Conservatism and Freedom

Conservatives need to refine their understanding and presentation of the moral substance of their cause, crafting a message that appeals to both reason and imagination.

Conservatives continue to lick their wounds and brood on their missed opportunities. A year ago, they failed to unseat Barack Obama, an unpopular and apparently beatable incumbent. A few weeks ago, they failed to defund Obamacare, an unpopular and incompetently implemented law. What, they have been asking themselves, have we been doing wrong?

Pressing that question provokes debate within conservatism, since there are various kinds of conservatives, and the different kinds tend to blame each other for the movement’s woes. Recently, a skirmish in these battles took place between National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, on the one hand, and RedState’s Erick Erickson, on the other. Ponnuru and Lowry penned a piece for National Review contending that the impatience and tactical recklessness of some conservatives in Congress had harmed the movement by launching a doomed fight to defund the Affordable Care Act. Erickson responded by claiming that National Review was no longer a reliably conservative institution.

I do not want to take sides in what is primarily a debate about tactics. That debate is necessary and, in any case, unavoidable, and there are worthy points to be made on both sides. Ponnuru and Lowry are correct that everything the conservative movement does in the realm of politics should be carefully calculated to achieve real policy effects, that it should not squander its strength on merely symbolic displays of fervor.

On the other hand, Erickson has a point that in some circumstances a bold and even intransigent stand can sometimes accomplish more than a more cautious approach. As Machiavelli teaches, a successful prince must know how to use both the nature of the fox and of the lion. Either may be necessary in the right circumstances. Conservatives should not be mere Machiavellians, but this much of the Florentine’s wisdom they need to internalize. Then they will be able to see the legitimacy in each other’s dispositions: the lions will see that the foxes are not necessarily cowards, and the foxes will see that the lions are not necessarily fools.

Although they are primarily tactical, these debates tend to spill over into matters of substance. Hence, Erickson suggests that Ponnuru and Lowry are not really conservatives. I think that Erickson errs in his remarks on the substance of conservatism, and that his misstep is serious enough to merit some extended comment.

As he nears the end of his critique, Erickson offers a seemingly definitive statement about the nature of conservatism. “Conservatism,” he says, “is about human freedom.” This, he suggests, is “true north” for conservatives. This claim is problematic on a number of counts.

First, there is a question of definition. If conservatism is simply about human freedom, then how is it different from contemporary libertarianism? Are they supposed to be the same thing? This would come as a surprise to American traditionalists—social or moral conservatives—who have always supposed that society can only flourish on the basis of some moral order that must guide and limit the uses of our freedom. These traditionalists number in the millions, and their support is necessary to any realistically conceivable conservative political coalition.

Second, Erickson’s claim is inaccurate as a matter of history—both more recent American history and the older history of modern Western conservatism. He appeals to the original, more conservative National Review founded by William F. Buckley—the NR that boldly and grandly aimed to “stand athwart history yelling Stop!” But the progressive “history” that NR’s original editors wanted to halt, or at least defy, was not just the progressive erosion of freedom, but also the progressive erosion of traditional standards of morality they thought were necessary to any civilization worthy of the name. On any number of disputed issues—in the realm, for example, of sexual morality and the regulation of obscenity—the old NR did not take positions that could be understood simply in terms of the maximization of human freedom.

More generally, the original National Review was known as a home of “fusionism,” the position formulated by Frank Meyer, one of the important early contributors to the magazine. This fusionism was an alliance of libertarianism and moral traditionalism. Such an alliance would seem to preclude any peremptory claim by one faction or the other that the larger movement was simply “about” its own deepest concern. The libertarians and traditionalists of that political generation agreed that both freedom and virtue were important to a healthy society, and that agreement was sufficient for the purposes of political cooperation. But it left unresolved a dispute about the relationship between these principles and which one was the more important. In light of this unresolved dispute, it would be impossible to say that conservatism was simply “about” either freedom or virtue.

If we look back further to the roots of modern conservatism, we find confirmation that, from its origin, conservatism did not understand itself as being primarily, much less exclusively, about human freedom. In his classic work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, widely regarded as the founder of modern conservatism, rejected doctrinaire praise of human freedom and championed instead what he called a “manly, moral, regulated liberty.”

We cannot, however, be content with simple appeals to what conservatism traditionally has been, in America and in the West more generally. After all, its traditional understanding of itself may have been misguided. Nevertheless, if we go deeper, we find that its traditional self-understanding was not misguided, but that a conservatism that is only “about human freedom” is misguided.

