In online interviews and conversations I’m hearing intellectuals in the national conservative movement say that the liberal Enlightenment “project” has mostly failed because people need more in their lives than freedom. I’ve also heard this from a few people who have lately become disillusioned with leftism but yet are uneasy about libertarianism.
My first response is to wonder whom these critics of classical liberalism, or libertarianism, its modern-day form, have in mind. Which important and widely influential liberal political, economic, or, social thinker even implied that freedom is the only thing worth valuing? Let’s name names, please. I can’t think of one, but perhaps I’m overlooking someone.
Those conservatives will also insist that freedom without virtue is not just worthless but a clear and present danger. But again, which past and present of genuine liberal stalwarts would disagree? I’ve always understood liberalism to be distinct from libertinism. I see no grounds for confusing the two.
Classical liberalism, in its consequentialist, deontological, and eudaemonist forms, has been concerned with what makes for a proper society by some articulated standard or other, starting with the most fundamental unit of analysis, the individual. The literature is saturated with positive observations about society, the division of labor, association, and rich communities — in a word, cooperation.
One way or another, all of that is related to values in addition to freedom; it all is related to virtue. Far from embodying an atomistic, licentious, to-hell-with-everyone-else (pseudo)individualism, libertarianism extols what I call Adamistic (Smith, that is) individualism, in which human beings “selfishly” flourish through mutually rewarding relationships of all kinds. I’ve also dubbed this “molecular individualism. Of course, some people will engage in vice and aggression (those aren’t the same things), but as long as the state is unavailable for social engineering, free individuals using private property in association with others can peacefully protect themselves and their children from what they find abhorrent. Live and let live is the rule.
For liberals, freedom was never just an end in itself. Freedom means freedom from aggression, whatever the source, but at least implicit in the liberal vision — and indispensable to truly understanding it — is the freedom to produce material and nonmaterial values in a social context. We want freedom so we may live fully as human beings and enjoy fruitful lives among other people. Successful long-term participation in the market and society more widely encourages honesty, justice, and conscientiousness — virtues by any reckoning. To understand the value of society is to understand the need for — yes — order, but it is specifically the bottom-up, emergent, spontaneous order that F. A. Hayek and other liberals have emphasized. (You find this in Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and countless others.)
The critics of liberalism are right of course when they say that freedom is not enough to properly address the social problems we observe today. But again, which libertarian ever said it was? The libertarian point is that freedom is the condition in which people have the best chance of dealing with problems. Liberalism doesn’t promise a rose garden; it’s not utopian. In fact, freedom is not the answer to any problem. Rather, it — along with the resulting decentralization and competition — is essential to the discovery process that enables people to deal with problems as best they can. Since no one is omniscient, that discovery process is indispensable both for the good life and the good society.
Freedom is not some magic ingredient that when sprinkled on a problem miraculously produces a solution. It’s the political, legal, and social environment in which people can act to make their lives better. In the process of virtuously pursuing their rational self-interest, they make others better off too. No central coercive authority, conservative or progressive, can hope to deliver the equivalent, no matter what theory of virtue it seeks to impose. For one thing, they could never know enough.
Thus those who reject libertarianism as unequal to modern challenges show themselves to be boxing with a strawman. But worse, they deceptively pose as the guardians of virtue when they are not.
When conservatives say politics is downstream from culture, they mean that for freedom to be a good thing, people must first be virtuous. But that suggests the conservative program is to change things around and put culture downstream from politics. It’s a justification for limits on freedom of speech, religion, commerce, association, etc., until the state’s subjects have been prepared to live freely. But who is qualified to tutor the people or to say when the people are ready for freedom? How are their overlords to be chosen?
Liberals have long asked those questions, but not because they thought virtue is unimportant. It is because they knew how important virtue is. They also asked how people can be virtuous without being free to make choices.
Albert Jay Nock, the quirky libertarian writer of the 20th century, wrote about this in his 1924 essay “On Doing the Right Thing,” Nock wanted to see human beings free precisely so that they “may become as good and decent, as elevated and noble, as they might be and really wish to be.” (See my essay “Nock Revisited.”) He elaborated:
The point is that any enlargement [of state authority], good or bad, reduces the scope of individual responsibility, and thus retards and cripples the education which can be a product of nothing but the free exercise of moral judgment…. The profound instinct against being “done for our own good” … is wholly sound. Men are aware of the need of this moral experience as a condition of growth, and they are aware, too, that anything tending to ease it off from them, even for their own good, is to be profoundly distrusted. The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed. [Emphasis added.]
That’s the answer to the paternalists of all parties.
In contrast, conservatism wants the government to control the culture in the name of building virtuous people. How can they overlook the perils of this program? Once political officials assert control over culture, where does it stop? And how can they be sure that the people whose values they despise won’t eventually grab hold of the muscular state they’ve fortified?