03/15/2012 04:17 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

Restoring the Language of Obligation

In her campaign for the U.S. Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy, Elizabeth Warren last year earned the admiration of the left and the ire of the right for proclaiming that "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own." In the widely viewed YouTube video of her remarks, she says with conviction that everyone who enjoys economic success owes a debt to society: "Part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along." Progressives hailed her rare courage in acknowledging the legitimacy of paying taxes; conservatives shrieked that she is just another one of the socialists from whom they need to "take back" their country.

Both sides are mistaken. Warren's courage was not rare, and her politics are hardly socialist. In fact, the sensibility that undergirds her observation about social responsibility is as old as the first English settlements in North America. Until recently, duty was taken for granted by all but a few people on the fringes of American political life as one of the essential features of self-government.

One of the saddest facts of contemporary political discourse is the ignorance of most Americans about the centrality of the concept of obligation in American history. Of all the damage Ronald Reagan did to the United States, perhaps the most severe was his stupefyingly successful campaign to persuade Americans that the "free market" has always ruled America and that government has always been distrusted and held in check by liberty-loving individualists. Although that idea now reigns on most right-wing talk radio and television shows and even infects the assumptions of so-called centrists, it is a fantasy.

But it's not just the right that has stopped talking about citizens' obligations. Ever since the 1970s, most American liberals have traded the language of duties for the language of rights. Unless we start talking about our responsibilities to one another though, the richest Americans will continue to exercise their right to increase the distance between them and everybody else. For several decades now we have been witnessing the consequences of the so-called free market for those without the resources or the training to exploit the new economy of the twenty-first century. If we want to address that problem, we have to restore to American liberalism the language of obligation.

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