Home/Articles/Ideas/Freedom or Virtue?

Freedom or Virtue?

While one may grant religion and tradition credit for providing much of the energy necessary for a vibrant social life, it is also clear that both can generate such passion as to endanger social order. Rousseau was correct to this extent: freeing the individual from the cosmological consensus—from the ancient unity of church, state, and culture—has made nations difficult to rule. Failure to accept the resulting tension has caused a great deal of mischief and bloodshed over the centuries.

James Madison argued that there are only three possible solutions to the clash of interests. The first is to give government the power to suppress the divisions, “destroying the liberty that is essential” to allowing people to disagree. He argued that this is equivalent to destroying air to eliminate the danger of fire. Freedom causes disorder, but it is as essential to energetic social life as air is to natural life.

The second solution is to demand that all citizens have the same opinions—that all agree. This is the historical cosmological solution, the one advocated by Rousseau and the progressives. Madison dismissed this idea as “impractical” as long as people have different property, interests, and opinions and are allowed the freedom to express them.

The only solution to faction compatible with liberty is “controlling its effects” through the “proper structure” of a government in a constitution. Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: you must first allow the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

This view of human nature—as not unequivocally bad or good but as a balance between angelic and troublesome tendencies—was set deep within the Western tradition. The Founders saw differences, divisions, factions, and even conflict as innate to the tensions of social life, arising naturally even from minor disagreements. Concern about conflict underlay the whole constitutional structure the American Founders created. They sought to form governmental institutions that would balance ambition against ambition, interest and against, region against region, religion against religion, power against power.

Adoption of the Constitution did not change the historical fact that most peoples and cultures want agreement, with someone in charge. The desire to have someone in charge is overwhelming to the more progressive-minded, who have no tradition that would tolerate such ambiguity. Given world history, why would anyone agree to a Constitution that separates power and leaves no one in charge?

The inability to comprehend the idea of unity in diversity of power makes it impossible for progressives to see the world as the Founders did. At the heart of Western tradition is paradox, tension, ambiguity, subtlety, balance. There is a single Constitution but separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches; a national but also separate state and local governments; a single society but also churches and synagogues of many denominations and an infinite variety of private and public social entities that can be accommodated only by a vast social market allowing separate free choices. Once the subtlety of that synthesis cannot be comprehended, the Constitution as the Founders understood it cannot stand.

Progressivism was by no means alone in its desire to suppress the tension. As political theorist Frank Meyer argued, the desire to assert control can come from traditionalists or utopians of many stripes. Traditionalists may try to recreate a virtuous order supervised by a reconstituted cosmological state. Or there can be a rush to something entirely new, “to impose a limited human design of perfection upon a world by its nature imperfect” to use a government power to establish a utopian version of freedom or justice as the end of society. Either way, the goal is to force a unitary vision in place of an open-ended Constitution.

According to Meyer, pure traditionalism and pure libertarianism are “both distortions of the same fundamental tradition” that undergirds the Constitution. Both have attempted to suppress the constitutional tension.

Meyer was particularly critical of those traditionalists he called the New Conservatives—as opposed to the old conservatism of the Founders—who were inspired by professors Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck. In the name of traditionalism, they blamed Western individualism and freedom for weakening the ability of the state to inculcate virtue in modern times. Meyer especially targeted Rossiter’s demand to reject the “indecent anti-statism of laissez faire individualism,” which the professor claimed had undermined support for both traditional virtues and a compassionate welfare state.

These so-called New Conservatives in fact adopted the same solution that two early 20th century philosophers of modern progressivism had proposed. T.H. Green and Leonard Hobhouse argued that the necessary reform of classical liberalism was to make a distinction between positive and negative freedom. As Rossiter stated the required change in the New Conservatives’ worldview: “The conservative should give us a definition of liberty that is positive and all-embracing, not negative and narrow. In the new conservative dictionary, liberty will be defined with the help of words like opportunity, creativity, productivity, and security.”

Progressives offered different words to define “positive” liberty—terms like equality, welfare, compassion, and fairness. In either case, though, the result was the same: their ideology transformed liberty from a means to an end. The old meaning of liberty—as “freedom from” rather than “freedom to”—allowed individuals to set their own goals as long as they obeyed a few understandable general rules restricting one person’s liberty from infringing on another’s. Changing that meaning gives government a positive role of deciding what “freedom to” entails.

Most self-described libertarians would be shocked to be linked to Rossiter and Viereck, but they have attempted to resolve the tension in the same manner, by defining “freedom” in a positive way that forces their own desired ends. This was well illustrated in a 2005 debate under the topic “Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”

America’s Future Foundation held a roundtable forum on the question of whether Meyer’s philosophical “marriage” of libertarian means and traditionalist ends should be dissolved. Nick Gillespie of the libertarian magazine Reason made the case for divorce. Gillespie criticized conservatives for too much government spending and regulation when Republicans were in power, especially under the Bushes. But the conservatives agreed with him on this. The real issue was that the conservatives supported what Gillepsie considered repressive institutions such as family and the church, whose “authoritarian” obligations undermined modern free lifestyles.

When asked what his position would be if freedom led to the free choice of authoritarian institutions like the family, community, and religion, Gillespie responded: “That is a good question, but history shows no such tendency. Freedom leads toward freedom.” (Not only did this avoid the question, but F.A. Hayek—whom Gillespie had quoted in support of his libertarian position—was clear that such institutions were what countered the state historically and allowed freedom to develop.)

