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Individual and National Freedom: Toward a New Conservative Fusion

The 2011 hit series The Newsroom begins with a memorable scene. A panel of pundits is asked by a sorority girl to say “in one sentence or less, why America is the greatest country on earth.” The liberal smugly answers, “Diversity and opportunity.” The conservative, without blinking, responds, “Freedom and freedom.” The second answer speaks volumes about the popular perception of American conservatism and, unfortunately, its actual intellectual state. “Freedom” has been the slogan of the Right since at least the postwar era, when “fusionist” conservatives sought to unite the older conservative ideal of transcendent order with the newer, more libertarian ideal of individual freedom, a fusion of the given and the chosen. The resulting “fusionist conservatism,” however, has failed to outlive its Cold War context, having been co-opted under a big business and financial services agenda since the 1990s. The language of freedom was rebranded in a consumerist mold, leaving conservatives with few resources to counter a progressivism which had abandoned its own communitarian roots in favor of individual self-realization. The result was two equally vacuous and increasingly indistinguishable visions of freedom: for the Left, it was maximizing the number of available sexual experiences to choose from; for the Right, maximizing the number of cereal options at the grocery store. Neither paradigm of freedom seems capable of illuminating the profound experience of unfreedom that America’s underclass has given plaintive voice to in recent months.

Many are apt to wonder if “freedom” even names an intelligible ideal. It was freedom that the British people demanded when they voted for a Brexit from the European Union, but it was also freedom from the British people that the feckless young royals demanded in the more recent Megxit. It was freedom from taxation and regulation—freedom from any kind of government meddling in the economy—that Republican voters demanded in the Tea Party uprising of 2010, but it was freedom to Make America Great Again, including perhaps government action to reinvigorate the American economy, that they demanded in 2016. Are such diverse demands not evidence that we are in the presence of an empty slogan, a feel-good phrase to be filled with whatever demands seem most urgent at the moment?

Many conservative critics fret that it is time to back off on the language of freedom, and to start speaking the language of justice or order instead. I think this is shortsighted. Freedom is the ideal that has echoed down through the long annals of American history, from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “let freedom ring.” 1 But it is high time to think much more seriously about this word: to ask whether it is, in fact, as Lord Acton said, “the highest political end” and, if so, in what sense. In this exercise of conceptual clarification lies a golden opportunity to reclaim a forgotten vision of human flourishing, and to sketch a bold new blueprint for an authentically conservative and authentically national politics.

Our Experience Doesn’t Match Our Rhetoric of Freedom

The first mistake that we are prone to make in thinking about freedom is to forget that freedom is fundamentally an experience, not an objective state of affairs. Of course, there is no question that others can act, or circumstances can conspire, to profoundly constrain my outward freedom. But the relationship of such circumstances to subjective experiences is hardly simple. A long tradition of Christian theology and devotion has proclaimed that “to serve Him is perfect freedom,” and has seen the experience of external suffering and persecution as merely another context within which to exercise this perfect inner liberty. We speak of coercion as the opposite of freedom, but in reality, physical coercion still leaves us with all manner of choices, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn explored in The Gulag Archipelago: to resist or to submit, to despair or to hope, to look for an outlet for escape or to turn inward for comfort.

The failure to recognize this experiential dimension of freedom lies at the root of many of our fruitless political arguments. When impoverished minorities lament their lack of freedom, hard-hearted conservatives are liable to point out the material plenty they enjoy compared to yesteryear’s despots and tycoons, or the legal equality of opportunity they enjoy in America’s permissive economy. When working-class whites complain of their disenfranchisement, the wokescolds on the left admonish them of the immense “privilege” they enjoy. Gays and lesbians complain about their lack of freedom to express themselves and the bigotry they suffer, while religious traditionalists protest that their religious freedom to oppose such forms of expression is being taken away; both parties mock the other for being thin-skinned and insist that their legitimate freedoms are amply protected by existing law. All of us seem to agree that we are suffering from a profound loss of freedom, but none of us can seem to believe that others are as well.

It is, of course, possible that we all are just being whiny, working ourselves into fits of indignation over “first-world problems” and failing to celebrate the immense freedoms we enjoy. And to some extent, this is surely a fair critique. But our shared experience of “unfreedom,” and inability to agree on its nature or source—the fact that the more and more we assert our freedom within the available liberal mold, the more futile and impotent we feel—suggests that something deeper is wrong.

