In a comment to Jeff Culbreath's post below on our British heritage, I said this (slightly edited here):
It seems to me that the freedom that Americans consider so important, in particular the impatience with petty bureaucracy, has been instrumental in the fact that so much that was good in British culture is now preserved in America. I've mentioned before the way that it seems that after WWII the British increasingly accepted tyrannical restrictions on their freedoms as the sort of thing they just had to put up with with a "stiff upper lip" in the service of the common good. Americans with their guns are now ridiculed in Britain as in Europe. The British used to have a staunch sense of what we in America would call 2nd Amendment rights. It's all gone now. And I think they are right to say that there is something distinctive about Americans that resists giving that up. That "something distinctive" has been a good thing and, I think, is bound up with the preservation in America of so much that is good that we have inherited from Britain.
A confirmation of the importance of that American sense of independence comes from this story, which I just learned of today. A German family has been granted asylum in America because they were persecuted in Germany for home schooling. Home schooling is illegal in Germany. The only thing that varies from state to state is how rigorously the insistence on in-school schooling is enforced. Back at the very beginning of W4 I was reporting on the case of Melissa Busekros, a teenager who was taken from her parents against her will because her parents were home schooling her. The HSLDA article linked above has more information about the persecution of German home schoolers.
A couple of thoughts: First, it may seem unfair to start this post with a reference to American independence in contrast to Britain, since the persecution from which the family is fleeing was taking place in Germany. And indeed, as things stand, home schooling is not illegal in Britain (though my impression is that it is already more heavily regulated than in most U.S. states). Moreover, it was no accident that the late, admirable author of America's Thirty Years War connected America and England and opposed Anglo-American concepts of government to the more repressive and totalitarian-trending Franco-Prussian concepts.
But unfortunately, England has been very deliberately connecting itself more and more with continental Europe in its laws. (And the loss of freedom in the area of gun ownership is not some brand-new development.) Home schooling, too, is in danger in England, because of a report issued in 2009 and based (not coincidentally) on a UN treaty, calling for much stronger government intrusion into the lives of home schoolers. (This story says that many home schoolers are considering moving to Scotland to retain their freedom, a fact my Scottish-descended husband appreciated a good deal.)
Another interesting thought occurred to me in connection with the German family granted asylum: On the one hand, I believe that a substantive concept of what is right and good is necessary to freedom. I do not believe that we can have freedom, in the long run, based on a completely empty or solely procedural concept of freedom, because it's quite obvious that "freedom" can't mean freedom to do absolutely anything. So any society has to have some sort of shared notion of what is right and what is wrong. I've discussed this rather obvious point (about which others have written so much more) a bit here.
But it's entirely possible that the judge in the asylum case has no particular sympathy with the worldview (probably Christian) of the family seeking asylum. What he recognizes, rather, is the totalitarianism implicit in the German assumption that the state controls the upbringing of children. Now, it is a very good thing for him to recognize this. And the American independence I talk about above is based on a good, gut-level ability to recognize totalitarianism when one sees it.
But to what extent is this apparently contentless, or at least somewhat contentless, recognition of the totalitarianism of the German government vis a vis home schoolers a counterexample to my other claim about the need for a substantive notion of the good?
It seems to me they can only be reconciled here if we recognize that the judge, probably only at a very deep, implicit level, realizes that home schooling is not a bad thing to do and is a legitimate and can even be an important use of one's responsibility and authority as a parent. Hence, freedom to home school is perfectly fine and rather important, and governments who try to hound down home schoolers qua home schoolers on the assumption that home schoolers qua home schoolers are a danger to the public good are bad governments.
As I say, though, this recognition is probably very much implicit in the judge's reasoning. Nor is it always a bad thing for such recognitions to be implicit. While it may seem naive to hear people talking about "freedom" as if it were a free-floating thing, the one advantage that such naive talk has is this: It means that such people are willing to recognize the freedoms of people with whom they disagree. It means that there is a certain amount of tolerance and flex, so that "freedom" doesn't just become "freedom for those who agree entirely with me," which would be totalitarianism in a different guise.
The truth is, it's very hard to get that perfect balance between tolerance and substantive recognition of goodness, especially in a legal context. I commend the asylum judge for a good decision which will send a well-merited rebuke to Germany.