June 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ famous album, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The event startled me in two distinct ways. First, I cannot believe that a whole half-century has passed and second, as I reflect on those times long ago, I cannot help but observe that our democracy has regressed.
The year 1967 was a time of strife in America, both as a response to the Vietnam War and as a continuation of the struggle for civil rights. Yet, for me, it was a wonderful time to be alive. As music critic Jon Pareles described it, “It was the beginning of the ‘Summer of Love.’ It was a time of prosperity, naive optimism and giddy discovery, when the first Baby Boomers were just reaching their 20s and mind-expanding drugs had their most benign reputation.”
As a wide-eyed freshman at Fordham University, I had hope for our country’s future. Yes, we had divisions, but we talked to each other. We respected each other. Perhaps my sentiment was more a result of an age-related naiveté, but that was truly my feeling at the time.
Today, we don’t talk to each other. Name calling, threats and sometimes outright violence have replaced tolerance and listening. President Trump has done his part in feeding a national wave of hate and divisiveness both as a candidate and as president, but we all bear some responsibility. The irony is that we actually share a philosophical heritage.
Our political traditions are grounded philosophically in the liberalistic tradition that emerged gradually after centuries of struggle leading to the overthrow of rule by monarchy. Individual freedom is the supreme value of this tradition since the liberal ideal is the person left at liberty to pursue his or her own idea of the good life, without interference from the state. A second defining value is rights. Rights are considered to be “pre-political” and inviolable.
In the process of providing a more exact definition of the precise nature and limitations of these two concepts is when we witness our common thread start to fray into diverse and sometimes antagonistic strands.
Libertarianism, ignoring issues of inequality rampant in a free-market economy, took the concept of “negative freedom” to its logical conclusion. The “Mother of Libertarianism,” Ayn Rand, who I had the dubious pleasure of meeting, believed that competition was necessary in everything including court systems and police. Although today’s versions of libertarianism are watered down, its blind eye toward the inequities and injustices rampant in their version of a free wielding, non-regulated corporate America is either naive or extremely callous.
Another outgrowth is what is commonly referred to as “social democracy.” Social democrats also value freedom, but they also take the problem of poverty and inequality seriously. Although they accept the existence of inequality, their answer is for government and society to work together to provide opportunities for as many people as possible. Unlike the minimalist government projected by the libertarians, social democrats would like the government to do what it can to correct inequities that are inevitable in what most people recognize to be an unequal playing field.
A third group to emerge from our common liberal tradition are the “communitarians.” This particular school of thought takes issue with the entire liberal tradition. They emphasize the common good rather than the rights and freedoms of individuals. They suggest that the overblown focus on “individual choice” damages the public interest. They talk of “responsibilities” rather than rights and accuse liberalism of placing too much value on the individual while ignoring society as a whole. Unlike social democrats, communitarians like to trace their philosophical heritage all the way back to Aristotle who maintained that “man is a special animal that lives socially.”
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor is one of the leading voices of the communitarian camp. He rejects liberalism as fostering only “negative freedoms” and as a consequence being too limited and shallow. Liberalism’s focus on the choices of individuals (negative freedoms), he argues, should be replaced by positive freedoms, which allow each person to achieve their true potential. The mandate of communitarians, like Taylor, is that instead of measuring our social progress in individual terms we should join together and strive to eradicate the social phenomena that prevents people from truly exercising their freedom: poverty, consumerism, ignorance and the inequities created by the free market.
The debate around rights and freedoms is one of the most stirring and healthy examples of the vitality of a true democracy. We have learned, sometimes the hard way, that government intervention is often crucial in remedying an injustice and even solving a problem. But how much government is too much government? Are our concepts of individual freedom antiquated or perhaps in need of tweaking? Should we extend our list of guaranteed rights?
Last November would have been an appropriate time to have a national debate on competing visions of our nation’s future. Instead our computers and airwaves were flooded with character assassinations, name calling, mindless slogans, and emotional appeals to irrationality and hate. That experience and the eight months since make the Beatles’ lyrics from that old album seem only half right:
“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time (can’t get much worse).”