Sunday, September 26, 2010

Santayana and the Tea-Partiers

I just completed Santayana's Character and Opinion in the United States, and was struck by what he writes regarding liberty in the final essay of that book.  He was comparing what he calls "English liberty" favorably with other conceptions of liberty, and those "other conceptions" seem disturbingly familiar in these disturbing times.

Conceptions of liberty, like most things, may be reasonable or unreasonable.  Reasonable conceptions of liberty, according to Santayana as I understand him, acknowledge limitations to liberty, because it is necessary to do so to achieve anything resembling harmony in our affairs.  X's liberty may infringe on that of Y; it may be necessary to restrict liberty in some cases to foster the common good; we shouldn't have the liberty to trample upon others, much as we may wish to do so, merely because we may do so, still less because we think we should do so.  "English liberty" which was largely the conception of liberty acknowledged by those we insist on calling the Founders of this glorious Republic, and the political system they put in place is therefore one which operates as a series of "checks and balances" on power as we were all taught, or perhaps simply told, in the happy days of our youth.

Conceptions of liberty which maintain that we all should be free to do whatever we like are unreasonable.  Too often, those who maintain this view actually mean that they should be free to do whatever they like.  It is a conception of liberty which seems essentially (and inevitably) selfish.  Santayana notes that it is often a highly romantic view, having its basis not only in self-love but in the belief that we are entitled to unlimited freedom because this is required for us to achieve some goal set either by some God or ourselves in some personal quest for glory or renown, or because this is a kind of birthright we have merely by being humans (or better humans than others).  It is the conception of liberty peculiar to the martyr, the madman and the criminal according to Santayana.

This conception of liberty seems to have taken hold of some of us.  I confess to having libertarian leanings, but the tendency of some to object to almost all government action of any kind and to object to it because it infringes on our self-proclaimed sacred liberty is a matter of concern.  It is, first, unrealistic.  Any thinking person in these times must know that his/her liberty is necessarily restricted, and that he/she wants the liberty of others to be restricted.  It is hypocritical.  If something bad happens to one holding this conception of liberty, it may reasonably be expected that they will be shrieking that the government should be doing something about it.

It seems to have its basis in a romantically nostalgic view of a past which likely never existed.  The cowboy, a kind of 19th century migrant-worker, probably didn't celebrate his freedom much.  His life was likely a Hobbesian one, nasty, brutish and short.  The very wealthy and well-off doubtless had pretty much their way with everyone else in the past; it's not that long ago that the robber-barons did whatever they pleased, and if we but think a bit it will occur to us that most of us would not have been then, and are not now, in a position to do whatever we please, and that we'd rather not see others doing as they pleased.

Limitations on government (and especially government spending) are desirable.  But the current anti-government movement is too often infantile and short-sighted.  Those limitations should be intelligent limitations.  The fact is that most of those on our hectic political stage are not seeking limitations in any intelligent sense.  They are as beholden to special interests and certain government programs as any other politicians.  If they are brave enough to support cuts in spending, they will not do so with respect to that spending those who support them consider to be their bread and butter.

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