Politics & Policy

The Twisted Tree of Liberty

(Photo: Orhan Çam/Dreamstime)
Among contemporary conservatives are some who refuse to use the services of the State even to assure the nation’s survival. Where did they go wrong?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the January 16, 1962, issue of National Review. L. Brent Bozell, also a senior editor, responded to Meyer in the September 11, 1962, issue of National Review.

In the spectrum of American conservatism there are and have been many different groupings, holding varying positions within the same broad outlook. Some have emphasized the menace of international Communism; others have emphasized the danger of the creeping rot at the heart of our own institutions. Some stress the corrosion of tradition, and with it of the natural law of justice, as the source of our afflictions; others, an intellectual failure to grasp the prime importance of freedom in the body politic. Nevertheless, whatever the differences in emphasis, there has been general agreement in the practical political sphere on the necessity both to resist the collectivism and statism that emanates from indigenous Liberalism and simultaneously to repel and overcome the Communist attack upon Western civilization, which — though it has its subversive detachments operating domestically — is primarily based upon the armed power of a foreign enemy.

There have been, of course, tendencies to overstress one aspect or another to such a degree that those who do so tend to move right out of the spectrum. There have been some who concentrate so wholeheartedly on the menace of domestic Communism that its international character is lost sight of and the true role of Liberalism is only cloudily understood. There have been some with such concern for the deterioration of the philosophical foundations of virtue and justice that they neglect almost totally the corollary — that in the political realm freedom is the precondition of a good society. But whatever strains these one-sided emphases have created in the growth towards a mature political and philosophical American conservative position, there has not been until lately any grouping which directly and explicitly opposes itself to the defense of freedom from either its domestic or foreign enemies.

Recently, however, there has arisen for the first time a considered position, developed out of the “pure libertarian” sector of right-wing opinion, which sharply repudiates the struggle against the major and most immediate contemporary enemy of freedom, Soviet Communism — and does so on grounds, purportedly, of a love for freedom. These “pure libertarian” pacifists applaud Khrushchev, support the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, join the Sane Nuclear Policy Committee, and toy with the tactic of a united front with Communists “against war.” They project themselves as the true representatives of the Right, attacking the militantly anti-Communist position of the leadership of American conservatism as moving towards the destruction of individual liberty because it is prepared to use the power of the American state in one of its legitimate functions, to defend freedom against Communist totalitarianism.

Tempting Fleshpots

It might seem that there is no point to discussing a view of reality so patently distorted that it can consider appeasement of Communism, disarming ourselves before the Communist armed drive and alliance with those who ease the road to Communist victory, as essential to the defense of the freedom of the individual. But although those who profess these absurd opinions are small in number, they do influence a section of the right wing, particularly in the universities, and they may, if not combatted, influence more, for they offer tempting fleshpots: the opportunity at one and the same time bravely to proclaim devotion to individual freedom, championship of the free-market economy, and opposition to prevailing Liberal welfare-statism, while comfortably basking in the sunshine of the Liberal atmosphere, which is today primarily the atmosphere of appeasement and piecemeal surrender.

Shocking though they are, the practical results of this pacifist strain in the right wing are minimal; more important is the light that the development of such a monstrous misapprehension of reality casts upon the dangers inherent in the “pure libertarian” approach to the problems of freedom in society. It is a tendency which, followed unchecked, can be as harmful to the development of a mature American conservative position as the counter-tendency in the conservative penumbra — concerning which I have written previously in these pages — to look upon the state as unlimitedly instituted to enforce virtue, thus abnegating the freedom of the individual.

Of course, in any healthy growing movement there are bound to be clashes of opinion, differences of emphasis, within over-all agreement on basic principle. This is particularly to be expected in the burgeoning American conservative movement of today — and for two reasons. In the first place, the tone of the conservative mind, with its aversion to the narrowly ideological and its respect for the human person, is alien to the concept of a “party line” and so is generous to individual differences of stress on this or that aspect of a general outlook. But more specifically, the principles which inspire the contemporary American conservative movement are developing as the fusion of two different streams of thought. The one, which, for want of a better word, one may call the “traditionalist,” puts its primary emphasis upon the authority of transcendent truth and the necessity of a political and social order in accord with the constitution of being. the other, which, again for want of a better word, one may call the “libertarian,” takes as its first principle in political affairs the freedom of the individual person and emphasizes the restriction of the power of the state and the maintenance of the free-market economy as guarantee of that freedom.

