Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

The Future Is Free

(Scott Barrow/Corbis)

The battle cry of this magazine notwithstanding, there is no capital-“H” Hegelian History, and nothing — certainly not political liberty — is inevitable. It was far from inevitable that a congress of farmers and lawyers meeting in Philadelphia in the late 18th century would adopt as a national creed the most radical interpretation of the already extraordinary English conception of liberty, or that it would succeed in practical terms. The American experiment could have failed in any number of ways.

And yet . . . it’s an awfully American-looking world out there: In the English-speaking nations, of course, Anglo-American liberalism thrives to such an extent that the leftwardmost credible political elements in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, etc., flatly socialist within recent memory and sometimes openly Marxist, have been reconstituted along Clinton-Blair lines; the northern-European welfare states that became the Anglo-American Left’s model of progress after the disgrace of socialism have gone through 20 years of spasmodic reform along lines that could have been (and sometimes were) dreamed up by Newt Gingrich; we should have no illusions about the character of the regime in Beijing, but capitalism with Chinese characteristics looks every year more like capitalism, period; the great free-market reformer of the last days of the 20th century was a bearded fellow in a blue turban working in New Delhi; from Santiago to Seoul, American expectations about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc., are the norms against which policies are measured, even when, as in the recent case of South Korea, some political trends are moving in the wrong direction.

That South Korean example is telling in an important way: When the governments of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak invoked a 1940s national-security law to harass their political opponents — going so far as to dissolve a left-wing party — the complaints, which came from across the political spectrum, weren’t that this sort of action was illiberal, that it failed to live up to the example set in the West, but rather that the action was anachronistic. Thomas Jefferson’s radicalism is just how the world is now. 

The civilized world, anyway. Anglo-American liberalism may not have the Mandate of Heaven or History or Whatever, but it certainly has been blessed in its rivals: the revolutionary terror of Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot; mass-murdering Fascism and mass-murdering Communism; the torpor and stagnation of caudillo autocracy; most recently, the worldwide atrocities of totalist Islam. For human beings who wish to live as human beings, Anglo-American liberalism, or some near variant of it, has been winning by default for more than a century now.

Contra George W. Bush’s overly sunny assessment, the desire for freedom does not reside in every human heart; some human hearts are very deeply etched with a desire to take a machete to the Tutsi or to liquidate the kulaks. But if there is something that we hate more than the tribe down the road, it is being hungry, miserable, and vulnerable. The perennial error of the Left is its belief that the blessings of American life come from democracy, which is only a procedural necessity. The messy fact, never quite sorted out in our Protestant national soul, is that the material blessings of American life — the splendid vulgar excess of Donald Trump and recliners with built-in oversized cup-holders — come from the same source as the nobler blessings that have left us free and at peace to serve God as we judge best. In every generation, there are a few extraordinary souls who contemplate the possibilities of the latter; most of us just want the recliners, the material comfort of 21st-century capitalist life, the riotous abundance of the Walmart Supercenter. You need a little political theory and a little economics to understand the connection between well-ordered liberty and the facts of actual human happiness and actual human flourishing, which is why we conservatives are always at a slight disadvantage in the popular conversation: Understanding things such as comparative advantage and gains from trade is not all that difficult, but it is a hell of a lot more difficult than “Here’s a kitten! It’s a nice kitten! Don’t you want to be nice to the nice kitten?” And that is essentially the Left’s political program, which is, admittedly, a big step up from putting the bourgeoisie into prison camps.

Thus we have the very strange phenomenon of young people using Apple products to take to Facebook and Twitter to complain about the evil of capitalism, of people who take international travel to be the highest form of consumption and yet despair that the sneakers on sale at Macy’s have traveled internationally, too. But we should not be too worried about the posturing of the Occupy gang or the ambitions of an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders: Nobody is having a serious conversation about getting rid of what we cannot really imagine living without. Anti-capitalist talk is the New Year’s resolution of politics: vestigial puritanism. When it starts to pinch, the fervor wanes.

Which is to say, the fact that the economics and the moral reasoning both are on the side of liberty is completely beside the point in the real world: Liberty seduces. Liberty feels good. And despite fitful efforts to separate the material benefits of the liberal order from political liberalism per se — most notably in China — people from all over the world have stumbled into an understanding that this is a package deal.

Why it’s a package deal is almost always misunderstood, and it goes back to those radicals in Philadelphia. They did not invent the modern nation-state; an American-style architecture of government is seldom used in the rest of the world, and where there is liberty the Westminster system prevails much more frequently. The form and structure of government is of course more than incidental, but what came out of the American Revolution and the subsequent contest was more fundamental than that: It was the invention of citizenship in a world that had only known subjects. The occasional outburst of atavistic tribalism notwithstanding, men who have known freedom do not desire to return to serfdom, any more than they desire to wear wooden shoes or to live in tents. That’s just how the world is, and the prospects of liberty are excellent because without liberty, life as we know it — and it is a very good life — is impossible.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

The Apology Policy

President Barack Obama strutted into the Oval Office utterly convinced of his moral rectitude. Unlike his predecessors, Obama would make policy based on an exquisitely calibrated conscience, sensitivity to constitutional ...
Politics & Policy

Climate Coercion

Predicting catastrophe is a lucrative business. By doing so, the big environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Sierra Club, have grown ...
Politics & Policy

The Twitter Trap

Stop me if you’ve heard this story: A die-hard progressive living in a liberal enclave (usually when this story is told, it’s about the late New Yorker film critic Pauline ...

Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy


Sixty years ago, WFB said of this brand-new journal that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” — in the spirit not of a bearded zealot carrying a hand-lettered sign, but ...

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Economy & Business

Who Owns FedEx?

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The Kaepernick Saga Drags On . . . off the Field

Colin Kaepernick’s workout for NFL teams in Atlanta this weekend did not run smoothly. The league announced an invitation to scouts from every team to watch Kaepernick work out and demonstrate that he was still ready to play. (As noted last week, the workout is oddly timed; the NFL season is just a bit past its ... Read More

Israel’s New Way of War

Commuters on Route 4, driving toward the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod on November 12, were shocked by an explosion, a rocket impact next to a major intersection. Had it fallen on a car or one of the many trucks plying the route, there would have been deaths, and the road would have been closed. Instead, police ... Read More