Whose Liberty?

 

As the nation’s social and political fabric is stretched to the tearing point, the call for liberty remains central to all sides in our national debates. A look through the lens of Americans’ pledge of allegiance can provide a focus beyond partisanship on some of our most divisive issues.

The origin of the pledge was a generic commitment for citizens to their countries, penned by Francis Bellamy in 1892:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

As the pledge was Americanized with additions–“of the United States of America” and “under God,” the commitments to indivisibility and “liberty and justice for all” were kept. Indeed, liberty was the animating inspiration for our nation, and liberty for all is an aspiration of Democracy itself, one that can only be realized if everyone values and supports the liberty of everyone else.

At least since Ronald Reagan famously declared that government is the problem, not the solution, Republicans, Conservatives, and Libertarians have tended to equate liberty with freedom from…government regulations, taxes, and intrusion into people’s private lives. Add now freedom from the tyranny of political correctness. The bottom line: Leave me and my stuff alone!

Democrats and Liberals are more likely to think of liberty as freedom to…participate in the benefits and security of a thriving society. There is little liberty, they argue, for someone who is too hungry to think, too tired to dream, or too threatened to step forward, for people unable to compete or participate in a socio-economic system that rewards only the strong, ambitious, and successful–whether earned or inherited.

Ironically, some restrictions on the personal freedom of Conservatives and Liberals alike can only be relieved or prevented by collective action through government. Curb cuts in sidewalks and ramps to public buildings grant mobility and independence to the physically handicapped; building codes and inspections keep bridges and buildings from falling on our heads; law enforcers protect us from con artists and violent criminals; Medicaid and Social Security give physically and mentally ill individuals access to drugs and health care; livable minimum wages allow those with minimal useful talent or opportunity a measure of economic self sufficiency; and public education provides access to the knowledge and skills needed to function in today’s world. Through such efforts, a great many Americans who would not otherwise do so are able to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Pledging liberty for all does not make it happen, our commitment to that pledge does; and that can require trade offs. Freedom from taxation for one person has to be balanced against the freedom of another to access public buildings. Freedom to follow one’s conscience by refusing to perform an abortion must be balanced against a woman’s freedom to not bear a child she believes she cannot care for. Freedom to make a fortune building a better mousetrap gets balanced against freedom of neighbors from the toxic chemicals it might take to build it. The freedom to bear arms should be exercised with consideration of the intimidation others feel in an armed and violent society. These are only red and blue issues if we make them so; essentially it’s a question of sharing…or not.

Perhaps we no longer mean what we said all those years with hands on our hearts, but it’s worth recalling that our pledge is not to our own personal liberty, but to one nation, indivisible, with liberty for all.

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