Liberty Matters

Ennobling Liberal Liberties: True Freedom for Political Animals

Liberty, as Daniel B. Klein stresses in his succinct and elegant essay for Liberty Matters, is indeed “polysemous,” fraught with different meanings and equivocal in decisive respects.
Yet the regime of modern liberty, as I will call it taking my lead from Benjamin Constant, requires the broad protection of the liberal liberties, the ones aptly sketched by Constant in his 1819 essay “The Liberty of the Moderns Compared With the Ancients” (and quoted near the beginning of Dan Klein’s reflection): “It is the right of everyone to express their opinions, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings.” Modern liberty, as Constant defines it, also includes the right to freely associate with others, to discuss one’s interests, to choose one’s religion freely, and even to idle away one’s time according to one’s “inclinations or whims.” Constant does not take his bearings mainly or exclusively from theoretical speculation, from a hypothetical state of nature as articulated by the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Constant’s understanding of liberty, he tells us, is the one widely shared by the English, French, and Americans of his time. It is first descriptive, and only secondarily, prescriptive. It is the lived experience of those who inhabit modern liberal societies.
The “modern liberty” that Constant evokes is more concrete than Isaiah Berlin’s “negative liberty.” It implicitly points toward a vision of a free and decent society appropriate to the conditions of modern life. It is at once an appeal to what is “natural,” to what avoids despotic cruelty and undue interference in the private life of individuals, and “historical,” depending as it does on a clear differentiation between the public liberty appropriate to the circumstances of the ancient city, and the private rights and enjoyments that mark the new, specifically “modern” historical dispensation. But, as we shall see, Constant would never condemn every effort to articulate a positive vision of the free, and good, society, and the “rational mastery” of the self and its passions, as a dangerous turn toward “positive liberty,” as Isaiah Berlin does in his 1957 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin’s account of the two liberties, one “negative” and modern, the other “positive” and prone to coercion and despotism, goes too far in identifying liberty with “the removal or absence of…obstacles.” Constant’s account of the difference between ancient and modern liberty stays reasonably close to the texture of real political regimes and historical alternatives; Berlin’s approach is more abstract, and hardly describes any viablepoliticalorder.
Berlin is wary, too wary in my view, of pursuing the traditional questions of political philosophy that invariably address the question of the good life and the good society. I do not believe Constant abandoned those questions, even if he circumscribed them by making them, at least in part, historically contingent. But Berlin seems to confuse the search for truth, and rational self-command, with the quest for a “monistic” denial of pluralism and personal freedom. Berlin leaves us with no middle ground between eternal verities and the “relative validity” of our most “sacred” convictions as he states on the last page of his famous essay. Despite his protests, the Berlinian account of pluralism and the radical heterogeneity of values is hardly distinct from relativism. But a liberal society or political order presupposes a certain shared vision of freedom and human flourishing, one that is presupposed by Constant and no doubt by Berlin himself, a political thinker who admirably despised Communist totalitarianism and who wrote eloquently and movingly about the noble statesmanship of Winston S. Churchill. It depends on the preservation of a moral realm, where distinctions between right and wrong, better and worse, are not judged to be merely subjective. The conclusion is clear: Every articulation of the liberty appropriate for free men and women in the modern world inescapably contains an appeal to both negative and positive liberty, of the good life and the good society that maintains an ample space for personal and economic freedom, intellectual inquiry, religious liberty, and moral self-development. That regime, the way of life, forms a “whole.” Liberty can never simply be freedom from, with no positive articulation of the shared goods inherent in civilized life.
