Habits of Liberty: Part I

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The Declaration of Independence tells us that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed” who lay “its foundation on such principles and organiz[e] its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Liberalism thus substitutes liberty or choice for any “abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience.” It is agnostic and agonistic regarding questions of ultimate value.

A liberal nation discovers and effects its choice by means of polls and market, and because that choice is not sanctioned by absolute principle or by God, takes some care to protect the interests of dissenters or minorities. Fundamentalists, whether of the left or of the right, abhor both choice—because their doctrine has already answered for all time and for all people—and dissenters, who are wrong or worse. Many of the left’s recent projects evince a repudiation of both aspects of liberalism (choice and tolerance): court-packing, abolition of the Constitution and the electoral college, equitable and environmental objectives which would powerfully damage the market, and scandal and doubt concerning the election results. Every one of these is calculated to delegitimize an essential premise of liberalism.

To many of us, liberalism seems self-evidently the only principle capable of uniting so large and diverse a nation. We suppose that if the power and reach of big tech and the mainstream media could be curtailed, then a wider public would learn the facts and gladly embrace better arguments. This seems to me a vain hope. 

Breitbart’s “politics is downstream from culture” is a useful and correct dictum—merely winning elections isn’t playing the long game—but only if by “culture” we mean much more than media and education. Culture is emphatically not of the mind alone—it is enacted bodily, and embodied in buildings, monuments, art, music, procedures, and laws—and a culture disembodied is dead and impotent. As the Southern Agrarians argued, culture is always more than “soft materials poured in from the top.”

The Agrarians’ insight has now received support across several disciplines. Sociologist Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution summarizes findings that ritual and narrative long predate and underpin our capacity for theory and discursive argument. Bellah draws on the developmental psychology of Piaget, whose work also informs Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning. Writers like James K.A. Smith and Rod Dreher articulate an Augustinian theology according to which ideas and inclinations are shaped by habits and “liturgies.” Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that rationality is only possible within the context of a tradition embedded in shared “practices.” Neil Postman has intelligently extended Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message.”

To summarize: we can say with some confidence that ideas are at least informed and inflected by the way we live. For illustration, let’s consider how the American understanding of liberty has evolved with our social and economic organization. 

When Tocqueville visited this country in the early 19th century, we were a nation of small landholders, craftsmen, and manufacturers. He noted that while the Federal government was strong, its “prerogatives,” or the scope of its power, were limited, and that public matters were chiefly administered by localities and voluntary associations. “This complete independence,” Toqueville said, “tends to make them look upon all authority with a jealous eye, and speedily suggests to them the notion and the love of political freedom.” Freedom was then understood in economic and political terms.

Today we largely work in service industries, and relatively few of us are self-employed. The scope of federal power, and the government’s willingness to interfere with the smallest details of our lives, are suggested by the fact that the federal government is now our largest employer. Given our dependence on government, we now advocate for what you might call moral freedom—diversity, inclusion, critical race theory, trans rights, legalization of drugs, license to express obscenity, etc.—and equity. 

The incompatibility of contemporary and 19th century conceptions of freedom can be drawn out by noting that political and economic freedoms require limiting government activity, while what I have called moral freedom requires government action against other citizens, or federal action against states.

Independence, as Tocqueville argued, made us hate authority and love liberty; freedom, in economic and political terms, was compelling and intelligible because practiced and practicable. Is it practicable or compelling for, say, a contemporary bureaucrat? As C.S. Lewis wrote: 

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs and asks nothing of Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

Political and economic iberty is a hard sell when so few of us have experienced it (if that seems an exaggeration, skim this article). Next time, let’s consider a few more obstacles to the sale, and begin to consider strategies to overcome them.


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