The Meaning of Virtue

Before the challenge of modern collectivism, hostile alike to transcendent truth and to individual freedom, traditionalist and libertarian have found common cause and tend more and more to work together on the practical political level. But further, the common source in the ethos of Western civilization from which flow both the traditionalist and the libertarian currents, has made possible a continuing discussion which is creating the fusion that is contemporary American conservatism. That fused position recognizes at one and the same time the transcendent goal of human existence and the primacy of the freedom of the person in the political order. Indeed, it maintains that the only possible ultimate vindication of the freedom of the individual person rests upon a belief in his overriding value as a 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. For the simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power, is not virtue, the meaning of which resides in the free choice of good over evil.

Therefore, the conservative — who understands also that power in this world will always exist and cannot be wished out of existence — stands for division of power, in order that those who hold it may balance each other and the concentration of overweening power be foreclosed. He stands for the limitation of the power of the state, division of power within the state, a free economy, and prescriptive protection of the rights of individual persons and groups of individual persons against the state. But he does not see the state as an absolute evil; he regards it as a necessary institution, so long as it is restricted to its natural functions: the preservation of domestic peace and order, the administration of justice, and defense against foreign enemies.

The conservative — who understands also that power in this world will always exist and cannot be wished out of existence — stands for division of power.

In the political sphere the conservative consensus presently emerging in the United States regards freedom as an end; but, although it is an end at the political level, it is a means — as is the whole political structure — to the higher ends of the human person. Without reference to those ends, it is meaningless. While that conservative consensus regards the untrammeled state as the greatest of political evils, it does not regard the state itself as evil so long as it is limited to its proper functions, so long as the force it wields is effectively limited by a constitutional understanding of the bounds beyond which that force may not intrude upon the sacred sphere of the individual person, and so long as that understanding is enforced by division and balance of powers.

The American conservative today, therefore, although he owes much to the libertarian stream in Western thought — its deep concern with freedom, its analysis of the political structure in terms of freedom, its understanding of the vital importance of the free-market economy for a free modern society — cannot accept the fundamental philosophical position, sometimes rationalist, sometimes utilitarian, which is the historical foundation of pure libertarianism. He cannot posit freedom as an absolute end nor can he, considering the condition of man, deny the role of the state as an institution necessary to protect the freedoms of individual persons from molestation, whether through domestic or foreign force. He is not, in a word, a utopian. He knows that power exists in the world and that it must be controlled, not ignored with wishful utopian thinking.

The contemporary American conservative not only rejects the authoritarian extremes of nineteenth-century conservatism and the extremes of nineteenth-century rationalist and utilitarian liberalism, but, in a sense, he goes behind the so often sterile nineteenth-century conservative-liberal controversy, to found his outlook upon that earlier synthesis of belief in transcendent value and in human freedom which the Founders of the Republic embodied in their lives and actions, discursively expressed in their writings and their debates, and bequeathed to us in the body politic they constituted.

Their political concern was the establishment of freedom and its preservation, but they understood that freedom is meaningless unless founded upon “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The protection of the free energies of free individuals, so that they might in liberty strive to live according to those laws, was their most intimate concern. But they knew that in the defense of liberty a properly constituted state is necessary, not only to “establish Justice [and] insure domestic Tranquility” but also to “provide for the common Defense.” They did not content themselves with abstract analyses of liberty; they proclaimed in unambiguous tones, “Give me liberty or give me death.” To that wager of fate, “with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence,” they pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

“Providence,” “honor,” “valor,” are concepts that the dry utilitarianism of the “pure libertarian” cannot compass. The pity is that when the soul cannot respond to those words, all the brave intellectual structure turns to cobwebs; and the champion of a freedom unfounded on the deep nature of man and the constitution of being pipes out: “Give me liberty if it doesn’t mean risking war; give me liberty, but not at the risk of nuclear death.”


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