Habits of Liberty: Part II

Culture—understood as something not only thought, but enacted and embodied—shapes our articulation of values. Liberty, I have suggested, wears a different aspect under the present centralized bureaucracy than it did during the phase of our free-market republic. Christopher Lasch describes a related shift in our idea of “democracy”:

“The word has come to serve simply as a description of the therapeutic state. When we speak of democracy today, we refer, more often than not, to the democratization of “self-esteem.” The current catchwords—diversity, compassion, empowerment, entitlement—express the wistful hope that deep divisions in American society can be bridged by goodwill and sanitized speech…In the first half of the nineteenth century most people who gave any thought to the matter assumed that democracy had to rest on a broad distribution of property…Democratic habits, they thought—self-reliance, responsibility, initiative—were best acquired in the exercise of a trade or the management of a small holding of property. A “competence,” as they called it, referred both to property itself and to the intelligence and enterprise required by its management.”

Earlier conceptions of liberty and democracy were predicated on decentralization and self-reliance; today central authority arbitrates self-esteem.

Democracy and liberty become abstractions when neither is practiced, but that abstraction is, in turn, disrupted by practice, as indicated by CNN’s recent denunciation of the “threat to democracy” posed by Parler—democracy as “sanitized speech” cannot survive free expression. Speech alone, however, cannot check centralized power: disembodied information is easily managed and manipulated, and the loud but lonely speaker is easily silenced. It is well to remember that the First Amendment protects not only religion, speech, and the press, but assembly.

Tocqueville believed that any government would become tyrannical if unrestrained by “intermediate” or “secondary” powers, by which he understood any organization able to interpose between a central authority and the individual. Intermediate institutions are of many kinds, and in our time would include the family, churches, municipal government, voluntary associations, unions, and certain professions. The health of these is in doubt, and their strength, relative to that of the federal government, is waning. 

There were those who derided warnings that mask mandates and lockdowns were illegal and tyrannical, but the habits of liberty cannot be too jealously guarded. Any action of the government tending either to increase the dependency of individuals on itself, or to weaken families, churches, or associations, is far from innocuous, whatever its purported justification. A recent spate of executive orders has been decried as the cancellation of Thanksgiving, but the better objection concerns its restriction of assembly in the middle of a contested and doubtful election.

Liberals and conservatives are justly proud of new social media platforms which bid fair to upset the dominance of Facebook and Twitter, but it is doubtful that these may serve as intermediate institutions: millions of isolated people tapping in unison on phone screens and keyboards are still isolated. Unless these numberless tappings issue in new flesh-and-blood associations and institutions, they will have been ineffectual. Talk’s cheap. What’s the cost of a tweet?

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