Still, it is hard to quarrel with Dan Klein’s view that the “classical liberal” meaning of liberty, the “spine of liberty,” as he suggestively calls it, involves “others not messing with one’s stuff.” The distinguished French political philosopher and political sociologist Raymond Aron (1905-1983), mentioned and intelligently discussed by Dan, did indeed argue that “liberty as capacity” was a question that naturally arose in any modern productivist society. Aron was a critic of doctrinaire egalitarianism that he believed “vainly contradicts biological and social nature, and leads not to equality but to tyranny.” He did not believe that liberty should be confused with a frenzied passion for equality, or that an ill-defined quest for “social justice” would serve either the political or economic well-being of a free society. But “formal liberties” require certain material goods to exercise them sufficiently. Without them, disgruntled citizens will use the representative or electoral processes to achieve through politics what they cannot achieve through market competition or individual effort. This end-run around the “general rules” of market arrangements is built into the very structure of representative politics. No liberal utopia can do away with this problem or dynamic. There is a liberal way of addressing this dynamic, but it should not be confused with the project of radically depoliticizing the regime of modern liberty and substituting unchangeable rules for the give-and-take, the rough and tumble, of free political life. Friedrich Hayek seemed to move in the direction of an anti-political liberal utopia in his last great work, his three-volume, Law, Legislation, and Liberty.
That was not, in Aron’s judgment, the case with Hayek’s earlier The Constitution of Liberty(1960), a true book of political philosophy in Aron’s estimation. As Dan points out, Aron profoundly admired that 1960 work. He shared Hayek’s concern for maintaining the private sphere of civil society, property rights, the absence of undue coercion and restraint on individuals endowed with free will, and the need to respect the rule of law and the constitutional framework of the free society. But in addition to being a conservative-minded liberal, Aron was also a critic of any conception of liberty that dreamed of fundamentally depoliticizing human and social existence. For Aron, following the emphatically politicalliberalism of his great predecessors and inspirations Montesquieu and Tocqueville, the protection of private rights, and liberal liberties, could not be severed from the broader goal of the self-government of free persons who in important respects govern themselves. This not only provides a salutary restraint on arbitrary government, with its inevitable efforts at self-aggrandizement, but it allows properly civic virtues to flourish. Human beings, Aron liked to say, are citizens as well as consumers. Their talents and capacities can hardly flourish if life is reduced to a strictly hedonistic calculus.
This is Aron’s challenge to the liberal definition of freedom: Can liberalism, classical liberalism, defend “the spine” of truth at its heart without succumbing to the utopian temptation to create a world without politics (a dream paradoxically shared by Marx and the Marxist tradition if much more blindly and fanatically). Aron’s most radical criticism of Hayek involves faulting the Austrian economist and social philosopher for dismissing the entire “problem of interior liberty” out of hand. In Aron’s considered judgment, there can be no free society without some “metaphysical” or philosophical confidence in the capacity of human beings and citizens to choose reasonably, prudently, responsibly. Aron rightly remarks that the liberal “ideal of a society in which each would be able to choose his gods or his values cannot flourish before its individuals are educated in the common life.” A free society is inseparable from freedom, responsibility, lawfulness, and self-restraint on the part of individuals and citizens in both the private and public realms. This is an essential element of self-government. In the spirit of classical political philosophy, Aron unhesitatingly affirms that “a society must first exist, before it can be free.” Liberal theoreticians, Aron suggests, tend to take for granted the fundamental and enduring problem of political philosophy—and common life.
In his final lecture at the Collège de France on April 4, 1978, published in French in 2013 as Liberté et Égalité, Raymond Aron reiterated that he unhesitatingly shared the liberal “ideal of permitting to each person the freedom to choose his path” in life. But Aron refused to confuse this necessary and salutary right with the right of each to choose his own “conception of good and evil.“ That should be a bridge too far for the liberal or conservative, for any decent person committed to the search for the Good Life and the preservation of a free and decent civilized order. Moral nihilism is as much a threat to the liberal order as the urge to collectivize human and political life and, in our age, they tend to reinforce each other.
Constant himself ended his famous 1819 address on the liberty of the ancients and the moderns by reminding his auditors and readers that modern liberty needs public liberty both to check power and to “enlarge the spirit” and “ennoble the hearts” of modern individuals who are perhaps too prone to exercise their “individual independence” in ways unworthy of the human soul. The dialogue between ancient and modern liberty, liberal economics and conservative liberal political philosophy, will endure as long as human beings cherish individual independence, political liberty, material prosperity, and the enlargement of the human spirit at the service of truth and moral self-development. But one thing should be clear: “Negative liberty” is too narrow and abstract of a notion to do justice to the capacious liberties that inform and vivify a truly humane and free political order.