Even Freer

Human beings have a strong tradition of declaring a new future for themselves. It's one of the coolest things about us, I think, that every once in awhile a small group of humans gather round, decide the status quo is not working any longer, and declare the possibility of something new.  

In America, we're particularly proud of the grey hairs that did this on our behalf 250 years ago. These guys, so the story goes, were the who's who of intellectual thinkers at the time and they were pretty jazzed about this new set of ideas they'd stumbled upon: democracy, civil rights, natural law, the idea that every man is created equal. They saw in these ideas the opportunity to declare something new: a world where every man had the right to speak his mind, make a living, and own property. A world where those men could vote, where those men were the government, and therefore a world where those men needn't fear their government. Due process, representation, the rule of law, and freedom from tyranny.


Ever since then we've been tweaking the system, making room for women and African Americans and gay Americans in the vision - a noble cause, for sure.


Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we seemed to have mucked it up terribly. In some ways, of course, the vision is alive and well. Many Americans, true, have political and economic freedom. We speak our minds and vote and raise families and farm and own property and mostly, we do those things without fear that our government will take them away.


And yet, many of those same Americans are bored and lonely. We have an outbreak of mental illness on our hands - the fish in our rivers are dying of second-hand-prescription-smoke because we're on so much medication.


So what's the deal? Why have civil rights and democracy and a robust capitalist economy so failed to make us happy? Why didn't it work? We have everything our Great-Great-Great Grandma's could have ever dreamed of for us, so where's the utopia?


I think we have to admit that technology - even political technology - is never going to be enough. We're never going to invent a tool, no matter how fancy and amazing, that will guarantee our well being.


Somehow, I think this project of human flourishing slips out of the scope of technology.


Before we declare a brave new world of renewable energy, reformed democracy, a new even more robust economy of ideas, a networked world where people are truly free from tyranny, even the tyranny of institutions - before we embark on another re-visioning of American life, I think we need to ask ourselves, what went wrong last time? And how can we address it?


How are we going to keep from meeting the same fate? How can we avoid simply creating an even freer, more wealthy, more networked, more materialistic country of depressed souls?