Thursday, April 17, 2014

Do rights come from democracy? Or does liberty pre-exist governance? Are individualism and equality in confllict?

Back in the 1990s, a lot of my attention, particularly when I wrote about gays in the military and gay rights, concerned the relationship between “fundamental rights” and the Constitution.
Today, George Will has a major column on p. A15 of the Washington Post, “Democracy v. Liberty, or online “Progressives are wrong about the essence of the constitution, link here.  He starts about by taking issue with Stephen Breyer in his 2006 statement that the Constitution is basically about “democracy”.
Will points out a basic dichotomy between conservatives (of the libertarian kind) and progressives.   He says that progressives view democracy as a source of liberty, whereas libertarians, at least, believe that liberty pre-exists the state and therefore democracy.

Progressives believe that democracy protects the individual from “the strong”.  Libertarians believe that liberty should protect the individual from the majority, which is strong in numbers, and perhaps solidarity.
How to those who are “different” fit into this?  Liberals want to put “the divergent” into immutable groups and guarantee their rights as derivative of some sort of relative organizational strength, which again favors those in power.  Conservatives, at least social ones, see the “divergent” as mooches who can undermine the moral discipline of others and the ability of everyone to take turns sharing sacrifices.  It’s on the last point that the far left and far right come together.  Remember the ideology of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960’s? Libertarians want individual rights to be absolute (which is usually a good thing for gay people for example) but sometimes don’t see the sacrifice and discipline that makes today’s liberty possible.  Some of that “sacrifice” can be emotional – the willingness to enter into and stay in relations that take into account the needs of others and not just one’s own expressive aims. I think the way free speech arguments work gets interesting – it seems to be an absolute right, but the distribution of speech sometimes puts others (especially parents) who have taken on more responsibility in some peril.

As I’ve written in my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book, I think that there is another way to put this dichotomy:  individualism (that is, more or less absolute liberty, the Barry Goldwater kind that can “shoot straight”) begets innovation, but individualism also depends on inequality, even as hyperindividualism shuns socially necessary interdependence.  It is this fundamental inequality that breeds instability, that makes interdependence necessary and that can become so problematical for the “divergents”.

In the book, I also develop the idea that the way the “divergent” individual balances his or her own expressive desires with the practical needs of others in the immediate family and community becomes a moral issue.  Not everything is a matter of choice and responsibility for choice, because we have all benefited from sacrifices of others that we don’t see. I can go through many incidents in my life, all the way back to boyhood but especially in the college-military years and then more recently, with eldercare, where others could make demands on me that I really could not make free choices about – because I “belong” to a community.  It’s adding up what others really want that becomes difficult, because there are so many contradictions among what “they” want.  (Oh, there is no “they”.)  The extreme case is provided by considering what use I would be in a society after a real catastrophe (like some I have discussed here in book and movie reviews).  Without the ability to belong, I would become like the people I pass by and ignore with disdain. 

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