The year that is just closing, 2015, has been full of events that continue to dominate the news, including renewed racial tensions on the streets of American cities, growing fears about terrorist attacks on the territory of the United States, and one of the most fear-focused presidential campaign seasons in living memory.
Through it all there is one underlying thread that is not always given the attention it deserves: the increased political straightjacketing and threatened loss of individual liberty.
Let us be frank. Race relations may not be what they were, say, fifty or sixty years ago, but it remains a fact that tensions and conflicts still abound in the interactions between people of differing racial and ethic backgrounds in the U.S.
The Legacies of Collectivism
The legacy of cultural, social and economic history dies hard, and this is true not only for the United States, but around the world. For thousands of years people everywhere lived their lives in often tightly knit tribal and collective groups with narrow definitions of group identity.
The notion of freeing ourselves of many aspects of these tribal and collective identities is a relatively new concept. It is really only about three or four hundred years old in terms of having a manifested impact on human society. And it started in only one corner of the world, in parts of Western Europe, where the idea of philosophical and political individualism slowing began to take hold.
The individual came to be seen as the central character of human existence, and not the feudal estate, or the religious order, or the nation-state. The individual before this was viewed as someone whose role, if not very existence, was as an entity to work, obey, sacrifice, and if necessary die for the collective to which he belonged. His interests were considered subservient to and always in potential conflict with the tribal or collective good.
Individualism, Individual Rights, and the Free Society
The emerging philosophy of individual rights turned collectivism on its head. The premise of this new idea was, of course, captured in the American Declaration of Independence, when it spoke of the individual’s inalienable right to his life, his liberty, and his pursuit of happiness.
The tribe or group was not seen as an ethereal entity with an existence separate from and independent of the individuals who made up some society. Society slowly came to be seen as the short-hand summary expression for the interconnected associations and relationships of individual human beings as they went about their peaceful, honest and productive everyday activities of attempting to improve their own lives and that of others than may care about.
We do not always appreciate the radicalness of this idea. The individual is not the property, the slave, and the sacrificial animal of a group that may do virtually anything it likes with him when it serves the declared “higher purposes” and “needs” of that group. He owns himself. He lives for himself. He finds purpose, meaning, value and happiness for himself.
This does not mean that he is an “island unto himself,” an “atomistic being,” as some critics of individualism have attempted to portray this idea. What it does mean is that the individual is free to form his own peaceful, voluntary, and mutually agreed to associations and relationships that advance his purposes, meanings, values and peace-of-mind through which he strives to have a sense of fulfillment for his life.
It is not imposed, commanded, or coerced upon him. In this view of man and society, government is not an enforcer of some asserted “common good,” or “general welfare” or “national purpose,” to which the individual shall be confined and made to conform. Government is merely a human agency – an important one, no doubt – whose purpose is to protect each individual’s right to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property; not a violator or abuser of those rights.
Racial Relations and the Ideal of Individualism
In America, one of the worst carry-overs of the collectivist mindset from the Old World was slavery, and made even more group identifiable since it ended up being based on race in the form of enslaved Africans brought to colonial America and then the United States.
The southern States that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 may have made their case on the right of states to withdraw from the Union; but the primary motivation for their decision to do so, if you read the explanations of secession as publicly made by the state governments of South Carolina, Georgia, or Mississippi, for example, was the perceived threats from the North to the institution of slavery.
A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, some residues of that forced human association still linger in our society. This past year it was seen in a series of racial conflicts in a number of places around the country from allegations of police misuse of force on the streets of some American cities to the murder of innocent people during a Bible study in the basement of a church.
But we should not forget just how different social, cultural and racial attitudes were and have been changing in many people’s lifetime. To pick one example, when black actor Richard Roundtree had a shower scene with a white woman in the 1971 movie, Shaft, it was considered a step beyond the publicly acceptable. Now on the television show, Scandal, the black female lead has affairs – near simultaneously – with two white men, one of who is the president of the United States, and that has become a cultural yawn. Times have changed, and it has become so much the “new normal” that we forget how much of a difference a few decades have made.
It would have been and is difficult enough for people to overcome their tribal and group senses of identity even in a free society based on individual rights and impartial and equal rule of law. This has been made even more difficult by the heavy-hand of government that been reintroducing definitions of identity based on race and ethnicity.
Racial Tensions and Repoliticized Collectivism
Affirmative action, government set-aside programs and subsidies for “minority” groups, and various group rights based on racial and ethnic classification all have acted as reactionary political processes reawakening people’s group-oriented sense of who they are due to how the government uses its power to tax, spend, redistribute, and regulate to benefit some such groups at perceived cost or disadvantage to others.
This has reversed, in my opinion, some of the noticeable advances that had been and were being made, slowly-but-surely within these minority groups and between groups. It is the continued and renewed politicization of race relations, I would argue, that has made this problem a continuing sore in American society.