In fact, it should not surprise us that our ideals of freedom, and our worries about its loss, seem so various and contradictory. After all, as the great modern ethicist Oliver O’Donovan argues,

Freedom is a term used almost exclusively to focus attention on the possibilities of its loss. Freedom is the looking glass in which we search our features anxiously for signs of “unfreedom.” But the collapse of any vital condition can occur in a multitude of ways, so what appear to be straightforward descriptions of freedom turn out to be hugely various political ideals, some of them in tension with one others.2

If freedom is above all an experience, then we must naturally ask who does the experiencing? Long years of liberal indoctrination have conditioned us to answer, “Why, individuals of course!” But our own experience and use of language belie our definitions. If we think back in our own history to consider what threats are most likely to bring the cry of freedom to our lips, they are rarely enough mere infringements on the rights of individuals. When Patrick Henry made his famous speech, it was not Parliament’s attack on individual taxpaying colonists that particularly troubled him, but its attack on the political agency of the colonies themselves. When MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared “let freedom ring!” he was concerned not merely with securing the individual rights of black Americans, but sought to secure their visibility and recognition as members of the American people and nation. When America was rocked in 2001 by the September 11 terrorist attacks, these were felt as a fierce attack on our nation’s freedom, and were followed by a swell of patriotic pride, and a fierce defense of its place in the world, which we had not experienced in over a generation.

Or were they? The response to September 11 in fact vividly betrayed the profound ambiguity that had crept into our thinking about freedom. Did the terrorists attack our freedom, or our freedoms? The former better describes the national feeling, the latter the national rhetoric. When President George W. Bush advised Americans to defy the terrorists by hitting the shopping malls, he solemnly baptized the consumeristic ideal of freedom that had steadily gained ground in the modern world. Likewise, when we went to war to “liberate” Iraq in “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and naively hailed the Arab Spring as a new birth of freedom, we were never quite clear on whether what we wanted was the empowerment of people—as individual Iraqis or Egyptians—to vote, speak, blog, or eat McDonald’s, or the freedom of the Iraqi people and Egyptian people in the oft-forgotten singular form of that English word (corresponding to the Latin populus). Did we desire, like Lord Byron romantically riding off to the Greek War of Independence, to see a nation properly freed to take its place among the nations of the world, or simply to see the extension of universal human rights to another set of marginalized individuals?

A collective conception of national freedom used to be very much at the center of Western political discourse, linked as it was to fundamental questions of representation and sovereignty. But that conception seemed to disappear from liberal intellectual discourse during much of the twentieth century. In this respect, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism was a wake-up call. In it, he speaks eloquently about the “freedom of nations,” insisting that nations too, like individuals, can experience liberty or oppression, empowerment or impotence, and declaring “the principle of national freedom” as the crucial ordering principle for a morally and anthropologically sound politics.3 The new nationalism Hazony speaks for affords us an opportunity to recover a forgotten strand in conservative thought: a recognition that to be free, we must belong to something larger than ourselves, that a well-constructed democracy is one in which the demos—the people, singular noun—is made to appear, to itself and to other peoples of the world. It becomes visible as an agent within history and thus provides a context of meaning within which each individual can experience the shared stories, symbols, language, and meaning which make it possible to realize his or her own agency. A proper account of freedom must include the ideas of potency and effectiveness alongside those of possibility and choice, and must grapple seriously with both the social conditions for individual freedom, and the experience of collective freedom.

The Limits of Liberal Freedom

Naming the errors of the liberal ideal of freedom has become a favorite parlor game of philosophers and pundits alike in recent years, so I will not belabor the point unnecessarily. But a brief sketch of the dominant conception of liberty will help us better see what this picture misses.

John Locke is often hailed (or hated) as the father of liberal individualism, but the philosophy first comes into clear focus in the thought of J. S. Mill. In his 1859 essay On Liberty, Mill confidently declares, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it.”4 This liberty involves a freedom to choose means (“our own way”) and a freedom to choose ends (“our own good”); it belongs to every individual qua individual; it requires being left alone by others; and it demands that we leave others alone in their turn. Such freedom, Mill insists, must be defended not only against the direct coercion of the state, but also against the soft coercion of “prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”5 The doyen of modern libertarian thought, Friedrich Hayek, broadly concurs with Mill’s vision in his 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom. The central political ideal, he writes, is “freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men”; it is “freedom of choice,” and the increase of opportunities for choice, understood fundamentally as individual choice: that “individuals should be allowed . . . to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s; that within these spheres the individual’s system of ends should be supreme and not subject to any dictation by others.”6 Hayek’s fellow émigré from mid-century totalitarianism to liberal Britain, Isaiah Berlin, famously developed Mill’s conception in his influential 1958 lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” glossing this liberal concept of freedom as non-interference: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. . . . If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree. . . . By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom.”7

Both the modern Right and the modern Left have rallied to the defense of this basic ideal of maximizing individual choice and minimizing interference, with the Right more prone to worry about the danger of government coercion, and the Left the danger of oppressive social norms. Both, however, have largely acquiesced in Mill’s notion that my liberty can only be restrained if it harms someone else; so long as I only abuse my liberty to harm myself, no one can stop me: “The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”8

This last line is the real kicker, appropriating the venerable concept of sovereignty, which once belonged to God, and then to the nation, to the single individual, and offering this audacious prescription in the mood of an unobtrusive indicative. The desperate attempts to realize this godlike vision of freedom in the face of human finitude in recent years have led to increasing philosophical and political incoherence.

