Berkeley more than Paris, more than either Cambridge—more certainly than Palo Alto—has now and for decades been known as the place where things begin. I do not exaggerate; on matters as diverse as the Vietnam war, the civil rights of minorities, the protection of politically significant open space, to the styles of life and personal hygiene of scholars, the Berkeley leadership has been consistent, impressive, and, on occasion, unduly innovative. I am here to plead that this tradition of leadership now be even more strongly assumed. One of the two matters for which I ask it is vital to life itself.
My first plea is for a strong revival of what anciently has been called the social ethic, what more simply is a good sense of community. This is not a subtle or sophisticated thing: it is the will, in an increasingly interdependent world, to be as concerned with what one must do jointly with others, to have as much pride in this achievement, as one has in what one does for one’s self.
In the last few years we have witnessed the rise of a contrary mood, and nowhere more articulately than here in California. That is the celebration, even the sanctification, of self-concern. A person’s highest duty, it is held, is to his own income, his own personal enjoyment; freedom is the freedom to get money with the minimum of constraint and to spend it with the smallest possible contribution for public purpose.
So defined, freedom is purely a first-person affair. No attention may be given to public action that enhances the freedom of someone else. In accordance with the first-person ethic, deduction from private income for public schools, hospitals, playgrounds, libraries, public assistance to the disadvantaged or the poor, means a net loss of liberty; there is no compensation in the enlarged well-being of those who need or enjoy these services. The fewer the services, the greater the freedom. You measure the progress of liberty in the modern metropolis by the depth of the uncollected garbage. Not even the provision of income to the deprived does anything for freedom—although to be without income, all must agree, is a rather confining thing.
There are some exceptions to this inimical role of public services. A large and even an expanding defense budget is not in conflict with liberty. Nor is the payment of interest on government bonds. There can be a quiet preference even among powerful partisans of freedom for adequate measures on behalf of air safety. Partly because it is unwise to be too specific, the new concern for self regularly takes the form of an attack on government in the abstract. Government and the associated bureaucracy are the great and faceless enemies of liberty. This avoids mention of the many good things that government does even for the self-concerned.
There is a further advantage in so disguising things: we do not wish it thought that this new preoccupation with self is a …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.