Politics & Policy

Freedom or Virtue?

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Conservatives, says the author, should examine more closely one of the dogmas of their faith, namely the presumptive correlation between freedom and virtue.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the September 11, 1962, issue of National Review. L. Brent Bozell was responding to an article by senior editor Frank S. Meyer published in the January 16, 1962, issue of National Review.

 . . .  the “libertarian” takes as [his] 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 guarantees of that freedom.

 . . . the “traditionalist” puts [his] 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 Twisted Tree of Liberty” NR, Jan. 16.

Frank Meyer has labored earnestly in recent years to promote and justify modern American conservatism as a “fusion” of the libertarian and traditionalist points of view. His “Twisted Tree,” though it read out of the movement that curious breed of anti-anti-Communist recently spawned by nihilistic libertarianism was essentially a restatement of the thesis that a symbiosis of the two schools, if the contribution of each is properly understood, is not only possible but necessary. Meyer has been by no means alone in trying to keep order in conservatism’s divided house. While he was perhaps the first to identify the contenders generically, and to name the terms for peaceful coexistence, he has been ably seconded by others, notably Stanton Evans, who has made Professor Morton Auerbach’s allegations of right-wing schizophrenia (“Do-It-Yourself Conservatism?” NR. Jan. 30) his special concern. Still others, less persuaded than Meyer and Evans of the theoretical cogency of fusionist apologetics, have helped, too — by bearing their misgivings in silence for the sake of conservative unity.

Now I venture no prediction about the political fate of the Meyer-Evans effort — either as to its ability to hold the conservative movement together, or, more to the point, as to whether it will succeed in midwifing the movement to power. After all, the Liberal collapse is creating a power vacuum into which almost anything might move. I do question, however, whether the libertarian-traditionalist amalgam, as the fusionists defame it is worth bringing to power. For I doubt whether a movement dominated by libertarianism can be responsive to the root causes of Western disintegration. And we should not make any mistake about this. A movement that can accommodate libertarianism’s axiom is dominated by it: if freedom is the “first principle” in politics, virtue is, at best, the second one; and the programmatic aspects of the movement that affirms that hierarchy will be determined accordingly.

Primacy of Freedom

Let us, then, look at the argument by which the fusionists arrive at the primacy of freedom and see whether it is persuasive. If we find the argument wanting, it will then be time to ask whether the theoretical difficulties are worth fretting about.


“The conservative believes,” Evans writes, “that ours is a God-centered, and therefore an ordered Universe [and] that man’s purpose is to shape his life to the patterns of order proceeding from the Divine center of life.” Meyer calls this purpose “the transcendent goal of human existence.” We may accept these two statements as a fair rendering of the “traditionalist emphasis.” Evans adds (and of course Meyer agrees) that man is “hampered” in fulfilling his purpose by “a fallible intellect and vagrant will” — a condition some traditionalists would call original sin.

And now the transition to the “libertarian emphasis.” Since he holds these root beliefs, Evans goes on, the “conservative’s first concern is that man restrain his appetites by the imperatives of right choice — choice which can take place only in circumstances favoring volition.” This is one of the two reasons, he explains (the other we will consider in due course), why “limitation of government power becomes the highest political objective of conservatism.” (The emphasis is Evans’.) Meyer puts the transition this way: the “fused position . . . 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 constraints of the physical coercion of an unlimited state.”

The argument is fast, and we will do well to slow it down a bit. Note that there are three propositions implicit in what we have just read: A. Man cannot restrain his “appetites” meaningfully — i.e., pursue virtue — without choosing to do so. B. His ability to choose meaningfully and thus to restrain his appetites depends, to a significant degree, on external “circumstances.” C. The more these circumstances favor choice, the better he can restrain his appetites and so achieve virtue; and conversely, as these circumstances become unfavorable, the opportunities for virtue diminish accordingly — and theoretically they can shrink, as Evans’ word “only” and Meyer’s flat “cannot” suggest, all the way to the zero point.

