Celebrate More Than Normal on the Next July 4

Posted July 8, 2009 at 1:48pm

Independence Day frequently makes political theorists and political philosophers reflect on the complexities bound up with the concept of freedom. For most Americans, Independence Day is a day when we celebrate the simple beauty of living in a country that gives priority to the value of freedom over all other values.

Political theorists and philosophers, and even some politicians, are not wrong to reflect on the complexities bound up with the concept of freedom. Freedom is one of the most studied concepts in the history of Western moral and political thought — certainly in modern Western moral and political thought.

A famous distinction was drawn by Sir Isaiah Berlin between “negative— and “positive— freedoms, namely freedom from noninterference by others and freedom to develop your potential or your full human capacities.

The classic freedoms of noninterference are freedom of speech and freedom of religion: In each case freedom means I have a liberty to pursue an end and others have a duty or a responsibility not to prevent me from my pursuit. My freedom to pursue the religious practice of my choice means that you cannot stop me or indeed harm me as I’m walking to a religious sanctuary.

The notion of positive freedom has no classic example, but it is typically associated with the idea of becoming the person you want to be by developing cognitive, emotional or physical capacities according to some ideal you freely set for yourself.

I can be free in the negative sense but un-free in the positive sense if I don’t actively pursue the development of my talents and my capabilities.

This distinction between negative and positive freedom, and distinctions between economic and political freedom among other distinctions, are not typically discussed or explored by most Americans on July Fourth.

Typically, Americans celebrate the fact that our revolution enabled us to govern ourselves and that Americans are not answerable to dictators or kings or emperors from other countries or of course from our own.

Indeed, James Madison ensured that a Congress would have more power than either the president or the judiciary. Although the system would have a set of checks and balances, Americans would never be dominated by one person.

We especially cherish the negative notion of noninterference, but we experience it in glorified terms bound up with the American Revolution and our history of defending this notion in the world theater, especially in World War I, World War II and the Cold War.

Now firmly in the 21st century and well into the third century of our existence, it seems like a good time to start celebrating the Fourth of July with sentiments and reflections somewhere between those of the academic political theorists and those of Joe and Jane American.

What would such a Fourth of July look like?

It is not uncommon to find celebrations that link the concept of freedom with the concept of responsibility because it is well-known that freedom takes hard work and it will, at times, cost lives. We have indeed fought many wars to preserve freedom.

Thus the theme hardly needs to be addressed. Ironically, this theme may need to be downplayed because July Fourth often becomes a celebration of the military efforts that have been needed to protect freedom.

Yet this emphasis has a tendency to blur many important pressing issues in our society that involve the concept of freedom but that also involve other concepts, including equality, stability and community.

Is there a way to celebrate the meaning of the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation at the same time that we explore the complexity of the concept of freedom and ask ourselves whether we are balancing the value of freedom with other values in an effective way?

For example, can we face directly the question of whether Congress should put more restrictions on economic freedom — of corporations and of individuals — in order to protect individuals from economic hardship? Or would it be sacrilegious on the Fourth of July to question the value of unrestricted economic freedom?

Economic freedom has been limited many times by Congress since 1877 when the Interstate Commerce Act was passed. From the Progressive era through the New Deal era and now again in the emerging Obama era economic freedom has been restricted in order to promote ends including economic growth, economic equality, safety and health.

Would it be unpatriotic to discuss these complicated issues about economic freedom on July Fourth? Or is it better to just celebrate the traditional notion associated with the Declaration of Independence and Americans dying for our freedom?

July 4, 2010, will be one-tenth of the way through the 21st century. The months preceding it would be a good time for journalists, politicians and educators, and especially President Barack Obama to prepare us for a great educational celebration, one that would help us reframe many of our political debates.

We can celebrate the traditional notion in the context of a transformed dialogue, one that positions everyone, Members of Congress, the president and citizens alike, to participate in the complex debates we face today — be they about war in Afghanistan and Iraq, economic sanctions on Iran, immigration, stem-cell research, poverty, energy policy or health care.

The political debates will not be solved by clarifying the language that we use, but resolving our debates, both politically and culturally, would be helped by a less simplified celebration of the holiday that celebrates our birth.

David M. Anderson taught political ethics at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management for 12 years.