Magazine | May 17, 2010, Issue

The Cultural Preconditions of American Liberty

Rich soil is required for the health of this plant

The oft-noted fault line of the conservative movement lies between economic conservatives and libertarians, on one hand, and social or cultural conservatives, on the other. The usual requirement for broad conservative electoral success is a “fusion” of these two wings. The most principled ground for that fusion — something other than the simple desire to win elections — lies in the recognition that, if liberty is the prime leitmotif of American conservatism, there are cultural preconditions necessary to make that liberty (political, economic, and cultural) possible and fruitful.

This topic is not a new one. Any discussion of it is likely to end up being a long line of footnotes to certain classics of political science, for example, Aristotle’s Politics, The Federalist, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

In Federalist No. 2, John Jay points out some of the more obvious elements of the common culture shared by Americans. This common culture based on ancestry, language, religion, political principles, mores (manners and customs), and shared history facilitated the trust — the “civic friendship” — that makes political community possible. (The absence of such a common culture is an obvious reason for the impossibility of any legal or political “world order” today.) Of course, there were certain tensions, too — slavery, agrarian vs. commercial interests, coastal vs. interior regions — which the Founders had to manage by various compromises (some more successful than others).

What are some of the cultural factors that have provided a foundation for American constitutionalism? Let me focus on a few of them: confidence in reason, the capacity for joint deliberation and action, a spirit of independence and self-reliance, sexual morality supporting the family, moderation of the taste for physical well-being, and a certain kind of religion.

Faith in man’s capacity to know truth. Some people think that the best ground for protecting liberty is a fundamental skepticism about whether it is possible to know ultimate truths. Such skepticism, they think, undermines ideology and diminishes the likelihood that people will feel so sure of their beliefs that they will try to impose them on others. (Think of Justice Holmes’s comment in Abrams v. U.S. (1919): “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.”)

The problem with this approach is that it is difficult to prevent such broad skepticism from being applied to the principles of freedom themselves. The American Founders had a deep faith in human reason. They understood the need to have a solid foundation for republican government in principles confidently held to be true — such as the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence — in order to avoid placing society on the shifting and unstable grounds of relativism or skepticism.

Tocqueville argued that without common beliefs — “dogma” or opinions entertained on trust and without discussion — no society can prosper. And he added that virtually all human actions “originate in some very general idea men have conceived of the Deity, of his relation to mankind, of the nature of their own souls, and of their duties to their fellow creatures.” Doubt about these “first principles” leaves men confused and tempted to think no more about them, and “such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude” (as existentialist literature of the 20th century exemplified — imagine the kind of democratic citizen the protagonist of Camus’s Stranger would be).

An important corollary of the belief that men can know truth is confidence that it is really possible to interpret documents, such as the Constitution. Contrary to contemporary hermeneutical theories, the Founders thought that it was possible to interpret a written document without the interpreter’s reading his views into it (though that was a constant danger to be resisted). Without this confidence, the very act of writing a constitution would be an act of blind faith.

The capacity for civil and political association. Americans take many of their capacities for granted. It is simply part of our ordinary experience, for example, that people organize voluntary associations to accomplish a multitude of purposes, and that they deliberate about matters of common concern — both within those civil associations and within their political institutions, from school boards and town councils up through Congress. That is not true of all societies, especially those with rigid hierarchies and those ruled strictly by custom. Even something as simple as organizing and running a committee meeting is beyond the experience of people in many cultures.

#page#Tocqueville pointed out that Americans have a real genius for voluntary association, as well as political association. The sources of this capacity are varied, including the need of pioneer communities to work together to survive under harsh physical circumstances, the congregational character of early American religious communities, and the default position of local governance given that the home country was so far away. And its consequences, in a society based on equality of conditions, are enormous. It makes possible effective action by non-governmental associations and promotes decentralization within the government, serving thereby as an invaluable bulwark against despotism.

A spirit of independence and self-reliance. The protection of liberty requires that a citizenry have a deep attachment to it, especially in the face of temptations to trade it for other apparent goods. Tocqueville presciently noted the potential conflict between liberty and equality when the latter is understood as equality of condition.  A mild democratic despotism might be willing and able to take on the responsibility of providing people with social equality and material well-being, as long as they are willing to give up their political freedom and cede control over their lives to a vast, provident bureaucracy — and a democratic citizenry excessively attached to equality over liberty might accept the offer.

