The New Constitution: “Liberty” vs. “Compulsion” – a parable

CATEGORY: The New ConstitutionAmendment IX generated some concern that adults – a term used freely, although inconsistently – should never be compelled to do anything against their will. The definition of “adult” was at issue because our society routinely compels behavior, and in particular the question of forcing children to attend school (usually through their 16th birthdays) was suggested. Amendment IX establishes a framework for enfranchisement that would make most people eligible when they were 20 years old, and in doing so suggests an operationalized legal conception of adulthood.

I wanted to take a moment to address the language of “compulsion” and the libertarian/neo-liberal ideologies that inform (or perhaps misinform) it.

Imagine two nations. In Nation A, teenagers complete high school not terribly prepared for life. They know a few things if they came from good communities and homes and attended good schools, but they lack the kinds of life experience one needs to truly take control of one’s destiny. They have precious little in the way of career opportunities in the private sector – at best they might land jobs at the bottom of the food chain in the service sector.

So, upon graduation, they enter into national service. Perhaps they choose the military, or maybe they want to teach, so they’re assigned to schools or community programs around the country that serve less privileged populations. Or they put their technical skills to work with a local non-profit. Or they help build homes for low-income families. Or they work in our state and national parks assuring that future generations have access to America’s unbridled natural beauty. These are some of the choices before them, and they decide how to invest the next two years of their lives.

Their living expenses are covered and they receive a salary. They accumulate benefits they can use for advanced education upon the conclusion of their terms. They get paid to travel and learn and gain invaluable life experience, and when they emerge from the program they have matured so much they can barely recognize the children they were two years ago.

In Nation B, as in Nation A, teenagers graduate high school not terribly prepared for life. They have precious little in the way of career opportunities in the private sector – at best they might land jobs at the bottom of the food chain in the service sector.

Many, if not most, enroll in some form of college, university or technical school because that’s just what one does. For a vast majority, the first year is an utter waste, during which they accomplish very little besides digging an academic and financial hole it will take years to escape. Perhaps after a couple of years they have begun to get an idea of how to start, but again, they find themselves bereft of realistic opportunities. Upon graduation, many of the lucky ones are selected to enter into internships with corporations. These programs do not pay, nor do they cover expenses, nor do they provide benefits. Instead, these young people must find some way of financing their own lives (frequently at the expense of their parents) so that they can provide free grunt-level labor in hopes that someday the company might hire them into a job that pays almost enough to live on.

I have heard this process compared to pimping, but that isn’t accurate. Prostitutes at least get paid.

The libertarian/neo-liberal ideology noted above has words to describe these two contrasting systems:

Nation A is called compulsion. Nation B is called liberty.

If you want to label these nations as straw men, go ahead and do so now, but understand that every word describes actual experiences. The only thing to argue over is what percentage is being described. Are we talking about “most,” “many” or merely “a lot”?

As I explain in the prologue, America has been too long dominated by a negative ideology of freedom that says if there are no legal obstacles preventing you from doing a thing, then you are free to do it. Positive liberty, however, acknowledges the practical realities of the system and emphasizes the importance of equal opportunity and a level playing field.

If it isn’t clear by now, The New Constitution explicitly rejects the neo-liberal political economic assumption and the doctrine of negative liberty. I will not hide behind deceptive ideological/rhetorical frames – my assumptions are clearly stated and are defended out in the open. Nor will the New Constitution process conduct debate on the linguistic home turf of the neo-liberal assumption it critiques. As the famous culturalist scholar Stuart Hall explained in discussing the battle for signification, whoever dictates the vocabulary is assured of winning the war.


  • nice post.

  • Well said, Sam.

  • >>Amendment IX generated some concern that adults…should never be compelled to do anything against their will.

    I saw no one make such a suggestion or argument.

    Question: In your social-engineering paradise of enforced freedoms, how would you penalize those (like me) who refused to participate in your system of interference in their lives?

    • If you’d like to discuss the issue, that’s great. But we won’t be indulging your growing penchant for Randian rhetoric.

      • So you

        A) Won’t acknowledge your gross mischaracterization of my viewpoint, or
        B) Answer a directly relevant question, and
        C) You top it off with a personal insult.

        Disappointing. I thought you really wanted feedback on your proposals, and I’ve tried to debate them in good faith, but I guess you are only comfortable with full agreement. Ciao!

      • First, I have sought to accurately reflect the views of others when referring to their arguments. If I have mischaracterized your views, I certainly apologize. I think the tenor and tone of my remarks has indicated as much analytical good faith as you’re likely to find in a political discussion on the Net.

        In my defense, it must be said that it’s hard to accurately characterize a moving target. If I haven’t quite gotten your take on the whole adult thing right, that owes to your repeated refusal to tell me what you mean by the term, I see no need to restate the reasoning for a third time.

        Now, what direct relevant question did I not answer? If I missed one, I’ll certainly do my best.

        Finally, I have insulted no one in this entire series. I have described what is being done and may have done so in ways you don’t like, but again, I’m doing my best to ride herd on a good-faith debate and not everyone is playing by the same rules.

    • Were you not reading your own writing? That was exactly your issue with my comment.

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