Friday New Tools Feature: Parting Reflections on the American Dream

Today, sadly, is my last day as a full-time employee of NDN, though I will continue to blog from Thailand, and hope to remain very involved with the organization. I've had a really great time working here, and learned a great deal. So I thought that today, I could just quickly reflect on why I think the work NDN does is so important. 

When we talk about our proposals to put a laptop in every backpack, or to provide free computer training to every American, we tend to stress the economic reasons for doing so - helping our workforce stay competitive in a 21st century global economy, etc. But I really believe that it is about much more than that. It is about taking steps, however modest, towards realizing the American ideal of equal opportunity, which for so much of our history has existed only nominally. 

Libertarians like to talk a lot about freedom, but they mean it only in the formal sense - a lack of restriction. Usually, one finds that they really only mean unlimited market freedom, the unfettered right to exploit others for the acquisition of wealth, without any convincing philosophical or reality-based reasoning. They reject any effort by the government to confront the deep structural inequalities in our society which make a farce of the ideas of personal responsibility and equal opportunity, and the occasional exception does not diminish this fact. For every Barack Obama or Sonia Sotomayor, there are tens of thousands who fall through the cracks.  

American philosopher John Dewey understood this - he understood the difference between nominal freedom and effective freedom. Here's a brief quote on the difference between freedom as the libertarians understand it, and what it actually means to be free:

Exemption from restraint and from interference with overt action is only a condition, though an absolutely indispensable one, of effective freedom. The latter requires (1) positive control of the resources necessary to carry purposes into effect, possession of the means to satisfy desires; and (2) mental equipment with the trained powers of initiative and reflection requisite for free preference and for circumspect and far-seeing desires. The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty. If he is without resources of personal skill, without control of the tools of achievement, he must inevitably lend himself to carrying out the directions and ideas of others.

Dewey wrote that a century ago, in 1908, but it's just as true today as it was then, in this new gilded age where the richest 10% own 71% (or more) of our wealth, and the bottom 40% own just 0.2%. Today, as computers and the internet become ever-more integral aspects of our society, access to these tools can make a great deal of difference. Of course, I would argue that this is nowhere close to enough. But it's a good step in the right direction, and we need more of those to actually more forward together toward a more just and equitable America.