However imperfectly in practice, the American ideal was to look at and judge people as individuals. Now we are back to the tribal idea that we judge and reward people on their collective identity as pronounced as deserving “special treatment,” at the expense of others. All of this, of course, occurs in a political process of manipulation, propaganda, and control to benefit politicians desiring to have or retain high political office and special interest groups who feed off real and exaggerated grievances that justify their own position and power.
Terrorist Fears and American Foreign Interventions
The other greatly intensified social concern is the pervasive fear of domestic terrorism after the tragic events in Paris and San Bernardino. Here, too, the concern for personal and public safety threatens a further loss of individual freedom and personal privacy from prying political eyes.
Concerned about religious and political fanatics in far-off parts of the world who commit primitive and barbaric acts of torture and murder in the name of God, and who then bring it to areas outside of the Middle East in the form of mass killings, many Americans and Europeans are ready to raise the drawbridge, build walls and narrow even more people’s ability to freely move around the world.
However, what many ordinary Americans and almost all of those active in the political arena are unwilling to seriously consider is that a good part of what we have been experiencing is the unintended consequence of American and European foreign intervention in parts of the Islamic world.
American political and military intervention in the Middle East has been going on for decades. We have propped up some dictators and monarchs and opposed and fought against others. We have toppled regimes, most recently, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and are increasingly being draw into the civil war in Syria. And in the process we have unhinged political and cultural balancing acts that may very well be based on coercion and corruption, but nevertheless, reflected the situations on the ground in those countries.
Making Enemies as Governments are Toppled
Overthrowing or undermining those governments have released religious, ideological and political demons that have set loose a whirlwind of death, destruction and brutality, as well as general societal destabilization.
The old adage says, the friend of my enemy is my enemy. American and European intervention in these countries inevitably and inescapably involves viewing some as the “good” (or “better”) guys and others as the “bad” (or more “worse) guys.
Those who are rejected as our “friends” not surprisingly soon come to view us as their “enemy.” And when it is in a situation in which the demon forces set loose include some of the worst features of religious intolerance and absolutism, we should not be surprised if their madness and brutal practices are eventually directed against us, as they see American political and military power as a threat to their own designs within their part of the world.
The emotional response is to seal off America to prevent the madmen from coming in, and to want to go worth and crush them at their source through some form of additional political and military intervention.
In the process we threaten and reduce our own freedom. In the name of “national security,” all must be placed under the umbrella of comprehensive surveillance and intrusion into anyone’s personal affairs and communications. Everyone is to be subject to search and travel restrictions. Everyone must be expected to be an “informer,” ever watchful and reporting on one’s neighbor’s activities if they seem “suspicious.” Everyone is further put under the microscope of government observation and extended control – just in case there is “something” the security apparatus needs to know to prevent another violent tragedy.
That our own government’s foreign interventions bring at least some, if not all, of this on us is so politically sensitive and charged with negative consequences for those in political power, that it is shunted aside as the out-of-date and “unrealistic” ramblings of “isolationists.”
Classical liberals, libertarians, and some non-interventionist conservatives have never argued for “isolationism.” They have traditionally called for the widest possible “open borders” and free movement of goods, men, money, and ideas to bring about mutual betterment and improvement in the material, cultural and social conditions of all human beings everywhere.
What they have opposed are political and military entanglements and interventions that thrust America into the affairs of other countries with harmful effects, often, on the people in those foreign lands as well as financial costs, lost lives and reduced freedom for Americans at home.
Our Terrorism Fears are Costing Us Freedom
Finally, the character of the current American presidential election cycle does not bode well for the cause of liberty, either. Putting aside the personalities of the candidates, their personal attacks on each other, or the circus-like quality of the television debates, the discussions have primarily revolved around how better to limit the freedom of people in the name of border and immigration control or to fight the “war on terror.”
The arguments are not focused on how best to limit or prevent criminals or terrorists from entering the country within the context of Constitutional respect for and guarantee of Americans’ individual rights or the reasonable right of human beings in general to freely move for any and every peaceful purpose they wish to pursue.
No, the discourse is more on the hysteria of fear that because we can never be sure to have found every terrorist needle in the migration haystack, it is best to devise ways to limit or even prevent people from freely entering the country and peacefully interacting with Americans for lawful and mutually beneficial trades and associations. A Berlin Wall in reverse is the imagery that keeps people out, and throws out any that are placed on the government’s list of reasons why they cannot stay, even if it has nothing to do with violence or crime.
There are numerous domestic crimes and acts of violence that very possibly could be reduced or even eliminated in some cases if local, state and Federal government policing agents were not expected and required to recognize, follow and respect Constitutional restraints on violations of the freedom and privacy of people such as those codified in the Bill of Rights.
We accept that sometimes “bad things” will happen; even very bad things. But we take that as part of the price and the cost of our liberty. We should take exactly the same attitude and view when it comes to any issues surrounding violence and crime that may sometimes happen as a result of those who enter the United States from other parts of the world. It is part of the price and cost of being a free country different from many of those abroad that we rightly condemn and criticize for their own lack of practicing freedom.
We should take the lessons of the last year and try to do better in understanding, respecting and protecting our liberty, before another year passes and we have even less than the new year begins with.