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The Virtue of Liberty: A Response to Yuval Levin


One of the big stories of the Obama era is the rise of a more stridently individualistic and “libertarian” (for lack of a better word) wing of the right—the Ayn-Rand-influenced, Tea Party wing.

As a certified graduate of both of these camps—the Ayn Rand fans and the Tea Partiers—I’m pretty happy about this. But it is starting to set off a reaction, not just among the Republican K-Street establishment, but also among the more religious, “social conservative” wing of the right.

Recently, for example, Michael Brendan Dougherty criticized Republicans for their mockery of Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” rant in the 2012 election campaign. Instead, Dougherty quotes conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s argument that we should find “the truth in socialism,” which is “the truth of our mutual dependence, and of the need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them.” This strikes me as a great prescription for a return to old-fashioned “me-too” conservatism. No, we’re not those radical individualists out there, it pleads. We love the welfare state, too, we just want to manage it better.

Which is pretty much how we got to the point where a lot of people on the right decided that a radical, individualistic backlash was necessary—not just as an answer to Obama, but as an answer to decades of wishy-washy, ineffectual Republicans.

A similar argument is offered, with greater erudition and subtlety, in an influential essay by Yuval Levin. In this case, Levin starts by urging the right to backpedal away from “radical individualism.”

I’m not really sure why you would want to be on the political right unless you are out to defend the individual against the state, so it would seem that individualism is central to the cause. Why is Levin arguing against it?

His argument has a tendency to be maddeningly vague—but for me, at least, it was vague in a familiar, almost comforting way. A very University of Chicago, Committee on Social Thought, neoconservative intellectual kind of way. That is, of course, Levin’s background, and it’s also part of my own background—in between Ayn Rand and the Tea Party. As an undergraduate, I spent a lot of time taking classes from those guys, and I loved that they were the only professors who would ask you to read Aristotle as if you could actually learn something from him. (Alas, I was stuck in the philosophy department, where I found a striking lack of interest in big philosophical questions.)

But these intellectuals also drove me crazy, because they loved to explore big ideas in a broad, grandiloquent way—but when it came to precisely defining terms and saying what they meant exactly, specifically, in the real world, it all had a tendency to dissolve.

That’s how Levin’s piece felt like going back home again, like it was 1991 and I was surrounded by grey limestone. It is annoyingly unclear where exactly he is heading with his argument.

He urges us to take a “long way” to liberty instead of the shallowly seductive “short way” of, well, demanding liberty. Maybe he just means that we should focus more effort on creating the cultural and intellectual change to support our political goals. But a lot of us are already doing that, so it’s not clear what we should change. Levin certainly implies that he’s talking about something more, a difference in basic goals. If liberty is not just “autonomy for the individual,” but something else, does that mean we should we not want to cut taxes? That we should make peace with the welfare state or ObamaCare?

He provides no concrete answers, but there’s more than a whiff of paternalism to the way he talks about it. He is concerned about having “citizens generally capable of using their freedom well,” worries about who “we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom,” and talks about the danger of pursuing “individual liberation without preparation.” His whole idea of “taking the long way” is an allusion to the Biblical story of the flight from Egypt, in which the Jews took the long way around to Canaan—forty years long—because “untutored and unformed,” they might be “confronted too quickly with the costs and burdens of liberty.”

All right, so exactly what parts of liberty are we not ready for?

What really raises suspicions, though, is Levin’s argument that what is required as moral preparation for liberty is the rejection of individualism. But how are we going to get to a free society—long way or short, local or express—if we throw out the concept of individualism? Isn’t the idea of valuing the individual life and respecting the autonomy of the individual mind central to defining and defending a free society?

Here is where Levin’s vagueness catches up with him, because in defining what “liberty” and “individualism” consist of, he uses overly broad concepts that muddle together some very clear and sharp distinctions.

This leads him to assert that “many conservatives (and all the more so libertarians) root their complaints in the same radical individualism as the progressives they oppose.” This rather conspicuously leaves out about two centuries of the intellectual history of the left, which is dominated by an open, explicit, stridently declared doctrine of collectivism. In fact, it appears that the very word “individualism” was coined by early 19th-century utopian socialists as a pejorative, to describe the opposite of their emerging proto-Marxist doctrines. What followed was two centuries of attempts to create ideal societies based, not just on the abolition of private property, but on the abolition of private life as such, in which everything—art, sex, sports, etc.—was politicized and collectivized. All of this is still within living memory and persists unadulterated in a few holdouts like Cuba and North Korea.

To be sure, moderate Western “liberals” try to have it both ways on this issue. They bill themselves as the party of individual autonomy in your personal life, saving the collectivism for economics. But that artificial dividing line is always breaking down. It’s worth noting that the origin of the phrase “political correctness” was in the old totalitarian collectivism, where “the personal is the political.” The ongoing enforcement of PC taboos is a living remnant of that old-line collectivism.

