The United States of America was founded upon the principle of the rights of the individual; they are paramount in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This emphasis on individual liberties represented a major paradigm shift in a world where monarchs could do whatever they wanted to their subjects. The secular humanist principles enshrined in our founding documents are the precursors to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established by the United Nations (which have, if nothing else, created the template by which we judge the humanitarian records of all governments throughout the world).
Unfortunately, the preeminence of individual rights seems to be going out of favor on both the left and the right in the U.S., which is a harbinger of a much less free and prosperous society.
The Republican social agenda has largely been taken over by religious extremists intent on enforcing their own doctrines on the rest of society, at the expense of individual liberty. From the attempts to criminalize abortion to enshrining discrimination against gays in the Constitution (among other virulently anti-gay measures), the Republicans have lost touch with the libertarian roots of conservative philosophy. Some conservative commentators have gone so far as to decry “radical individualism”, which as far as I can tell refers to the “radical” notion that people should be able to live the lives they want, not what reactionary social norms dictate.
In addition, the Republicans continue to try to restrict all forms of speech that they find “offensive” (which often has to do with sex acts, but never with violence in the media). Republicans used to counter the claims by Democrats, who insisted that they stood up for “the people”, by insisting that they stood up for the individual. That is no longer true. A country that values individual rights is one where the majority cannot enforce its will on the minority simply because members of the minority upset some people’s moral sensibilities.
Democrats have begun to shy away from individual rights because they have come to associate individualism with greed and a lack of concern for the greater good of society. As the left has become less comfortable with free markets and globalization, they have erroneously linked individual freedoms to laissez-faire capitalism, which they deplore. The latest round of anti-individualism to spring from the left is found in the recent issue of the American Prospect magazine, in which John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, in trying to come up with a unifying theme for the Democrats, conclude that they should stand for the “common good”. Not only does this strike me as a little too close to the word “communism” (I prefer “public interest”), but it demonstrates a lack of understanding that the common good is best supported by emphasizing individual liberty; this is something the left has often had a hard time grappling with.
As Adam Smith famously noted, it is people exercising their freedom of opportunity and advancement who drive progress in society. While the left and the Democrats would have us all do national service, it would be much better if all of the future Nobel Laureates and innovators spent that time honing their skills so that we could all benefit from them even sooner. Overall, society benefits less from getting everyone to spend a couple years working in communities doing service than by making sure that everyone’s unique skills are developed to the max. (Think of it this way: would it be better for society if Bill Gates had spent two years picking up trash in a poor community or getting Microsoft started earlier? Keep in mind that the Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in the world, and doing probably more good than most governmental aid programs.)
Both Democrats and Republicans have fallen victim to extremist “law and order” dogma with respect to individual drug use, and have backed unjust and draconian laws that punish people for their personal choices. The fact that cigarettes and alcohol are legal while people get jail sentences greater than for murderers and rapists for using marijuana or cocaine is insane, and will no doubt be a source of national shame in the future; it is clearly an attack on individual liberty. (There is a small class of drugs that incite violent behavior, e.g., PCP, and drugs such as these should be completely prohibited).
But what about civic virtue, a sense of shared sacrifice, and restraining the negative effects of certain behaviors?
All of these are crucial elements of a democracy, but they are best achieved in ways that minimally, if it all, restrict the freedom of individuals. Civic virtue is something that can be taught in schools at all levels. Getting students at a very young age engaged in politics, and reinforcing this all the way through college, is one way to ensure that citizens are informed and engaged in the democratic process. Our shared sense of sacrifice can best be harnessed through redistributive public policies. For example, basic universal health care will likely require some increase in taxes, and will require politicians to appeal to our sense of helping those who have fallen through the cracks of our health care system, many of whom are children. As to restraining the negative effects of certain behavior, these efforts need to be focused on areas where there is a clear demonstrable link between the behavior and its negative effects on others, and laws or regulations must also be properly fitted to the activity. For example, smoking cigarettes is legal but smoking in public places is not; drinking alcohol is legal, but driving drunk is not.
In summary, what has made America great is its emphasis on individual liberties and allowing individuals to exercise their own free will to fulfill their aspirations. This does not lead to moral chaos, but it does require people to accept that not everyone will make choices that correspond with one’s own moral convictions. In addition, societies focused on individual liberty often result in widely divergent socio-economic outcomes because not everyone will make the best decisions, and some people are endowed with greater talents than others. But society as a whole prospers most if the actions of individuals are only minimally constrained, and redistributive policies are enacted that help everyone to share in the prosperity.
I can only hope that future politicians will some day once again put the individual liberties at the top of their agenda. For Republicans this will mean a return to true conservative principles, while for Democrats it will require a greater appreciation for the benefits of the free market capitalist system.
P.S. Here are two great articles by Susan Jacoby; the first on how the Constitution was a purposefully secular document and the second on why we should keep all religion out of politics.