Restoring the Language of Obligation

March 13, 2012


In her campaign for the U.S. Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy, Elizabeth Warren last year earned the admiration of the left and the ire of the right for proclaiming that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” In the widely viewed YouTube video of her remarks, she says with conviction that everyone who enjoys economic success owes a debt to society: “Part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Progressives hailed her rare courage in acknowledging the legitimacy of paying taxes; conservatives shrieked that she is just another one of the socialists from whom they need to “take back” their country.

Both sides are mistaken. Warren’s courage was not rare, and her politics are hardly socialist. In fact, the sensibility that undergirds her observation about social responsibility is as old as the first English settlements in North America. Until recently, duty was taken for granted by all but a few people on the fringes of American political life as one of the essential features of self-government. One of the saddest facts of contemporary political discourse is the ignorance of most Americans about the centrality of the concept of obligation in American history. Of all the damage Ronald Reagan did to the United States, perhaps the most severe was his stupefyingly successful campaign to persuade Americans that the “free market” has always ruled America and that government has always been distrusted and held in check by liberty-loving individualists. Although that idea now reigns on most right-wing talk radio and television shows and even infects the assumptions of so-called centrists, it is a fantasy.

But it’s not just the right that has stopped talking about citizens’ obligations. Ever since the 1970s, most American liberals have traded the language of duties for the language of rights. Unless we start talking about our responsibilities to one another though, the richest Americans will continue to exercise their right to increase the distance between them and everybody else. For several decades now we have been witnessing the consequences of the so-called free market for those without the resources or the training to exploit the new economy of the twenty-first century. If we want to address that problem, we have to restore to American liberalism the language of obligation.

Beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England and continuing through the ratification of the U.S. Constitution a century later, freedom was never invoked without reference to the responsibilities it entailed. During the War for Independence, the former colonies had to produce state constitutions, and the Massachusetts Constitution—drafted in 1779 by John Adams—provided the template many other states followed. Since Adams has become American conservatives’ favorite founder, they might find his ideas about government and obligation surprising. Adams did proclaim the rights to life, liberty, property, free expression, and trial by jury, yet he insisted that those rights must be balanced against citizens’ obligations. Not only must citizens obey the law, worship God, and contribute to maintaining an educational system that extended from elementary schools to the university in Cambridge where George Washington’s soldiers had bivouacked during the war; in a government of the people, Adams insisted, duties matter as much as rights because “good morals are necessary to the preservation of civil society.” Without “the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality,” some individuals would be tempted to look to their own “private interest” instead of the proper end of government, “the common good.”

Adams was hardly alone. James Madison envisioned a federated structure for the nation because he considered it “the only defense against the inconveniencies of democracy consistent with the democratic form of government.” Defending citizens’ rights was crucial, but attaining “justice and the general good” and “the common good of society” he judged equally important. Both the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans, and then the Whigs and the Jacksonians who succeeded them, accused each other of threatening the delicate balance between freedom and obligation. Against the rights of free white men championed by Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, first Federalists and then Whigs countered by emphasizing the responsibilities those white men owed toward slaves, Indians, women, and children. True, different Americans understood the commitments toward freedom, toleration, benevolence, and popular government in strikingly different ways. At no time did a unitary tradition of shared values ever exist in America. Most white Southerners came to define their obligations in relation to the defense of slavery. Other Americans, however, ranging from the Whig Davy Crockett, the homespun frontiersman who opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, to the Republican Abraham Lincoln, the Kentucky native who denied that the wolf’s freedom extends to the sheep’s life, insisted that liberties are always circumscribed by moral obligations.

The post-Civil War period brought a change. Briefly, for a few years after the failure of Reconstruction, some American writers and politicians enthusiastically and self-consciously embraced the idea that freedom trumps responsibility. They bolstered the idea of laissez-faire by arguing that “survival of the fittest” is the principle governing not only natural selection but also social and economic life. The post-Civil War campaign to restrict government authority did not liberate the energies of throttled entrepreneurs from the stranglehold of monarchies and landed aristocracies. Instead it merely empowered a generation of robber barons, in a frenzy of unregulated economic activity, to amass fortunes unprecedented in American history…

Read it all.

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