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Ownership, Responsibility, Community & Dignity: Why Labels Matter

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Earn this!... Earn it!"

It is as he is dying on the battlefield that Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks' character) says this to Private James Ryan in "Saving Private Ryan."  The scene transforms the face of the young Private Ryan into the man he has aged to become as he stands before the graves of the men who died in the war.  He looks to his wife and says:

"Tell me I've led a good life... tell me I'm a good man."

In the larger, philosophical sense, it used to be that the word 'liberal' referred to someone who was committed to maximizing human freedom.  Liberalism (and the idea of 'liberal democracy') used to stand as an opponent of tyranny.  But I am more interested in what 'liberal' means at a much more personal level.  Because I am not a 'liberal', I guess all I can do is guess.  I suspect that much of what we see in modern liberalism was actually born among the Greatest Generation who came home from World War II.

Many among these men are very reticent to talk about their experiences.  So many others - men who they feel were better and braver than they - did not come home to tell their stories.  Those who did often feel very strongly that the memory of their buddies who did not come home demands they make something of the life fate left them to live.  The memories of their heroes demand they be good people.

I think when they came home they envisioned government as the agency to do for their neighbor the good which they could.  Their children - the Baby Boomer generation - picked up on this, as children tend to pick on their parents' political and philosophical outlooks (present company certainly included).

My father was born in 1940 (and died in 2010) and so was somewhere in between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.  He used to like to say: "The role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do for themselves, and to otherwise leave them alone."

And so understanding the difference between liberal and conservative really does not require a degree in political science or a dry dissertation on American political history.  It is the difference between government existing to do for our neighbors what we can, or to do for us what we cannot otherwise do for ourselves.

One of the principal themes of this blog is how the interplay of ownership, responsibility, community and dignity inform a conservative view of American politics.  My problem with liberalism isn't so much with my liberal neighbor - especially those who have survived war and want only to make sure they do not waste the precious gift of life.  They have a better sense than I of how precious this gift really is.  The problem is with the inevitable results of subcontracting out our responsibilities to some distant bureaucracy; the 'tragedy of the commons' overwhelms good intentions.

This 'tragedy of the commons' is a term philosophers use to describe a dynamic perhaps more easily articulated this way: when something is broken, and nobody owns it, fixing it is always somebody else's job.

Ownership starts with the sense that we are putting down roots where we live.  When the 'grass is greener' in another community, we have essentially two options: pine for the opportunity to move; or get to work greening what is ours.  While 'home ownership' usually produces this dynamic, you can put down roots as a renter just as easily as a homeowner.  And you can pine for the opportunity to move as a homeowner just as easily as a renter.

Responsibility is the natural outcome of nurturing a sense of ownership.  When a problem is discovered, and there is a sense of ownership, a sense of responsibility for solving the problem follows naturally.

Community is then discovered.  When you take whatever responsibility you can to solve a problem, you very quickly encounter others with that same sense of responsibility born of that same sense of ownership.  Before you know it, you have discovered your community.

Dignity then comes as the outcome of working together with others in the community to assume responsibility to solve problems owned in common.  This is the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing the results of this common work.  (Please stay tuned for a post on this in October.  "Dr. Jonas Salk Elementary School" in Mira Mesa [San Diego, CA] will be dedicated on what would have been Dr. Salk's 100th birthday.  Bringing this project to completion is a story of this dynamic, but I will wait to tell that story in full when the school is dedicated.)

But back to liberals and conservatives.  My problem with liberalism is that allowing a distant bureaucracy to confiscate our sense of ownership over the inevitable problems of our life together then robs us of what would otherwise give birth to a sense of responsibility.  That having been lost, we no longer discover our community.  And then those who most need the help of others are left with the indignity of truly being on their own.

Yet if government - political society - is limited only to those things we cannot otherwise do for ourselves, a maximum amount of room - freedom, if you will - is created for civil society to tackle those "things we do better together."   Because the solutions emerge from local people who best understand the problem - and who are not subject to the inescapable budgetary imperatives of government bureaucracy - the solutions are more likely to succeed and be replicated in other communities.

But all of this depends on a commitment to community.  It is this commitment which allows us to honor the graves of our heroes by making something of this gift of life.  In some sense it might "take a village," but it certainly does not take a bureaucracy confiscating the sense of ownership otherwise nurtured by those in the village.

Conservative political philosophy offers the opportunity to be able to look at yourself in mirror and know you've led a good life, that you have made the most of the life in front of you and that others have been positively impacted by what you have to offer.  But conservative political philosophy is demanding - it demands results over good intentions.  Those results come most reliably when political society gives way to civil society and ownership is nurtured, resulting in responsibility, community and personal dignity.

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