It may seem that a well-meaning believer in the common good and social justice would believe in liberty too: these are basic human goods. But we are learning today just how many people are rethinking Abraham Lincoln’s “principle of ‘Liberty to all’” and finding it a positive barrier to these other cherished objectives.
Lincoln reiterated the American Founders’ determination that America would be a free country: it would remove injustices and improve the lives of Americans but it would guarantee its citizens their liberty, given that America was a union of people with plentiful differences. These would be tolerable differences. The gist of the Founders’ thinking, according to National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke: “You simply could not have … a top-down imposition of truth in a country shared by Quakers [and] Puritans.” (In the century before the Constitution Quakers had been hanged at the dictate of Puritan truth.) Canada followed suit, establishing itself as another free country.
As the years passed the centrality and scope of this principle became increasingly clear in both nations:
- “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
- “Those who won our independence ... believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth”; “The makers of our Constitution ... recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature … and of his intellect…. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts…. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”(Louis D. Brandeis)
Holmes and Brandeis were heroes to 20th century liberals but talk like this fails to charm 21st century progressives, who openly reject such thinking. Freedom for thought we hate? Freedom to speak on a university campus and spread racism and transphobia? Freedom to balk at giving Canadians the abortions and sex surgeries they need? Why? We hate it, they say, because such thought fuels discrimination and abuse.
Many such people today can think up no defense at all for Lincoln’s elevation of liberty to the central place, as an “apple of gold.” People increasingly see that apple as a chromed plastic decoy meant to gull us into accepting a system that perpetuates harm. Liberty as a “golden principle” just engineers a fatal lack of courage when the times demand action.
By contrast, today’s New York Times announces: “What the Courage to Change History Looks Like: We can’t tinker around the edges. We need to dismantle systems.” Few people can make any sense of Justice Brandeis’ claim that the American Founders “believed … courage to be the secret of liberty.” Hardly, they say. To “live and let live” is quietism, moral cowardice, and failing to stand up for the powerless.
New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat explains that “the force transforming Western liberalism has many hashtags, many slogans, … #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, … intersectionality, … the ‘great awokening’.” He follows the culture critic Wesley Yang in calling the new outlook the “successor ideology”: a potential replacement for liberalism that grants liberty a very uncertain place.
Among things that identify this new programme, Douthat lists the call for “new disciplinary structures” (curtailing freedom), the rejection of debate (you are not free to make your case), the repeated use of labels with “capacious definitions” (racism, transphobia, hate, violence etc.). To spot it, Douthat says, “look for places where progressive movements cease working toward some long-sought liberal goal,” such as free speech and equality, “and start to argue in terms that leave liberalism behind.”
An example makes this clear. Three years ago, an Asian rock band called the Slants was sued over the racial slur in its name. The U.S. Supreme Court vindicated the musicians, unanimously declaring it unconstitutional to ban trademarks “likely to offend others.” Lead singer Simon Tam applauded this ruling as liberty for all: “It can’t be a win for free speech if some people benefit and others don’t.” But now, in June of 2020, the New York Times writes, “Mr. Tam could not have been more wrong about the meaning of his victory…. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation and the world, brands are swiftly taking account of the harmful stereotypes they once inflicted.” History has turned a corner, making the Supreme Court’s thinking obsolete.
Mockery of stereotypes by ironically claiming a stereotype had been declared by the Court perfectly within our freedom (a bit of human cleverness that humans are allowed), but only three years later this liberal victory is denounced as a mistake and a setback by advocates of a different thinking entirely, which is very comfortable with top-down impositions of how our fellow citizens must think, the very thing that liberty forbids.
Just notice what is implied in the condemnation of that free-speech verdict: you must see all stereotypes as “inflicted” upon others and not read the band’s name ironically, as Tam did. You must think as the woke do.
It might seem that conservatives would position themselves at the opposite pole from this attack on liberty, but for reasons actually similar to those offered by the successor-ideology, many do not. They join it in saying that liberty just gives your culture-war enemy all the room he needs to bring you to your knees. Conservatives defending liberty, it is said, have been “fooling around with tepid half-measures,” if not actually dancing to the liberals’ tune, according to Douglas Wilson, author and a pastor in Moscow, Idaho. Impassioned by the good, conservatives are making essentially the same claim as the woke: liberty is a liberal boondoggle that has tricked the naive into facilitating a legacy of social harm.
Last year, American conservatives signed an article announcing a turning point in conservative thinking; they spoke “with one voice” in rejecting the view that citizens should have “leeway to discover the meaning of existence” when this has delivered a slew of social harms: the dissolution of marriage, Drag Queen story hour, compliance demanded of physicians in abortion and medically assisted death, lost power over your own children to spare them from permissive sex education and permanently damaging surgery, etc. Other conservatives have joined in.
“A lot on the right have overemphasized freedom,” says National Review’s Rich Lowry.