After all, this concept of freedom is not merely individualistic, but it is apt to collide with the stubborn reality of human sociality at every point. If freedom is fundamentally non-interference, then the mere presence of other people (who always interfere somehow or other, even if they don’t mean to) constitutes some kind of limitation on my freedom, and we are left with a frustrating zero-sum game. It ought not have taken a global pandemic to make this point, but at least it unmasks the reality of the interdependence we have long sought to deny. My personal freedom to be in public ipso facto exposes the public to potential harm; indeed, if one group of people flaunt their freedom and spread the virus, they may simply ensure that measures restricting freedom more broadly are prolonged. These recent examples simply elucidate a broader principle about this concept of freedom, however: the more widely I indulge my own sphere of action, the more I am apt to collide with that of others; my freedom can only increase at the cost of decreasing yours. If I want to set up my Bluetooth speaker to blare music in the park while I do my funky workout routine, that’s now a park where you’re not free to enjoy silence. If I want to be free to air homophobic ideas in public, you’re no longer free from having your identity violated; and if you want such freedom, then I won’t be free to speak. The late-modern state has been reduced to running around like a short-staffed daycare manager—“No, you can’t pull out Ellie’s hair just because you want her ribbon!” The “harm principle” and “non-aggression principle” were intended to forestall this danger: you are free to act so long as you do not actively commit harm against the person or property of another. But what happens when our freedom itself is understood as our property? Then, by definition, any action you take is liable to harm me, since it limits my own dearest possession: my absolute freedom.

Indeed, this ideal of freedom, wrenched from the larger context of Western and Christian ethics within which it first emerged, can hardly help making godlike pretensions. To be sure, Hayek and Berlin insisted that this idea of freedom as non-interference must be sharply distinguished from freedom as empowerment. The socialists, they complained, went around promising men more freedom: freedom from material want or necessity. Although freedom is connected with the idea of increasing our range of choice, Hayek insists that it cannot mean “release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us.”9 Berlin agrees: “You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings.”10 But why? Given that the whole point of this freedom was to maximize self-realization and scope for choice, am I not free only when I have broken through every impediment that would constrain my will? Any missing option that I might otherwise choose constitutes a constraint on my possible field of action, which is seen as determined by a will that is potentially infinite. Earlier liberal theorists all quaintly assumed that as long as action was impaired by natural limits rather than the arbitrary limits imposed by other humans, freedom was not compromised. But the logic that they unleashed was quick to debunk all “natural” limits as equally arbitrary and oppressive. Why should our language, social expectations, or my own body limit my ability to be whatever gender I want to be, or to beget or destroy offspring on a whim?11

For at least the last generation, then, influential elements of both Left and Right have been united in the pursuit of an Olympian freedom that would leap lightly over every border and boundary, every moral, cultural, biological, or geographical limit that could restrict the number of possibilities available to my infinite will. For the Left, this freedom is realized primarily in the “lifestyle” domain, with the endless begetting of new sexual orientations or identities, and a willingness to applaud and encourage every one of these so long as it is freely “chosen.” For the Right, it is realized primarily in the economic domain, with ever-expanding consumer choice hailed as evidence of our unprecedented freedom, and an insistence on private property as a zone of absolute non-interference (even as expanding corporate ownership has rendered this ideal increasingly quaint and incoherent). For both parties, it involves the erasure of borders, of restraints on the free movement of goods, capital, or humans, and especially of any restraints on the free export of this mutant liberalism to the rest of the world.

The hubristic logic of this conception was neatly captured in Anthony Kennedy’s infamous declaration in Casey v. Planned Parenthood: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If I cannot define (that is, draw my own limits to) the universe itself, then someone else will be drawing limits for me, and that is an intolerable limit to my freedom. Each of us must be a deity. When faced with such fantastic claims for freedom, we are apt to respond, in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Freedom Involves Potency as Well as Possibility

While it has served admirably in restraining the tyrannies of despots and majorities, and offering fresh scope for individual creativity, the dominant liberal conception of freedom runs aground on the antinomies generated by its formalistic rejection of limits. It cannot offer an account of the structures of meaning that make possible a genuine experience of freedom.