For the moment we may accept proposition A as true: the sense in which choice may not be necessary to virtue is not germane at this point. Proposition B, however — that the choice necessary to virtue can be affected by external circumstances — deserves our closest attention. It is key: if it is true, then proposition C, with its corollary that limitation of government power should be considered the highest political good, is probably true also; while if it is not true, this particular argument for libertarianism falls to the ground.

Let us go back to Evans’ contention that “man’s purpose is to shape his life to the [divine] patterns of order” (or Meyer’s variant, “the duty of men is to seek virtue”) in order to make sure we understand their meaning. And let us ask them, why is this man’s purpose and his duty?

I think there are two possible answers to such a question. One is that God desires — for its own sake — a human order that conforms to the transcendent order, and therefore that He measures virtue by the extent to which human action existentially reflects divine norms. But this answer is certainly not the one Meyer and Evans would give. Under such a view of things, man’s concern is simply to establish temporal conditions conducive to God-approved human action, and while leaving matters to individual choice may be useful in some instance, there is no a priori need for freedom at all. The other possibility is that God wants man to “prove himself” — or, in Christian terms, to earn salvation. This we may assume, until they tell us otherwise, is exactly Meyer’s and Evans’ meaning. (While there is a formidable taboo against using religious terminology in political discussions, we will do well to disregard it for the moment if we want to grasp the problem, at root a theological one, that fusionists, and I think conservatives in general, are ultimately concerned with.)

Freedom and Salvation

Now if earning salvation is what we are talking about, we will have to face up to the problem of whether it is possible for one man to damage another man’s chances for it — e.g., by restricting the exercise of his freedom.

Christian teaching is generally to the contrary. How so? It postulates a free will. In doing so, it presupposes a psychological situation in which the intellect entertains conflicting “appetites,” or “goods,” as alternative courses of action — and turns them over to the will for selection. These alternatives are seldom, if ever, presented for judgment solely on their merits: The choice is invariably “loaded” in the sense that every good carries along with it a certain amount of baggage — the sanctions imposed by habit, education, laws and what-not — that, in net effect, weights the scales toward one alternative or the other. The mystery of freedom which we feel, or take on faith, but cannot demonstrate is that in spite of these sanctions an element of spontaneity remains. And when this spontaneity (Christian teaching goes on) figures in the selection of the “greater” good over the “lesser” one, as determined by each man’s conscience, merit accrues and a step has been taken toward salvation.

But this is simply another way of saying that morally significant choice is a psychic event. The good will is the will that adverts to the “better” object as defined by conscience; and it does not cease to be good when it is unable, because of external circumstances, to convert that psychic commitment into action. The good will of the man who wants to go to church on Sunday — and would if he could — is not defeated by the “circumstance” that the churches in his country have been shut down. Neither is his virtue diminished, nor his claim to salvation impaired. Moreover — a second dispensation — while the choice spectrum will vary widely from individual to individual both in quality and quantity (variances that can indeed be caused by external circumstances), such disparities are not significant in this context: the fact that the choices open to a Papuan are few and unappetizing to our own palates does not cheat him of reward — or penalty — for such choices as he is called upon to make.

Morally significant freedom is merely an aspect of the human condition: it is indispensable, but it is also inalienable.

What we are saying, then, is that the freedom that is necessary to virtue is presumably a freedom no man will ever be without. Morally significant freedom is merely an aspect of the human condition: it is indispensable, but it is also inalienable. The Soviet citizen is every bit as “free” to earn salvation as his American counterpart; he will “prove himself,” or fail to, in an area that is beyond the reach of the KGB. And while there is nothing arresting about this presumption — surely it is among the most ordinary of theological commonplaces — it must have tremendous implications for political theory. For if moral freedom is beyond the reach of politics, surely politics has better things to do than making the preservation of moral freedom its chief preoccupation.


