Liberty of the individual, liberty of the community

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Eye from Albany
April 2003

Liberty of the individual, liberty of the community
by Paul M. Bray

In 1912 a State Senator, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a great future ahead of him gave a talk to a civic forum in Troy. He began by saying that where ever you looked around the world there was a “spirit of unrest”. Times change, but the spirit of unrest continues on.

The Senator made an argument for conservation framed in a discussion about liberty.

He said there had been a thousand year struggle to obtain individual freedom and “as a whole to-day, in Europe and America, the liberty of the individual has been accomplished”. Yet, he went on to say that individual freedom has not created “Utopia”.

The Senator offered “the new theory of the liberty of the Community” where “co-operation must begin where competition leaves off”. Conservation was the prime example of this. Germany was cited for prohibiting the denuding of land of growing trees in order to preserve water power and therefore the health of the people. By mandating scientific forestry, the liberty of the community appropriately superseded the liberty of the individual.

New York State was also given as an example. “As a whole we are beginning to realize that it is necessary to the health and happiness of the whole people of the State that individuals and lumber companies should not go into the wooded areas like the Adirondacks and the Catskills and cut them off root and branch for the benefit of their own pocket.”

What would Senator Roosevelt think of our current conditions? Surely, he
would be struck by the unrest at home and around the world. What would he think about the post 9/11 terrorism threats and the hot war going on in Iraq as I write this column? It would be interesting to get the Senator’s take on the condition of both liberties of the individual and community. I expect he would find them imperiled.

In a material way, life style has changed greatly in the last 90 year as we
have become a “consumer republic”. The pubic market place, a key feature of the traditional public realm where liberty had been exercised, has become privatized. How would the Senator respond to the arrest of a gentleman at Albany’s (actually the suburban town of Guilderland’s) Crossgates Mall for the crime of wearing a tee shirt with the word “Peace” on it? The Mall’s communications firm E-# communications declared, “since the Mall is private property, it reserves the right to limit ‘non-commercial expressive activity,’ including ‘solicitation of signatures, hand billing, picketing, demonstrations and other forms of free speech’. The space for individuals to exercise their individual liberty of free speech in their community is greatly constrained if the public market place or Mall bars “expressive expression” or free speech.

Since 9/11 tighter domestic security has trumped civil liberties including
protection of privacy. ID cards, data base profiling, increased wire taping
and security checks to be able to enter buildings are increasingly the order
of the day. Jose Padilla, an American accused of planning to set-off a dirty
bomb, is being held incommunicado without charges or a trial because the
government labels him an “enemy combatant”. Attorney Steven Brill who has written a book about the nation’s reaction to 9/11 points out the declaration of a citizen as an enemy combatant has so far been “unadorned of any mitigation from the government perspective”. “How”, he goes on to ask, “is a member of the Ku Klux Klan who does a bombing of a black school not an enemy combatant?” Are we not on a slippery slope as in the days of McCarthyism when we begin to deny basic liberties to fellow citizens accused of being our enemy?

Some may argue since the first Earth Day that the environmental element of liberty of the community has been accomplished. By some measures, at least in the western world, the air and water is cleaner and areas under protection like our Adirondack and Catskill forest preserve are larger. But would Senator Roosevelt believe we have accomplished liberty of the community in light of the Bush Administration’s supine indifference to global warming, the major threat to the liberty of the global community? As author Bill McKibben points out, there are a “whole range of avoidance options” to controlling the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but “we don’t want to deal with it because it’s painful and its going to hurt the economy, so we’re going to stick our fingers in our ears and hope it goes away”.

Much has happened in the last ninety years including two world wars and the current war on terrorism as well as transportation and communications revolutions that have effectively shrunk the world, but some things continue like societal unrest and the ongoing need to protect both the liberty of the individual and community. Unfortunately, we don’t have elected officials today who would give as thoughtful a speech as Senator Roosevelt did in Troy in 1913.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is and past columns can be found on