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Life, liberty…what a load of selfish nonsense!

Yesterday was the 4th of July, the day Americans celebrate the country's independence. But the writer Kurt Andersen decided to be a party pooper, and took to the New York Times op-ed pages to bemoan "the downside of liberty". 

"The document we're celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness' - individualism in a nutshell," he writes. But "selfishness" is "where liberty and the pursuit of happiness lead us." Both the political right and left are both to blame: "For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won."

Andersen's downbeat piece is an example of how many of those on the liberal-left today are suspicious of the idea of individual freedom. For those that adopt that perpective, it is "axiomatic" that liberty slides immediately into selfishness, and therefore liberty needs to be constrained.

Andersen writes: "From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal." He quotes the author of the Declaration of Independence himself, Thomas Jefferson, to back up his case: "Self-love," wrote Jefferson, "is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others."

But Andersen is wrong to counter-pose individual freedom to community and morality - something Jefferson avoided. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" expresses the high value placed on the pursuit of freedom in a tolerant and open society; in particular, free from state interference. Within that realm, people are free to argue for moral values, and to construct communities as they like. Indeed, if individuals do not have the liberty to make choices - including the freedom to make bad choices - then they are not true moral agents.

Andersen's latest op-ed is consistent with the theme in his 2009 non-fiction book, Reset. Rich and poor, banker and hippie - he sees greedy and selfish Americans everywhere. And it was all started by that document published on July 4th, 1776.

2 Responses to “Life, liberty…what a load of selfish nonsense!” Leave a reply ›

  • Amen. The American left, and particularly the journalists we all read are becoming a negative, and yes, boring lot. When I run into an occasional differing point of view, I rejoice. One does not have to be a right wing fanatic to appreciate the uniqueness of the American experience.

  • I guess I don't read too many so-called "leftist" columnists or journalists. I found the piece profoundly silly and indicative of a type of person that longs to be controlled. Yes, there are greedy, selfish, ignorant, and stupid Americans. What a surprise! Both the Declaration and the Constitution rest on the idea of the creative tension between tyranny and license. The ideal would be liberty - a form of ordered liberty that recognizes the individual's place in a web of relationships that stretch beyond the family to the society as a whole. It is embodied in Mill's On Liberty as opposed to Bentham's utilitarianism or Spencer's Social Darwinism.

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