A Conservative Case for Freedom

This article appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.

If there is one point upon which contemporary philosophers seem to be agreed, it is that American society has somehow lost its bearings. Critics of all persuasions relentlessly inform us that our nation has strayed from the values which once made it strong and informed it with purpose. As to what those values are, or were, there is considerably less agreement.

Those who have been most vocal in decrying our fallen state have usually been identified as conservatives. Even this subdivision of social and political criticism has failed to reach an agreed analysis of what ails us. Some conservatives fix on one thing and some on another, so that the net effect is not clarification but compounded obscurity.

This confusion is joyfully augmented by the forces which error has thrust into power. Those who benefit from the prevailing tendencies have no desire to see those tendencies corrected; thus the ruling collectivists and liberals, so called, have assiduously tried to conjure the conservative protest movement out of existence.

A whole school of literature has developed, attempting to define present-day conservatism either as a revenant classical liberalism or else as a form of mental disorder. In either case, the point is to dispose of it as something too silly to be of much account.

Such theoretical confusion is highly unfortunate. Before they enmesh themselves in it, most American conservatives operate in terms of an instinctive consensus; it is only when abstract sanctions are sought that the sectarians take over and begin compartmentalizing everyone into the suggested factions. Working unity is then dissipated in ideological feuding. The position set forward in this essay is not that such feuding is practically disadvantageous (although this is true enough) but that it shares a fault common to most attitudinizing at the first level of sophistication—that those who have set about to fragment the consensus offer us a doctrine less coherent than the instinctive wisdom they attack.

The fundamental disagreement among conservative theoreticians occurs over the problem of man and his nature: specifically, whether the imperatives of individual freedom can be reconciled with the Christian conception of the individual as flawed in mind and will, with its demand for individual subordination to an objective, nonsecular order. Critics of the protest movement delight in pointing to what they consider an insoluble dilemma. They are joined by sectarians within the movement itself, urging on the one hand that we abandon our insistence on individual freedom, on the other that we give up our Christianized view of man. The two, we are repeatedly informed, are simply not compatible. For the purposes of this essay, I shall call those who choose the first alternative “authoritarians,” those who choose the second “libertarians.”

The authoritarian believes in the objective order and is generally ready to limit individual freedom to follow its prescriptions. He prefers a hierarchical to a fluid society, conceiving some men as destined to rule, others to obey—all ordained by the objective order. The libertarian finds the idea of such an immobile society repugnant and rejects the principles which have been used to sanction it. Each has been transfixed by a single aspect of the contemporary crisis and insists that this aspect alone must absorb our full attention. The libertarian sees the power of the state increasing by leaps and bounds, while the power of the individual correspondingly diminishes. He demands that all other considerations, including the structure of traditional values, yield to the task of confronting this terrible challenge. The authoritarian sees moral standards crumbling and traditional values being ignored, and demands that all other considerations, including, if need be, the cause of freedom, yield to the task of restoring a due regard for virtue.

Both positions rest on a form of illicit conversion. In the view of this writer, they have not properly related first principles and conclusions. Patient inquiry will disclose, I think, that affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; and that a skeptical view of man’s nature not only permits political liberty but demands it. An attack on traditional values, after the libertarian fashion, will not check the growth of state power but contribute to its increase. An assault on individual freedom, in the authoritarian manner, will not restore us to virtue, because virtue cannot be legislated. Freedom and virtue have declined together and must rise together. They are not opposites; they are not even, in the American context, separate matters to be dealt with independently. They are complementaries which flourish or wither in a direct and dependable ratio.

The Value of Values

The libertarian, or classical liberal, characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order, to which man should subordinate his will and reason. Alleging human freedom as the single moral imperative, he otherwise is a thoroughgoing relativist, pragmatist, and materialist. He puts considerable emphasis on economics. Man and his satisfactions, the libertarian maintains, are themselves the source of value—and other values cannot be imposed from without. Because the free economy best serves man and best supplies his material needs, it is moral. It works.

There seem to be a number of reasons for libertarian devotion to these views. One no doubt is that some present-day libertarians are genuine descendants of Mill and Spencer, and proceed—logically, as they believe—from relativist premises to a vindication of freedom. But I believe the more common occurrence is that other considerations, largely unspoken, incline the libertarian to his particular brand of relativism. Many attacks on the idea of a transcendent order can be traced to fears about the uses to which any particular affirmation of truth may be put. The libertarian suspects that commitment to this or that ethical judgment will imply the need for having it enforced by the political authorities. Yet that step, as we shall see momentarily, is neither necessary nor desirable for those concerned to nourish a regime of virtue.

Additionally, there seems to be considerable confusion between value, as received from tradition and the counsels of religious teaching, and conformity, imposed by the pressures of the group. The two may of course coincide—specifically, when group pressures aim at enforcing traditional value. But the fact that they may appear in conjunction does not mean they are the same; and in a time of triumphant revolution, inability to make the distinction constitutes failure at the most elementary level of analysis.