The cultural emphasis on freedom and independence helps to explain some of the differences between European democracies and the U.S. For one, European nations, even after the overthrow of the ancien régime in the French Revolution, never completely eliminated the old “culture of deference” to “the higher orders” — which still lingers on palpably with respect to the European Union elites. Americans, by contrast, never lived in a feudal society, and they experienced substantial social equality from their beginnings. Even the very attenuated deference to American leaders in the first few decades was gone with the Jacksonian democratic revolution. Moreover, U.S. political life is distinctive because of the many access points at different levels of government, which citizens can and do take advantage of. Americans and Europeans both get an every-few-years choice between political parties in major national elections, but Americans have many more additional opportunities for participating directly in politics, for example, on school boards, in town-council meetings, at state legislative hearings, and so on.

Another difference between America and Europe is that Americans are less likely to confuse the responsibility of government to promote the common good by fostering conditions in which citizens can support themselves and their families with a supposed responsibility of government to provide that support itself.

Sexual morality in support of the family. Stable families are the foundation of society. It is essential that the sexual passions be tamed and channeled toward the formation of the families that will raise the next generation of citizens and shape their character in support of free constitutional government — liberty under law. Tocqueville notes that travelers to America all agree that “morals are far more strict there than elsewhere” and that the conjugal tie is “very strict.” Laws regarding sexual morality (though their earlier harshness required attenuation) were examples of Tocqueville’s observation that Americans combine the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty admirably. A fixed moral world is necessary to provide a framework for the flux of political freedom, and the family is the first community in which children learn about responsibilities and rights, getting along with others, and the importance of contributing to the common good.

Moreover, as Jennifer Roback Morse has argued, failed families contribute in a multitude of ways to the pressure for expanding government power, as our experience with the decline of family stability and the rise of the modern welfare state suggests.

Moderation in the taste for physical well-being. Tocqueville, a student of the great French political philosopher Montesquieu, knew of the danger that a “spirit of commerce” — in which men worked diligently to produce more wealth — could easily give way to a “spirit of luxury,” in which men were more focused on the consumption of wealth than its production. An excessive care for worldly welfare — what today we call “consumerism” — would likely end up impairing that welfare. Yuval Levin observes that the “case for capitalism” requires an understanding of the need for “prudence, restraint, industry, frugality, sobriety, honesty, civility, and reliability . . . in a word, discipline.”

#page#Moreover, Tocqueville argues that absorption in the pursuit of physical well-being would likely render men insensitive both to the importance of political life (to defend their freedom) and to “those more precious possessions which constitute the glory and greatness of mankind” (the truth, beauty, and goodness found in the arts, intellectual life, and religion). The strong inclination of democratic citizens to pursue well-being had to be kept moderate in its goals (greater prosperity in small steps, not great leaps) and prevented from dominating life.         

Note that sexual morality and moderation in the taste for physical well-being both relate to temperance (resisting the morally distorting effects of desiring pleasure), which is a precondition of fortitude (resisting the morally distorting effects of fearing pain). And Aristotle’s paradigmatic case of fortitude is the willingness of citizens to defend their country, which entails the possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice of dying in battle. No nation whose people are unwilling to risk this sacrifice, when necessary, can survive indefinitely in the world as we know it. (Note the remarkably short-lived “end of history” announced at the conclusion of the Cold War, which seems so incredibly dated after 9/11.) The prominent British jurist Lord Patrick Devlin once put the issue this way: “A nation of debauchees would not in 1940 have responded satisfactorily to Winston Churchill’s call to blood and toil and sweat and tears.”

Religion. Tocqueville’s observation of the importance of religion (both for society and for individuals) is frequently noted. Religion supports the necessary moral framework for the political world, and it mitigates some of the dangerous tendencies of democracy, such as individualism and materialism.

Less often noted is that Tocqueville’s arguments apply not to “religion” generically, but to a certain kind of religion — such as the Christianity of Americans. The benefits of religion that Tocqueville sees in the Protestant Christianity of early America would not be found in a theocracy, on one hand, or in a purely civil religion, on the other. Theocratic rule (religion using politics for its purposes) would forfeit the important benefits that Tocqueville finds in the separation of church and state — benefits for both religion (insulating it and protecting it from political passions) and politics (keeping it free of religious passions). A purely civil religion (politics using religion for its purposes) would forfeit the benefits of American Christianity’s refusal simply to accommodate democracy’s tendencies: If religion did not try to attack individualism and the desire for material well-being head-on, it certainly did work to mitigate or moderate them. 

