Off the Rail

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If you happen to read the whole of Off the Rail, you'll probably deduce that I am a staunch individual. I pursue my interests vigorously and I am capable of making my own decisions.

That sounds like the lead-in to a Ayn Rand-flavored tirade. In fact, I mean to express quite another sentiment: while I am an individual, I am also part of a community. The two are not mutually exclusive.

All considered, I am and have been part of many communities. Schools, neighborhoods, organizations, workplaces. These networks have afforded me countless opportunities to become an individual. I didn't need anyone's permission – it was simply the sum of many experiences. And, despite the strongest convictions of "rugged individualists" everywhere, real individualism doesn't take shape in isolation.

The whole country is grappling with this issue right now. It concerns me – even as an individual. A shocking number of Americans take basic community resources for granted. Never mind the practical, economic and fundamental advantages of community. We are scrambling to dismantle extremely valuable services – all to satisfy selective interpretations of the Constitution. We are moving away from civil debate, and closer to impractical extremism bottled and sold as patriotism. That's the one trait that libertarianism shares with communism – extreme ideas work better on paper than in practice.

We talk a hard line about the values that made this country great. It's a story often told in terms of old tea partiers, new tea partiers, and Ronald Reagan riding a horse. That's all part of it – but the real secret to American success is balance. We have enjoyed bountiful freedom to pursue our individual interests... AND we have developed strong community resources to make that freedom functional. These building blocks of our nation can't exist without each other. No other country has struck that balance like we have. Our foolhardy chase of extreme ideology can throw the whole thing off.

Remember the phrase freedom isn't free? We used it to justify questionable wars and incomplete foreign policy. Let's bring that phrase home and heed it for the reason it was intended: if we want a first-rate country, we have to invest in a first-rate country. If the American brand of inclusive, accessible freedom is to survive, we can't abandon our communities.

And what's in it for me as an individual? I like communities. I am motivated when working for communities. When my schools and parks and streets and drinking water and transit systems are functional, fair and inclusive, I am gratified as a community member and as an individual. At the end of the day, there's no better way to protect freedom.


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