Freedom and Virtue

The English weekly, The Spectator, on July 18, 1998, declared, “the pope has argued that only when individuals give of their own free will are their morals stretched and trained, but most voters adhere to Rousseau and the General Will. They want to give and receive as determined by Parliament.” That the welfare state is the greatest threat to morality and family is a common conclusion of American conservatives. Similarly, they recoil at the social and cultural decay represented by public education and the cultural customers public education has created.

Recently, some traditionalists, newly entered into the conservative movement, in justified reaction to cultural decay, have proposed the simplistic solution of government legislation to cure social ills. However, conservatives–both long-standing traditionalists and libertarians–historically have emphasized the importance of freedom of choice, as the pope has. They only trust habits instilled by parents, schools, and churches to reverse American social and cultural decay.

Long ago the conservative movement demonstrated the fallacy of a division between the traditional and libertarian elements in American conservatism. For those new to the conservative movement, Freedom and Virtue will provide the founding texts shared by both branches. Originally published in 1984, this revised and updated edition is comprised of several insightful essays by some of the leading lights of the American conservative and libertarian movements.

Among the additions to the volume are a number of essays selected by Professor George Carey of Georgetown University from the early years of National Review, when William F. Buckley, Jr., its masterful editor, drew upon M. Stanton Evans, Frank S. Meyer, and Russell Kirk. The resulting dialogue is a helpful introduction to the primary issues at stake in this debate.

Evans sets the intellectual stage by stating what he thinks is at the core of conservative thought: “The conservative believes ours is a God-centered, and therefore an ordered, universe; that man’s purpose is to shape his life to the patterns of order proceeding from the Divine center of life; and that, in seeking his objective, man is hampered by a fallible intellect and vagrant will.” Further, “this view of things is not only compatible with a due regard for human freedom, but demands it.” According to Evans, the conservative’s primary concern is that individuals make good choices, and such choices can only occur in “circumstances favoring volition.” The role of the state in this process is by necessity limited, for if one “is corrupted in mind and impulse, he is hardly to be trusted with the unbridled potencies of the state.” In this way, “the limitation of government power becomes the highest political objective of conservatism.”

In his contribution, Meyer posits the principle that transcendental truth is compatible with individual human freedom. As he writes, “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man, which is the foundation of Western civilization, is always and everywhere what conservatives strive to conserve.” Such an understanding, for Meyer, holds two things to be true: on the one hand, “the existence of absolute truth and good,” and on the other, “that men are created with the free will to accept or reject that truth and good.” As he concludes, “Conservatism … demands both the struggle to vindicate truth and good and the establishment of conditions in which the free will of individual persons can be effectively exercised.”

Meyer affirmed that libertarian/traditionalist philosophy opposed determinism and relativism alongside the “monopoly of power, usually exercised through the state, which suppresses or distorts the exercise of free will by individual persons.” Meyer precedes current historians in emphasizing the religious sources of liberty in the Middle Ages, especially in the separation of powers in decentralized institutions and polity and the balance of powers between the civil and the ecclesiastical. (The necessary companion to Carey’s book is Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom.) He added: “That fused position recognizes at one and the same time the transcendent goal of human existence and the primacy of freedom of the person, a value based upon transcendent considerations. And it maintains that the duty of men is to seek virtue; but it insists that men cannot in actuality do so unless they are free from the constraint of the physical coercion of an unlimited state.”

In his essay, Kirk argues that conservatism is a fusion of traditionalism and classical liberalism, which have sources in the natural law tradition staring with Cicero, the moral philosophy of medieval Christianity, and the civil society that emerged from medieval English law. Kirk identified the libertarians with whom he agreed as those who “perceive in the growth of the monolithic state, especially during the past half-century, a grim menace to ordered liberty,” who “vehemently oppose what Wilhelm Roepke called ‘the cult of the colossal,’” and who “take up the cause of the self-reliant individual, the voluntary association, the just rewards of personal achievement.”

An additional important contribution is the essay by Robert Nisbet, which was also included in the original edition. When he presented it at the April 1979 Philadelphia Society meeting, Nisbet generously stated in his lecture that he took F. A. Hayek to be the libertarian spokesman. Nisbet argues persuasively that regaining the rights of society represented by private associations, such as family, neighborhood, and church will protect society against the political power of governments. Nisbet considered the common ground of libertarians and traditionalists to be their “common dislike of the intervention of government” in the economic and social lives of citizens.

Space prohibits a fuller treatment of this fine book’s other essays; suffice it to say that Carey has drawn on his deep knowledge of American political philosophy to bring together this dialogue and has thus assembled an important record of the conservative/libertarian conversation. The arguments presented by these authors show why they are giants of intellect and style and what we can gain from studying them.