Americans in the 21st century are living through a period of rapid social and economic change, says Peter Augustine Lawler and Richard Reinsch, and our established ways of thinking about public questions have not been serving us well. The changes are forcing us to ask what it means to be a free person in a free society.
But how do we answer that question without resorting to radical individualism?
Some of our most familiar political and intellectual categories, adapted to suit 20th-century debates, now cause us to fall into a simpleminded individualism that we cannot really believe. Too many conservatives, for instance, persist in the tired distinction between individual freedom and collectivism. That unrealistic bifurcation helped discredit the communist or fascist reduction of the particular person to nothing but an expendable cog in a machine, plugging away in pursuit of some glorious paradise to come at the end of History. But today that distinction too often ends up placing in the same repulsive category any understanding of the person as a relational part of a larger whole — of a country, family, church, or even nature. It thus causes conservatives to dismiss what students of humanity from Aristotle to today’s evolutionary psychologists know to be true: that we social animals are “hardwired” by instinct to find meaning in serving personal causes greater than ourselves, and that reconciling freedom with personal significance is only possible in a relational context that is less about rights than about duties.
The same simpleminded individualism leaves us unsure about how to approach the difficulties of the modern American economy. Given the complicated challenges posed by globalization, the fading away of the middle class, the breakdown of the family among the poor, the growing economic distance separating our “cognitive elite” from the decreasingly “marginally productive” ordinary American, and the indisputable need to trim our entitlements in order to save them (for a while), our ways of speaking about responsibility, work, mobility, and opportunity seem increasingly out of touch.
Everyone knows that success in the marketplace requires skills and habits that are usually acquired through good schools, strong families, active citizenship, and even solicitous and judgmental churches. Those relational institutions, however, are threatened, in different ways, by the unmediated effects of both the market and big, impersonal government. We also know that most people find that worthy lives are shaped by both love and work, and that the flourishing of love and work are interdependent. We even know that love and work are both limits on government, even as we know that middle-class Americans who have good jobs, strong families, and “church homes” are also our best citizens.