Today, only a few months before the start of a new century, the main thing is to preserve the idea of freedom and to pass on the knowledge of its value. Freedom and democracy are never a matter of course. In particular, someone who has never personally experienced a lack of freedom could easily overlook that fact, because freedom is like the air we breathe – we are not aware of it until it is taken from us.
Individual freedom has never been greater than it is now, and the plurality of lifestyles has also created an extraordinarily diverse society. That is good, and it is consistent with the image of humanity upon which the Basic Law is based. If within that diversity we can also recognize our common ground, which no less determines who we are, and then strengthen that common ground, then – and only then – will we move from tolerant coexistence to a form of true community that will enable us to tackle the future.
Our state is first and foremost a liberal constitutional democracy; it is a state that grants and protects the rights and dignity of its citizens. When the members of the Parliamentary Council drafted Article 1 of the Basic Law (“The dignity of man is inviolable”), they did not have a nonbinding, hollow phrase in mind. They wanted, first of all, to radically reject any and all totalitarianism and glorification of the state. They wanted a state that was there to serve its citizens – and not the other way around.
Behind that, of course, lies a basic expectation of the individual: the expectation that he will use that freedom to shape his own fate and that of society.
That is an essential condition of freedom, because there is no such thing as freedom that is limited to the individual alone. We can only be free as a collective. Freedom does not work if the individual always demands rights for himself, placing more and more responsibility on others – be it the “state” or an anonymous “society.” Without the efforts of individuals on behalf of the community, any polity will be overwhelmed in the long run.
And freedom is more than just the gaping absence of coercion. We must continually ask ourselves what we are using our freedom for, and what substance and meaning we wish to give it. Freedom requires reason and imagination.
And, furthermore, freedom also requires knowledge of tradition, of values, and ideals. They are the most important prerequisites for well-founded criticisms of present-day realities and for contemplating alternatives.
The proper, responsible approach to freedom does not come automatically. This, too, is a central education and communication task for everyone: for parents, schools, institutions – and also for the media.
Talking and teaching is not enough. In order to convey the value of democracy we must also be able to appreciate it and to strengthen that appreciation. I can definitely imagine the citizens having more direct influence. For example, by aggregating or splitting tickets among different candidates on party lists, also in federal and state elections;* by expanding the direct election of mayors, and by increasing citizen petitions and referendums, at least at the local level. Especially at the neighborhood level, individuals are willing and prepared to assume greater responsibility. It is possible to establish a kind of “early warning system” for social developments that can be easily overlooked by a state that hears only the opinions of bureaucrats and interest groups.
* These principles have already been applied in some local elections – eds.