But perhaps we are moving too fast. Let us try to anticipate the fusionists’ reply. They will not, I think, deny that salvation is what they have in mind. But they probably will protest that salvation was not all they have in mind. And the protest will very likely develop along these lines:

Granted that man’s first purpose is to get to Heaven, and granted, too, that God’s justice guarantees every man a fair opportunity to get there: still — God does not want to see a race of stunted men hobbling across the line. After all, man has some value qua man. He is brimming with potentialities for living, working, creating — for understanding; God made him that way; surely it is God’s will that those potentialities be fulfilled. However — the voice of the Renaissance goes on — in order to explore, to understand, to realize these potentialities man must be free — free to walk the depths of hell or scale the pinnacles of sublimity on his own two feet. For society to try to assist man in this adventure, either with its hobbles or with its crutches, is to deny him the opportunity to be a whole man; a man. And by that token he is denied access to true virtue. As Meyer explains; “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.”

Very well. Let us agree for the moment that virtue is not necessarily to be equated with the merit that qualifies for salvation — that there is, in other words, a second order of virtue, which we may call humanistic virtue since it constitutes the fulfillment of man’s human nature. Let us, however, make sure we understand the rules of the game of this second realm, as they are understood by Meyer and others who would have us accept libertarianism’s “first principle.” The question of divorce will do as well as any other for this purpose. Meyer, one gathers from his writings, takes a sacramental view of marriage, and so considers the preservation of it to be a virtuous act. He is therefore qualified to help us solve the following problem:

X, an American, has tired of his wife: under the laws of his state, he has ample grounds for divorce; remarriage prospects are bright; his friends and professional associates would be sympathetic with the decision. Yet, after duly considering such factors, he decides against a divorce on the grounds it is — “wrong.”

Y, a Spaniard, has tired of his wife; Y is unable to get a divorce in his own country and to travel to France would impose a formidable economic burden; remarriage prospects in Spain, in any event, are nil; anyway, his religion forbids it — as does his whole tradition; what is more, he would face a heavy measure of social ostracism; in short, Y dismisses the idea without giving it a second thought. Query: by deciding to preserve his marriage, who — X or Y — has acted more virtuously? Meyer’s answer (and who would disagree?): X of course. His decision was the tougher by far; Y’s choice was almost reflexive, was not therefore really “free” at all.

Props of a Rational Society

And it follows — does it not? — that if we are seriously interested in maximizing opportunities for virtue, something will have to be done about Spain. Her laws, traditions, customs interfere with freedom. They are “crutches” — kick them away. And in the United States, conditions are not entirely satisfactory either. We will want to make our own divorce laws even laxer. We will also want to launch a public education campaign (privately endowed of course) aimed at breaking down residual social prejudices; and perhaps, to help overcome the mechanical difficulties, a special fund could be set aside for periodic newspaper notices advising dissatisfied spouses of the most convenient cut-rate agency or mail order house. We will do our best, in other words, to reduce the “constraints” of “superior power,” confident that if Mr. X can stick by his guns under these conditions, he will really be virtuous. It is not that we favor divorce, mind you; it is just that we want virtuous men.

Is the reductio ad absurdum unfair? On the contrary: I submit that the inner logic of the dictum that virtue-not-freely-chosen is not virtue at all leads inescapably to the burlesque of reason we have suggested. If freedom is the “first principle” of the search for virtue, if as Meyer writes at another point, it is “the precondition of a good society,” then, by definition, there is no superior principle that can be invoked, at any stage, against the effort to maximize freedom — there is no point at which men are entitled to stop hauling down the “props” which every rational society in history has erected to promote a virtuous citizenry. (True, the libertarian view permits measures for preserving the public order — the argument that no man should have the liberty to deny another man liberty; our point is that it permits none for the purpose of encouraging and aiding virtue.)

The libertarian may object that it is only state props that he wants to dismantle — that those created by tradition, custom, religion, in other words, are permissible under certain conditions. But on his own showing he has no business making such a distinction. There are, of course, vital differences between “state” and “social” sanctions, but they have no bearing on the argument in question here — namely, that maximum freedom of choice is essential to individual virtue. For as we have seen earlier, restriction of free choice consists in sanctions of various kinds that accompany alternative courses of action as they are presented to the will. But the relative strength of these sanctions, obviously, is not necessarily a function of their source. Social disapproval can be as persuasive a deterrent against scribbling on walls as the threat of a legal fine; habit and education will often “load” the choice against stealing far more effectively than the larceny laws. In short, libertarianism’s first command — maximize freedom — applies with equal vigor to all of societies’ activities; and the meaning of the command, in effect, is this: virtue must be made difficult as possible. While only a few men, if any, can be expected to meet the challenge successfully, the proliferation of unvirtuous acts in the objective order is one of the prices that must be paid for the fulfillment of heroic man . . . 

