Tuesday, December 22, 2009

essential liberty

They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,

And no one shall make them afraid.


-- Micah 4:4 (NRSV)


Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.


-- Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759


It’s clear that Franklin, the apparent author of an aphorism oft-quoted both in liberal and in conservative culture, never experienced basic insecurity. If he had, he would have known that people who lack even “a little temporary safety” never arrive at the discussion circle about liberty.


As an American, I am a child of Enlightenment in my political life. As a Unitarian Universalist, I am a child of Enlightenment in my religious life as well. The tradition of restricted government and individual liberties, first hinted in the Magna Carta and rumbling through the British Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the noblest creation of humankind; but like all human creations it has a blind spot, right in the middle of its retina.


The Bill of Rights does not include a right to eat. Nor does it include freedom from random violence. But without basic security the very notion of individuality cannot form, and those who lack a notion of individuality will also lack imagination of any rights to privacy, liberty of conscience or freedom of expression. Essential safety is presupposed in all American political discourse. Individual life has a necessary infrastructure of physical nourishment, spatial separation and secure boundary, without which the words of our founding documents are so much scholastic jaw-wagging. The American documents were created by a class of people who, though they risked the penalty of treason against the greatest power of their day, took daily safety for granted. King George might have hanged them, but they did not expect to be shot in their homes by street gangs. Not everyone however is essentially safe, and there is therefore a profoundly mute under-underclass whose interest, despised by left and right alike, cannot even be spoken.


Fareed Zakaria wrote that new democracies lacking liberal institutions, whose per capita GDP is less than $3,000, are doomed to failure and tyranny.* When ignorant and brutalized people vote, even under the supervision of international agencies, they elect demagogues and terrorists in a culture of “one man, one vote, one time.” There really are, he would say, occasions when a good king is better for the world than a bad democracy; and our virtuous efforts to make the world safe should focus less on written constitutions and voting rights than on broad prosperity and distribution of wealth, and on fostering the culture and institutions that could lead a democracy toward freedom – the school, the law, the press and the university. “First, a government must be able to control the governed, then it must be able to control itself. Order plus liberty.” A would-be democratic people must be trained for the maintenance of democracy, or there’s no telling what they’ll do. We are more afraid these days of failed states than of evil ones.


Tyranny is too often popular. Even our own nation, once the world’s model of liberal democracy, now seems susceptible to tyrannical charms. What our infantile selves really want is not elected representation but a good king – the father/ruler (Arthur, Charlemagne, David or Stalin) who will beat down our enemies and render us safe. In a culture of liberal democracy, we are trained to put down that infantile voice; we know that no one is worthy to save us, that the stooge we elect is the least of evils, and that the least of evils is much better than the worst. But such mature calculations require a certain patience, which desperate people lack. That’s why it’s in the interest of democracy to prevent large-scale desperation; and why it’s in the interest of demagogues and tyrants to create desperation, and proclaim it widely.


We’re in the season when, according to Christian culture, the Prince of Peace arrives. The metaphorical light that Isaiah hoped would shine on a benighted people is Israel’s anointed warrior/king, who will break “the rod of their oppressor,” so the people can celebrate their freedom “as people exult when dividing plunder” (9:3-4).


In Micah’s analysis of peace, it’s his second clause that seals the deal. Not hard to see that before peace can come, everybody must have a life-support system. That each shall sit under a vine and a fig tree that he owns, and that provides food and shelter, shade and leisure. But although this infrastructure is necessary, it cannot suffice, because it is inherently unstable. Oppressed people who have just received their little bit of property are susceptible to fear, easily manipulated into monstrous acts against real or imaginary enemies – the newest immigrants, the racial minorities, the gays or the Jews. That’s why, if peace is to prevail, “no one will make them afraid.” No one can be permitted to take away their vine and fig tree. No one can be permitted to threaten to take away their vine and fig tree. And most important, no one can be permitted to tell the lie that someone else – the immigrant, the black man, the gay person or the Jew – will take away their vine and fig tree. Invoking that fear in the hearts of the marginal, of people who have just obtained their little bit of sustenance, is the timeless strategy of rising dictators.


All realms owe their people safety, and when they fail to provide it they cannot expect to survive. We liberals, classical or contemporary, don’t like to be reminded that, if the people are unsafe in their houses, under their fig trees and on the streets in front of them, they will hear our talk of liberty as a song of privilege, sung by over-educated aristocrats who despise them, about rights whose meaning they will never know. We cannot then expect their gratitude or their votes. Law and order is the first freedom that we owe the people. Once that’s provided, we can discuss the Bill of Rights with proper humility.


*The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003)

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