The first of these is the idea of power. Whereas Mill, Berlin, and Hayek all agreed that power should not be confused with freedom, the two are in fact inseparable. Oliver O’Donovan writes, “In saying that someone is free, we are saying something about the person himself and not about his circumstances. Freedom is ‘potency’ rather than possibility. . . . Nothing could be more misleading than the popular philosophy that freedom is constituted by an absence of limits.” He backs off a bit from this bold statement in the very next sentence, recognizing that, to be sure, “the ‘potency’ of freedom requires ‘possibility’ as its object . . . . if there were no possibilities, there could be no room for freedom.” But the fundamental error of modern thinking, he persists, is its insistence “that we can maximize freedom by multiplying the number of possibilities open to us. . . . The indefinite multiplication of options can only have the effect of taking the determination of the future out of the competence of choice, and so out of the category of meaningful possibility for freedom.”12

O’Donovan is making two points here, both at once profound and commonsensical. First, the experience of too many choices can be not liberating, but paralyzing, as anyone who has been stuck browsing a cereal aisle or scrolling through Netflix can attest. In fact, the masterminds of the market know this full well, and have developed elaborate mechanisms for first paralyzing consumers with a bewildering range of choices, and then “nudging” them to choose whichever products had the highest advertising budget. Such “choice architectures,” as behavioral economics calls them, reveal Homo economicus’s dream of godlike freedom to be a sad delusion. Second, the very act of choice implies the good of limit, for choice must eventually settle on one thing, foreclosing other options. As G. K. Chesterton is said to have remarked, “the purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth: it is meant to close on something.” O’Donovan provides the example of a marriage, a poignant example of how the modern misunderstanding of freedom has destroyed our capacity for it. Choosing to marry means choosing to no longer have the option of singleness, or the option of marrying another.13 If these options are still held open as live possibilities, the experience of marriage is drained of its joy and meaning. “Limit,” O’Donovan observes, “is the very material with which freedom works.”14 Isaiah Berlin, to be sure, gestured toward something like this notion in his concept of “positive liberty,” but O’Donovan takes us beyond Berlin, insisting that “negative” and “positive,” “possibility” and “potency,” are not two incommensurable ideals of freedom, but two inseparable aspects of it.

Freedom, O’Donovan argues, is essentially moral agency, the experience of being “the subjects of our actions.” We might summarize O’Donovan’s wide-ranging observations on this theme by defining freedom as the capacity for meaningful action. To be capable of meaningful action, I must have the capacity to act: I must not be under the coercion or domination of another, for then my deeds will be his, not mine; in this, classical liberalism is broadly correct.15 I must also have at least some possibilities before me: if only one road lies before me and even standing still is no option, this is not freedom but necessity; this is what it means to be a celestial body, not a human being. But I must also have the capacity to act if these possibilities are to be more than mocking hypotheticals. To take a penniless child, place him in a candy store, and say “Buy whatever you want” is not a grant of freedom but a cruel taunt. Here Hayek and Berlin’s attempt to sharply distinguish between freedom as power and freedom as absence of coercion falls flat. Without at least some power to act, no one experiences the absence of coercion as freedom. Third, I must have the capacity to act. Acting is not mere doing. An action is an intelligible deed—it is something that we can explain, if asked why it was done.16 And as Aristotle taught, that means speaking of final causality—of ends or purposes. To scratch my chin may be an operation, but it is usually not an action, unless perhaps I am a spy, and it is a prearranged signal. Actions, then, require ends; they are purposeful. I might absentmindedly pace while I speak, but only the latter is an action warranting moral consideration and political protection. Finally, I must have the capacity for meaningful action; if my deed is to be intelligible, I need to be able to explain myself to someone besides myself. I need other people to whom I can give an account of myself, before whom I can represent my deeds as meaningful.17 If we have no context within which to act, or no way to express the meaning of what we do, a paralyzing sense of futility smothers our freedom. It is this social dimension of freedom that has, I think, been sorely neglected in our own day, with devastating results.

Freedom Requires a Lasting Context of Shared Meaning and Recognition

This all-important context of meaning can be extremely fragile, prone to collapse in the face of both tyranny and rapid social change. In fact, this insight can shed light on where the greatest evil of tyranny really lies. In his intriguing essay, “A Third Concept of Liberty,” Quentin Skinner observes that even when seventeenth-century English parliamentarians and eighteenth-century American colonists talked about freedom and denounced tyranny, they were worried not merely by “actual interference or the threat of it, but also by the mere knowledge that we are living in dependence on the goodwill of others . . . a mere awareness of living under an arbitrary power—a power capable of interfering in our activities without having to consider our interests—serves in itself to limit our liberty.”18 Even a benign dictator is still a dictator, and your freedom remains dependent on his whims, as Parliament reminded the colonies in the 1766 Declaratory Act. Skinner notes that for the early republicans who spoke in this way, the greatest evil that arbitrary authority produces is moral: it emasculates the citizenry, training them in habits of uncertainty, self-censorship, and flattery. This is not merely because the tyrant instills fear; he also sows confusion. It is this kind of unfreedom against which protestors took to the streets in May and June; what a pity that their “woke” organizers are in their own way often purveyors of this tyranny.

What does it mean, after all, to live under an arbitrary power? It means to be subject to an order—a system of law, value, and public meaning—that is not fixed or reliably discernible. It means that what passes for courage today might look like treason tomorrow, that what looks like love now might soon be redefined as hate. In such a condition, in which the meaning of our actions is not given in the fabric of the community or reality, but suspended on the whims of others, we lack a structure within which to order our lives. We lack, in short, the capacity for meaningful action, because we no longer know the meaning of our actions. Our language actually has a word for this condition, anomie, which comes from the Greek meaning “no law.” It is a word for which social commentators have been reaching more and more often lately. As Mill observed, society may oppress just as readily as the state; so when the norms of society become arbitrary and whimsical, the effect can be just as devastating as that of a lawless tyrant.

