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The Biggest Mistake in Romney’s “47%” Remarks

When Mitt Romney — echoing the writings of novelist Ayn Rand — tells us that half of Americans choose dependency, he reinforces one of the biggest myths in America: the idea that we have to choose. We have to choose between the “individualism” of a Romney/Rand and the “socialism” of an Obama. We have to choose between unleashing personal ambition or nurturing community.

The individual or the community... what a choice!

The notion of competition between these goods comes through many voices, though. E.J. Dionne, esteemed columnist for the Washington Post, earlier this year released Our Divided Political Heart, a title unfortunately reinforcing the assumption of a national cleavage. Dionne writes about the two “sides of our character,” noting that “we are a nation of private striving and public engagement, of rights and responsibilities.”

And many see this tension in how we understand America’s beginning — some viewing our Founders as protectors of individual liberty against an oppressive King, and, then, the state, while others viewing them as celebrators of public service who called fellow citizens to sacrifice for the common good, our beloved young country.

Moreover, in the dominant view of ourselves, most of us have chosen. In 2011, about 32 percent of Americans polled supported the Tea Party, with its emphasis on “what’s mine” and its deep distrust of government. At the same time, 39 percent supported the Occupy Movement, calling for government action to address deepening suffering.

But in all this a core lesson is missing:

Individualism and community are mutually generating. One cannot have genuine community without individual flourishing; and it’s impossible to conceive of the individual developing his or her gifts outside of supportive community.

“People are motivated ... when they have more opportunities,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, responding to Romney’s inflammatory comments. “Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear.”

Thus any minimalist notion of freedom from oppression has never seemed nearly enough to me. Freedom must also mean freedom to. Social philosopher Harry C. Boyte beautifully defines freedom as the “liberation of talents,” and opportunity to liberate our talents is what communities construct together.

In this light, take just one specific instance of what’s happened to freedom in the U.S. in a generation. Our failure to make higher education affordable — saddling the 37 million graduate borrowers with an average $23,000 of debt in 2012 — constitutes a radical diminution of individual liberty. It closes down possibility.

Or the more general picture:

While Romney sees half of Americans as losers trapped in victimhood, in fact we’ve been working longer and harder: Since the 1970s, what American workers produce per hour — productivity — has more than doubled, but corporate owners have captured the gains as hourly compensation has stayed flat. Surely this trend is a big reason half of Americans are struggling at or near poverty, greatly limiting opportunities — real freedom. And a big reason safety-net expenditures Romney derides have swollen.

What’s missed in a frame setting individual freedom against societal wellbeing is the deep truth that humans are by nature deeply social creatures whose meaning and sense of personal efficacy are born of community. The two strains are less in tension with each other than they are co-creating.

I believe Roosevelt, among many, saw through the false divide. In a 1932 speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Roosevelt noted that each person must “be assured, to the fullest extent attainable...the safety of his savings.” But he added that “... we must accept the restriction [of the operations of the speculator] as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it.”

And twelve years later in his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt was even clearer on this point. Over time, “we have come to a clear realization,” he said, “of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” He then called for a “second Bill of Rights” — economic rights that he saw as necessary to political freedom.

Moreover, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes of “the sense of community and civic engagement self-government requires.” Certainly, any society that was purely individualistic — “me for myself “— couldn’t form the social bonds necessary to protecting its liberty from oppressors.

The Declaration of Independence itself ends with a sweeping collective commitment in these stirring words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I cannot imagine a stronger statement of awareness that it is through our deep bonds that we create the conditions of security and opportunity enabling meaningful freedom.

Mitt Romney doesn’t get this most basic insight into America.

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