Pure libertarianism defines positive freedom in a manner that requires a particular societal end: free lifestyles. This is the difficulty for the pure libertarian. He requires the power of the state, through a Supreme Court isolated from public opinion, to enforce his type of freedom. Unless the national courts intervene to overcome private, local, state, and national prejudices, “libertarian” free lifestyles would be frustrated by social pressures from traditional local social institutions.

Freedom does not necessarily lead to freedom when defined as “free lifestyles.” Freedom is unpredictable. Americans freely choose “authoritarian” institutions like family, church, and local community associations precisely to restrict their “free lifestyles.” The Constitution’s freedom is not an end to Americans but a means toward a safe, free, moral, devout, loving, and ordered life.

Progressivism, pure traditionalism, and ends libertarianism are united in rejecting the Constitution’s only end as being the balancing of power to leave state, local, and private sources to positively define the good ends of social life. Instead these three ideologies maintain that there is one right end for social life called positive freedom, which the state exists to promote. All three derive their positions from the philosophers of positive freedom. All three reject the truly authoritarian solution of eliminating freedom as the means, but each assumes that everyone will agree that its version of positive freedom is the one right end.

Although these three doctrines differ on goals—one favors scientific administration; another, traditional morality; the third, free lifestyles—they agree that people should pursue the same goal, their goal. That is, all three share the cosmological assumption that there should be a natural consensus on the proper end of society, an agreement that government officials and judges must enforce.

The progressive position is that this agreement can come about through democratic participation. But a widely reprinted analysis of the citizenship necessary for the modern welfare state calls this view into question. In the study—“Democracy in the 21st Century: Easing Political Cynicism With Civic Involvement”—former Harvard University president Derek Bok conceded that while some public participation was important in a democracy, popular involvement in referenda and local activism did not necessary lead to sound results as understood by those with the best understanding of the problem, the policy experts.

Right at the beginning, the major theorists of the progressive welfare state recognized the paradox. As Gunnar Myrdal noted, for the experts to improve social welfare they must be free to plan more comprehensively. But progressivism also taught that democracy required people to participate in the government to give it the necessary legitimacy. That very participation could create pressures against the best expert-designed programs. In the progressive view, power must be centralized in the hands of expert planners and popular participation must be limited to symbolic rather than active citizenship.

The Constitution’s Founders understood that national participation was necessarily symbolic for average citizens. That is why they devised a system where active citizenship was local and national responsibilities were limited. Tocqueville found that the early Constitution freely produced active citizen participation locally. This made the new nation work better than any other; greater participation at the levels closest to citizens even led to greater love of country.

The welfare state, by contrast, required a complacent, national citizenship where citizens deferred to government experts, as Bok and Myrdal frankly admitted. From the progressive viewpoint, it is the responsibility of those who understand to liberate the people from those parochial but free ways of home, community, church, and school. To a great degree, the progressive project has succeeded in both concentrating power and inculcating alternative lifestyles.

In the face of this, what can the traditional constitutionalist do? The pure traditionalist must accept the changes as the new tradition or absolutely oppose them. What about those who support the old constitutional citizenship based on a fusion of traditional morality and individual freedom? The only solution would seem to be loyalty to the Constitution and to local participation but a peaceful yet resolute nonconformity toward the accepted progressive values and the outcomes to which they lead.

When progressive intellectual E.J. Dionne Jr. interviewed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s, he could not comprehend how this seemingly intelligent man could insist on moral positions that conflicted with the views of a majority of Americans of his own tradition. Why could he not compromise with those people, who mostly took libertarian views on social issues, especially on sexual matters?

Ratzinger replied: “If it is true that a Christian faith taken seriously means nonconformity with a not inconsiderable number of contemporary social standards, then a more or less negative image is unavoidable.” Ratzinger concluded that in a confused world, the obligation of a moral tradition, Christian or otherwise, is to recover the capacity for nonconformity rather than seeking either elite or mass approval.

Ratzinger’s view was “conformed and united” within a broad Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet freedom was part of that tradition too. Once the cosmological veil is torn, the individual is freed from every restraining bond of clan, tribe, people, nation, and even family. As Jesus phrased it, “From now on there will be five in one family divided against one another, three against two and two against three.”

Released from every social group restriction, each individual must freely accept or reject the truth by him- or herself, guided by tradition or not. This individual free choice creates the tension that made Western civilization so dynamic, a dynamic that can be resolved only through something equally powerful—what Ratzinger identified as love. sep-issuethumb

This freedom does not require rebellion from or even disloyalty to the social order or the government, but it does require a certain peaceful nonconformity toward them. Love of nation still may be high, but it cannot be blind. There must be tolerance and even love for all other individuals, traditions, and religions, since traditional values cannot rightly be imposed on other individuals. Such a tolerance can even accept that relativism is dominant and that it must be confronted in free and rational debate rather than through power. Freedom is essential to human nature, Ratzinger argued, but it must be in the context of the tradition that identifies “constitutional democracy as being the only system realistically ensuring freedom.”

Progressive modernism requires a quiescent, conformist citizenry, but the resulting decline in energy and creativity weakens its welfare state socially, morally, and financially. The insurmountable obstacle is that concentrated power and uniformity cannot work in a complex world freed from cosmological unity and racked by tension. Freedom, tradition, and the Constitution require nonconformity toward power, and progressivism demands submission to it.

One or the other must yield.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. 

Adapted from America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and the Constitutionby Donald J. Devine. Copyright 2013 and reprinted by permission of ISI Books.

leave a comment

Latest Articles