Rethinking one of America’s most cherished values in search of a better tomorrow.
America has lost its way, says Schwartz (Liberty in America’s Founding Moment, 2011), a former religious studies professor–turned–software company executive. From a political and economic standpoint, he believes much of the blame can be traced to a flawed understanding of liberty. Many Americans equate liberty with protecting individual rights and property. But, Schwartz writes, that one-sided view ignores the responsibilities that come with liberty. He calls this philosophy “liberty-first” because it places liberty above all other values, such as equality, justice and compassion. The result is an egocentric, government-fearing mentality that carries grave political and environmental consequences for an increasingly crowded planet. “The near-obsessive focus on liberty to the exclusion of other important values and concepts is part of what is causing the world’s problems and undermining America’s leadership and respect,” he writes. Schwartz pits himself against libertarians and other far-right politicos by advancing a “responsibility-first” philosophy. At its core is the belief that humans, past and present, are irrevocably interdependent. So, along with our rights, we have obligations to each other. Controversial, ponderous and intensely argued, the book attacks principles many Americans take for granted. Concepts such as “natural rights” and “self-regulating markets” come under blistering critique as Schwartz probes their origins in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith and others. The implications of his philosophy are far-reaching: It reconsiders the nature of government, property, labor and natural resources in the pursuit of a more equitable and sustainable future. Overall, the book strikes a good balance between scholarly rigor and popular appeal. Endnotes are used judiciously, helping to keep the narrative free of academic quibbling. The prose is articulate and carefully worded, only occasionally blemished by long-winded sentences. Conservatives may find the book troubling, but few can disagree that with a global population of 7 billion and growing, humans must find new ways to coexist peaceably. For Schwartz, that means broadening our views on civic life.
Liberty as a human ideal may never seem more powerful—or problematic—after reading these pages.