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Obama On Negative And Positive Liberties

Some excerpts from Mr. Obama’s second autobiography, The Audacity Of Hope, pp 34-37:

“WE HOLD THESE truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Those simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration—that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can’t be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will—is one that every American understands. It orients us, sets our course, each and every day…

At its most elemental level, we understand our liberty in a negative sense. As a general rule we believe in the right to be left alone, and are suspicious of those—whether Big Brother or nosy neighbors—who want to meddle in our business. But we understand our liberty in a more positive sense as well, in the idea of opportunity and the subsidiary values that help realize opportunity—all those homespun virtues that Benjamin Franklin first popularized in Poor Richard’s Almanack and that have continued to inspire our allegiance through successive generations. The values of self-reliance and self-improvement and risk-taking. The values of drive, discipline, temperance, and hard work. The values of thrift and personal responsibility.

These values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will—a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper. Our system of self-government and our free-market economy depend on the majority of individual Americans adhering to these values. The legitimacy of our government and our economy depend on the degree to which these values are rewarded, which is why the values of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination complement rather than impinge on our liberty.

If we Americans are individualistic at heart, if we instinctively chafe against a past of tribal allegiances, traditions, customs, and castes, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all we are. Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies. We value community, the neighborliness that expresses itself through raising the barn or coaching the soccer team. We value patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation. We value a faith in something bigger than ourselves, whether that something expresses itself in formal religion or ethical precepts. And we value the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion

But we cannot avoid these tensions entirely. At times our values collide because in the hands of men each one is subject to distortion and excess. Self-reliance and independence can transform into selfishness and license, ambition into greed and a frantic desire to succeed at any cost. More than once in our history we’ve seen patriotism slide into jingoism, xenophobia, the stifling of dissent; we’ve seen faith calcify into self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and cruelty toward others. Even the impulse toward charity can drift into a stifling paternalism, an unwillingness to acknowledge the ability of others to do for themselves.

When this happens—when liberty is cited in the defense of a company’s decision to dump toxins in our rivers, or when our collective interest in building an upscale new mall is used to justify the destruction of somebody’s home—we depend on the strength of countervailing values to temper our judgment and hold such excesses in check. Sometimes finding the right balance is relatively easy…

More often, though, finding the right balance between our competing values is difficult. Tensions arise not because we have steered a wrong course, but simply because we live in a complex and contradictory world. I firmly believe, for example, that since 9/11, we have played fast and loose with constitutional principles in the fight against terrorism. But I acknowledge that even the wisest president and most prudent Congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of our collective security against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties. I believe our economic policies pay too little attention to the displacement of manufacturing workers and the destruction of manufacturing towns. But I cannot wish away the sometimes competing demands of economic security and competitiveness.

Unfortunately, too often in our national debates we don’t even get to the point where we weigh these difficult choices. Instead, we either exaggerate the degree to which policies we don’t like impinge on our most sacred values, or play dumb when our own preferred policies conflict with important countervailing values. Conservatives, for instance, tend to bristle when it comes to government interference in the marketplace or their right to bear arms. Yet many of these same conservatives show little to no concern when it comes to government wiretapping without a warrant or government attempts to control people’s sexual practices. Conversely, it’s easy to get most liberals riled up about government encroachments on freedom of the press or a woman’s reproductive freedoms. But if you have a conversation with these same liberals about the potential costs of regulation to a small-business owner, you will often draw a blank stare. In a country as diverse as ours, there will always be passionate arguments about how we draw the line when it comes to government action. That is how our democracy works. But our democracy might work a bit better if we recognized that all of us possess values that are worthy of respect: if liberals at least acknowledged that the recreational hunter feels the same way about his gun as they feel about their library books, and if conservatives recognized that most women feel as protective of their right to reproductive freedom as evangelicals do of their right to worship…

Of course, this approach to policy making doesn’t always work. Sometimes, politicians and interest groups welcome conflict in pursuit of a broader ideological goal. Most antiabortion activists, for example, have openly discouraged legislative allies from even pursuing those compromise measures that would have significantly reduced the incidence of the procedure popularly known as partial-birth abortion, because the image the procedure evokes in the mind of the public has helped them win converts to their position.

And sometimes our ideological predispositions are just so fixed that we have trouble seeing the obvious. Once, while still in the Illinois Senate, I listened to a Republican colleague work himself into a lather over a proposed plan to provide school breakfasts to preschoolers. Such a plan, he insisted, would crush their spirit of self-reliance. I had to point out that not too many five-year-olds I knew were self-reliant, but children who spent their formative years too hungry to learn could very well end up being charges of the state.

Despite my best efforts, the bill still went down in defeat; Illinois preschoolers were temporarily saved from the debilitating effects of cereal and milk (a version of the bill would later pass). But my fellow legislator’s speech helps underscore one of the differences between ideology and values: Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.

Notice how this passage starts out, and how it ends up.

That is really the alpha and omega of Mr. Obama as well.

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

6 Responses to “Obama On Negative And Positive Liberties”

  1. wardmama4 says:

    I fear Barack Hussein Obama much more and for many more reasons and the Democrat Party more than I ever have or ever will fear William Henry Gates and Maclom Stevenson Forbes, Jr. , at any time what-so-ever.

    Especially one who can’t see -‘ Illinois preschoolers were temporarily saved from the debilitating effects of cereal and milk ‘- that anyone with a lick of sense would see that creating dependency at age 5 is a very dangerous precident when combined with removing forever the responsiblity of the parent.

    Look at what it’s done for Chicago – isn’t it the murder capital of the US – or is that Washington DC?

  2. Liberals Demise says:

    Obama on the Negative – “You have too many”
    Obama on the Positive – “You didn’t need them anyway”
    Stalin, Lenin and Marx – Totally agree with Obama

  3. Liberals Demise says:

    OK…..OK……Castro and Chavez also agree with the Annointed One !!

  4. proreason says:

    “I firmly believe, for example, that since 9/11, we have played fast and loose with constitutional principles in the fight against terrorism”

    It’s passing strange. I just scanned the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    There are numerous references to Foreign States and Foreign Powers, but none to Foreign People or Foreign Nationals.

    The Bill of Rights has a lot of things to say about the rights of the “people”. Silly uneducated me always assumed that the people meant citizens of the U.S.

    Guess I was wrong.

    Obama sure is smart. But I guess that’s what you get with a Constitutional scholar.

    He is so smart and such a scholar, that he knows exactly where it is wrong and where it needs to be changed.

  5. Sandypebbles says:

    Pleazzzzzzz get real…..

  6. DEZ says:

    “Pleazzzzzzz get real…..’

    An instant classic, bold and intuitive.
    Pleazzzzzz share more, oh nuanced one!

    Do I even have to put up a sarcasm tag?

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