The Corner

Yeah, That’s What I Meant to Say…

From a reader:

Dear Jonah,

…. I also have a bone to pick with a Corner post of yours today, and not surprisingly (to me) it comes from a post where you are agreeing with Derb:

Locke, the founding fathers, Adam Smith et al.: these were the most radical thinkers of the last 2,000 years because they tried to break the logic of tribalism. Freedom is what we have in a state of nature and it naturally terrifies us. Which is why we like to live in the tribal arrangements we evolved in. Liberty, on the other hand, is a human invention requiring civic education and commitment to certain enduring principles. It takes work precisely because it doesn’t come naturally.

You’ll probably get a few complaints about this one, namely because you imply that liberty is a human invention. On a first reading this would contradict the luminaries you cite who described liberty as something there to be discovered about our nature rather than something created or invented by us (“endowed by our Creator” and all that). On the other hand, what you may have meant was that these radical thinkers recognized human liberty as intrinsic to our natures and “invented”, for lack of a better word, the political institutions and cultural milieu that made liberty’s manifestation possible.

I hope it’s the latter interpretation, unless you’re going East Coast Straussian on us . . .

Me: This is a fair complaint. I think part of the problem was trying to get the idea across at blog length and part of the problem is the language itself. I don’t really think liberty is “unnatural.” Rather, I think it’s something we cultivate from nature, improving on it as we go. We make fire, but fire isn’t unnatural. I see liberty/liberalism as a huge pile of written and unwritten rules and it takes work to perpetuate them. Until the biotech revolution, human nature had no history. Everything that separates us from Huns, Vikings and cavemen is to be found in civilization and tradition. Liberalism is part of both.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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