Back to Square One

Published August 1, 1994

Thus it is time for America to return to the philosophical drawing board. When citizens, even in suburbs, live in “little fortresses and leave their homes at night with some fear,” then surely the time has come to think again:



To any Asian, it is obvious that this enormous reduction of freedom in America is the result of a mindless ideology that maintains that the freedom of a small number of individuals (criminals, terrorists, street gang members, drug dealers), who are known to pose a threat to society, should not be constrained (for example, through detention without trial), even if to do so would enhance the freedom of the majority. In short, principle takes precedence over people’s well-being. This belief is purely and simply a gross violation of common sense. But it is the logical end product of a society that worships the notion of freedom as religiously as Hindus worship their sacred cows.


And in thinking again, Americans can no longer afford to duck the “fundamental questions”:



Is there too much freedom in American society? Did American society sacrifice the interests of the community as it rapidly and unthinkingly tried to tear down rules, legal or social, that fettered the individual? Has the political system become paralyzed by the fear of ceding effective power to any authority? And, to touch a really sensitive nerve in the American body politic, have long-term American interests been truly served by media that, especially since the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, have tried to undermine public confidence in virtually every public institution while leaving their own powers neither checked nor balanced by any countervailing institution?


Kishore Mahbubani is not interested, in other words, in a mere critique of American democratic practice; he denies that our current social disarray is simply the result of a good idea gone awry. Rather, what he and other proponents of the East Asian critique demand is a reconsideration of the first principles of our politics, informed by the recent experience of countries like his. “The fundamental lesson that Asia can provide to the United States,” Mahbubani writes, “is that societies can be better off when some boundaries of individual freedom are limited rather than broadened. The resultant increase in social and communal harmony can be liberating for the individual.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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