Monthly Archives: June 2003

have we lost public liberty?

Even living under the USA Patriots Act and in a state of semi-permanent war, I am not worried about what Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the moderns.” Indeed, after last week’s expansion of privacy rights by the Supreme Court, I think that this form of freedom continues to expand as a result of deep cultural trends. I am, however, concerned about what Constant called the “liberty of the ancients.”

I’m referring to his De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes (1819), in which Constant defines the “liberty of the moderns” as: “for each, the right to be subjected to nothing but laws, to have no possibility of being arrested, detained, executed, or maltreated in any way as a result of the arbitrary will of one or many individuals: It is for each the right to state his opinion, to choose his business and work in it, to dispose of his property, to take advantage of the same; to come and go without obtaining permission, and without explaining his reasons and itinerary. It is, for each, the right to associate with other individuals, whether to confer about their own interests, to profess the religion that he and his associates prefer, or simply to pass days or hours in a manner that fits his inclinations, his fantasies. Finally, it is the right, for each one, to influence the administration of the Government, whether via the nomination of some or all officials, or via representations, petitions, demands that the authority is more or less obligated to take into consideration.

“Compare now the liberty of the ancients. That consists of exercising collectively, but directly, many parts of absolute sovereignty, [and the right] to deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace, to ratify treaties of alliance with foreigners, to vote laws, pronounce decisions, examine the accounts, actions, and management of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them, to condemn or acquit them.”

[This is my hasty translation; double-check it before you use it.]

It is the liberty of the ancients that appears threatened—that

we seem to hold cheap—when we ignore charges that the Bush Administration

misled American citizens about its reasons for the Iraq war. According to the


York Times, Bush aides are not worried about complaints that they lied

or misled the public, “because people understand that the world is better

off without Saddam Hussein.” The world is better off (so far, at least).

However, if the public is willing to be misled, then we citizens have forfeited

our right to exercise our national sovereignty collectively, because we have refused

to “deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace.” To borrow Constant’s

language, it is time for us to “examine the accounts, actions, and management

of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them,

to condemn or acquit them.” Otherwise, we may be free as individuals, but

we are not a free people.

asset-based development

Terms like "Asset

Based Community Development" and the "developmental

assets" approach to working with adolescents are extremely popular today

in foundations, schools, and social service agencies. One could dismiss such language

as a mere effort to sound positive and uplifting, unconnected to any substantial

change in philosophy or methodology. But I think that would be a mistake. The

"asset-based" approach (for lack of a better term) is being used by

people who come out of the Left, and it represents a real change in their views

and methods.

My favorite example of the old ways is now somewhat out of

date, but I can’t resist using it. In March 2002, ACORN

organized protests against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that they had

assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them,

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and

meet with them in New York City. One of the rally’s organizers (a Harvard graduate)

explained: "Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly

extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry." A colleague

added that the Administration’s welfare policies "are an attack on poor families

in America."

The organizers of this protest apparently believed that

they could speak for poor people, whose main need was more federal welfare spending.

Their strategy for winning such aid was to parade welfare recipients before Congress

and the press, emphasizing their deprivation and anger. (They also displayed the

political naivety and weakness of these people.) The protest organizers implied

that anyone who did not completely endorse their demands was their enemy. And

of course they failed completely.

An assets-based approach would look quite

different. It would treat the welfare recipients as potentially powerful and skillful

political actors, capable of working as peers with selected allies in Congress.

It would also recognize their capacity to build things of value in their own communities,

regardless of federal welfare policy. Poor people do need outside resources, both

capital and government assistance. However, they are unlikely to get such help

unless they have first organized themselves as a powerful political force. The

best way to organize is to identify, advertise, and build up local assets, even

before powerful outsiders offer aid. If residents are used to working together,

have identified their own assets, are confident and experienced, and have created

their own new institutions, then they can win outside support. They can also handle

the influx of aid without being overwhelmed by corruption or manipulative outsiders.

CEOs for Americorps

I’m one of about 200 people—mostly

corporate executives—who signed an open letter to President Bush that’s printed

as a full-page ad in today’s New York Times. It reads, in part: "AmeriCorps

programs are closing. Young people who want to serve their country are being turned

away. Communities, schools and children are losing their AmeriCorps mentors, tutors,

teachers and builders . . . Please save these essential AmeriCorps programs that

have done so much good for our communities." (I can’t find a link to the

Times ad, but the Washington Post has a

story about it.)

Was Saddam bluffing about wmd’s?

Those who believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (wmd’s) before the 2003 invasion are now citing the host of Western leaders from various parties and countries who publicly charged Iraq with possessing chemical and biological weapons and working on a nuclear program. This list includes Bill Clinton, Hans Blix, and Tony Blair as well as various neoconservatives. If these people were all making up evidence, the conspiracy was amazingly broad and well-organized.

But it needn’t have been a conspiracy, or anything deliberate and insidious.

Continue reading

freedom of speech for universities

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Monday’s Supreme

Court decisions on affirmative action was Justice O’Connor’s deference to universities.

In her majority opinion, she writes:

The Law School’s educational

judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to

which we defer. … Our scrutiny of the interest asserted by the Law School is

no less strict for taking into account complex educational judgments in an area

that lies primarily within the expertise of the university. Our holding today

is in keeping with our tradition of giving a degree of deference to a university’s

academic decisions, within constitutionally prescribed limits. …. We have long

recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive

freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities

occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition. … In announcing the

principle of student body diversity as a compelling state interest, Justice Powell

invoked our cases recognizing a constitutional dimension, grounded in the First

Amendment, of educational autonomy: ‘The freedom of a university to make its own

judgments as to education includes the selection of its student body.’


have occasionally deferred to universities, not only in admissions, but also in

free-speech cases. Most people think that it is unacceptable for a university,

especially a public one, to discriminate against students or faculty who adopt

radical views, even in the classroom or in their writing. However, most people

think that a university can discriminate against teachers and students

for failing to use appropriate methods of reasoning in the classroom, in papers,

and in publications. The first amendment does not guarantee you a passing grade

even if your final exam is lousy. Thus "academic freedom" is not only

an individual right; it is also an institutional right of colleges to set their

own standards of discourse. (See J. Peter Byrne, "Academic Freedom: A ‘Special

Concern of the First Amendment’," Yale Law Journal, November, 1989,

pp. 251 ff.) In Bakke and other cases, justices have extended institutional

freedom to cover admissions and hiring decisions, within broad limits. Peter Byrne

observes that moderate jurists like O’Connor and Frankfurter are the ones who

typically argue this way. Strong liberals and conservatives of each generation

want to decide constitutional issues that arise within colleges; moderates

prefer to defer to academic institutions.

Deference to universities could

be grounded in freedom of association—but this defense would not apply to

state institutions. Byrne and other commentators want to base institutional academic

freedom on respect for academia as a separate social sphere. They say that science

and scholarship should be masters of their own domains. After about a decade in

the academic business, I can’t decide whether this degree of respect is warranted.

Sometimes I think that academia is an impressive social sector guided by Robert

Merton’s KUDOS norms: knowledge held in common, universalism, disinterestedness,

and organized skepticism. At other times, I think that academia

is a snake pit of favoritism, logrolling, and faddish conformity. I also think

that the broader question is complicated, i.e., Should (or must) democratic governments

defer to professions as the authorities within their own spheres of expertise?


June 23