The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.I. The Problem of Liberty
“When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.”
The argument behind today’s moral solipsism is that encouraging people to define themselves and their values is a boon to liberty; that the more widespread such radically individualistic behavior, the more widespread is freedom. Indeed, many hold that laws exist as a mere matter of practical necessity and that the justice system serves only insofar as it prevents and rectifies the infringement of individual rights. Laws are seen as a limitation upon man’s freedom, a privation of what he may do; for while John Locke, whose political philosophy has likely had the most impact of any modern philosopher on the current status of Western so-called civil liberty, said that the state of liberty is not a state of license, he nonetheless failed egregiously in the explication of his terms, and seems likely to have had a contradictory undercurrent undermining the whole structure of his philosophy.
That is not to say that one could not adapt Locke’s philosophy, or at least the core of it, into a greater and proper context: the seeds of truth are there, but sitting upon rocky soil. In Chapter II of his Second Treatise of Government, Locke postulates that men are naturally in a state of “perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”1 The first impediment to the verity of this claim is one of restriction: Locke insists that the law of nature, the natural law, imposes boundaries upon man; in other words, it is strongly implied that nature restricts the freedom of man. The second error of Locke follows shortly upon this, for he claims that this natural state of man, in which he is so curiously stated to be “free,” also bestows upon mankind an unequivocal equality. Were that so, there would be no celebrities and there would be no argument as to who is the better poet between Eliot and Pound; for if there are manifest differences between men, then any claim to one’s superiority over the other must be based purely on subjective grounds.
Ultimately, however, the first error is the prevalent one in Locke’s misguided philosophy; the second merely corroborates in the inevitable destruction of the poor foundation. Paragraph six of Locke’s treatise begins by stating, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”2 This may seem almost self-evident to the American mind. But what is really being said here? Is Locke advocating liberty, as something contrary to license, as a principle good of the human being? Or is he stating that liberty is a condition, constructed by law, but spurred from the same principle of unrestraint that produces licentiousness? It is almost as though Locke is subtly promoting a sort of Manichean dualism; as though the principle of free action from which both liberty and license come is some power which needs restraint by law, both of nature and of what man makes of nature. Such thinking implies that legalism is the sole true means of directing man to his proper end by a fitting life and simultaneously that laws exist as a practical means of preventing the principle of liberty too far.
But true liberty comes from neither the removal of laws nor the establishment of laws; and the preservation of codified law should exist not merely as a matter of practical intervention between man and some otherwise licentious force, but as the protection of the ordinances of reason promulgated by those who have the just authority to do so, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas. To view legal systems as unfortunate but necessary limitations upon man’s freedom is to view man as other than he really is; to see. An individual is, by biological nature, reliant upon others for his own good. Mutual reliance is the groundwork for any society. Consequently, while many laws are dubious as to their validity, a just law ought to facilitate the good of the society and of the individual; the good of the latter is inextricably bound up in the former, and failure to recognize such leads to anarchy. Laws are not impediments to the good of the individual, insofar as they do benefit to the society, which itself aims for the good of the individual within the good of the whole. A man’s good is bound up in his family, his neighborhood, his state, and his country – in that order, an order which ought to be reflected in the laws of the society in which he lives. Thus, governance needs to be present at every level; but governance not from on high, from one absolute source of law.
More and more there are calls for the United States of America to move toward a libertarian idealism. Such is assuredly noble: that government should be of limited necessity and the people should voluntarily govern themselves within their communities. Unfortunately, not only are most people today incapable of governing themselves, for lack of moral guidance, but communities have effectively ceased to exist. A man may easily live his whole life in the suburbs and not know his neighbors’ names from more than what he reads off their mailboxes. Simultaneously, paradoxically, as the U.S.A. grows more individualistic, it depends less on its local government, that which is more community-oriented, and more on the federal government. Does the average American rely on personal relationships to conduct his business, or does he rely on legalistic enforcement of his state-assured rights? Does a man oversee the education of his own children, or does he place them in the care of federally-funded schools so that he might be “free” to pursue his own interests? Is this dependence upon the state for education lessening or increasing? How does the nationalization of large private businesses benefit the individual? How can increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco, pleasures that turn into vices without the virtue of temperance, truly make man more temperate? Can government instill virtue by making vice unaffordable? Western society unquestionably emphasizes the value of making one’s own choice, of independence, and even of being socially responsible – but it does not emphasize the value of choosing rightly, of being selfless, or of being personally responsible.
Liberty, the assertion that the self is an individual of dignity immutable by any earthly power and has a right to exercise all of its faculties to the fullest extent in accord with that, is a powerful tool in the hands of the wise; an intelligent and prudent man, given freedom, may accomplish a great many things, for himself and the community within which he lives. However, the same may be said of any number of tools; with them a man may build and construct, but in the hands of the unskilled or the maleficient, a tool can become a danger to others and to the wielder. Hammer and nails may build or house, or crucify a human person. Is “liberty,” misunderstood to be license upon the insecure foundation of the Lockean notion of freedom, any different? Combined with the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant (“act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”3 – more or less the “Golden Rule”) our society’s egalitarian relativistic maxim – one may do whatever he pleases so long as he hurts no other – is proof that it is not. Abortion, contraception, homosexuality, consumerism, divorce rates, and the instability of a greed-based economy evince a predominant selfishness and a disdain of human nature, of the essential character that makes a human person who he is. It is bad parenting to let a child have no limits or boundaries; unfortunately, the discernable differences between adults and children are diminishing to the merely physical. Acts of moral evil are defended on the basis of mutual adult consent, yet denied to children on the grounds that children are not yet reasonable; why then are irrational adults’ irrational actions accepted, defended, and protected? Legislation cannot effectively prevent moral depravity in the private realm; but does it not have an obligation to the whole structure of society which is required for the good of the individual to prevent it where it can?
Indeed, it does. But to do so, it must act not an impersonal level of absolute restriction; law must not be a cold binding upon man; it ought to be the manaductio, the “leading by the hand,” that which guides man to the fulfillment of his nature. More importantly, what man needs in order to be truly free, in this age of stylized vice, is the good and true exemplar; there should be no fear to point to a great, noble, virtuous individual, and say, “Yes, this man is better than I, better than us; we ought to be more like him.” America survived as a strong country, in the internal, moral sense, so long as it had such gentlemen, men of good education and sound minds, to uphold as inspiration. Even more did Europe of old, in the days of Christendom, thrive under the excellence of the philosophic doctor, a man who “stood at the center of things because he had mastered principles.”4
The threat which has mounted against liberty, its perversion into license by a misappropriation of the principle of freedom, is indeed nigh unto dictatorship. It is incumbent upon the West to rediscover true freedom – namely, the Truth.
1 Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002: 2.
2 Locke, 3.
3 Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997: 31.
4 Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948: 53. See 52-69.