Matthew Crawford wrote recently in American Affairs that there is

no satisfying this beast [of progressive social norms], because it isn’t in fact “social norms” that will be enforced (that term suggests something settled and agreed-upon); rather it will be a state of permanent revolution in social norms. Whatever else it is, wokeness is a competitive status game played in the institutions that serve as gatekeepers of the meritocracy . . . [making] the bounds of acceptable opinion highly unstable. This very unsettledness, quite apart from the specific content of the norm of the month, makes for pliable subjects of power: one is not allowed to develop confidence in the rightness of one’s own judgments.19

While conservatives might be quick to point the finger at progressive social justice warriors as the culprits for this moral chaos, the latter have simply made explicit the highly profitable logic of modern capitalism. We had already decided that consumer preferences and identity markers like clothes and cars should go in and out of fashion from month to month; why not sexual preferences and identities as well? The advertisers of such fashions offer us “forms of unfreedom that come slyly wrapped in autonomy talk,” as Crawford observes in The World Beyond Your Head, encouraging us to satisfy our own desires and pursue our own purposes, even as they surreptitiously tell us what those desires and purposes should be.20

If freedom is, as we saw above, the capacity for meaningful action, and if the primary way in which we poor human beings can find meaning is in relation to one another, it follows that freedom can be more fully defined as “the realization of individual powers within social forms,” as O’Donovan crisply puts it. And when these social forms are dissolved, manipulated, or subject to rapid and unpredictable change, “we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves.”21 Whenever such social dislocation occurs, it is experienced by its members as a loss of freedom, not merely a loss of order; thus it is wrong to say (as is frequently said) that people in such situations are willing to trade freedom for security, or are blindly clinging to tradition. They are, rather, seeking to sustain a context for meaningful freedom.

It is this condition, more than anything else, that explains how the die-hard partisans of “freedom” that the Koch brothers had so assiduously conscripted into their Tea Party coalition jumped so rapidly onto the “populist” bandwagon. During the 2016 primaries, candidates who had raced to the right to define themselves as “more conservative equals more free market” found themselves stammering in protest that Trump was not conservative at all, that he did not stand for freedom, but protectionism. What they failed to recognize was that in 2016, the greatest threat to freedom, the American people correctly intuited, was not tariffs but the “permanent revolution in social norms” that Crawford and O’Donovan discern as the chief contemporary threat to freedom.

This dimension of freedom also explains why it is naïve (if not outright mendacious) to say, as the avant-garde of the sexual revolution has for the past half-century, “I’ll have my gender identity and definition of marriage; you keep yours. Let other people pursue their own idea of marriage or sexuality; it doesn’t need to affect you.” In a startlingly prophetic passage of his early work Begotten or Made?, O’Donovan put his finger on the nub of this contradiction: “Once we think of it as possible to choose to belong to the opposite sex, once our sexual determination has become a matter of self-making, then, of course, even the vast majority who live, more or less comfortably, in the sex of their birth may be thought of as having chosen to do so” (italics mine).22 It took about thirty years for that prophecy to come true, but sometime in the past decade or so, most of us woke up to discover that we were no longer simply male or female, but “cis-gender,” and thereby privileged! O’Donovan’s point is simple but profound: once a given that precedes action becomes a chosen that results from action and can be reversed, the basic context of action has been altered, and freedom, far from increasing, threatens to collapse.

Alongside possibility and potency, then, we need to also add durability as a fundamental condition of freedom. Freedom can only be preserved in social forms that offer some resilience against the sudden redefinition of what is and is not lawful—whether by one tyrant ten thousand miles away or ten thousand tyrants one mile away.

Such social forms, moreover, are critical not merely for providing a context in which my actions have meaning, but in which I have meaning, in which I experience myself as an agent, a cause within the world, in which I know that I am seen and known by others. I may find myself left alone by the law to do whatever I please, and with enough money, strength, and clarity of mind to achieve my goals. I may even be fortunate enough to find a context within which such goals make sense, so I do not feel like I am just spinning my wheels. But if nobody sees me, I will still feel powerless and stuck. The craving for recognition frequently morphs into a perverse vanity or ambition, but at its root is a basic human desire to know and be known. I may know that I am agent, that my actions have meaning, that what I am doing matters. But if no one else recognizes it, day after day, year after year, I will begin to doubt and falter, and I will begin to feel trapped rather than free.

