Simple Gifts


Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

Written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett (pictured) in 1848, this lyric places “gift” exactly where it says is “just right.” I thought that with the election now in place, I could get back to my thinking and writing about flourishing/sustainability undeterred by the babble all around me. I should have known better. As long as politics sells, rather than serves, the din will never go away. I want to focus on one phrase in the above well-known ditty, “tis the gift to be free.”

Freedom can and is thought about in two non-overlapping ways. Isaiah Berlin famously wrote in his 1958 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” about positive and negative liberty. He was following, whether intended or not, a conception expressed about 10 years earlier by Erich Fromm, which can be abbreviated to positive refers to the freedom to, and negative to freedom from. Berlin was clear in defining negative freedom, “Liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: ‘What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons.’”

I can’t find such a clear short definition of positive freedom in the essay. He related it to the ability (not just the opportunity) to pursue and achieve willed goals, but also saw it as a form of self-rule or autonomy, not depending on others. As many others have, I find the these two forms contradictory in syntactical form, but interwoven in practice. Both Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum echo the latter definition, arguing that the purpose of political economies is to provide people with the capabilities to live what I call a flourishing existence. Capabilities implies not only opportunity but means toward some chosen end.

So where do gifts come in. Candidate and loser, Romney vilified the government and Obama by claiming the election was won by “bribing” (my choice of word) potential voters. In post-election remarks to some of his donors, he said, “What the President’s campaign did was focus on certain members of his base coalition, give them extraordinary financial gifts (my emphasis) from the government, and then work very aggressively to turn them out to vote, and that strategy worked.” The gifts were things like forgiving college loans and passing Obamacare.

Romney and others that accepted his statements at face values are wrong both with the notion that any of these are gifts and with the implication that government should not provide “stuff,” a word he used in a similar conversation. Even those Randian libertarians who strongly believe that negative liberty is the only correct moral stance can be free to do whatever they want, but always to some degree, as Obama pointed out during the campaign, have to use “stuff” provided by others, including the government. The roads, most of our schools, national security, safe foods and drugs, are just a few examples of stuff that is essential to freedom is that sense. But even more, no one can exist in this world as a purely autonomous individual living in such a completely disconnected fashion from the world.

Leaving aside the period of life where one is highly dependent on parents and the families they create, even as adults, no one can survive without other people performing tasks that enable a single individual to not only survive but prosper in any sense of that word. The line between government and any other institution is completely arbitrary, and serves primarily as a political expedient to maintain power.

The idea of negative liberty carries no sense of what identity, self, soul, persona, personality or any other similar term provides to a meaningful life. That some meaning is critical for avoiding complete anomie, existential angst, or unmitigated evil has been well established in every moral-oriented form from poetry and other arts to philosophy, psychology, economics and so on. Adam Smith, the great grandfather of economics got there through his work on moral philosophy. I do not believe that even the most Randian, Hayekian ideologues would not finally accept and acknowledge the fact that they cannot exist without adjusting their lives to conform to the constraints placed on them by the world outside. Berlin pointed out that no society can run at either end of this spectrum; both forms of liberty are inextricably linked.

Those now arguing for negative liberty, by and large, start life with a pretty full binder of those basic capabilities, Sen or Nussbaum claim are essential for flourishing. They begin fairly high up on Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy. The Koch brothers, who we have heard so much about this election cycle, are the sons of a quiet Kansas millionaire, who incidentally was a critical supporter of the John Birch Society in its early days. They can claim success on their own terms, but not without noting that they got quite a substantial head start in life. They just happened to pick the right parents. But what about all those whose “choice” of parents did not land them so far up that pyramid such that they could add the capabilities necessary to get all the way to the top and become whatever they dreamed they could be. Not anything, of course—there are always limits to one’s possibilities—but more than the their place at the bottom of the pyramid or the social ladder held them to.

These men and women are included in the most basic moral statement underlying our nation:

[A]ll men (and women) 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.

But that ringing moral call requires that all human beings must possess some capabilities to exercise those rights. Those born in a social milieu where the ladder to self expression lacks the rungs to lift up oneself cannot exercise those Rights. Slaves obviously lacked any opportunity for more than minimal self development. The inequality of opportunity in the US has grown to such a degree that those at the bottom of the social ladder have vanishingly little possibility to rise up, especially in our consumerist, technologically driven society. They have neither the money to consume nor the education and skills to prosper in such a technological world. I wrote a bit about this recently, having been deeply awakened and depressed by a lecture by Robert Putnam on the state of inequality in the US.

The protection and realization of the Rights that these human beings possess are a moral responsibility of everyone who lives in the polity that the Declaration spawned, that is, the United States. What we do for them in any form are not gifts, which word carries a pejorative sense of gratuity when used politically. Gift also means, in a different context, something wonderful and special, as in a gifted individual. What those who have made the unfortunate choice of parents need mostly is a gift, in the latter sense, to allow them to find a rung, even near the bottom, on the ladder of possibility or opportunity. I suppose that those Randians I named above could argue that such gifts could be provided entirely by private means, but I also would expect those arguments to be without any practical basis. The problems of inequality today transcend by far the ability of private remedial means.

That government must, without any question or doubt, work to provide the capabilities needed to reach the ladder of possibilities should be a given in the US. The only question is “In what way?” Further, anything done is not a (gratuitous) gift, but a moral responsibility. Nor are those who accept and use the capabilities provided by the (wonderful) “gift,” an ungrateful bunch of “takers.” Such thinking and language should be banned from political speech in the United States. I find it as seditious as that which was a crime early in our Country’s history.

It’s time to face the facts that Putnam and others have unearthed and debate not whether but what should be done. There are certainly some who will fritter away the possibilities that whatever gifts are sent their way. But there should be no a priori judgments made according to social class or racial groupings. Only individuals fail to accept the help in the spirit in which it is given. Putnam makes the point that his study exposed inequality in mobility, that is, socio-economic class, not in wealth or income inequality. There is, of course much correlation between the two forms of inequality, but the remedies are very different. Adjusting the tax code can go far in fixing income inequality, but has little effect on the mobility status. Let’s face it. Only the right kind of gifts will do.

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David M. Carter said:

The different viewpoints on "freedom" you cover in your essay remind me of the key point Colin Woodard makes in his book, American Nations. He describes two of the eleven rival regional cultures as having very different belief systems about "freedom". He continues to make the argument that the current red/blue political divide in America is founded on the cultural differences of what he calls "Yankeedom" and "Tidewater".

Yankeedom was founded by English Puritans. They believed that people were born free. Many of the progressive political viewpoints you support in your essay come from this early American culture. The Tidewater perspective, by contrast, was that "liberty" (as they called it) was based, in some way, on the earning of freedom; either you were born into it by the hard work of your ancestors or you somehow carved your way to the top. This less egalitarian perspective, Woodard argues, is the foundation for red state beliefs about freedom.

The Yankeedom belief system does not provide for slavery, and supports political arrangements that level the playing field. The Tidewater belief system allows for slavery, and suggests that the playing field is arranged the way it is for good reason.

If you haven't done so already, I encourage you to read the book.