One freedom may be the biggest threat to democracy

Today I want to talk about a perverse incentive that some Americans may have for preferring a more authoritarian government – it can give them a certain type of freedom that we don’t have in a democracy, the freedom to ignore collective responsibilities.

As we all know, there’s been considerable discussion lately about how much white America, and many white Americans, have profited from the labors of Black people. This Brookings Institute paper sums it up – when you compare the average “wealth” or “net worth” of white and Black Americans, the difference is shocking. If you add up the value of your house (if you own it), your car, your retirement fund, whatever’s in your bank accounts, and whatever other “stuff” you have, and subtract the balances left on your mortgage, your car loan, your student loans, and whatever else you owe like credit card debt, that’s your net worth. For white families, the average net worth is $171,000. For Black families, it’s only $17,600. The average white high school drop-out has a higher net worth than the average Black college graduate! Hard work and personal initiative cannot reliably make up the difference – there’s a huge gap. And that’s behind the reparations movement, the idea that we should collectively do something to make things more fair.

The paper notes that reparations are not unprecedented – we’ve supported compensation for Native Americans and Japanese-Americans, and we required Germany to compensate Holocaust victims after World War II. But although some slave owners received their own reparations to compensate them for the loss of their human “property,” the Emancipation promise of “40 acres and a mule” for African Americans was quickly rescinded. The paper also describes how Black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal and the G.I. Bill – and we all know the attitude many Americans have toward Affirmative Action programs.


And then consider all the broken promises the U.S. government made to the hundreds of thousands of Native people deprived of their ancestral lands and livelihoods. Today’s Native people have the highest poverty rates and lowest education levels of any major population group in America, problems that have been compounded by Covid-19.

A great many of us would conclude that we as a nation are collectively indebted to the descendants of these people who were wronged by our government and our ancestors.

Philosophers would call it “ontological guilt,” having responsibility simply by virtue of being here. It’s a secular version of what Catholics call “original sin” – a guilt we all experience not because of our actions, but because we were born. And just like the idea of original sin is nonsense to atheists, our collective responsibility to Black and Native Americans doesn’t sit right with those of a more libertarian mindset.

Simply put, many people intuitively believe they are only responsible for their own decisions and actions.

It’s only fair, right? After all, these are basic human rights – the Geneva Conventions clearly say that groups should never be punished for actions of others over whom they had no influence or control. But redistributing wealth to correct the wrongdoings of our earlier generations could mean taking it away from people who probably weren’t even born then, which could reasonably feel like punishing them for things their ancestors did. And as I can tell you from my day job, informed consent is absolutely critical to scientific research, protecting people from signing up unwittingly for programs that could do them harm. If you haven’t given your informed consent to government actions, why should they have to affect you?

Another way to think about it is, if we think of ourselves as a group, a people, then talk about collective responsibilities or duties makes sense. But if we think of ourselves as a bunch of individuals who just happen to live within the same borders – people who have been taught for decades, for example, that taxes are BAD rather than simply a mechanism for buying things as a group that we can’t easily buy for ourselves – it could be pretty hard to appreciate the idea that America owes something to its Black and Indigenous citizens.

And so far, the reparations programs in the United States that have been successful – carried out with a minimum of fuss or backlash – are those the government could do without a large-scale public conversation, like the payments made to survivors of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. That’s unlikely to happen with any compensation programs on a scale likely to materially level the playing field for our African American neighbors.

We all know that whoever’s in charge, the federal government is going to make some decisions we don’t personally agree with. I wasn’t thrilled by Obama’s authorization of drone strikes, for example. But as a citizen of the United States, I’m partly responsible for them.

camusI remember vividly when I changed my mind about capital punishment. As a teenager, I thought if someone did something heinous, maybe a death sentence could be right. Then I borrowed a friend’s copy of Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, and a light went on. I can’t necessarily credit or blame Camus for my reaction; I’m too comfy at the moment to get my own copy of it off the shelf to see exactly what he said. I just remember realizing that even if a court orders the death penalty, there are real human beings who have to carry it out and bear the burden for the death of another human being, and that as citizens we all share in it indirectly too. Some people might agree with the penalty, but others might not, and they don’t have a choice. The same issues come up for war, taxpayer-subsidized abortion, and so on – it’s uncomfortable to be implicated in what you consider violence when you don’t approve of it.

In a democracy, we argue about these things. We try to agree on policies that match our values, and since we’re each entitled to our own values, it can be hard to reach agreements. It’s a lot of work, and we never fully get our own way.

So while some of us are willing to start the conversation and try to envision ways the United States might be able to compensate people whose lives are inherently more challenging because of past policies based on race or ethnicity, others are going to get very angry once the discussions get serious. I can picture it now, mobs of angry white people, going, “Wait just a minute – I’m not ‘complicit’ in slavery! I have never owned a slave! I didn’t benefit from slavery, either – I didn’t inherit anything from slaveowners! You can’t blame me! I’m not rich! Why should I have to pay for slavery? Hell no!”

This split between the “we” and “me” thinkers, when it comes to responsibility, may be one of the most critical dividing lines in America’s future.

By the way, if you’re like me and your ancestors, having been here for centuries, lived almost entirely in the North, I recommend I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, by Karolyn Smardz Frost. It’s the fascinating story of Thornton Blackburn, born into slavery and dramatically escaping to Toronto with his wife, and along the way the book explains how the economy of the North was very much implicated in the economy of the South. Lesson: “My people” were to blame too.

camas1And as a fifth-generation Oregonian whose ancestors first arrived in a recently abandoned Wampanoeg village in 1620 then started pushing ever westward, generation after generation, there’s no way I could fairly claim not to have benefitted from the dispossession of the Native nations. Two hundred years ago, the tiny yard I now own probably grew plenty of camas for harvest by our local Kalapuya people. So, obviously (to me), I owe something to others. If you or your ancestors arrived in the last hundred years or so, and always voted on the side of civil rights and fairness, you could make a case that you’re less implicated than I am. But you or your ancestors chose U.S. citizenship for you, and that has costs as well as benefits.

Maybe it’s not worth it, you could say. If being a citizen in a democracy means being responsible for things you have no power over, made to feel complicit in crimes against humanity like slavery, theft of land, and treaty-breaking – who needs that? That’s why it can be tempting to just throw your hands in the air, opt out of democracy, and cede your power to some wannabe strongman to take care of it all for you – especially if you suspect he’d resist all this on your behalf. But even if he doesn’t, you’d still feel welcome to wash your hands of the whole affair and firmly believe that government is none of your business.

In a recent Atlantic article, Chris Hayes cautions us that this process may have already started. A sizeable fraction of today’s Republican Party is made up of people whose interest in traditionally conservative policies – or any policies at all – is fairly minimal. Many of them are just in it for the sense of identity they get from protecting what they see as their heritage and the satisfaction of “owning the libs.” Donald Trump – that fan of Putin, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, and Orbán – could tell you they don’t need democracy for that.

If enough Americans give up on the democratic project, we could end up with more or less the same kind of freedom they have in today’s China. The featured photo for this post shows life in modern Shanghai.  Looks pretty good, doesn’t it? You can own a business, you can make money in the marketplace, you can buy all sorts of things, and you can even engage in some degree of artistic self-expression. But government – that’s someone else’s job. Your job is to appreciate the work they’re doing on your behalf. Your responsibility ends there. And many Americans might say, “Sign me up for that.”

Scary thought.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to One freedom may be the biggest threat to democracy

  1. Pingback: Fairness and the “R” word | The Meta-Narrator

  2. Pingback: How China’s ruling story helped kill 2.6 million people, and counting | The Meta-Narrator

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