Thoughts on American Liberty

by Flagg Taylor

I’m happy to add my praise of Carl’s fine article. I sure can’t think of a more accurate taxonomy of American liberty. For those who haven’t read it (or read his previous PomoCon posts on the subject — not sure if these are available given our recent move), here are his 5 kinds:

  1. “natural-rights liberty”: liberty as the protection of natural rights
  2. “classical-communitarian liberty”: liberty as the self-governance of the local community or group
  3. “economic-autonomy liberty”: liberty as economic individualism
  4. “progressive liberty”: liberty as the social justice of the national community
  5. “personal-autonomy liberty”: liberty as moral individualism

 Here are some points for further discussion.

  1. A libertarian might ask: Really how much distance is there between No. 1 and No. 3?  Is the emergence of  No. 3 caused only by the decline of  No. 2, or is there a substantive philosophic distinction between the two?
  2. No. 4 seems to me to be most at odds with the others.  It is certainly the most destructive of our constitutional framework for limited government and federalism.  Yes, it’s been around now for more than a century, but given its antagonism to #1, #2, and #3, does it really deserve a place at the table?
  3. Is it true that No. 1 was bound to develop into No. 5? Was this development merely prevented or postponed by our pre-modern inheritances and the practice of No. 2, or does Locke’s conception of natural rights contain resources for its own limitation or moderation?  That is, might Locke himself have wanted to stay in the Locke box (it was probably nice and cozy in there . . .)?
  4. What is the place of the Constitution in all of this? Is the ordered, formal liberty of the Constitution a potential sixth category? Or could a “liberty of forms” be a sort of independent variable to graft onto the five kinds? It seems to me that a liberty of forms is related intrinsically to No. 2 and perhaps to No. 1. But No. 4 and No. 5 are hostile to the liberty of forms. Thus the very idea of constitutional government might be abandoned to the extent that 3–5 dominate. Harvey Mansfield once put it this way: “The trouble with modern constitutionalism is that civil liberties and man-made constitutional forms are made subordinate to the natural end of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are means to that end, not united with it; the form is not united with the end, as in Aristotle’s constitutionalism. Hence we are willing to jettison our liberal constitutional forms if they do not achieve their end.” Or, to put this problem in the language of another favorite thinker of the PomoCons, Pierre Manent: Modern liberty (especially the hyper-modern version) is suspicious and even dismissive of all “mediations.” Forms — by demanding our participation and/or shaping our behavior with an eye toward others — prevent any individual claim from becoming absolute. But all individual claims now demand immediate recognition (see No, 5).

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.