The American Balancing Act

Jasper Johns, Map, 1961

It's rarely mentioned by today's Tea Party constitutional originalists, or by anyone else for that matter, that the Preamble to the Constitution indicates that, among other things, our task is to "promote the general welfare" and "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

These two notions -- not just liberty or freedom -- are at the heart of the American experiment. Both are essential, but both will always be in tension. So with every issue we face, we must always ask, what is the proper balance to be struck? However, with our adversarial approach to politics, what you will often see is Republicans arguing for liberty and dismissing, for the most part, the general welfare, and Democrats doing, in varying degrees, the opposite. I think that the positions that are taken are more polarized than the actual beliefs of those arguing their positions. This is because, while we know that a balance makes the most sense, we fear what will happen if the other side wins.

I think every issue we face should be discussed explicitly in the context of the tension between the general welfare and individual liberty, with partisans acknowledging the importance of both as they argue for a different balance. This way we won't delegitimize our opponents as much as we do now. Is this possible within our current adversarial system? I don't know. And it might even be that the adversarial method is the best way to achieve balance, though it doesn't look that way these days.


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