We are urged to pull back from this and pay real attention to “the subject of constraint,” according to Yoram Hazony, author of the 2019 Conservative Book of the Year. The time has come to counter autonomy with talk of “authority” and unabashed “paternalism.”
“Conservative liberalism,” wrote Sohrab Ahmari in First Things, “has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good…” but the time has come “to enforce our order and our orthodoxy” through “government intervention,” focusing our efforts on “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Couched in the terms offered, all of this makes considerable sense. What after all is politics if not acting, by our best lights, for the people’s welfare? Whatever could be wrong with mixing into our governance “substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, … (such as) a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality,’” in the words of constitutional law scholar Adrian Vermeule?
These arguments have persuasive power. They make a meaningful appeal, a moving appeal, to care for our fellow citizen by not leaving him at the mercy of his own choices. If a person is wrong about some grave issue, “those responsible for the common good can exercise a kind of coercion on the one in error, lest by following his error he cause proportionately grave evil either to others or to himself,” in the view of Matthew Schmitz, senior editor of First Things.
It may be tempting to think that this call to action is a passing American fad, but the evidence points elsewhere. After 50 years of cultural losses, we are seeing a general challenge within conservatism to correct an historic mistake, identified as nothing less than the offer of liberty to all. This has been very clearly stated in other countries.
In 2014 president Victor Orbán announced that “the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of … freedom … but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organization….” What Canadians should hear in this is Orbán’s declaration that Hungary will not be another Canada. Canadians second-guessing liberty will be toying with the same idea: the ‘principle of Canada’ is a liability we must rid ourselves of. This is a society to be “re-engineered.”
That was all but said by the conservative authors of that joint article when they expressly rejected as a piece of liberal “orthodoxy … the notion that people of diametrically opposed belief systems can live and work side by side so long as they treat each other with dignity and respect.” Does that not sound like the Canadian way? The article’s signers made a point of saying it is not the American way (“We oppose any attempt to conflate American interests with liberal ideology”).
This raises a pointed question for Canadian conservatives. Isn’t the “liberal ideology” rejected by Orbán et al., and by the mob-forming ‘successor-ideology’ rising up everywhere, the chief feature of Canada? Isn’t it our distinctive way of living together?
Compassionate solidarity with victims and opponents of racism and discrimination is a positive, commonly shared value in Canada, but if this is used to test the value of freedom, as is happening on the far left, it will deny the right of Canadians to live by their own lights. This is terrible as a supreme principle. As a value secondary to liberty, it is wonderful because liberty civilizes the social-justice warrior into a true liberal in accord with the idea of Canada.
In the same way, governing to serve the common good is very obviously a supreme value: it is the meaning of good government itself. But it is in no way evident that service of the common good offers any argument at all against liberty as our first principle. It is Canada’s traditional understanding that freedom both to judge the purpose of your life, and to live by the dictates of that understanding, is a central component of the common good. What the anti-liberal conservative is advocating, then, is not the good. It his own estimation of the good (minus liberty), and in advocating it he mimics the authoritarian left.
It is just as bad for the conservative-with-a-presumption-of-infallibility to constrain others (denying their take on reality) so as to deliver the society the conservative wants as it is for the so-called liberal to do this. The truth as the conservative sees it cannot be used to test of the value of freedom either, since it denies the truth, established by God, that we are each made to give our “Yes” to the thing we believe in.
The post-liberal progressive and the anti-liberal conservative find themselves in the same ship of state: an aristocracy of the enlightened, which Canada has refused to be. To dictate to a person the right way to read and think and act and then fine her or shame her or take away something she counts essential to life as she frames it – on the say-so of some fallible human being like herself – is an outrage among equals.
It must dawn on anyone surveying these facts that liberty is not the creation, the property, and guiding light of cultural liberals. Canadian conservatives who see liberty as a principle of the left are making two grave mistakes: the first about Canada. This nation is not a liberal project, a construct of social progressives. It was designed to guarantee to our people of differing cultures no government interference in their lives. It was to leave cultures with their own traditions and values unmolested and to permit the rise of new cultures, at the same time creating general harmony. The mechanism of this was liberty. To call liberty ‘liberalism’ is to call Canada the invention of your opponent. It is not. It is an ideal we are all meant to realize.
The second mistake is about conservatism. The conservative who attributes that vision of a free Canada to his opponent is now forced to become his opponent. He becomes a progressive tearing down rotten structures that are not rotten. Liberty contains no rot. The conservative way is to preserve inherited treasures, in this case one that was given to the world by Christians moved by love for fellow creatures, even those whose opinions they did not share, being injured by the State.
Yet the fact remains that to a great many people liberty looks like an entirely implausible generator of harmony. How, they ask, can allowing Canadians to live in accordance with their own understanding of the meaning of life be a part of the common good when it is a principle that destroys it? This is now our pivotal question. Its answered lies in remembering the particular understanding of the common good that emerged from the Christian-influenced Western tradition.