It is hard to believe, however, that anyone interested in conserving historic American institutions could become reconciled to today’s patchwork collectivism. Our tradition, after all, running back through Adams and Madison and Dickinson and Otis to Coke and the British common law, is a tradition of imposing limitations upon the arbitrary exercise of power. The conformity of statism represents a radical break with that tradition; those who wish to affirm the values embodied in the tradition must oppose blatant violation of it, even when that violation has become settled and comfortable, and takes extraordinary effort to dislodge. They must perforce be nonconformists and rebels, ready to brave the censure of the group. Moreover, it is only if they are motivated by deeply cherished values that they can manage to do so. So far are “value” and “conformity” from being identical that the second can rise to its current distasteful height only when the first declines.

A man without the interior armor of value has no defense against the pressures of his society. It is precisely the loss of value which has turned the “inner-directed” citizen of nineteenth-century America into the “other-directed” automaton of today.

Man, Ortega wrote, “is a being forced by his nature to seek some higher authority. If he succeeds in finding it of himself, he is a superior man; if not, he is a mass-man, and must receive it from his superiors.” To exist in community, men must harmonize their desires; some kind of general equilibrium has to prevail. Men who lose the “inner check,” as Babbitt called it, must therefore submit to an outer one; they become mass men, ruled by their “superiors.”

The erosion of value is doubly destructive. As it promotes statism by creating the need for an external force to order conflicting desires, it simultaneously weakens the individual’s ability to withstand the state. Men without values are more than willing to trade their freedom for material benefits. That the loss of moral constraint invites the rule of power is surely one of the best-established facts of twentieth-century history. Indeed, a number of quite unconservative witnesses have pointed out that the vigor of civilization is dependent on people who are guided by some internalized system of value and who are thus capable of initiative and self-reliant behavior.

Means and Ends

The authoritarian, like the libertarian, believes that value and enforcement go hand in hand; unlike the libertarian, however, he accepts both. He merely wants to be the person doing the enforcing. The conservative, as I conceive him, rejects this common analysis. He does not share the authoritarian’s readiness to coerce his fellow men into virtue, but neither does he share the libertarian’s commitment to freedom at virtue’s expense. The conservative believes man should be free; he does not believe being free is the end of human existence. He maintains that man exists to form his life in consonance with the objective order, to choose the Good. But “choice” of the Good can take place only in circumstances favoring volition. Freedom is thus the political context of moral decision; it is the modality within which the human mind can search out moral absolutes. In the conservative view, then, right choice is the terminal value; freedom, an instrumental and therefore subsidiary value.

To the conservative, economic and political freedom per se is not “moral”; only willed human actions have moral content, and freedom dictates no particular actions. A freely acting man may or may not be moral, depending on what he does. But while freedom is morally neutral, the possible alternatives—i.e., varying forms of coercion—are not. By their nature, all coercive systems require certain actions which we hold immoral: the arbitrary exercise of power over men by other men. The Western ethic holds murder and theft are wrong because they are abrogations of divine law and of the integrity of the human personality. And it is historically demonstrable that, when total power is invested in the state, murder and theft tend to become official and impregnable. The free economy permits morality but does not guarantee it; the coerced economy guarantees immorality. This formulation may prove distasteful to authoritarians accustomed to identifying all defenders of economic freedom as Manchesterians. Yet I can conceive of no other which can maintain the conditions of moral choice. It may prove equally distasteful to libertarians, accustomed to seeing all “true believers” as enemies of liberty. Yet I can conceive of no other that will ensure the sanctity of freedom. If there is no value system with which we may rebuke the pretensions of despots, what is to prevent the rule of force in the world? If there are no objective standards of right and wrong, why object to tyranny? If murder and theft are not immoral, why object to them either singly or in the mass?

The last argument needs to be taken a step further. The Manchesterians allege that man’s self-interest, which flourishes under a regime of freedom, is sufficient sanction to keep liberty intact. But that calculus of desires is too subtle for most of mankind. It is the immemorial habit of man to be unable to see his long-term interest when a short-term one appears before him. When he thinks he can achieve an immediate benefit, he is willing to give up some of his freedom to obtain it. As F. A. Hayek puts it: “Because of the restricted capacities of our minds, our immediate purposes will always loom large, and we will tend to sacrifice long-range advantages to them.” Surely the entire trend of modern politics has demonstrated this point with disturbing finality. Only when there is widespread adherence to a consensus of value, and only when that value is one which sanctions the continuance of freedom, can freedom endure. As freedom is the condition of value, so is value the guarantor of freedom.

M. Stanton Evans (1934–2015) was a leader of the early conservative movement. He wrote conservatism’s central credo, the “Sharon Statement” (1960), and was the author of several books, including Revolt on the Campus, The Theme Is Freedom, and Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies.

This essay was published originally in What Is Conservatism?, which is available in a new paperback edition with a foreword by Jonah Goldberg.

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