Saturday, July 3, 2010

Patriotic Gore

It is the Fourth of July, or close enough to it to write about it. That means it is time for the inevitable patriotic gush. I should hold forth about how happy I am to be an American. I should declare that the great promise of liberty for all has been redeemed on these shores. I should re-read the Declaration of Independence, slap myself on the back and congratulate myself on living in this the best of all possible worlds.

But I cannot write with conviction what I do not feel.

I don't subscribe to the "America, Love it or Leave It" school of thought. Frankly, it is harder to emigrate from these shores than you might think. If nature's lottery drops you here, odds are you will remain. Countries like Canada and Switzerland, places I might well prefer, require more wealth than I possess for permanent residency. (I know because I checked.) Economics matter in this life.

I am an American by birth, and a lawyer by choice. Hence, I have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. But the promise of these laws sometimes rings hollow in my ears. When I read the Declaration of Independence, I am inspired by a hope that seems unredeemed. The heady days of a colony breaking from a distant overlord are long-since past. We now have our own lords, and they are no longer distant. Where do we now turn for a renewal of the spirit of liberty?

I am not a tea partying sort. The movement's inchoate sense of rebellion appeals. But the demographics of the group are all wrong. I can't find fellow feeling with Brooks Brothers and Talbot's revolutionaries. I don't want to take America back so that Glenn Beck can sell me the gold bullion of his choice. A revolution of the affluent against the affluent doesn't make much sense to me. It's sort of like rooting for one team or another competing in a sport I do not understand. Cricket, anyone?

Over and over again this past year my thoughts have turned to John Locke and John Rawls. The state of nature remains a powerful metaphor for me. It helps explain the central mystery in our life as a society: strangers acquire authority and the means to determine the terms and conditions of my life. It is an amazing feat, really, this transformation of power into authority. Who are all these folks taxing me, telling me what to do and how I can do it? I don't feel very free tethered to this mess of regulations and rules.

John Rawls conceived the social contract as one involving the following bargain: would folks with a general sense of a society's social structure and economic possibilities agree to abide by the rules if they did not know what position in society they would occupy? This is called he maximin position: Wouldn't we want to assure that the worst position in a society, the lowest rung, is a place we could accept as just? Wouldn't we want to maximize the minimum position?

Our contract is broken today. Few would protest being a hedge fund czar, sitting atop a mountain of cash knowing that risk is underwritten by the federal government. The banker's world is sweet: They are too big to fail. But so many Americans now are too small to succeed. Just how many people lost homes last year? How many homeless are there? How many have lost hope? Doesn't the Declaration speak to them as well?

We were once a refuge to those in need. Today we close our borders. The world is smaller. There is nowhere to flee in the name of liberty and opportunity. We are here, in a land we call free where many live lives of desperation.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, but it is not Independence Day. When I read the Declaration of Independence I am inspired to revolt, but not against King George. I'm looking for something a little closer to home, and can't quite get a bead on just what that might be or how that rebellion might look.