This, in fact, is the essence of poverty, a social phenomenon rather than a material one, more often than not.23 Capitalist cheerleaders who enthuse that the poorest today enjoy material comforts that would’ve dazzled Caesar entirely miss the point. The poverty line is always relative, not absolute. Society sets expectations for what counts as “important enough to matter,” and anyone who doesn’t meet the cut experiences the impotence that we often associate with poverty, whether or not they are materially well-off. This explains why the race issue in America could not be resolved with civil rights or welfare checks alone, which too often went hand-in-hand with the destruction of the historic black churches and communities that had provided a context of recognition. Again, this explains the revolt of the “deplorables” in 2016: Trump voters still worried about the loss of freedom, but intuitively recognized that a land in which they and their way of life were not allowed to appear—whether because of economic decline or hostile cultural elites—could not be the land of the free.

The Freedom of Peoples

This last element of freedom offers us a good opportunity to move beyond the merely individual horizon. It is certainly crucial to recover a sense of how much the individual needs the community to experience the blessings of freedom. But it is not enough. Such arguments, important as they are, still do not move beyond treating the community as a prop for individual self-realization. This is the nation not as a daycare manager but as a bowling league: a valuable retrieval, perhaps, in this age of bowling alone, but still no more than a voluntary association for mutual benefit—albeit psychological benefit as well as military and economic. But this is not what the idea of the community, the idea of the people, and the idea of the nation have historically meant.

To speak of a community is to speak of participation in a genuinely common good, rather than mere collaboration in shared private goods. A classic example is that of an orchestra, in which the community makes possible forms of action wholly unavailable to individuals, however capable. In such activities, we may move beyond speaking in the third person plural to speaking in the corporate singular: the orchestra is performing this evening.

The community that encompasses all other communities, the community that encompasses the entirety of our common goods into the common good, is the political community, historically named with such a corporate singular noun (which now functions almost always as a mere plural): people. “When we recognize a political authority summoning us to act together in defense of the common good,” writes O’Donovan, “we recognize ourselves. We conceive ourselves as a ‘people,’ a community constituted by participation in the common good.”24 We have seen that when people cry out for freedom, what they crave is to be recognized as agents. But where do they locate that agency? Even today, after a couple centuries of individualist indoctrination, the answer often surprises us. People instinctively speak the language of “we” more quickly than the language of “I.” People rally more viscerally and violently to the defense of collective freedoms than individual freedoms.

This should not surprise us, and the etymology of the word nation should give us a clue as to why. The idea of the nation draws attention to the reality of shared natio, birth, the idea that each of us are bearers of an identity that was not chosen, but given. This identity offers us an experience of shared agency, as Hazony notes. A family, for instance, can feel pain together, and “so too it can experience triumph and tragedy, desire and fear, interests and aspirations,”25 and the same goes for larger collectives. St. Paul writes of the church, “When one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26) and so too even for nations, as we all experienced on 9/11 or when Osama bin Laden was killed. Just as nations can collectively feel pain and rejoicing, so too they can feel slavery and freedom. “In taking part in the freedom of the collective,” Hazony observes, “I experience something that is quite distinct from the strictly individual freedom of saying whatever I please or going wherever I want.”26 This experience is more than that of mere sympathy; it also involves a sense of genuine belonging, fittingness, of having a role to play within some larger body and some larger drama, of being a “member” of a “body” to use St. Paul’s once-jarring, though now-cliched image.

Etymology notwithstanding, such belonging is not primarily a matter of biological birth or race; the rise of such mutant perversions of conservatism attest to the loss of history and imagination that once sustained conservative political thought. As adoption can be as deep a bond as blood in the nuclear family, so in the political family. “To see ourselves as a people,” argues O’Donovan, “is a work of moral imagination. Not arbitrary imagination: it is an insight into reality, the reality of what we are given to be and do together.”27

The once fertile imagination of the West formerly fostered not only belief in our own national agency but in the good of seeing such agency, such freedom, realized elsewhere in the world. It was not long ago that we celebrated the emergence of new independent nations, of new peoples, from within existing hegemonic states: the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, for instance, which was met with similar excitement in the West as the earlier breakups of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. To be sure, we have frequently confused this freedom of national independence with the liberal freedom of non-interference, imagining that for any people to become free was to become more like us. Thus for decades we have scratched our heads whenever new nations celebrated their freedom by enacting “repressive” and anti-liberal measures; such bewilderment is evident in the reaction of Western elites today to Brexit or to the trajectory of political self-determination in Poland or Hungary, which seems to peel apart those two elements of the modern ideal: “liberal democracy.”

According to a certain kind of liberal theory, the great virtue of democracy is that, since no individual desires to oppress himself, government will govern least (and therefore best) which most fully represents each individual in its decision-making. In practice, however, many democracies have failed abysmally to follow the stated theory at this point. Indeed, perhaps most maddeningly to liberal zealots, many nations seem to have experienced the joys and benefits of self-government even when constituted in ways that we would consider quite unrepresentative (consider, for instance, the restrictions on the franchise for much of Britain’s and even America’s history). The real experience of freedom in such cases owes much to the phenomenon of recognition: the ability of a people to see themselves represented in their political institutions, and to know that their agency was recognized and respected by the other nations of the world.

