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A recent meeting between Christian Right leader, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and gay rights activists, the Reverend Mel White, suggests that America may at last be sobering up. The view that America was a terribly racist, homophobic, xenophobic place – that laws mandating “fairness” were the obvious remedies – has been dominant for some time.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
All this is surprising because America, unlike Europe, was never a consensus society. National unity, consensus, was Europe’s game and many people died to determine whether God wanted mankind to be Catholic or Protestant. In America, we learned from that experience that separated church and state, not because we rejected religious (or other) values but precisely because we felt that values were best formed privately. In America, all faiths were free to proselytize; none was free to coerce.
Libertarians sometimes forget this fact. They seek to increase the number of libertarians (a commendable goal) rather than working toward a society of libertarian institutions. Far more people might support privatization, school choice, federalism, and so forth if we explained why these institutional arrangements improved their prospects for advancing their own values. Sometimes free market and business types seem more interested in converting people than in moving toward a liberal society.
Great American individualists such as Thomas Jefferson recognized liberty as the highest value. But America also knew the hierarchic values of Alexander Hamilton, with his preference for order and efficiency, and Thomas Paine’s egalitarian preferences, which identified fairness to the “little guy” as the key social objective. The genius of America was not consensus but rather a culture and an institutional creativity that made it possible for diverse values to coexist in peace. The centralizing tendencies of the hierarchists were checked by an ad hoc alliance of egalitarians and individualist. Individualists never saw political power as the key to advancing their views, but in America neither did egalitarians from Paine through Andrew Jackson.
The balance was destroyed by the progressive movement’s successful capture of the egalitarian high ground. Progressives – today’s liberals – have consistently argued that anything worth doing is best done politically. Mankind, equipped with the proper set of federal laws and guidelines, can achieve heaven on earth. The statist abduction of egalitarian values accounts for our modern civil rights laws and our coercive environmental policies (God is banned from our schools; Gaia worship is compulsory).
Thus, I find it encouraging that two people, representing groups that have argued strongly for government endorsement of their opposing viewpoints, have gotten together peacefully and as individuals. There is no way that government can endorse both their views – but it could recognize that it shouldn’t seek to do so, that their favorite issues, like so many others, had best be resolved privately. Perhaps this means that America is coming to its senses about its own heritage. It’s about time.