'A Tolerable Anarchy' by Jedediah Purdy

American freedom, responsiblity go hand in hand

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President Barack Obama's response to the country's financial breakdown was government intervention on a massive scale, a response stemming directly from the New Deal tradition of President Franklin Roosevelt 76 years earlier to combat the Great Depression.

Conservatives oppose Obama's "big government" policies. They cite the Republican version of FDR -- Ronald Reagan -- who set out to dismantle the New Deal by declaring that "government is not the solution to our problems." The debates in Congress and in the media reveal that fundamental divide influencing our politics today.

"Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries and the Making Of American Freedom"

By Jedediah Purdy
Knopf ($23.95)


For help in understanding the process that has brought us to this impasse we have Jedediah Purdy's compact discourse on how Americans have considered the meaning of freedom since 1776.

Purdy, a professor of law at Duke University, made a bit of a splash in 1999 for his sermon-like book, "For Common Things." Raised and home-schooled in rural West Virginia, he called for renewed respect for plain civic virtues in a country grown blase and cynical.

Written when Purdy was still in his 20s, "For Common Things" was criticized for its naivete. Twenty years later, Purdy has matured as a writer and thinker, offering provocative ideas for a democracy that is showing signs of wear and tear.

A paternalistic federal government was first defined by President Woodrow Wilson in his 1913 inaugural when he argued that in the face of the new industrial age, the state must guarantee the safety and economic opportunities of all its citizens, men, women and children.

In other words, freedom is a right that the government must protect, not one that is automatically granted with American citizenship.

Unfortunately, Wilson's belief in federal power resulted in the denial of freedom to citizens deemed disloyal during World War I, but he set the pattern for government growth in the years ahead.

Purdy's true focus here is on the meaning of citizenship. He asks:

"In what ways do all Americans count equally for just showing up, and in what ways are some more equal than others?"

Beginning with President John F. Kennedy -- "ask what you can do for your country" -- and the presidents who followed, Americans have been urged to take responsibility, even to "dream," as Reagan said.

Purdy argues that our American freedom comes with responsibility and there, in his discussion of the nation's expansive economic freedom, he finds his mission.

"Tolerable Anarchy" is finally a plea to take responsibility for our future by abandoning the carbon-based foundation that drives all economies and is threatening the future of our climate.

Citing the distinctly original voice of Henry David Thoreau, who said that living honestly is the cornerstone of freedom and dignity, "Tolerable Anarchy" is a new and provocative way to look at the pressing environmental concerns of today.

Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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