Liberty Matters

The Moral Prerequisites of the Liberal Order: A Restatement

Many thanks to Daniel Klein for his thoughtful and generous response to my reflections on the moral prerequisites of the free society. Dan and I do indeed share much common ground, including the recognition that liberty worthy of the name presupposes a decent political order and not simply a conglomeration of individuals who need not share any conception of the good life and the good society. I would add, more emphatically, that friends of liberty need to stop identifying active political life as first and foremost an invitation to collectivism and to the evisceration of individual rights. That is the path of despotism, not free politics.
As Alexis de Tocqueville persuasively argued in the closing chapters of Democracy in America, reducing human life to the twin poles of the individual and the state is an invitation to both debilitating passivity and apathetic withdrawal from civic affairs, on the one hand, and to a tutelary despotism that reduces passive men and women to helpless subjects of an ostensibly paternalistic state, one the other. Political liberty, rightly understood, tied to a robust art of (voluntary) association, active participation in local and municipal affairs, and to participation in choosing one’s representatives and leaders at the national level, are essential aspects of liberty which enlarge the spirit and play a crucial role in keeping political and administrative despotism at bay. And as pressures grow to establish a “world governing authority” to “globally” regulate everything from the economy and the environment to the enforcement of human rights, some newly discovered, even invented, the self-governing nation-state itself increasingly reveals itself to be an indispensable framework for the exercise of liberty in the late modern world. It should not be confused with pathological forms of nationalism.
Dan is a classical liberal in the most capacious sense of the term. He never forgets the ethical dimensions of liberty or the crucial moral arguments for the free society. Nor does he confuse individual liberty with moral subjectivism or facile relativism. But in his discussion of the higher and lower objects of a person’s life he tends to identify “higher objects” with “the ideas, beliefs, sentiments, affections, personal relationships, practices, customs, aims, plans” that are “central” in a particular individuals “selfhood, identity, and lived experience.” There is, of course, much truth to this. But in my view,  Dan excessively subjectivizes the higher objects of a person’s life by identifying them with what a particular person, Dan calls him Jim, holds dear, and then with the “sacred” itself. But if the “higher” or “sacred” has any intrinsic meaning it must refer in some sense to something real or “objective.” Moral judgments are not merely arbitrary. Conscience, our intrinsic sense of right and wrong (what Adam Smith in his own idiom called “the impartial spectator”) should never be confused with mere self-regard or self-will. And while there are a wide variety of  paths in life that are worthy of human pursuit, there are clearly some that so degrade the soul and undermine the well-being of civil society, that they ought to be rejected by decent human beings.
Today, too many theorists confuse legitimate respect for pluralism with moral indifference or a refusal to reasonably evaluate some life-choices as unworthy of human beings. To recognize these essential distinctions between higher and lower ways of life does not mean that political authorities should criminalize most expressions of moral vice and thus aim at an implausible and undesirable moral and political perfectionism. But a choice for limited government need not entail the societal inculcation of moral relativism or radical subjectivism as so many think today. As Dan himself acknowledges, the moral philosophy of Adam Smith points in a very different and much more salutary direction. As I said in my original contribution to this debate, “moral nihilism is as much a threat to the liberal order,” as is ”the urge to collectivize human and political life.” And I added, that in our age “they tend to reinforce each other.” For all these reasons, I unequivocally endorse Raymond Aron’s warning never to confuse the noble liberal “ideal of permitting each person the freedom to choose his path” in life with the wholly untenable, even nihilistic, view that every individual has the right to choose his own “conception of good and evil.” Neither law, nor liberty, nor the responsible exercise of  individuality could survive such a reckless subversion of our moral inheritance.
I have largely sidestepped the vigorous debate between Dan Klein and Helena Rosenblatt about the role of “others not messing with one’s stuff” in any conception of classical liberalism rightly understood. While Dan may too unilaterally identify the preservation and protection of property with the “spine of classical liberalism,” Helena seems far too eager to relegate the political and juridical protection of “one’s stuff” to a lower “economistic” realm, unworthy of an elevated understanding of liberty. I think that is a mistake. In On Duties, his greatest and most accessible moral treatise, which defended a vigorous understanding of moral and political obligation, Cicero gave pride of place to the inviolability of property in any truly lawful society. Edmund Burke, a thinker and statesman at the cusp of classical liberalism and classical conservatism, saw the Jacobin assault on the traditional property of France as a hallmark of what we would later call totalitarianism. How right he was! One need only reflect on all the evils committed in the name of the abolition or “socialization” of private property in the twentieth century, including the Soviet collectivization of agriculture and Mao’s murderous Great Leap Forward. Closer to home, James Madison, our constitutional founder par excellence, wrote a beautiful and succinct essay “On Property” in 1792, pointing to the vital links between personal property and the integrity of individual conscience understood in a morally elevated way. The conclusion is clear: the defense of property is a proper task of high moral and political philosophy and should not be considered too base or “economistic” for those who care about a political and social order dedicated to the sustenance of liberty and human dignity.
A final word. I completely concur with Helena that liberty is incapable of a value-neutral definition. But that does not mean, à la Quentin Skinner, that we are obliged to identify it simply as a “tool” or “weapon” utilized by political partisans and ideologues. There is a vast middle realm between ideological self-assertion and moral neutrality. That middle realm is precisely the realm that the three of us have been navigating in this most pleasant, amicable, and I hope instructive exchange. Many thanks to Liberty Matters and my two esteemed colleagues.