arrow-right cart chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up close menu minus play plus search share user email pinterest facebook instagram snapchat tumblr twitter vimeo youtube subscribe dogecoin dwolla forbrugsforeningen litecoin amazon_payments american_express bitcoin cirrus discover fancy interac jcb master paypal stripe visa diners_club dankort maestro trash

Shopping Cart

Sound thinking

Community, the giver of freedom

Thomas H. Naylor and William H. Willimon on why suspicion about big government shouldn’t take the form of autonomous individualism

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Community, the giver of freedom

“[I]n this book, our concern for the harmful effects of large institutions arises not so much from our concern for individual freedom but rather out of our concern for the well-being of the community. Governments, as we have known them in this century, have a nasty habit of bringing order but destroying community, of forcefully yoking people together, but of destroying interconnectedness.

“While there is much that we like in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick, like many anarchists before him, depicts society as a collection of individuals who, from time to time, out of their own self-interest come together to cooperate with one another. In an odd sense, there is a connection between modernity’s much-praised free individual and the totalitarian states which have made this century infamous.

“A great deceit fostered by modern society is that modern government treats us as ‘individuals’ — sovereign, isolated persons. Modern democracy found that by rendering all of us into ‘individuals’ — free-standing, isolated, autonomous units detached from community, tribe, and neighborhood — we were easier to manage and manipulate. The isolated individual, standing alone, disconnected from tribe, neighborhood, or family, proved to be no match for the totalitarian tendencies of the modern state.

“In his provocative 1979 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ portraying life in communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel describes life in liberal democracies such as the United States:

“It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automation of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex foci of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analysed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself. In his June 1978 Harvard lecture, Solzhenitsyn describes the illusory nature of freedoms not based on personal responsibility and the chronic inability of the traditional democracies, as a result, to oppose violence and totalitarianism. In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.

“We have therefore discovered the irony that true freedom is dependent upon community. I know what I want, what wants are worth having, only in community where I receive the training, acquire the habits, learn the history, and gain self-knowledge to the point whereby I can lay hold of my life and name who I am and where I am going. My ‘I’ is not an individual achievement but rather the gift, the product of a community which helps to name me, place me, value me, and tell me who I am.

“Liberal democracies have been willing to tolerate great economic inequalities in exchange for their protection of individual ‘freedom.’ Liberty may mask other forms of domination. The question is not so much, Are we free? but rather, What is the purpose, the end, of our freedom? We have thought it possible to have a society where people are given freedom to exercise their ‘rights,’ without an argument about which rights are worth having and toward what end the exercise of our various rights is moving us.

“In The Needs of Strangers, Michael Ignatieff argued that most contemporary political philosophy speaks of ‘justice’ as an individual problem. The needs of groups and communities are subordinated to sets of individual needs. Yet more than this, Ignatieff says contemporary political philosophy is worse than too individualistic. In lacking any account of the good, we are led to believe that all of our individual needs are worth meeting, that all of our desires are our rights. If I feel a desire, then that desire is elevated to the level of a need, which is further elevated to the level of an essential right.

“The societies created by this account of human beings as bundles of boundless needs to be met tend to be societies free of constraints upon the needs of individuals within them. Both liberal-capitalistic and Marxist societies tend to be imperialistic, telling members of those societies that the government can deliver all that the individuals’ hearts desire. Government exists to reward our unrealistic expectations. Thus, government has become our God.”

— from Thomas H. Naylor and William H. Willimon, Downsizing the U.S.A. (Eerdmans, 1997)