Liberty is Law – Not Doing Whatever You Want


Deneen’s 9th chapter in Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (2016), and the final three get to the really good stuff – belief chiseling ideas that make you think deeply…. and then say – whoa! He’s right, I never thought about it that way.  The intellectual conquest of evil Collectivism by righteous Individualism is obvious (see my 3/14/17 post).  But Deneen and Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) point out that radical Individualism inevitability leads to Statism (Say it ain’t so!   Isn’t Collectivism the path to Statism, which is beaten back by Individualism?).  Actually, Individualism and Collectivism are two sides of the same coin; “waves” of human thought; like ocean waves, one forms from the material that preceded it onto the shore.  To combat evil collectivist notions with individualist ideas is the philosophical equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire.


It all comes down to the two competing ideas of Liberty; if one is true, the other is false. The first, an ancient, learned ability to place ourselves under the rule of law.  We are born children, expected to obey our elders, but as we mature we assume the responsibilities of self-government.  Liberty, under this first definition, is the cultivated ability to exercise self-limitation and self-control.  The unbridled and extensive pursuit of pleasure and appetite leads to slavery – slavery to one’s passions.  True liberty is law – noble self-mastery.


In the second more recent view of liberty, Locke and Hobbes rejected the ancient Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas understanding of liberty, conceiving humans not as parts of a whole society but rather as wholes apart, independent of any cultural connection or self-restraint. The natural starting point is pure freedom to do whatever you want, which is then tempered by the social contract theory of law (agreeing to give up some freedom to be protected).


The enormous difference between these two ideas of liberty is the end result. If we are working towards virtue and self-control, that’s good.  But if we’re working towards doing more of whatever one pleases, then we’re descending into hedonism, immorality and Statism.  The more individualist the political economy becomes, the more people turn to the State.  Individualism is not an alternative to Statism; it is its very cause.


Again, loosely quoting Tocqueville:

Since no one is obliged to help each other, he is both independent and weak. He naturally turns his regard to the immense being (the tutelary State) that alone rises in the midst of universal debasement.  His needs and desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness.


Modern debate between liberalism and conservatism is a false choice. Both embrace a definition of liberty that means doing as one likes through the conquest of nature, rather than achievement of self-government within the limits of human nature.  Your dusty old War Chest creaks with the echoes of the ancient definition – liberty is law.



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