Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Long Way to Freedom

Yuval Levin's "Taking the Long Way" questions whether liberty, as defined by either liberals or conservatives, is enough to build a good society. Just freeing ourselves from constraints, he suggests, will avail us little if we are not prepared to use the freedom we win. It's a fascinating meditation, and David Brooks gave it one of his Sidney Awards. Levin begins by arguing that in contemporary America liberals and conservatives are united by the same individualistic philosophy:
The left’s flawed idea of liberty . . . begins from the straightforward premise that liberty consists of the individual’s freedom from coercion and constraint—in essence, the freedom to shape one’s life as one chooses. There will always be limits to that freedom, of course. But in this view most limits are artificial and unjust barriers rather than natural and necessary constraints. Therefore, the proper mission of a liberal society is to remove as many of them as possible. . . . The choosing individual is the foundation of this progressive vision of liberty, and all of society is to be constructed around that essential unit.

Some limits are material or economic. The simple fact of scarcity constrains what we can do. But this constraint does not apply equally to all. Some are rich and have ample resources to exercise their liberty, while others are poor and have few options. What is more, the efforts required to meet our material needs—work—often amount to constraints on our freedom as well. This is especially true for the less well-off. They’re more likely to work at jobs they don’t like for the sake of a paycheck. The liberal society tries to alleviate these constraints by redistributing wealth to some degree. A key goal of progressive taxation and the modern welfare state is to increase significantly the liberty of the poor at a relatively minimal cost to the liberty of the rich.
Conservatives differ from this mainly in their intense suspicion of the state and their insistence on an expansive view of property rights:
When conservatives object to this idea of the liberal society, it is often on the ground that the range of government coercion it permits is too broad. But many conservatives (and all the more so libertarians) root their complaints in the same radical individualism as the progressives they oppose. They don’t object to the liberal view of liberty. Instead, they see liberalism as betraying it. They insist, for instance, that public redistribution of wealth is a greater constraint on free choice than the economic want it is meant to address. The same goes for campaign finance laws and many other liberal efforts to limit liberty for the sake of greater liberty. They deem the paradox of liberalism a fatal contradiction.

Their individualism leads them to this view in part because the American conservative idea of liberty is often mediated by the concept of rights, and especially property rights. The fact of economic want is not a violation of these rights. Poverty in this sense does not necessarily involve injustice. By contrast, government redistribution of property can directly impinge on our rights of ownership, and thus can easily be seen as unjust. Conservatives therefore assert that an idea of liberty grounded in individual rights is superior to the liberal approach that seeks an overall increase in individual autonomy. Rights, especially property rights, impose meaningful limits on the power of the state, which is uniquely positioned to constrain our liberty.
I think all of this is highly intelligent. As Levin notes, though, this is not what actually happens in American politics. What our politicians actually do often violates all these theories about individual liberty, often with the enthusiastic consent of the voters.
The theory and practice of American liberty have always been remarkably different from one another. Our theories have tended to be stark, abstract, individualistic, and fairly radical. Our practice has been elaborate, practical, communitarian, and fairly conservative. Our theories present our sort of liberal society as the product of a new discovery of the Enlightenment—a sharp break from what came before. Our practice reveals otherwise.
This is also intelligent; as Levin says, the political theory of liberty evolved partly as a new justification for societies that had not actually changed very much. We make a mistake when we assume that our societies grew from a social contract of free individuals, since there have never been any such individuals. We are all embedded in our social worlds and generally act accordingly, whatever theory of freedom we espouse. The bald contradictions of American politics -- like, for example, being angry that people will not salute the flag that represents the Land of the Free, or declaring whole classes of ideas unacceptable in the name of freedom -- flow from saying we believe in a theory of liberty of which we make only sporadic use.

From there Levin wanders toward religion and moral conservatism, as providing foundations for society that the simple pursuit of freedom cannot. I am of course deeply ambivalent about this. I belong to no religion and find that "traditional morality" is often a cover for patriarchy, aristocracy, racism, and smug intolerance. And yet like Levin I wonder whether people can thrive without some sort of traditional foundation. I find that the parts of my life that work best, and that give me deep satisfaction, are the traditional ones: family, work, scholarship, a sense of fulfilling my duties and honoring my obligations. Looking around America I see that freedom is failing a lot of people very badly: drug addiction, crime, prison on the one hand, empty indulgence and shallow celebrity on the other.

