Politics & Policy

The Communal Roots of Individual Liberty

No man is an island when it comes to liberty.

One of the great teachings of American conservatism is that the realization of political and economic liberty depends upon a vast range of circumstances exterior to the individual. For instance, the liberties enshrined in the Constitution have their practical foundation in centuries of the English common law, the works of various Enlightenment thinkers, the conditions of the colonial settlement of North America, and so forth. Democracy and republican liberty flourished in the early United States where they had failed and would fail in so many other places not only because of the virtues of the Founders (though those mattered, too) but also because of the broader socio-cultural environment in which the American experiment was tried.

Thus, a conservative might say that the defense of liberty often involves a defense of the conditions which make sustainable political liberty possible. This task of nurturing liberal conditions might prompt conservatives to defend the nation-state, but it also might make them sympathetic to — or at least tolerant of — certain elements of the modern regulatory and welfare states. The nation-state and the modern-day safety net help promote civic commonality and stability, both of which might seem valuable to a conservative defense of liberty. On a big-picture level, the Founders certainly thought that commonality and stability were important resources for American liberty. They authored the United States Constitution in part to provide an architecture of political commonality and to avoid the chaos of the Articles of Confederation. A national identity would be critical for ensuring the independent sovereignty of the former British colonies, and the early Federalists were particular advocates for a stable nation (including stable finances) in order to sustain this independence.

The nation-state creates a sense of a common identity for a polity. This common identity need not be relentlessly uniform or intolerant; there’s a difference between chauvinism and civic identity. But this civic identity includes a broader inheritance of customs, heroes, sacrifices, and victories. Nations might enjoy a plurality of traditions within their boundaries while also having certain common touchstones. From a conservative perspective, this common identity will likely not be merely legalistic; conservatives know that culture often provides a foundation for the exercise of the law, so a society that has a legal recognition for certain liberties but no cultural belief in them is one that will likely do little to maintain them. Moreover, ideological bullet-points (“one is a member of a nation if one believes in a, b, and c”) are perhaps a better glue for a political club than a free nation, which has to make a place for political dissenters. A nation that has a subscription to some ideological formula as its only basis is one that is likely to be rigid and fractious.

Though it has become somewhat chic to criticize the existence of the nation-state as an impediment to global “justice,” the nation has afforded numerous benefits. It allows self-government to take place. After all, how can there be self-government if there is not a self? Without a sense of common identity and mutual commitment, self-government loses much of its persuasive force.

The plurality of nation-states responds to the diversity of the world. What is politically possible in any given area depends upon a vast range of variables (including history, geography, culture, and so forth). So it would make sense for there to be a variety of self-determining nations, each of which would be able to govern itself in response to its own circumstances. Different peoples might have different preferences, which might be registered in different governing structures. This is not, of course, an invitation to radical relativism; one might believe in a diversity of regimes while also saying that certain practices were unacceptable. The French thinker Pierre Manent observed in Democracy without Nations? that the nation-state straddles both particularity and more universal ethical claims. It is more expansive and flexible than a tribe, and more modest than an empire.

Government efforts can play a role in promoting social stability, too. Unemployment benefits help prevent a lost job from leading to immediate economic catastrophe for a family. Various provisions to ensure protections for the poor, old, and sick provide a social safety net, which can both ease minds and encourage prudent risk-taking. Financial regulations can help stabilize the banking system. Oversight of working conditions, food, medicine, and other areas helps build social trust, which in turn can lead to more economic vitality.

The fact that some government efforts can promote social stability does not mean that all efforts do. For instance, elements of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” undermined the nuclear family, one of the greatest sources of social stability. And some regulatory strategies can suppress growth and create social dysfunction. The tendency of the welfare and regulatory states to overreach and undermine their missions has informed conservative thought. Much conservative policy work of the past 40 years has involved thinking about how to reform the modern welfare state — not abolish it. Ronald Reagan did not try to eliminate the modern regulatory state, but he did try to trim it and make it more efficient.

Some might see a refusal to nuke the welfare state as cowardice, but it could also be seen as prudence, in both the short and long term. A politician who comes out in favor of ending all federal entitlements is one who is almost certain to lose at the ballot box, and a government-supported safety net is not incompatible with vigorous economic growth (as the second half of the 20th century shows).

Moreover, the social safety net can keep a polity from tumbling into the fires of radicalism. The perennial socialist candidate for president Eugene V. Debs reached the apogee of political success during the dizzying inequalities of the early 20th century. The passage of various New Deal measures and the vast middle-class prosperity of the mid 1900s helped kill off American aspirations for communism. In light of that, it’s perhaps less surprising to see the political rehabilitation of the term “socialism” in the current era, which has been marked by stagnation for many families. (Since 2000, growth rates have been about half what they were in the 1946–2000 period. Political radicalism has gained new currency on both the left and the right in part because of the many setbacks of the post-2000 era.)

However, the existence of the modern welfare state relies, to some extent, on a sense of national solidarity. If it is illegitimate for government to prioritize the interests of its citizens, it is also illegitimate for a government to offer programs that benefit only its citizens. Moreover, a body politic that is pitted against itself is one that is less likely to make broad commitments to invest in new government programs. This is one of the reasons why it is so risky for those on the left to indulge in a kind of “woke” transnationalism: This worldview dissolves social consensus in the acid of grievance, suspicion, and paranoia, and a society without consensus is one that is unlikely to sustain over the long term the large programs beloved by many progressives.

Of course, a society without any consensus might not just have a hard time sustaining the welfare state — it might also struggle to sustain the conditions of liberty. This consensus need not be absolutely rigid. Everyone doesn’t have to wear the same color shirt on Thursday or agree that Nickelback is the best band ever. But, without some broad commitment to certain key norms and institutions (such as the rule of law, the results of elections, mutual tolerance, and so forth), a society is likely to dissolve into endless fratricidal warfare. Such overarching norms help ensure that tribal disagreements can be modulated within a greater civic order. And, as I’ve just implied, some of these norms might be norms of limitation — to allow one’s fellow Americans to live, worship, and think differently. These norms might find there to be more virtue in mercy and tolerance than vengeance.

As John Donne wrote, no man is an island. This means that our enjoyment of civil liberties in turn depends upon the world of commitments around us. How the nation-state and government efforts can best foster the conditions of liberty remains a topic open for endless debate; such debate is the course of politics. History has shown that economic and political liberty are not the default conditions of the human race but require a considerable civic infrastructure. One of the great tasks of government (though not of government alone) is sustaining those conditions for freedom.


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