We need a new way of thinking about the interplay of individualism and community.
The American Dilemma is an old dilemma. It predates Obama; Addams, too. In fact, it is as old as the American Project, itself. The Puritans felt it. So did the Founders. Today, some of us feel it more acutely than they did; others hardly feel it at all. Why?
The American Dilemma is an old dilemma. In fact, it is as old as the American Project, itself.
As Jim Sleeper explains (in a forthcoming issue of Ethics & International Affairs), the Puritans felt it, because their “biblically covenanted, congregational communities combined public purpose with personal integrity.” Puritanism “set up a creative tension between personal autonomy and communal obligation, impassioned conscience and sober humility, and vigorous enterprise and collective obligation…”
To the Puritans’ language of covenanted community, the Founders added the language of civic republicanism. It provided another means of joining individual and collective wellbeing. Consider the republican idea of freedom. In the classical liberal vision, freedom is the absence of constraint and protection from interference. In plain language: doing what you want and asserting your rights, so long as you cause no physical injury to others.
Republican freedom is more demanding. It involves “civic virtue”: active participation in self-government and self-sacrifice for the common good. For the Founders, then, freedom was not autonomy; it was not “riding off into the sunset” or “hitting the open road.” It was skillful action that aims at the common good.