The critics of philosophical liberalism are right -- it is a great exercise in question begging, full of fantasies like free choice, independence, the self-made man. We are none of us truly independent; our selves are just nodes in a great network of human ties, biological imperatives, technological systems, social classes, ancient ideas. We are shaped by our circumstances much more than we shape them. We believe what we believe because of how we were raised and what we are taught and the mysterious operations of brain chemicals. To found a society on freedom is to found it on a shadow.

But what is the alternative?

Levin, as I know from his other writings, would reject much of the social progress of the past 60 years; he would have women focus on raising children, and he would not use the power of the state to undo segregation. This I condemn as immorality in the guise of conservatism.

Levin finds many of his own answers in religion. So it will continue to be for many people. For others, though, religion is about as relevant as tribal taboos, and this also will continue. For our society as a whole, religion has no answers at all; there is no important political or social question in America without religious voices on both sides, no such thing as a religious approach to life or its problems.

I am occasionally drawn to a much more communitarian politics, one in which the "rights" (another liberal fantasy, actually) of individuals are disregarded in pursuit of common ends. Levin makes much of work and its dignity, and I agree; so why not give everyone a job? We easily could, if we imposed high taxes on the rich and simply required companies to hire their share of the unemployed. Fascist and communist states have done it, so why don't we? We don't, I suppose, because at some level we really do love liberty and fear any system that threatens it too starkly. We also disagree so strongly about the measures we might take together that libertarianism becomes the easiest option, almost the default option; we don't agree on what we should do, so we'll just let everyone do his or her own thing. Our system seems built to move in that direction. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen.

4 comments:

David said...

Levin's argument, of course, suffers from the twin problems that it is based on his own preferences as an individual, and that it is, like liberalism, based on fantasies--a nostalgic fantasy about the benefits of tradition-based society, and the fantasy that "people" thrive best under tradition-based conditions. Some many thrive under such conditions, but many won't. Tradition-based societies produce their own more or less plentiful detritus of misfits, drunks, vagabonds, prostitutes, mercenaries, slaves, and metics.

For myself, I am one of those who vastly prefers our current system. I am grateful almost every day (I do not exaggerate) that I can live a secular, decadent, deracinated, cosmopolitan lifestyle in which I can read what I want, eat what I want, spend whole years without performing any religious obligations, make friends with whom I please, and never once go through a demanding rite of passage imposed by authorities I have been born under, but not chosen. I realized a while ago that I am basically a metic.

David said...

I note, after looking him up, that Yuval Levin, being an Israeli-born American, is himself something of a metic. Perhaps that is not surprising. I also note that he is the author of the book about Burke and Paine that you reviewed a while ago. I wonder what he had to say in that book about Robespierre and his type of Jacobin, who seem to me to have been pushing for exactly the type of society he calls for, one much more constrained by group demands, collective ceremonies, and rites of initiation than the one it tried to replace.

John said...

Indeed I find it hard to imagine, myself, participating in traditional rituals or knuckling under to a long list of arbitrary social demands. But I suspect that this has more to do with my society and how I was raised than any sort of personal soul that has been set free by the Enlightenment.

The thing I especially like about Levin's essay is that he makes it clear how much question-begging there is in the political philosophies we claim to espouse, which only sometimes influence what we actually fight for politically. I would like more honesty about the muddled way we are actually searching for the good life, and less invocation of grand theories of liberty. I want people to think, first, about the kind of world they want, and then formulate principles that might get us there, rather than acting like principles fall from the sky. But I guess most people can't stand to think that we are floundering in the sand, with no firm ground of clear principles to stand on.

Maybe this is a mistake, and we are better off sweeping philosophical questions under the rug and just arguing about tax rates and the Keystone Pipeline. But that leaves us drifting along on the course toward ever greater inequality and vast scientific prowess that we don't know how to use.

David said...

Perhaps it's because I'm only two generations removed from the shtetl, but I find the Enlightenment pretty liberating. :)

Has there ever been a philosophy that hasn't begged questions and been beset by contradictions? Why not be satisfied with an individualistic liberalism plus progressive taxation?