During this troubled year, the people we sent to Washington, D.C., continued to shirk their responsibility to us all, choosing instead to focus on being re-elected and thus enabled to extend their irresponsibility.
Much has been written, including here, about the ideological divide that has rendered Congress impotent to address the nation’s many severe problems.
As the standoff has grown and hardened, many commentators have come to the discouraging diagnosis that we have arrived at a disagreement about the appropriate role of government so fundamental that it cannot be resolved. The only way that solutions to our problems can even be attempted, they feel, is through one side electorally destroying the other – that compromise is beyond possibility.
It’s certainly true that liberals and conservatives have vastly different concepts. Hard-core liberals see government as a necessary, consistent and often helpful presence and a guard against tyranny by majority. Avid conservatives see government itself as always on the edge of tyranny and would minimize its reach in any way possible.
This divide as it is reflected in the voting populace turns even “off-year” elections into swing elections, ensuring that every two years the struggle begins anew because guarding the perimeter of the divide takes precedence over all other considerations.
But the dispute is even more fundamental than differences among people in Congress about the nature and role of government. It is a disagreement among all of us about our individual roles in society and the true meaning of liberty.
The nature and role of government is, after all, something that can be codified and agreed to in writing (at least when there’s a willingness to do so). That’s what happened in 1787 and what the continuing American experiment in self-governance has striven for since then.
Individual liberty, however, is a more personal matter and a more challenging concept.
Is individual liberty something that each person has and may retain even at the potential expense of all other people in the society? Or is it something that all people in a society have and may retain even at the relative inconvenience of some?
To hear the recent furor about lightbulbs, as one small example, one would conclude that some people cling to the first definition of liberty, as if the inalienable right to use incandescent bulbs were enshrined in the Constitution. Even though incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of the energy they consume, which negatively affects every American, some believe that the liberty to choose them trumps all other considerations.
Likewise, hearing the debate about mandating health insurance, one would conclude that many believers in the first definition of liberty claim a right to freeload on the medical system that overrides any obligation to help solve the nation’s most threatening long-term economic problem.
We need to fret a bit less about congressional gridlock and its origins and think more deeply about the personal duty we owe to each other. Securing the blessings of liberty as premised in the Constitution’s preamble is neither a singular activity nor an appropriate singular goal. Individual liberty exists only because our society values it, and so we owe something in return.
The deeper problem lies not in Congress but in us. If we don’t understand and act on that reality, we risk destroying the greatest society ever assembled.