Now there is nothing to prevent the fusionists from arguing that this command is conducive, as Meyer puts it to “a political and social order in accord with the constitution of being.” But Meyer is not speaking of the constitution of being envisioned by the Christian metaphysic. If there is any metaphysical basis for such a view of life, it is the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre — the doctrine that man is all potentiality, i.e., all freedom. In the existentialist view, man has no inherent nature — no essence — and therefore no end other than to work out a nature from his potentialities, each man for himself, In the beginning, this is an optimistic view of life, full of the spirit of individual adventure and creativity, and it ends in despair because the burden of autonomy — since it is not ordained by the true constitution of being — is too heavy.

The Christian metaphysic, by contrast, attributes to man a pre-formed nature, one that is ultimately defined transcendentally in terms of his origin and destiny. Man’s nature, moreover, is totally integrated with that of the rest of being, so that a common effort is envisioned on the part of all creation to conform to what Evans calls the divine “patterns of order.” Man’s nature is such, however, that he, uniquely among created beings, has the capacity to deviate from the patterns of order — to, as it were, repudiate his nature: i.e., he is free. So viewed, freedom is hardly a blessing: add the ravages of original sin and it is the path to disaster. It follows that if individual man is to have any hope of conforming with his nature, he needs all of the help he can get. That is why the role of grace is so vital to the Christian view of things, not only supernatural grace, but the natural grace that springs forth from man’s constructs: his institutions, his customs, his laws — the ones that have been inspired by his better angel and that remain in time to give nourishment to all of the human race. And that, in turn, is why the Christian view, which begins in despair, ends in optimism.


“Go . . . and teach all nations.” These are the marching orders of Christianity, and, from a theological viewpoint, its central operational command. God’s purpose, if we may put it so, is twofold: to give the widest possible access to supernatural grace — that is, to magnify the Christian Church; and to establish temporal conditions conducive to human virtue — that is, to build a Christian civilization. The latter purpose is the genesis and justification for the notion that Western civilization, being the historical fruit of the Incarnation — and so, in a manner of speaking, “God’s civilization” — must be preserved at all costs, and itself magnified. There is not a drop of chauvinism in the idea, for it has to do entirely — as the classicists taught — with the relationship between the good commonwealth and the virtuous man. When a commonwealth builds according to the divine patterns of order, then it is in a position to help man conform to his nature, which is the meaning of virtue. The institutions the commonwealth promotes are the important thing — its family arrangements, its schools, its churches, the kind of government it has; for all of these combine to generate what Willmoore Kendall calls its public orthodoxy. Now to the extent a public orthodoxy tends to reflect the divine patterns of order, it also tends to encourage a virtuous citizenry. Of course such external inducements to virtue can never be entirely, or even very, successful: to suppose that through man’s artifacts the human race, or any member of it, can be perfected in history is to partake of the modern gnosticism upon which both Liberalism and Communism are grounded. But such inducements can ease the way to virtue. That is the reason for the marching orders.

Degree of Merit

Which invites reconsideration of an earlier question: Is freedom an a priori requirement for virtue? We can agree that the freer the choice — i.e., the more difficult it is — the greater the merit. But if, by definition, the virtuous act is one that conforms with man’s nature, with the divine patterns of order — is the kind of heroic freedom envisioned by libertarian doctrine essential to such an act? Every day on his way to work A slips a dime to the blind lady at the street corner; it is pure habit with him. B supports his family as a matter of course; the thought of abandoning it to seek his own pleasure never crosses his mind. C buys a “worthwhile” novel at his book store, though — let us postulate such a weakness — if a well-advertised volume of pornography had not been banned by the state, he would have picked it up instead. Now these acts are, in tum — a) reflexive, b) instinctive, c) coerced by state power. Yet each of them, in itself, is a virtuous act if man’s virtue consists in conducting himself in conformity with his nature, with the divine patterns of order.

