During the height of the COVID controversies last year, I became concerned about a dangerous drift towards the left among my fellow conservatives, particularly regarding conceptions of liberty. In the various issues from masks to distancing to public worship, much popular folk conservatism tended to collude with the autonomy-maximizing assumptions of modern liberalism by reducing freedom to simply the enlargement of choices available to the individual. This liberal notion of freedom, often wedded to the fiction that we possess natural rights, has found expression in various COVID-era tropes that have become the all too familiar subject of anti-mask and anti-vax placards, bumper stickers, and sloganeering.
In this article I’d like to (a) review some of the ground I’ve already covered since these controversies about liberty first erupted, (b) offer some reflections on why it’s important to get liberty right at this critical juncture of the pandemic (c) share some of the work I’m currently doing to recover a truly conservative approach to liberty.
Liberty: Reviewing the Problem
The roots of the left-right political divide grew out of the debate between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke (with antecedents going back to the 14th century and the War of the Roses), and it centered on how to understand liberty. For Thomas Paine, the father of the modern left, we have a natural right to liberty, which he always situated in the context of personal autonomy. Paine believed the state must organize relations among humans in a way that secures the freedom and autonomy that is each person’s primordial entitlement. In this context, liberty is the absence of restraint; the enlargement of options available to each individual.
For Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, true liberty is regulated and must always be oriented towards the actual flourishing of an individual and society, which is to say the genuine common good. Liberty in the abstract is not virtuous because true liberty emerges only when we give prudent attention to the actual needs of society. (Read Burke at the zenith of his erudition defending “a manly, moral, regulated liberty.”)
Burke’s argument about liberty is analogous to what Christians teach about love between the sexes. Is sexual love good? Should sexual love be pursued? The Christian tradition answers, “well, it depends.” Sexual love as something good in the abstract, or something we are entitled to pursue as a natural right, or as something we pursue without limits (so called “free love”), are all concepts foreign to Christian morality. But sexual love within marriage, pursued for the good of a husband and wife’s relationship to each other and to God, is virtuous. Burke is saying something similar about liberty: since it is the actual circumstances that render liberty virtuous or noxious, liberty should never be held up as a positive good in the abstract stripped of all relation to circumstance. Chief among the discriminating circumstances that must always be considered is whether a given liberty is consistent or antithetical to communal flourishing – what we might call the common good.
The type of nuanced and empirical attentiveness that Burke enjoins is completely foreign to the rigid one-size-fits-all approach championed by both the left and the right during COVID-era controversies. We have become accustomed to nationwide and state-wide policies (i.e. “everyone should wear masks,” vs. “mask mandates are always a violation of liberty,” or “the government has zero authority over worship” vs “the government has total authority over worship”) that militate against the varying and changing needs of specific communities. It is easy enough to blame the left for this, with their bias for top-down solutions that assume a truncated criteria for public health. Yet during the COVID-era debates, I was more disheartened to see what I call “folk conservatism” drifting leftward towards Thomas Paine, lapsing into individualistic a priori arguments about freedom that eschewed the type of common good empiricism championed by Burke. I addressed this in the following three articles:
- “Paine-fully Conservative?: Remembering Rights of Man and the Original Left-Right Divide“
- “Rethinking Rights: Questioning Natural Rights with Edmund Burke“
- “15 Questions About Masks and Conservative Values.”
Towards the end of the first of the aforementioned articles, I asked the following question, which gets to the heart of current misconceptions about liberty:
“In the COVID-era controversies, when we talk about ‘the rights of the individual,’ and ‘my right not to be told what to do,’ do we mean it in a Burkean sense, where liberty is communal and political reasoning must be specific to the contingencies of time and space? Or have we drifted unthinkingly toward Thomas Paine, where my-right-to-this-and-that exists prior to the realities of society’s health and heritage?”
I took up the question of liberty more recently for Salvo #59, which just came out earlier this week. My feature article, “After Tragedy” explains that the liberal/libertarian idea of freedom was familiar to those in the ancient world but was rejected by those of sound mind, who understood that true freedom is not the province of individual autonomy but something we pursue communally within the context of the common good:
“The ancients recognized the existence of societies structured around the fulfilment of unbridled desires, but they looked upon such communities as pre-civilized and not truly free. One thinks of pre-monarchical Israel where ‘all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21:25), or the society of the Cyclopes, which Homer described as having ‘no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but living in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is a lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody gives a jot for his neighbors.’ The ancients saw such societies as falling short of true liberty, for within a truly free society, goodness is a shared quality that is pursued communally and protected through proper order. True freedom was seen as the organic correlate of order, while disorder was always a prelude to bondage, whether the bondage of anarchy….
In the classical and Christian understanding, freedom has always been understood as the ability to pursue the goal or final end (telos in Greek) appropriate to an organism. For example, the final end of an acorn is an oak tree, the final end of a baby is a fully grown human being, while the final end of a kingdom is the order and flourishing of human community. A tree that is uprooted is not truly free to realize its proper end, just as a community without any laws is hindered from realizing its proper end of well-regulated and rightly-ordered human beings.”
