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Jag Bhalla Headshot

We the Forgetful People

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"We the people," President Obama rightly judged, need to be reminded of what we means, and of what binds us to each other as a nation. But in his second inaugural address, he wrongly judged that flaunting a few of our easier founding phrases would get the job done. Our precious "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" depend inalienably on things that have not been made evident enough. He should have said: with great rights come great duties.

America's founders understood that national independence required a logic of domestic interdependence. Despite what Obama called a "centuries-long debate about the role of government," the Constitution clearly defines a duty to "promote the general welfare." and puts it on an equal footing with ensuring the "common defense." We may "have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority," but the Declaration of Independence's first listed justification for the revolution was to overcome barriers to "Laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."

Obama knows this, but didn't express it well enough when he said "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." It's truer to say that those freedoms are firstly, and only, made real, by collective actions through government. Put another way, America itself, and it's cherished individual rights are government enabled programs. The founders were clear: all the private individual freedoms of we the people are built on the platform of "the public good."

Too much of our politics today ignores that foundational truth. Debates between individualism vs collectivism, or private vs public, or business vs government are falsely framed as opposable opposites. Neither part of the pair is workable without the other. Like rights and duties they are inseparable sides of the same coin and neither side can 'win'. The only viable solutions are mixtures that match the strengths of each element to the specific needs of our challenges.

It took a great deal of work to make "the most evident of truths" recognizable as such. And then the strenuous struggles of "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall" to start to act accordingly. No such efforts have been made for the less recognized, but no less needed, truths in our defining documents. Each one of us has duties to our nation, since we the people are all takers of the benefits of America's promise, which is built on "the general welfare" and "the public good."

Obama said "what makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea." But he wrongly limited that to a single idea. America was built on a set of ideas which only work together as a whole. A nation built on ideas has unique strengths, but also particular vulnerabilities. Ideas are easy to deform. And an ill-founded version of individualism is active in our politics. It distorts our duties to each other, loosens what binds us and weakens our ability to use the landmark logic of our founders, to guide us on America's journey. The rights we have depend on the duties we do.