As the mystics tell us, true sanctity is achieved only when man loses his freedom — when he is freed of the temptation to displease God.

We may go further. Since man will always have sufficient moral freedom, i.e., sufficient occasions for “proving himself” — and even for doing so heroically; and since these occasions are basically traceable to his corruption, the ideal to which man should aspire is to minimize such occasions — to develop the kind of character that will generate virtuous acts as a matter of course. For as the mystics tell us, true sanctity is achieved only when man loses his freedom — when he is freed of the temptation to displease God.


We may now turn to the second reason, on the fusionists’ showing, why limitation of government power should be our “highest political objective.” And we may agree that it is a “second” argument inasmuch as it proceeds from fundamentally different premises from those that posit political freedom as an absolute requirement for personal virtue. By the same token, however, it does not warrant the absolutist conclusions libertarians claim for it.

Mr. Evans puts the argument thus: “ . . . the reign of appetite is most destructive, and the incentives and opportunities for its exercise most plentiful, when fallible man is endowed with unlimited power over his fellow beings. If a man is corrupted in mind and impulse, he is hardly to be trusted with the unbridled potencies of the state.” Evans adds that the American Constitution reflects this view inasmuch as it is “premised upon a deep distrust of human nature and [is] designed to curb its excesses.”

Now if we may read “the reign of appetite” to mean the ascendancy of non-virtue in the objective order (as opposed to the “reign” of personal sinfulness), then the argument that unlimited state power is conducive to that ascendancy is, other things being equal, unexceptionable. For now the argument is focused on the effects unlimited power is likely to have on those who exercise it, and derivatively on the damage they are likely to do the commonwealth they govern. And we are looking at nothing more than a restatement of Lord Acton’s adage that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But note that Acton did not try to convert this essentially prudential judgment about the dangers of government power into an absolute rule for restricting government power. He did not, that is to say — and neither should we — commit the elementary logical fallacy of turning the proposition, “the state that governs most will govern worst,” into the proposition, “the state that governs least will govern best.”

If the judgment is a prudential one, the question in every case will be: Will this grant of this power, in this instance, for this object, produce a net good for the individual members of the commonwealth? Such a question will take into account the objections libertarians regularly, and usually wisely, interpose to accretions of state power: government will do the job badly; one aggrandizement will lead to another; a concession today will make it harder to stand firm tomorrow; and so on. And a thousand times more often than not — given the kind of claims government makes these days — the prudent decision will be against the grant of power and in favor of leaving the individual and private groups on their own. But not always. The good commonwealth, taking the measure of its governors, and the prospects for their corruption, may charge them with, say, building roads, or maintaining a postal system or passing anti-obscenity laws, or giving tax-exemption to its churches.

This is not to say (for I would hope not to be understood as endorsing theocracy) that the good commonwealth will charge the state with discovering and defining the elements of virtue. Rather, it will look upon the state merely as one potential instrument among many others for articulating and thus defending the community consensus about such things; and while prudence will dictate severe limitations even on this role, prudence does not go so far, I am saying, as to forbid acknowledgment of God’s existence in the state’s schools.

Once we have decided to view the dangers of state power as but one element among others — a very important one, to be sure — in a prudential judgment about the requirements of the good commonwealth, we have made considerable headway in our thinking about how to build such a commonwealth. We have, that is to say, liberated the discussion from the ideological strait jacket in which libertarian dogma confines it — the dogma about the “natural functions” of the state. These are, as Meyer never tires of telling us, [1] the preservation of domestic peace and order, [2] the administration of justice, and [3] defense against foreign enemies.” Any activities beyond these three, according to the argument, are by definition — and so without further discussion — evil.