We may be hopeful that amid today’s increasing political dislocations we are witnessing at last a protest on behalf of recognition: we are not all interchangeable. We are different, and these differences deserve recognition. But these differences cannot be secured by the Promethean assertion of individuality, which threatens to dissolve into a monotonous sameness of consumer fashion. These differences themselves are shared: we can only achieve our distinct vocations as members of communities larger than ourselves, whether those be families, churches, or increasingly, nations, each of which demands recognition for its shared traditions that make free action possible. In this realization, perhaps, there is room for authentic conservatives to make common cause with minorities tired of being relegated to the margins, but eager for a freedom more substantive than the “woke” discourse of autonomy can provide.

A New Fusionism: National Conservatism

A truly national conservatism must do justice to the rich pluriformity of the human experience of freedom. It must not call for less freedom but more; or rather, a full-orbed freedom in place of the thin, poor substitute that liberalism has given us. This national conservatism will not play the local and the national against one another, as so many sterile ideological battles in American history have. Both are essential to the picture of freedom sketched above.

This full-orbed freedom includes the freedom of the individual, to be sure, a freedom secured by the rule of law, and the vast inheritance of individual liberties, legal rights, and forms of political agency that our forebears fought to win and pass on to us. But it is doubtful that these liberties can be secured on the grounds of mere liberalism. We have spoken repeatedly of the ways in which freedom depends upon a context for action, a horizon of meaning that assures the individual that he or she is not futile or forgotten.

This human longing for identity unfortunately offers a great temptation to idolatry, to imbuing the family, the church, the community, the nation, or the cause with an ultimate value that would make it the final horizon for assessing the meaning of any action. It is this idolatry that nationalism’s contemporary critics most fear, shuddering at the memories of the blood sacrifices that have been demanded at the altar of the nation in every era, not least our own. But such idolatry is hardly unique to nations. Families and clans used to demand such blood sacrifices in an earlier time, and causes and principles are liable to be the most insatiable killers of all. The antidote to all is the freedom of conscience that knows better than to make any earthly circumstance or institution the horizon of ultimate meaning.

I have spoken extensively of the social conditions of freedom. It ought to be obvious that, in any healthy society, most of these will be sustained by the local and the regional: in churches, in schools, in cemeteries, in quirky local customs and town parades, in the thousand happy offspring of each unique union of history and geography. Each of us finds our meaning, and exercises our freedom, by participating in the forms of life, both chosen and given, that are nurtured by these “little platoons” so lauded by Burke. There is no doubt that, often enough, nationalism has been pursued at the expense of local and regional goods. Burke wrote eloquently in his Reflections on the Revolution in France of how the Parisian despots of the National Assembly, by reorganizing the nation into perfectly square districts with no respect to either geography or history,

treat[ed] France exactly like a country of conquest. . . . The policy of such barbarous victors, who contemn a subdued people, and insult their feelings, has ever been, as much as in them lay, to destroy all vestiges of the ancient country, in religion, in polity, in laws, and in manners; to confound all territorial limits. . . . They have made France free in the manner in which those sincere friends to the rights of mankind, the Romans, freed Greece, Macedon, and other nations.28

Such destruction can happen overtly or surreptitiously, as it has in modern America through an economic policy that has laid waste to local economies and cultures to enrich and empower coastal elites. It is no wonder why the localist devotees of Wendell Berry and Patrick Deneen look on nationalism with such a jaundiced eye.

There is no reason, however, why the national community cannot serve, guard, and sustain these little platoons that are so essential to its flourishing. Indeed, it must do so. If freedom is to be defended, power must be exercised at a level that can ensure that this defense is effective. Whatever might have been the case in earlier ages (which were generally rather more violent and insecure than nostalgic localists might want to admit), in our own day this level is that of the nation-state. Without it, the goods of place and community that they rightly laud would not long endure. If it weren’t for Gondor, there would be no Shire.29 And if power is to be exercised at the national level, it ought not be mere power, but a corporate agency capable of expressing a national freedom, identity, and tradition. But this need not be at the expense of more subsidiary identities; the national identity takes these up into a larger whole without destroying their integrity. As O’Donovan observes,

A people is a complex of social constituents: of local societies, determined by the common inhabitation of a place; of institutions, such as universities, banks, and industries; of communities of specialist function, such as laborers, artists, teachers, financiers; of families; and of communities of enthusiasm such as sports clubs and musical organizations. To have identity as a people is to be able to conceive the whole that embraces these various constituents practically, as a coordinated agency.30

But just as the local depends on the national to sustain and coordinate it, the national depends on the local to breathe true life and affection into its more abstract forms. Burke’s observations on this point are justly famous:

No man ever was attached by a sense of pride, partiality, or real affection, to a description of square measurement. . . . We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connexions. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.31

