Since 2009, America has experienced a renaissance in the language and rhetoric of liberty. In light of the growth of the welfare and regulatory state over the past five years, concerns that government agencies have targeted specific groups on the basis of their political leanings, and numerous efforts to conscribe the religious liberty of individuals and communities, such an upsurge is hardly surprising.
In itself, this development should be welcomed. Regrowing the sphere in which people live out their political, economic, and religious freedoms is surely essential if we hope to offer an alternative to the direction in which modern liberals seem to want to take the United States. Fleshing out such an alternative, however, must go beyond simply emphasizing liberty, in terms of both substance and rhetoric.
At some point, for instance, those in the business of promoting freedom need to engage more precisely what they mean by liberty. After all, modern liberals never stop talking about the subject. Moreover, if the default understanding of freedom in America is reduced to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s mystery clause (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”), then liberty’s meaning will be very difficult to integrate with any substantive commitment to reason. That should worry freedom-lovers, because in the absence of reason we can have no principled objection—as opposed to mere emotional unease—to unjust suppressions of freedom by the sophistical, powerful, or ruthless.
This salience of reason in protecting liberty points to another factor that should help to forge compelling alternatives to modern liberalism: that other values besides liberty need to be brought into play. That’s partly because we must reclaim some of the normative ground that modern liberals have long asserted as their own. But it’s also because (1) greater or restored freedoms cannot by themselves resolve some of our most important contemporary problems; and (2) the maintenance of freedom itself depends on the strength of other values throughout the social order.
Consider, for instance, the question of justice. As in the case of liberty, modern liberals refer endlessly to justice. Some of the most prominent liberal minds of our time, such as the late John Rawls and his followers, have developed very particular understandings of justice that, however incoherent, have driven contemporary efforts to unduly limit economic freedom and impose even more draconic restrictions on religious liberty.
My suspicion is that the language of justice is not used as often by conservatives. Yet justice (or the lack thereof) is just as much at stake as freedom in some of America’s most daunting challenges. A good example is the corroding of rule of law. This deterioration is not simply reflected in what many regard as an emerging pattern of extra-constitutional actions by the executive branch. It also flows from the sheer profusion of laws and regulations that has accelerated since 2008 and makes arbitrary judgments by courts difficult to avoid.
But while the decay of the rule of law certainly represents a threat to liberty, bolstering the rule of law is first and foremost a question of justice and reason rather than liberty. Weak or nonexistent rule of law means that significant numbers of people are not receiving something they are owed as a matter of right, and that the legal system is functioning in an arbitrary (i.e., unreasonable) manner. In short, it is the prior violation of justice and the associated arbitrary decision-making that is threatening freedom, not the other way around.
Closely related to this is another value—equality—which contemporary liberals constantly invoke and about which conservatives are often silent. Whether it comes to sanctity-of-life issues, the marriage debate, or the heavily redistributive ethic that underlies the Affordable Care Act, liberal politicians, intellectuals, and activists invariably place a heavy emphasis on equality. Perhaps they do so because they understand the almost bewitching effect, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, that appeals to equality possess in modern democracies.
There are, however, plenty of areas in which conservatives can challenge modern liberalism’s apparent monopoly of the language of equality, often in unexpected ways. The inequality endemic to the crony capitalist arrangements that seem to proliferate in those parts of America where liberals have long held sway (such as Detroit and Chicago) is a prominent example. Such arrangements actively discriminate against those who don’t enjoy political or government connections. The entrepreneur who doesn’t make political contributions to, or isn’t on first-name terms with, his local legislator operates at an unjust disadvantage compared to competitors who secure special legislative treatment or subsidies through their congressman. Equality of opportunity is thus compromised.
Then there are the widespread problems to which greater liberty is only part of the solution. Take, for example, the documented decline in stable marriages and families among large segments of the American population. To the extent that the welfare state has enabled widespread social dysfunction—highlighted not simply by figures on the right such as Charles Murray and Michael Novak, but also by some on the left such as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan—it suggests a considerably smaller role for government in addressing such problems.
Yet tackling social pathologies is going to require more than just winding back the welfare state. By itself, the prevalence of greater liberty cannot address the social wreckage left in the wake of the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. A vision of marriage and family that is undergirded by the polar opposite of modern liberalism’s emphasis on individual emotional satisfaction needs to be articulated and lived. Similarly, if conservatives are going to challenge the progressives’ certainty that experts and government officials are always more efficient than non-state associations in resolving problems, then individuals, families, and civic associations will need to take more responsibility for themselves and for those in need of assistance.
Such a choice entails sacrifice of time and resources by both individuals and associations. Here we begin to see how the promotion of a freedom agenda must go hand in hand with what might be called a responsibility agenda—one that is driven from the bottom up rather than the top down.
This point can be expressed in a negative way as well as a positive one. Those who promote liberty need to grasp the degree to which, as the philosopher Roger Scruton recently wrote, “liberty is threatened by license.” The notion that a free society can be sustained on the basis of a citizenry that is narrowly self-interested, narcissistic, inclined to choose unjustly, disinclined to be charitable, who won’t honor their promises, and who refuse to be accountable for their choices would have seemed nonsensical to figures ranging from Edmund Burke to Adam Smith. Whether it is free markets or constitutionally limited government, these prominent progenitors of modern American conservatism understood that the success of these institutions of freedom depends on the prevalence of specific habits and virtues among the citizenry.
Similar sentiments may be found in the writings of most of the American founders. James Madison, for example, informed the Virginia Assembly that limited republican government without a virtuous society was “chimerical.” Even Thomas Jefferson, who once described himself as somewhat of a philosophical Epicurean, insisted in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.” Absent these virtues, the republic is in danger—and the void will be filled by a state equally ungrounded in sound moral reasoning.
The same insight, however, may be made positively. This is captured in Lord Acton’s 1877 essay, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity”: “Liberty . . . is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” Acton’s point is, at least in part, that the development of other values—reason properly understood, justice properly understood, equality properly understood, responsibility properly understood, to name just a few—constitute the building blocks of the freedom that expresses the greatness that is within everyone’s reach. This stands in stark contrast to the nihilistic self-absorption that characterizes much of the contemporary West.
Put another way, if we want to promote the freedom agenda, then arguments for liberty can’t be “autonomy for the sake of autonomy” or “liberty for liberty’s sake.” And what is closer to America’s founders, who, in their outspoken defense of freedom, consistently and convincingly used the language of republican virtue? Is it those who are indifferent whether we use our freedom to drug ourselves into a stupor? Or is it those who see liberty as a product of, and grounded in, the habits and institutions that allow us to pursue those goods that make us distinctly human?
The answer, I’d submit, is obvious.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.