What is the future of the American project?

Published 11:17 pm Friday, November 13, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden has won a narrow victory in the Presidential election.  President Trump, however, claims the election was stolen through fraud.  In 2016 Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on Russian interference.  The lack of legitimacy accorded to these election winners raises a question: Do Americans still want to be part of the same nation?

To answer, let’s consider what constitutes a nation.  A nation is a set of institutions or rules, like the just completed election campaign.  The rules also spell out the fundamental rights of citizens.

Citizens agree to live by a nation’s rules.  Yoram Hazony writes in The Virtue of Nationalism, “Each institution teaches, persuades or coerces its members to act according to these fixed purposes and forms, abiding by accepted general rules and procedures, so that they can reliably act as a body, without each time having to be persuaded or coerced anew.”

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An institution or nation is strong when “the individuals identify the interests and aims of the institution as their own.”  People will feel loyalty toward other citizens who embrace the rules.  This means, as Mr. Hazony continues, experiencing the hardship and happiness of fellow citizens “as if it were [our] own.”

Today liberals and conservatives view each other as “ignorant” and “evil.”  Many supporters of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden believe that election of the other would permanently harm America.  The bonds of loyalty Mr. Hazony describes are dissolving, if they have not already dissolved.

Perhaps this should not surprise us.

Liberalism (or classical liberalism), as embraced by America’s founders, holds that government exists to serve citizens.  America’s great contribution to the liberal experiment was founding a nation on the idea of freedom.  Other nations had enjoyed freedom – England and the Netherlands during the 1700s and Athens, Rome and Venice previously – but were not founded on freedom.

The American idea was powerful enough to overcome our founding’s contradictions.  The words Thomas Jefferson wrote – while owning slaves – were so profound that freedom was eventually extended to all.

The idea of freedom was relatively new in 1776.  America’s founders carefully studied history and liberalism.  They knew that freedom involved throwing off King George’s yoke and strictly limiting government power.

Over the past 250 years at least two distinct visions of human freedom have emerged.  One sees people as capable of self-governance.  With rights of property, contract, association and speech – what are now termed “negative rights” – people, communities, and commerce will flourish.

A second vision views negative rights as insufficient.  True human freedom requires liberation from the economic need, because otherwise market forces dominate peoples’ lives.  Positive or economic rights to healthcare, education, or a high paying job as fundamental.

Asking “Which vision is correct?” is unhelpful.  For decades thinkers have detailed the arguments for these visions.  Yet significant disagreement still exists and is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Without agreement one vision, our government produces compromise.  Democrats expand government marginally and Republicans trim back a little.  But compromise produces a muddle, and I think a lack of progress toward their preferred vision drives much of today’s bitter polarization.

Ramming the policies to achieve one vision through provides one alternative to compromise.  Yet without genuine consensus, this just fuels conflict.  And it violates our liberal values.  Liberalism began by recognizing that all lives matter, not just rulers’ lives.  Forcing a vision of freedom on someone is absurd.

Religious freedom embodies the liberal ideal.  Separation of church and state allows Americans to worship as they choose.  We recognize that forcing someone to renounce or not practice their religion denies them their dignity.

Yet the rules necessary to achieve different visions of freedom are incompatible.  People cannot have a right to own guns or to healthcare only when Congress assents.  We either have rights or we do not.

When political theorists had one vision of freedom, one nation founded on the principle of liberty was enough.  Fulfilling the American project with multiple visions require multiple sets of rules.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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