This history can add a lot of clarity to any discussion of the merits of individualism. Instead, Levin relies on some tendentious definitions. Both “progressives” and “libertarians,” he says, start from “the straightforward premise that liberty consists of the individual’s freedom from coercion and constraint.” The sloppiness of this definition is right there in the conjunction: “coercion and constraint.” Well, that’s quite a difference there, isn’t it? In fact, it’s a difference that defines two opposite concepts of liberty with opposite consequences.

Physical coercion is a limited, definable evil, a human activity that can be outlawed, deterred, and suppressed. “Constraint,” by contrast, is a universal feature of reality itself, which is omnipresent and ineradicable—and the irrational attempt to eradicate it has left behind a wide swath of destruction.

We are “constrained” as much by the law of supply and demand as by the law of gravitation. Which explains why so much of the left’s concept of “liberation” consists of demands that we be able to ignore basic facts of life, from the differences between men and women to the necessity of working to produce the goods we need. Heck, the left even sweats the small stuff, finding oppression in everyday constraints such as the need to cook a meal.

I could point out that there is a connection here, that the more they try to free themselves from the constraints of reality, the more they become dependent on other people. Their “freedom” to live without working necessarily means somebody else’s obligation to work without getting paid. This is what drives the paradox of modern liberalism: their “freedom” requires them to coerce everyone else. That just underscores how opposite these two concepts of freedom are: the more one expands, the more the other contracts. Yet Levin conflates the two.

It’s surprising, because the distinction is actually pretty well-worn, and I don’t feel like I’m breaking any new ground in pointing it out. So why does the conflation of opposite ideas of freedom seem so plausible to Levin? Because he has a narrow and dismissive concept of individual choice and of the individual’s goals and values. The key passage is this one.

To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being…. The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire.

You can see that paternalism poking out again: we need to be “liberated” from our own desires. How he gets there is because he looks into the human soul and sees in our “wants and wishes” only “appetites and passions,” i.e., only brute, unthinking, subjective urges.

That’s a longstanding philosophical position, to be sure. Immanuel Kant used it—in much the same offhand, dismissive way—as his justification for why happiness cannot be the goal of morality, because man’s happiness consists of the pursuit of ever-shifting, ephemeral, short-range desires. The “warped timber of humanity,” and all that sort of thing.

But it’s certainly not a premise that should be asserted so lightly, or that should go unchallenged. All of human history, most particularly the history of individualistic capitalism, tells us something different. What individuals have actually done, when liberated from the artificial constraint of coercion, has been to discover scientific laws, cure diseases, cultivate the land, invent new machines, build factories, settle whole continents, build railroads and skyscrapers, and so on.

If I’m starting to sound like an Ayn Rand novel—well, bingo. This is precisely what Levin fails to understand about the individualist wing of the right. What they see in her writings is her appreciation for the world of work. Specifically, Ayn Rand realized that the production of wealth is about way more than the pursuit of animalistic appetites. It’s about thinking and creating. It’s not about defying the “constraints” imposed by nature, but about learning and respecting them. As Francis Bacon put it, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”

(I should add something similar about Levin’s dismissal of STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—as mere “vocational skills.” Science and technology is about a lot more than that. It’s an education in a whole way of thinking, with a rigor, exactness, and realism that is all too rarely matched in the humanities, and it opens up an enormous field of creativity and intellectual advancement.)

Work is about the pursuit of excellence, and far from being a form of self-indulgence, it requires a rigorous self-discipline. Try telling the entrepreneur working 14-hour days to get his business off the ground that he’s in “the grip of appetite” for short-range pleasures.

I think Levin knows some of this, but I don’t think he takes it seriously enough or understands it in concrete terms. While Ayn Rand wrote thousand-page novels on the subject, this is the whole of what Levin has to say on the value of work: it “buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability.” It’s a bit vague and anemic and pretty much sounds like an admonition to eat your vegetables.

This is not enough to understand the individualist wing of the right. It won’t help you understand why saying “you didn’t build that” is such an insult, while saying “I built that” is such a point of pride. You might miss the significance of those signs at Tea Party rallies that say “Redistribute My Work Ethic.” It fails to capture the real personal meaning of work, of production, of building and making a living as a calling or crusade.

This seems to be a big part of the reason why Levin erects an artificial distinction between individualism and the inculcation of virtue. But liberty doesn’t just require virtue. Liberty is a virtue. Or rather, the exercise of liberty is a virtue. Individualism and independence are virtues.

Put it this way: if the self has a lot more to assert than just momentary whims, then it makes sense to think of self-assertion as a virtue—and to see such self-assertion as an indispensable protection against an overbearing state. It will help you see that there is a virtue in being skeptical of an unsupported consensus—can you think of any practical application for that?—or in pushing back against unnatural and unnecessary constraints. After all, how can you defend liberty without the kind of cantankerous individuals who are going to be offended by an overreaching government just because it’s meddlesome? The desire for freedom, the struggle for freedom, the instinctive rebellion against presumptuous officialdom—that is itself a virtue.

I can understand how the “virtue” conservatives are feeling on the defensive in the face of a growing “libertarian” wing of the right. But they’re closing themselves off to a big part of why we oppose big government, which is precisely to open up the creative forces of individualism.

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