This brings me to a third point: an ideology that is only “about human freedom” is inadequate as a governing philosophy. Here again we may recur to Burke. Responding to the praises that had been sung about the French Revolution because of its supposed establishment of liberty, he made the following famous observation: “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.” Burke’s point is unavoidable and unassailable: freedom is not a substantive principle. It is a good thing within proper limits, but it is not itself the political good, since any honest mind would have to admit that it can be abused.

This is not just high-toned theory divorced from political reality. Governing inevitably requires regulating human behavior. Nobody could govern a political community simply on the basis of the claim that the governing enterprise is simply “about human freedom.” Securing the good of a community requires making and enforcing numerous rules. Each of these rules must be judged according to its contribution to the common good, which includes a just freedom, but no rule can be debarred simply because it limits freedom.

In the face of any proposed regulation, any rational mind will ask: “Is this rule worth its cost to freedom?” But it is equally true that in the face of any assertion of freedom, any rational mind will also have to ask: “Is this kind of freedom good—for the people asserting it, for other people, and for the whole community?” As long as both questions are unavoidable, no successful governing philosophy can just be “about human freedom.”

Fourth and finally, a conservatism that is merely “about human freedom” will fail not only as a governing philosophy but also as a political movement, one that mobilizes voters with a view to winning power. It can’t win enough votes to prevail, because it is inconsistent with human nature. Human beings are by nature moral and social animals. This is a conservative insight, taught by Burke and other conservative thinkers before him. Man, Aristotle taught, is a political animal. His intensely political nature is bound up with his capacity for rational speech. But the constant theme of his speech—at least as it relates to politics—is justice and injustice, good and evil.

This conservative insight is consistent with all observable human behavior. It is even confirmed by the actions of those who deny it the most with their words. Contemporary liberals preach moral relativism and individualism, yet nobody is more moralistic and controlling about the things they really care about. This is because they are at war with human nature. They mount a doomed effort to silence conscience, which then inevitably rebels and displays itself in fantastic and irrational forms.

Because human beings are by nature moral beings, they will desire an account of the uses of public authority that appeals to their moral imagination. They will want to give their votes in support of substantive principles that they can recognize as dignified and worthy, and not merely in support of an undefined freedom.

This point has been confirmed by recent political experience.

It is true, as Erickson points out, that in recent years the Republican Party has not been reliably in favor of maintaining traditional American standards of limited government. At the same time, it is equally true that since the beginning of the Obama administration American conservatism has flogged the theme of freedom mercilessly, but to no decisive effect: Obama won re-election anyway.

As the journalist Christopher Caldwell astutely noted in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s 2012 victory, he won precisely by mobilizing values voters—just not conservative ones. Obama offered a moral case for his policies and his re-election. That case was, to be sure, manipulative and demagogic, but contemporary conservatism could not make a compelling case against it without a morally substantial account of the just and the good that is absent from its constant invocations of freedom.

All of this raises a question: if conservatism needs to have some moral substance besides freedom, what should that moral substance be?

Here it is possible only to offer a sketch of the answer to this very important question. It would be wonderful if a majority of voters could be won over by a rationally compelling conservative moral philosophy, but conservatism, and indeed all experience, suggests that this is impossible. Voters are rational, but they are not perfectly rational. What remains, and is an eminently conservative and defensible position, is this: conservatism is about conserving the country that the founders established and their successors preserved. This means preserving it in the main as we inherited it, preserving not only its traditional freedoms but also its traditional morality and culture. It means studying this inheritance with love and care, and defending it against whatever seeks to transform it into something else.

This is not an appeal to pure reason, but more an appeal to a very natural and wholesome feeling: a spirited attachment to one’s own as it has been received from venerable predecessors. Put another way, it is an appeal not only to moral reason but also to a conservative moral imagination. That appeal is not perfectly rational, since our country is no more perfect than any other human community.  But neither is it morally or politically irrational, for two reasons.

In the first place, our country—its traditional culture, morality, institutions, and freedoms—has provided an arena for human flourishing that is not to be scoffed at. In the second place, a truly conservative traditionalism would emphasize a critical and not a blind affection for tradition. One of our country’s most important traditions is belief in a natural law accessible to human reason, a standard that transcends mere tradition and therefore provides the resources necessary to purify tradition of irrationality and injustice. It is precisely because natural law reasoning is one of our traditions that America has been able to overcome injustices such as slavery, segregation, and sexism while still retaining what is good and noble in its cultural inheritance.

Such a conservatism would be not just about human freedom, but about freedom linked to, and therefore dignified by, moral reason embodied in the traditions and culture of a great civilization.

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