• Individual Liberty

    Individual liberty is one of the foundations of a free society. Individuals possess rights to life, liberty, property, and freedom from the restrictions of arbitrary force. They exercise these rights through the use of their natural free will.

    But a set of questions necessarily arises: What protects liberty? Are there limits to this liberty? If so, what are they? In the two pieces below, Mark T. Mitchell and Joseph Stromberg address these core questions.

    The views and opinions expressed in Debate content do not necessarily represent those of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

    December 16, 2010
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    • Does Liberalism Protect Liberty?

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      Identifying the limits of liberty is a crucial, if exceedingly precarious, enterprise. We live in a society that elevates the autonomous individual and celebrates individual choice as the essence of human existence. Despising limits and asserting one’s freedom is a theme that pervades our cultural consciousness and manifests itself everywhere from advertising to film, from education to, ironically, religion. This elevation of individual liberty to the primary political ideal signals the ascendancy of liberalism, which is the reigning orthodoxy of our day. Liberalism, in practice, amounts to the primacy of individual choice unencumbered by either authority or tradition.

      John Stuart Mill, one of the chief proponents of classical liberalism, argued that a people should be free to do as they please so long as the action does not harm anyone else. In this view, individuals are limited only by the rights of other individuals. But as Alasdair MacIntyre has persuasively argued, rights claims tend to descend into bare assertions of power, for power is the only way of adjudicating conflicting rights claims. If this is the case, then we must look beyond liberalism for the means to clarify the proper limits of individual liberty.

      MacIntyre, of course, suggests that the recovery of the language of virtue will provide the means by which a more coherent conception of human life can be gained. Others have argued that natural law can provide an adequate framework for understanding the connection between liberty and responsibility. Still others argue that the commands of God expressed in Holy Writ are necessary for properly understanding human flourishing and the place of liberty therein.

      To these arguments the liberal can simply reply that individuals can choose to limit themselves by whatever means they like, but the fact that they are choosing demonstrates the primacy of choice. Liberalism wins.

      The question remains, however: is liberalism adequate for preserving the very liberty it so assiduously champions? The answer, I think, is no, and the problem lies in an errant view of human nature. Liberalism is born out of the social contract tradition that finds its expression in writers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. For them, humans are naturally free and equal and, by virtue of choice, enter into civil and political society. The solitary individual, constrained by nothing save his individual will, is the basic foundation of liberalism. Consequently, all associations are the product of individual choice. Contract rather than nature or covenant lies at the heart of human relations.

      The classical liberal asserts that this atomistic conception of human nature not only is true but is the best preserver of liberty. However, we should at least pause when we notice that classical liberalism has in many respects given way to (and perhaps paved the way for) welfare-state liberalism. Could it be that the autonomous and isolated individual is inadequate to resist the centralizing forces that threaten to reduce free men and women to wards of a nanny state? Could it be that, bereft of the bonds of robust and stable communities, the individual looks to the state to fill the void? Alexis de Tocqueville, as well as his intellectual heir Robert Nisbet, argues that autonomous individualism is the engine that facilitates the growth of the centralized state. Tocqueville, of course, places his bets on the ability of voluntary associations to stave off the creep toward centralization, yet to the degree that he emphasizes the voluntary nature of associations, he is trafficking in the tradition of liberalism.

      While voluntary associations are a vital part of a free society, they are not adequate on their own. If the choices of autonomous individuals do not create the condition necessary to prevent the descent into statism, we must look to another account of human nature for resources adequate to the task. Aristotle, for one, provides help in this regard. Rather than beginning his political analysis with the autonomous individual in a hypothetical state of nature, he begins with the basic building block of society: the family. In this view, we are naturally and unavoidably embedded in relationships that obligate us from the very start. Natural relationships precede choice. In this conception of things, duties and responsibilities receive the primary emphasis, and while the notion of individual rights can still exist, virulent rights claims are tempered by the context in which those rights now emerge.

      Edmund Burke extolled the virtues of the “little platoons” that cultivate a due sense of the responsibilities we inherit and foster a proper affection for one“s country and even for mankind in general. Only by beginning with a recognition of the complex amalgam of natural affiliations we enter at birth can we create a context within which a “moral and regulated liberty” exists and endures.

      Freedom is a precious thing. It is too precious to squander at the altar of the autonomous individual, which, ironically, betrays liberty into the hands of the centralized state. Ultimately, freedom is sustained only when it is embedded in a complex web of relationships that temper and direct it and thereby heighten its meaning even as it facilitates the cultivation of both happiness and virtue.

      December 15, 2010

    • What and Where Are the Limits of Individual Liberty?

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      Creeping centrist authoritarianism stalks the land. If the above question is merely empirical, the answer is that limits on individual liberty abound. But a bulletin on muggings-by-state is not wanted here.