I do not think Meyer or the other fusionists will ever be able to explain to the uninitiated the mystery of the trinitarian state — except, possibly, in terms of the argument for heroic freedom we have already considered. They will certainly not be able to explain on the strength of an organic view of man and society why, e.g., it is “natural” for the state to lock up a thief, and “unnatural” for the state to launch a program against juvenile delinquency. Nor — assuming that what actually happens in the real world has some bearing on what is “natural” — can they realistically hypothesize future conditions under which the trinitarian concept will be adopted; nor point to any past moment in history when men have actually organized a society in this way; nor cite any serious thinker in back of the nineteenth century who has suggested men try to do so. In short, the dogma of ritualistic libertarianism is hardly less far from reality than that of ritualistic Liberalism, and it presents the same kind of barriers to acquiring wisdom about the good commonwealth.

Distribution of Power

This is perhaps the place to nail the notion, so often advanced by the fusionists, that the American Constitution is an expression of the libertarian-traditionalist compromise — i.e., that in the name of accommodating human nature, the Constitution underwrites the archly limited state. On the face of it, it is the purest fancy to suggest that American constitutional theory has anything in common with the libertarian teaching about the threefold function of the genus state. The individual American States, let us remember, marched into the Constitutional Convention with full sovereign powers — the three Meyer mentions plus several dozen others he does not; and the problem to which the convention delegates so brilliantly addressed themselves was how to organize and distribute those powers so as to promote their most beneficial exercise. The framers’ governing principle was, of course, the one often attributed to Madison: that concentration of power leads to its abuse. And the remedy they invoked was also Madison’s: the way to block the pernicious ambitions of “factions,” Madison argued, is to distribute power as widely as possible within clearly defined boundaries. (While it is true that subsequent judicial construction of the Constitution, making the Bill of Rights applicable to the States, seems to place some powers altogether out of bounds — even these proscriptions are not absolute, as a glance at the Constitution’s amending clause will quickly verify.)

It is a mistake to make demi-gods out of the framers, or to read as a piece of scripture what they wrote.

Under the American system of government, in other words, the genus state — with its municipal, state, and national offices, and its popular residuary — potentially has plenary powers. Felicitously, under the original concept, these powers were distributed in a fashion that closely approximates the principle of subsidiarity — the idea that the quest for the common good begins with the individual man and will ascend to increasingly collectivized levels only under necessity, and always with a prudential concern for the dangers of going higher. In short, much freedom was envisioned by the founders of such a system because freedom is highly useful in achieving the good commonwealth. But there is not a hint of the ideology of freedom in what they produced — not a word suggesting that freedom is the goal of the commonwealth.

It is a mistake to make demi-gods out of the framers, or to read as a piece of scripture what they wrote. But, as perhaps the only group of men in modern history to have set their minds to the task of constructing a commonwealth on the basis of prudence, and therefore free from ideology, they deserve considerable reverence, and are a fit object for imitation.


A word is in order about “economic freedom,” and how it figures in the fusionist effort to strike a compromise between libertarians and traditionalists. I think we shall find here a palpable instance of our general thesis, namely that the “compromise” in question invariably consists in borrowing from the libertarians their principles and programs, and from the traditionalists the divine imprimatur. We shall also discover, unless I am badly mistaken, the historical explanation for modern Western man’s, as opposed, say, to Renaissance man’s, enshrinement of freedom as First Principle.

The “Sharon Statement”

The “Sharon Statement,” the charter document of the Young Americans for Freedom, is perhaps the best-known attempt by the fusionists to link libertarian economic premises with transcendent truth, undoubtedly because it makes the point so starkly. The Statement begins by asserting that the “individual’s use of his God-given free will” is “foremost among the transcendent values.” The freedom so exercised, moreover, “is indivisible . . . political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom.” Or, as the point is put later on: “the market economy is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom” — which means, since personal freedom is the end-all and be-all, that the market economy itself, in the words of the Statement’s preamble, is an “eternal truth.”

Now of course, we are looking at a political manifesto, and so might expect imprecisions. However, the Statement cannot be seriously faulted on that score: the general sense of the argument — actually there are two arguments — is entirely faithful to fusionist teaching.