I am not the only one who has raised these concerns about the distortion of liberty in COVID-era debates, and I have been greatly blessed by the work of my friend Dr. Brad Littlejohn, particularly the following articles he wrote in response to crises within his own community:
- Our Lives or Our Freedoms: The Fear of Tyranny in a Time of Pandemic
- Letter to a Christian Protestor
- Consciences, Covid, and Credibility: A Response to Doug Wilson
The Cash-Value of Getting Liberty Right
As we approach the close of 2021, I am more convinced than ever that it is crucial to get liberty right. Here’s why.
During COVID-era controversies, people on the political left have generally advocated for the needs of the community over individual rights, while people on the political right have tended to advocate for the rights of the individual over the needs of the community, appealing to the aforementioned libertarian conception of freedom. Consequently, now that the issue of vaccines has become so polarizing, there is a built-up momentum that makes it hard to make the case that, actually, COVID vaccine mandates may be contrary to the needs of the community. It is unfortunate that the debate has already been framed in terms that place pro-vaccine individuals in the camp of those who are sacrificial and community-oriented, and places vaccine-hesitant individuals in the camp of those who only care about individual rights while ignoring the needs of our community. This false binary has resulted in the eclipse of important research being done (much of which is being curated by The American Conservative, for example, here and here and here and also by Paul Kingsnorth here and here) showing that vaccine mandates may actually be contrary to the needs of the community and the common good. But folk conservatism has tended to collude with this binary by adopting the truncated view of liberty mention above, which eschews the language of the common good. This was observed in September by C.C. Pecknold, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America, who noted that folk conservatism is following the left in wholesale abandonment of common good thinking.
“The contemporary liberal who loves mandating in the name of the common good, and the libertarian who hates their every mandate, tend towards two sides of the same error. Each leads us to either a private or public tyranny, not because they favor or oppose mandates, but because they are wedded to a false notion of the common good, conceived as an aggregate of radically individuated private or personal goods which is then imagined as united only by the coercive power of an overwhelming executive power, or by their fear and resistance to its mandate….
The ‘aggregate’ view of the common good might be better understood as the ‘socially constructed’ common good, since it basically works from a metaphysically nominalist premise that says that the good which is common to us is just what we say it is. The ‘common good’ is simply what the powerful decide that it is. It is not something which is real, and prior to us, but something we construct, and reconstruct as a collection of individuals forming a society. This early modern liberal error turns the common good into something infinitely pliable, detached from any objective account of a hierarchy of goods that runs all the way up to the summum bonum of God’s own goodness. …
The liberal and libertarian responses to public health policy reveal a kind of zero-sum game about whether power resides absolutely in the individual parts or in those with overwhelming power to bind. Avoiding all rational inquiry around our ability to know what is true and good, avoiding any serious examination of the fundamental nature of the common good or human flourishing, both the liberal and the libertarian are engaged in a fideistic battle for who has sufficient power to either reject or mandate vaccination.”
The alternative to this zero-sum contest for power between liberals and libertarians (two species of the same leftist idolatry) is the ordered liberty of the conservative tradition, in which freedom is never detached from prudential attention to the contingencies of time and place nor the actual needs of a given community. But to achieve this type of liberty we need to move beyond the conservatism forged in the Cold War which eschewed appeals to the common good when it meant a limitation on market forces (while simultaneously and inconsistently invoking the common good when, for example, defending the traditional family).
What we are finding now in the age of Big Pharma and Big Tech is that the Republican’s fetish with unfettered market capitalism has been just as enslaving as regulatory totalitarianism. One example of this is something that recently happened in the UK (though it might be multiplied endlessly with various cases from our own country) when cardiology researchers allegedly decided not to publish their findings relevant to vaccine-induced heart failure because of concern about losing research money from the drug industry. Science, it turns out, is the handmaid of Big Pharma. This is the world that freedom without limits has bequeathed to us, one in which everyone has a nagging sense that we are not truly free but being manipulated by forces outside our control. For some the bugbear may not be Big Pharma but the mainstream media, or perhaps Big Tech, or perhaps Bill Gates – but we all agree that nobody really feels free. Yet this is where liberal modernity has left us: the promise of autonomy-maximizing individualism held out by Thomas Paine and many of the American Founders has not made us more free but less.
Where I’m Going From Here
My work on liberty is part of a larger project of trying to discover what a conservatism eviscerated of liberal assumptions might look like. And here I am delighted to find that I am a latecomer to a vibrant debate that has been going on for at least a few years, first in Europe and now in the United States.
There is a movement under foot known as the “new American right” or the “post liberal right” that seeks to move beyond the tired tropes of Cold War conservatism to recover a genuinely conservative approach to liberty. In my recent article on the end of liberalism I discuss some of the historical factors that have ushered in the collapse of classical liberalism, while my article “Post-Liberal Conservatism,” seeks to highlight the renaissance of conservative political thought happening in the wake of liberalism’s implosion.
I also want to dive deeper into the origins and nature of the modern caricature of liberty, and D. C. Schindler’s book Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty promises to be a useful guide.
More about this in days to come.