E Pluralism Unum

Patriotic lawn chairs, 6-15-02
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

In the summer after my junior year in high school, I worked on a cattle ranch not too far from Climax Springs, Missouri. The other hired hand was a grown man named Francis. We baled hay, put up barbed wire fence and turned young bulls into steers.

Our specialty was picking rocks out of hayfields. That gave us plenty of time to talk about God. Francis was for Him, I was against Him.

My conversations with Francis probably led me to major in religion in college. Wanting answers but lacking faith, I became dazzled by secular philosophers who proffered fancy, consistent thought systems that had an explanation for pretty much everything.

I flirted hard with Plato, Jung, Freud, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, even though I was far too dense to understand any of them deeply. I had brief crushes on some exotics: the Hindu philosopher Sankara and Plotinus, a Greek guy who pondered after Plato.

Though I never fell too hard for any one Big Thinker, I loved Big Theories. I loved grandiose systems of thought that fit neatly together and invented whole vocabularies. I spurned plain language and clear thinking. I didn't like the Utilitarians, the Founding Fathers or the American pragmatists.

All that changed in one afternoon. After I read the essay that I wrote about last week, "Two Concepts of Liberty" by Isaiah Berlin, I never again had a serious relationship with a grandiose, all-encompassing worldview. Philosophically, I've remained a bachelor.

I am inflicting my embarrassing little intellectual resume on you for a reason, oddly enough.

Last week I tried to unravel what is so toxic about the political impulse that says, "I know what's best for you." It is an impulse, Berlin argues in his famous essay, most prevalent among those who believe in the big, sweeping worldviews and systems. Their belief enhances their confidence that they know what's best for you.

Belief in a good, powerful fancy theory also provides plenty of ammo to argue that certain human values – freedom, authenticity, self-knowledge, for example – can only be attained in the ways The Big Theory prescribes.

Berlin associates this temperament or intellection predilection with "positive liberty" - the notion that liberty is empty unless it includes a positive capability to do something specific – e.g., work without exploitation, or, get an education, just to name two random examples.

Negative liberty is simpler; it is being free "from" things; it is being left alone, having a zone of individual liberty.

I got a ton of e-mail about this. Many objected that I argued that Democrats today are more susceptible to the attitudes associated with positive liberty than Republicans. Others thought I was arguing that positive liberty was the Daddy philosophy, a posture of paternalism.

What I clearly failed to do was describe the attitude, the sensibility of negative liberty. That attitude happens to be, for my money, the perfect antidote to the intolerant, ceaseless, Mars/Venus quality of political argument today.