Happy Fourth: On Libertarianism, Citizenship, and Social Responsibility

Happy Fourth: On Libertarianism, Citizenship, and Social Responsibility July 4, 2012

I was raised a libertarian. I believed the government was the problem. I thought that the smaller the government was, the better off everyone would be. Taxes were a bad thing, something to be resented and, if at all possible, opposed. I was raised in an environment where the idea of an individual person and his property seceding from the country was bandied about as intriguing and talk of abolishing the public school system was normal.

Individualism was a key value and individual rights were upheld as most important, even when they came at the expense of the community. When I was a kid, I heard it said that the ideal citizen was a homeowner who ran his own business and homeschooled his children, because that citizen would be wholly independent from the government. Independence and individualism were paramount.

One term I never heard emphasized – or even mentioned, I believe – was social responsibility. The idea that we might have a responsibility to our fellow man, a responsibility that involved a social contract and civic duty and a representative government, was foreign.

Now of course, my parents and church community would have argued that individual churches and charities should step in and feed the hungry and clothe the poor. But the idea was that all of that should be voluntary and individual, never required or communal. Taxes were likened to stealing, the government stealing money from those who worked hard to give it to the lazy poor. “Voluntaria” was held up as the ideal, and contrasted with “Malvolia” and “Mandaat.” The government, in sum, was anathema.

It was only when I began thinking my politics and religion through on my own as an adult that I realized how fraught with problems this all was. I realized that paying taxes is part of our civic duty, and that it is those taxes that pay for our roads, justice system, and parks, and that it is those taxes that provide a social safety network for those in need. I realized that the libertarian individualism I had been raised on is at its heart selfish. It says “I have what I need, screw those who don’t.” There is a painful inability to see outside a privileged box. I may have been fortunate enough to have been raised in a family that was never in financial need and that sent me on to college on a scholarship, but others weren’t so lucky. I realized that we have a social responsibility to the society we are a part of, and that things like public schools, roads, and unemployment payments are a part of that.

Something about all of this is highly ironic, because my parents were also as patriotic as they come. Flag waving, pledge reciting, military supporting – it was all an important part of my upbringing. We believed that we loved our country, and those liberals hated it. We were true citizens, true patriots, and those liberals were Marxist wannabes off on a failed social experiment.

And now I wonder. Who is the true citizen? The one who talks of abolishing public schools, rails against taxes, toys with the idea of seceding, and yet waves a flag and recites a pledge? Or, the one who believes in social responsibility, sees taxes as her civic duty, and yet questions whether foreign wars are necessary? I’m seriously not sure how the right stole the robe of patriotism. I’m not sure how flag waving became more important than social responsibility. I’m not sure how speaking of seceding is somehow more patriotic than questioning a foreign war.

But on this Fourth of July I do know this. I believe in social responsibility. I believe in civic duty. I understand that it is my duty to do my part for the good of society, and I embrace that. And somehow, I feel so much more at peace, so much more kind, so much more connected to something greater than myself than I did when I was a libertarian angry about everything and only interested in asserting my own individualism and independence.

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