In his recent book The Case for Nationalism, Rich Lowry spoke of the unifying power of such national holidays as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. In response, Patrick Deneen objected, “But what of the annual springtime Shad Derby of Windsor, Connecticut; Scottish Walk Weekend in Alexandria, Virginia; Dyngus Day in South Bend, Indiana (just to name three memorable celebrations in places I have lived)?”32 These too provided “forms of shared memory and community spirit” that gave meaning and agency to the lives of Americans. We might retort, “Why not both?” Indeed, although Thanksgiving and Independence Day loom larger on most of our calendars than our quirky community holidays, we experience them only through the forms of our more local attachments: our family Thanksgiving dinner and town Thanksgiving Parade, the local fireworks show and VFW cookout.

Any national conservatism worthy of the name must use the nation to conserve that which gives life to the nation and freedom to its members. It must refuse the false dichotomies of national aggrandizement or individual fulfillment, of laissez-faire or central planning that so bewildered much twentieth-century political thought. It must remember that we are most able to serve the common good when we are most free to be ourselves, and we are most free to be ourselves when we are most able to belong to something larger than ourselves.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published August 20, 2020.

1 I will use the two words, “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably in this essay, as it is difficult to distinguish any meaningful difference in their semantic range over the past couple centuries.

2 Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 68.

3 Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 102.

4 J.S. Mill, “On Liberty,” On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays ed. Mark Philp and Frederick Rosen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 15.

5 Mill, “On Liberty,” 8.

6 Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents, ed. Bruce Caldwell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 77, 102.

7 Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 169.

8 Mill, “On Liberty,” 13.

9 Hayek, Road to Serfdom, 77.

10 Berlin, “Two Concepts,” 170.

11 Thus, Simone de Beauvoir’s pioneering vision of feminism in which “the good society is that which helps emancipate people from their unchosen identities, such that they can live as free human beings. This emancipation, she argues, must include emancipating us from nature itself.” See: Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2019), 52.

12 Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 107–8.

13 Of course, the explosion of divorce in our society is evidence that the liberal conception of freedom as the maximization of options is more than happy to pursue consistency at the cost of durable happiness. So, for instance, Marshall Berman writes, “Because all persons are free and their wills are alterable, the happiness one person can give another is necessarily contingent…. Individuals must remain free to reject any system of roles which fails to fulfill their purposes, and return to anarchic freedom.” Marshall Berman, The Politics of Authenticity (New York: Verso, 2009), 24, 35; quoted in Meador, In Search of the Common Good, 59.

14 O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 108.

15 As we noted above, it is not quite that simple, since even the prisoner in his cell can retain a kind of inward freedom, choosing to embrace his suffering rather than letting it control him; so ancient Stoicism argued, with much of the Christian tradition following. Still, this only works as a substitution of internal agency for external agency, in circumstances where the latter is radically constrained.

16 Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 25-27.

17 Of course, it is here that Western religious traditions have registered a key protest, arguing that the freest and most meaningful action of all is that done before God, even though hidden to the sight of others. The courageous acts that this transcendent perspective has enabled should never cease to inspire us; still, it is the exception that proves the rule. Such deeds, after all, still need an audience of at least one, and they are ordinarily sustained by the hope of eschatological vindication: the confidence that although I may now find myself obliged to act contra mundum, in a way that cannot but seem absurd to my contemporaries, I will one day find myself vindicated in the sight of all.

18 Quentin, Skinner, “A Third Concept of Liberty,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 117, 2001 Lectures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 247–48. See also Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Although Skinner only mentions the American Founding in passing on page 50 of Liberty Before Liberalism, this volume is very helpful in showing that the writers upon whom the Founders most relied were almost exclusively concerned in articulating this third concept, in heated debate against a Hobbesian concept of negative liberty. Patrick Deneen would have done well to consider this evidence before writing his Why Liberalism Failed. Although writing before Skinner’s helpful conceptual ground-clearing, Barry Alan Shain corroborates his essential point in The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Foundations of American Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 181–92. Shain’s book more generally is an extended polemic against the idea that the Founding era was much concerned with the later individualist idea of negative freedom.

19 Matthew B. Crawford, “Algorithmic Governance and Legitimacy,” American Affairs 3, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 82.

20 Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015), 25.

21 O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 68.

22 Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 19.

23 Cf. O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 47-48.

24 O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 149.

25 Hazony, Virtue of Nationalism, 104.

26 Hazony, Virtue of Nationalism, 106.

27 O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 151.

28 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Other Writings, ed. Jesse Norman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 587.

29 Although the insight here is surely Tolkien’s, suggested at several places throughout The Lord of the Rings, I owe its pithy expression in this context to my friend Nathan Hitchen.

30 Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 150.

31 Burke, Reflections on the Revolution, 600.

32 Patrick J. Deneen, “Rich Lowry’s Nationalist Review,” The American Conservative, January 2, 2012.

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