      Long ago, America’s revolutionary ideological synthesis mixed republicanism, liberalism, Protestantism, and English law to provide answers. Rowland Berthoff and John Murrin believe America’s architects failed to create “a national community” and that their successors’ way of preserving central power “weakened the sense of community within each of its member societies without providing a convincing substitute.” Further territorial (and economic) expansion hardly improved things.

      Soon enough, republicans became interest-group liberals, while liberals denied all Christian sources and invented “neutral” foundations for rights claims. Interestingly, in perceived emergencies, many Americans (libertarians included) rediscover republican “public rights,” including habeas corpus, free (political) speech, and rights of assembly and petition. They address the shattered synthesis but the job drags on without consensus on how to reassemble its elements, in what proportions, with what modifications or rejections.

      Thomas Jefferson’s liberal-republican mix suffers today from association with sundry imperfect causes, though we could learn much from thinkers attached to localities and averse to oversized governments and markets. Today, such ideas have no social base, since the countervailing institutions described by Tocqueville succumbed to economic centralization (partly) intended in the Constitution and accelerated by Federalist judges’ zeal for uniform commercial rules. Court-sanctioned national banking and debt centralized credit regionally and then nationally, while railroad subsidies promoted unified markets and robber-baron capitalism while harming local and regional economies (the social bases referred to above).

      And just when legitimation-through-cynicism might spark healthy reassessment, Tea Parties adopt an Ancient Constitution myth destined only to aggravate existing manias like American exceptionalism (and to fulfill, a bit late, certain Frankfurt School theses about petty-bourgeois reaction). (Legitimation-through-Cynicism: see Jeffrey Goldfarb, Beyond Glasnost (University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90–97.)


      Taking “freedom,” tentatively, as absence of physical restraint, we move on to “liberty” with its public dimensions: intersubjectivity, reason, and communication among (“encumbered”) selves. As sold by its proponents, the federal Constitution established a central agency of limited powers and purposes. In the first Ten Amendments the states put additional limits on that agency on behalf of individuals or the states. Practically, then, most limits on individual rights were at the state or local level. It can be argued that this distribution of limits was better than what prevails today. But if this is where limits should lie, what are the limits?


      Liberalism rests ostensibly on individual rights, but Locke’s (and others’) truncated natural law suffices not. Rights require theological foundations, as certain atheist libertarians always said. The older natural law set rights (if any) in relations between God and man and between persons and community. For Jacques Maritain and Pope John Paul II, “persons” outrank mere “individuals” and participation—“acting with others”—enacts community. Relations and their ontology, subjects foreign to liberalism, are fore grounded. Here ends are judged, not just taken as inexplicable givens in the manner of economists. (Centesimus Annus [1991] is not a plea for neo-liberal globalization or actually-existing capitalism.)

      What are these rights? In Maritain’s shadow, we reconsider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Despite the connection to the UN, there is something of worth there: “human dignity,” “personhood,” and individuals’ private and public rights, with some mention of their limitation by duties to others and community. This is no two-item libertarian rights-list: private property and its trusty sidekick, self-ownership. The Declaration is communitarian and its “rights” may conflict with certain rights in other, thinner rights accounts. (There is no room to argue the details here.)

      We may add a few suggestions: 1) On republican and liberal grounds alike (scale, individual opportunity), corporations simply are not rights-bearing “individuals.” 2) Civilized communities require commons understood as collective property not open to global “free riders.” If this “limits” the “rights” of would-be privatizers, so be it. 3) Serious treatment of rights and limits ought to avoid the phony “balancing” acts favored by U.S. federal courts, e.g., if no one can morally torture, then a “right” not to be tortured exists (Universal Declaration, #5), all talk about safety vs. liberty notwithstanding.

      Retreat as far as we will from reified markets, we need not love the state (reified or otherwise). Albert Jay Nock wrote that states aspire to absorb everything in sight; government was a means for solving local problems. In confirmation, recent historical work shows proper European states arising only from around A.D. 1400. This conclusion undermines time-free normative propositions of the form “The state exists to [fill in blank].” We need not expect states actually to do good things found in such checklists. Relying on modern nation-states to enforce or limit rights will be more trouble than it’s worth. In the United States, federal supervision of local police to correct rights violations has paradoxically yielded a federal near-monopoly on the perpetration of just such violations, worsened by militarization. (Now the rule that state habeas corpus never benefits a federal prisoner seems like unexamined dogma.)

      Enforcement is probably best and most justly left to localities, where acting persons can practice solidarity and cooperation largely without participation by government (much less Nock’s “state”), outside cash nexus and conventional politics. And reforms removing political props from under existing abuses might proceed without reducing all issues to individual property claims.

      December 14, 2010