The first is an argument from definition; we may restate it, along with certain difficulties it seems to present, as follows: 1) Use of God-given free will is the foremost transcendent value. The fallacy: How, as we asked earlier, can an inevitability be a “value,” let alone a transcendent value, let alone the foremost transcendent value? And the objection here is to substance, not to syntax. The idea that freedom in abstractu is the human activity chiefly honored in heaven is the first and indispensable step of every attempt to herd God into Manchester. 2) Every act of freedom has supreme value, the choice of a Rambler over a Ford no less than the choice of good over evil: freedom is indivisible. (If 2 is an unfair inference from 1, the rest of the fusionist argument is unintelligible.) The further fallacy? The notion that all freedoms are equal. Freedom does have value, but its value is adducible only in terms of the objectives it serves. And to suppose we are unable to distinguish and discriminate between such objectives on the basis of their value is to repudiate the very idea of value. 3) In matters where economic considerations are relevant, the market economy is the only system that respects the supremacy of freedom. The fallacy? The assumption that economic freedoms are the only freedoms at stake in market decisions. 4) The rules of the market have divine sanction. The fallacy? There is none; if 1, 2 and 3 are valid, 4 follows indisputably. All mixed questions – i.e., those involving social, political or moral problems, in addition to economic ones — may be answered by libertarian economics; nay must be, as the fusionists insist, on the authority of the Lord.

The second argument is that “political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom.” The rhetorical expedient here, a favorite with libertarians for as long as I can remember, is to convert the modern apotheosis of political freedom into a mandate for economic freedom via an argument from circumstance: since experience has shown that the two freedoms are intertwined, if Mrs. Roosevelt wishes people to enjoy the first, she must agree to let them have the second also.

Political vs Economic Freedom

Now there is no denying the argument’s usefulness in conservative-Liberal polemics; but is it, in the Euclidian terms in which it is typically advanced, true? Let us define political freedom as the freedom to participate in the making of public policy, and economic freedom as the freedom to invest wealth, labor and ideas in economic enterprises. Economic freedom in England is severely restricted, but I do not know of any political freedoms that have lapsed during the course of English socialization, nor of any that are in greater danger of lapsing today than they were in 1945. The same is true of the United States. Indeed, given the current lay of public sentiment, I fail to see how one can gainsay the general sense of Professor Auerbach’s contention that the only way to increase economic freedom in our country is to restrict the political freedom of the people who advocate and vote for the economic restrictions. In a word, men can exercise their political freedom against their economic freedom, and they have done so in most Western countries for many years with great injury to economic freedom but practically none at all to political freedom. And looking at the problem the other way around, it is a safe prediction that an elimination of economic controls in, say, Spain could be brought about without the slightest diminution of the Franco regime’s political controls. (Similarly with the alleged connection between economic freedom and “other” — i.e., non-political or “personal” — freedoms. The actual relation depends on the circumstances a) whether the men to whom economic power has been transferred are disposed to curtail freedom generally, and b) whether the objectives of the freedoms in question are interrelated; and while in many cases these circumstances will set in motion a cumulative erosion of freedom, in other cases, demonstrably, they will not.)

If the link between economic and other freedoms is thus tenuous, and if freedom, in any event, is difficult to translate into a “transcendent value,” the real reason libertarians assign absolute value to economic freedom probably lies elsewhere. And I suspect that the explanation is as simple — and as ominous for the future of conservatism — as a group hangover from the century when the argument about the interdependency of freedoms was exactly reversed: when, that is to say, instead of demanding economic freedom for the sake of political and other freedoms, libertarians demanded the other freedoms for the sake of economic freedom. And the latter argument, given its premises, did make sense. For if it is true, as the nineteenth century came increasingly to believe, that the chief good to which society can aspire is maximum satisfaction of man’s material wants, there is no denying the claims of the classical economists; maximum freedom for everyman to invest his wealth, labor and ideas in economic enterprises does provide maximum satisfactions; and the only question left open is whether this is what life is really about. Let me not be misunderstood. The claims of the free market are strong: satisfaction of material wants is a good; the qualities of initiative and self-reliance, an awareness of personal responsibility — the sheer pleasure of freedom; these are also goods. But they are not the only goods, nor even the greatest. And the commonwealth that treats them as though they were — and so uses the market economy as the yardstick for measuring its virtuousness in “mixed” matters as well as strictly economic ones — is not going to get very far toward virtue.


