The Fallacy of Liberal Freedom:
When asked what unites Americans, most would probably respond that it is their unparalleled love of freedom. America is all about “freedom” and “individual liberty,” or so we are told. Noteworthy, however, is that no civilization can stand for freedom alone. Freedom, taken at face value, means emancipation from constraints, including those constraints on which civilization might depend for its continuity—including the constraints of law, public norms, and the responsibilities of citizenship. “Freedom,” in itself, is an incomplete and vacuous term: as James Burnham reminds us, “[freedom] must always be freedom from something and for something. Freedom along certain lines always implies restrictions along other lines.” One of the fundamental fallacies of modern society is the belief that freedom is a good in itself to be pursued for its own sake. By contrast, in the classical view, freedom was understood not as a good in itself but as an instrumental good. It was recognized that freedom, though a great moral good, could decidedly be misused and that, through their free actions, humans could undermine their potential to flourish according to their nature. Hence freedom was to be valued only inasmuch as it was used responsibly and to good effect. Accordingly, in the ancient view, the customs and institutions of existing society were not impediments to freedom but preconditions to freedom since they disciplined individuals to use their freedom well and not to abuse it. Canonical thinkers in the Western tradition including Plato and Aristotle stressed the importance of good culture and moral education in helping to produce a genuinely free and virtuous citizenry.
The modern liberal philosophical consensus—formed by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—inverted the classical assumptions and framed society as an obstacle to freedom and choice. In their view, the only just political society is founded on a “social contract” brokered among autonomous individuals in a state of nature. In brief, for the liberal, the legitimate state is the one to which rational beings would consent in conditions of unencumbered choice. Only this particular arrangement ensures that the natural freedom and choice of the individual, which is enjoyed to the greatest extent apart from the artificial restraints of civil society, is not unduly restricted. While many self-described conservatives sympathize with the notion that legitimate governance is rooted in the consent of the people, they are unable to foresee the logical consequences of this worldview. An ounce of reflection on the social contract theory leads one unavoidably to the following question: why should individuals be permitted to consent to a free government but not to other relationships and associations in their lives that similarly impose limits on their natural freedom? Not extending the legitimizing standard of choice to everything that restricts natural freedom would seem to be a contradiction on the part of liberalism.
Interestingly, in his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke extends the logic of consent beyond political associations to encompass family life; in his Letter Concerning Toleration, the standard of consent is also extended to religious commitment. In The Social Contract, Rousseau opens with the claim that man is naturally good and free but corrupted and fettered by the “chains” of society. Rousseau’s principal aim is to remove the veil of society, so the individual can regain their natural goods enjoyed in the state of nature. The unifying thread among the work of these early liberal philosophers is their commitment to the belief that society does not contribute to freedom but threatens freedom and that freedom—in its purest form—exists in a condition of liberation from the strictures of political life, family life, community, and religion. For the liberal, only by weighing all our activities against their natural counterparts and measuring existing institutions against an a priori standard of choice can natural freedom be restored. The liberal worldview requires a wholesale reshaping of the prevailing social order in freedom’s image.
The liberal conception of freedom, as I have described it, is profoundly mistaken in one catastrophic way. Liberals, in exalting abstract freedom above all, ignore the necessary preconditions for freedom’s purposeful use. 20th-century American conservative Russell Kirk summarizes this argument in his “Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians,” writing: “in any tolerable society, order is the first need. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is reasonably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract Liberty. Conservatives, knowing that ‘liberty inheres in some sensible object,’ are aware that freedom may be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the Constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable ‘liberty’ at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedom that they praise.” The mere fact of choice cannot guide our conduct in any meaningful way; it cannot, for instance, give us any clues or direction as to how to best use our freedom. Genuine freedom thus involves not only the ability to obtain what one desires, pace Hobbes, but the ability to value what one can also obtain, and so be fulfilled. Freedom involves overcoming our base desires and acting from a conception of the good, not merely capriciously pursuing primal appetite after primal appetite.
Without the values of a social order, freedom and fulfillment are abstractions that amount to nothing. Values are concepts that provide meaning beyond the present moment, allowing us to deliberate about what we ought to desire and the ends our actions serve. Such values enable the individual to pursue not only what is immediately desired by the appetite but also that which is conducive to their long-term satisfaction. To be sure, the values of which I speak cannot exist in the state of nature since the ultimate locus of values is not to be found in the individual or individual freedom, per se, but in the options and forms of life made available by social arrangements, which give meaning, focus, and direction to our freedom. Society gives its participants a sense of what is good and valuable and of who and what they are. It animates its participants with a sense of common purpose that enables them to look past their immediate concerns and reflect on the value of their conduct and their place in the broader community. Roger Scruton put this argument in similar terms in his book The Meaning of Conservatism, writing that society provides us with a sense of value in our acts and confirms our identities as social beings by giving us a “way of seeing, through which the value of conduct may be recognized.” Freedom, properly understood, exists not in a world shorn of regulative principles but in a world of human subjects capable of supplying those principles themselves. In the final analysis, the strictures imposed by societies and their institutions are not, as many liberals will argue, hindrances to our freedom or fetters on self-expression but are instead their prerequisites. There is no autonomy that does not presuppose some existing social order.
While the end or object of government for liberals is to protect a sphere for individual private freedom so as to “preserve and enlarge” the prospects for our enjoyment of liberty, in the words of John Locke, such an end cannot be coherently articulated without reference to the values—and hence to the institutions, attitudes, and customs—of those who pursue it. Abstract freedom must never take precedence over the obligation to obey the established order since to do so is to sanction a right to undermine the very preconditions of our liberty—those institutions and customs that are the repositories of our values. The protection of the inherited social arrangements and institutions that endow greater meaning on the world and so permit individuals to look past their desires and use their freedom to achieve personal fulfillment is one of the foremost imperatives of government. Our relationship with the state cannot replace our relationships with others—but it can protect and sustain them by influencing the social conditions so that they blossom. One must begin politics not by asking oneself how they can best maximize individual autonomy in every scenario but rather to what extent can they permit people to be free before it imperils those things that make freedom worthwhile in the first place? To revisit James Burnham’s observation, liberalism seems only to fixate on freedom from and neglects the question of the end for which our freedom should be exercised, leaving people adrift at sea with no beacon to guide their conduct.