more hawkish on matters of national defense than Democrats, but putting an army onto the field is arguably the most communitarian exercise that any society can engage in. By the same token one would think that it would be the conservatives, who claim to despise government restrictions of any kind, who would support such causes as abortion rights, legalized drugs and gay marriage as matters of individual liberty and conscience. Ought they not to oppose corporate welfare, including agricultural subsidies, because they tamper with the invisible hand of the free and unfettered market? On the other side, should not liberals denounce political correctness and multiculturalism as threats to the common culture that binds us as a people? Isn't leniency for convicted felons as much a threat to the common good as bank deregulation? Isn't free trade as important to the nation's well being as free public education?
The cynical answer is that (a) neither of our two parties stands for much of anything anymore except the acquisition of power, or (b) people are generally in favor of anything that is good for them personally, and against anything that threatens to take something away that they already have. The first answer would explain why politicians are constantly being exposed for espousing views today that they thoroughly repudiated on old news clips. And the second answer would explain why a senior citizen actually demanded of a Congressman that the government should "take its hands off my Medicare". It's not that politicians are self-serving and venal (though they are) or that some people are just stupid (there's plenty of that, too). The problem is that we have completely lost sight of the social and political context of just about every issue we confront. For the health care debate to devolve into a shouting match about freedom and states' rights makes about as much sense as arguing that we should withdraw our troops from Afghanistan because the war is bad for the climate. These arguments are "true" in the extremely narrow sense that someone could make a rhetorical case for them if they had nothing better to do with their time, and score political points from them if they had nothing better to run on, but any child could see that they are utterly irrelevant to the issues at hand.
In the absence of either individual or communitarian principles, both parties operate primarily on the assumption that it's easy to give things away but nearly impossible to take them back. This is as true for tax cuts as it is for social programs. This tactic is oddly in parallel with the concept of "private luxury and public squalor", enunciated by John Kenneth Galbraith to explain why we live so nicely at home but throw our trash into the gutter — and then resent the taxes we have to pay for the street sweeper. To put it crudely, this can be summarized as the "I've got mine, to hell with everyone else" method of governing. Much as conservatives love to revile European-style socialism, hardly anyone who opposes Obamacare would object to living in an actual Western European "nanny state" if they really knew what it was like—that is, very much like contemporary America and virtually nothing like the Communist dictatorship of their nightmares. Who could object to low crime, free health care, free education through college, four weeks mandatory vacation each year, virtually unlimited unemployment and housing benefits, and reliable mass transit? Only a freedom-loving American could object to such tyranny—until, presumably, he actually had all of these things, too, at which time he would fight to the death to keep them.
Ironically, America's gargantuan efforts to remake post-war Europe in our own image have been hugely successful. Virtually all of our NATO allies now live in the peaceful and prosperous societies that we envisioned for them in the late 1940s, but denied ourselves. (Another excellent example of American innovation applied to great effect by somebody else.) Most of these countries have long ago settled in their minds and their body politic the balance between individual freedom and the public welfare. Good luck finding a Norwegian who thinks that free public nursery schools are an infringement of personal liberty, or a German who thinks that strong labor unions undermine a free society. This is not to suggest that any of these countries are paradise on Earth, or that they don't have serious problems and angry disagreements among themselves about how to solve them. But what they don't have is the preposterous self-delusion that paying taxes and receiving services in return, on a scale that only government can provide, puts them on a slippery slope to tyranny. They've already fought that war—twice—and won it both times. With our help, no less. Maybe it's about time we allowed the Old World to return the favor.
Announcement for everyone who thinks America's got all the answers: the bus to the unemployment office is about to leave the station.
April 3, 2010
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