Which is to suggest our answer to the question posed earlier: Is the libertarian “emphasis” in the conservative movement worth fretting about? Before submitting a general answer, however, it will be well to summarize the position we have been content to call “traditionalist”:

1. The goal of man is virtue — the fulfillment of the potentialities of his God-oriented nature. Man’s purpose therefore is to seek virtue. God rewards or punishes depending on how individual man, each judged in the context of his peculiar circumstances, conducts the quest.

2. The chief purpose of politics is to aid the quest for virtue. Man’s corruption necessitates many such aids. The peculiar function of politics is to create a commonwealth whose institutions — one of which is the state — will reflect as nearly as possible the ideal values of truth, beauty and goodness, and so help instill them as real values in the consciousness of its citizens.

3. Political (and economic) freedoms are, in this sense, “institutions” which the prudent commonwealth will adopt in such measure as they are conducive to the virtue of its citizens.

4. Free will inheres in human nature as a condition of each man’s personal quest for virtue. Without it, the quest could not take place — movement toward the goal would be impossible. Without it, no less important, the quest would be unnecessary — the goal would be at hand. Short of the goal, no man will lack opportunity for exercising free will. As the goal approaches, the occasions for exercising it will diminish, as it merges into the will of God.

5. The urge to freedom for its own sake is, in the last analysis, a rebellion against nature; it is the urge to be free from God.

The goal of man is virtue — the fulfillment of the potentialities of his God-oriented nature.

Modern history, broadly considered, is the history of this urge, the odyssey of what Richard Weaver has called “the flight from center.” This is not the place to labor the details of the development — the revolt of Renaissance Man, the effort to justify the revolt through the skepticism of Rationalist Man, the final ejection of God from the world by Enlightenment Man, the inevitable drawing of conclusions by Materialist and Positivist Man, the eventual despair of Existentialist Man — the diabolical reaction of Communist Man. It is enough to see that libertarianism, however innocent and generous its motives, is a part of this process, and a stage of its development.

What is the Promise?

To put the matter in its simplest terms, the nineteenth century with its antecedents produced the twentieth century, and was incapable of producing any other kind of century. Therefore the question that needs asking, as I see it, is whether the modern conservative movement — as long as it is saddled with the notion that freedom comes first and virtue second — has anything substantially different to offer from its nineteenth-century precursor? If it does not, can it hope to bring about a different result the second time around? Should it come to power, can it promise anything but a Custer’s Last Stand against the final engulfment?

These misgivings may be put otherwise. I have written elsewhere that the root reason Liberalism cannot do battle against Communism is that it is neurotically committed, by its philosophical premises, to the victory of its enemy. Since both Liberalism and Communism, as Eric Voegelin has pointed out, are expressions of the gnostic heresy that the salvation of man and of society can be accomplished on this earth, there is no effective answer Liberals can give, other than their emotional scruples, to the Communist discovery that the earthly paradise is to be realized, not by changing society, but by changing man.

While the libertarian disability comes from a different source, it is, I fear, no loss crippling. For what the freedom-first people fail to understand is that the Communist proposal to “change man” is an answer to a problem they have created. The Communist answer is to give man a nature, and thus a purpose outside of himself — exactly the thing that six hundred years of Western “progress” have progressively denied him. Communist “nature,” which sees man as destined for absorption by society as the penultimate step in the grand march to an Earthly Eden is, of course, a monstrous perversion of truth. But there it is: some purpose, some hope — where, with the rejection of the Christian Ideal of “absolution” in God, there was no purpose and no hope. The worldwide rush to Communism in all of its forms — and “rush” it is when you think of the manifest baseness of the thing — can only be explained in terms of man’s longing for a “center,” and his willingness to reach for the only one presently in sight.

The differences within the conservative dialogue, as Meyer has said, are matters of “emphasis.” But emphasis can be the difference between up and down. The story of how the Free society has come to take priority over the good society is the story of the decline of the West.


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