The Protestant Christians of Tocqueville’s America may have disagreed on some dogmatic matters, but they were in broad agreement on moral matters. That is why Tocqueville could say that religion was the safeguard of morality, and morality the “surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” In this respect, Tocqueville was simply repeating the famous advice of Washington in his Farewell Address.  (Note, however, that such moral agreement has evaporated, as modern Christians have accommodated evolving modern morality at different rates.)

One of the great questions confronting the conservative movement is: “How are these preconditions to be assured?” This question takes on greater urgency as we see cultural changes that may endanger them. Economic conservatives and libertarians incline toward the view that these preconditions are best (perhaps only) fostered by non-governmental institutions, by “civil society.” Social and cultural conservatives incline toward the view that government must take an active (perhaps prominent) role in promoting or fostering these preconditions. Both sides are right (except for the parenthetical “perhaps”) — which is what makes “fusion” possible. Government can hardly create these preconditions itself, out of whole cloth, but neither is it irrelevant to their sustenance. It has a role, but a limited one. As Tocqueville noted, there is a reciprocal relation between laws and mores, both of which are essential — but, of the two, mores are more fundamental.

#page#One of the changes in American life that endanger the cultural preconditions of the Constitution is the decline of the original constitutional form of federalism. The Framers established a limited federal government whose primary responsibilities were the conduct of war and foreign affairs and the provision of a framework for a national economy (especially by removing domestic protectionist obstacles to it). No one dreamed of entrusting fundamental social issues (such as marriage and family law, or laws regulating sexual morality) to the federal government, since those were firmly left in the hands of the states. There was little to worry about, in any case, since there was little controversy about such issues at the time, due largely to the consensus on family and sexual morality that flowed from common religious beliefs. Thus the Founders could more or less take for granted social mores (reflected in and supported by state laws) that would support the traditional family and channel sexual activity in directions that reinforced it. There was no need even to think about such matters at a national constitutional convention. 

In addition, the Founders could also count on having a citizenry with many of the moral qualities — hard work, self-reliance, temperance — associated with a dominantly agrarian nation.

Of course, the Framers’ assumptions have since been blown away. Since the 1960s, in particular, social mores have changed substantially, traditional values having been peeled away by disaffected intellectual elites, with the aggressive support of media and judges committed to an agenda of general sexual autonomy and dismissive of popular doubts or opposition. As Justice Scalia famously pointed out in Romer v. Evans (1996): “When the Court takes sides in the culture wars, it tends to be with the knights rather than the villeins — and more specifically with the Templars, reflecting the views and values of the lawyer class from which the Court’s Members are drawn” and in opposition to “the more plebeian attitudes that apparently still prevail in the United States Congress” and in various state legislatures. Moreover, even a return of such issues to the states would not (contrary to some conservatives’ hopes) help much in today’s world, where culture is shaped much more by broad national (and even cross-national) forces than by local or regional ones. 

And, at the same time, the nation’s unprecedented affluence has unleashed a powerful consumerism that works to undermine habits of temperance (think of rampant credit-card debt) and self-reliance (think of government enabling of the housing bubble).

The possibility of promoting the preconditions of healthy liberal democracy is greatly constrained today by profound cultural divisions among the citizenry. There is a deep chasm between “red-state” and “blue-state” Americans, and many so-called moderates lack coherent views on important moral-political issues like abortion and marriage.  

Some cultural conservatives seem at times to believe that laws or social compulsion can resolve social problems by compelling obedience to moral norms, while some economic conservatives seem to believe that government has little or no role to play in resolving social problems. Some cultural liberals seem at times to believe either that human beings do not need a moral framework to prosper, or that some invisible hand provides whatever minimal framework is necessary.

What we should hope for — but must recognize as a difficult goal — is the adoption of a policy of “moderate moralism,” which recognizes the importance of cultural norms in the preservation of healthy liberal constitutionalism, and a role for law in supporting them, but that also recognizes limits to what laws or government can do. One of the awkward truths about liberal democracy is that, for all the importance of laws as a form of moral education, its ultimate well-being is likely to depend on forces to a great extent beyond politics, and perhaps especially on the power of religious ideals that provide its foundations.

–Mr. Wolfe is emeritus professor at Marquette University and co-director of the Thomas International Center (www.ticenter.net).

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