Against the rising specter of engrossing statism, conservatives have grown accustomed to invoking liberty, especially liberty grounded in individual rights and autonomy. We should recognize that liberalism has an equal, if not greater, claim to provide liberty.
That claim has more purchase, especially for young people, because it is being backstopped by a government that is a more reliable provider for the experience of individual autonomy than the unpredictable and more unforgiving market. The indifference of the market seems more likely to lead young people to end up living as dependents in their parent’s basements than leading independent lives.
Democrats have been very clear that it is liberal autonomy that they promise. Recall one of the most revealing Obama campaign ads of 2012, produced solely for the internet (from which it has now disappeared). It was entitled The Life of Julia, and in a series of slides it sought to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds to college loans to assistance for a startup to healthcare and finally retirement.
The Life of Julia portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we are shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.
If “liberty” is the watchword of the conservative movement, then what is wrong with Julia? Julia is the perfect apotheosis of the free individual. If the objection is that she has achieved her liberty through the government, not the market, then our debates are over means, not ends.
It turns out that the real problem is liberty itself—especially a vision of liberty unaccompanied by concrete duties and responsibilities to one another, whose ideal is abstract relationships increasingly and ever-more comprehensively mediated through the State. Because for Julia ( and the denizen of the modern liberal state) our truest liberty is achieved when it protects us from any particular obligations, responsibilities, and duties—a condition best guaranteed by the abstract relationships mediated through the modern nation state.
This was the main point of Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne’s latest book, Our Divided Political Heart, where he argued that “community” and the State were the same thing. The point was summed up in a line stated several times during the most recent Democratic National Convention, “The government is the only thing we all belong to.”
Early conservative thinkers recognized this as the “end-game” of liberalism. It sought, to the greatest extent possible, the elimination of all constitutive ties to any mediating or civil institution, to be replaced by our direct relationship with the State. This would be accomplished not by enslaving the population, but by promising that this condition constituted the very essence of liberation. This was the basic insight of Tocqueville’s culminating chapters of Democracy in America: that the democratic despotism of a mild “tutelary” state would come about not by force and terror, but by the willing acquiescence of an isolated and individuated citizenry.
We begin to see the realization of Tocqueville’s prediction with ever-growing clarity in our own times in the a new, kinder, and gentler total State. It promises its citizenry liberty at every turn, and that liberty involves ever-greater freedom from the partial institutions of civil society, with these institutions remade in accordance with the aims of the State. The united states as sovereign political units have been almost wholly eviscerated, and are now largely administrative units for the federal government.
Satisfied with that victory, we now see extraordinary efforts to “break” two institutions that have always been most resistant to the total State: the churches and the family. We see an unprecedented effort by the federal government to abridge religious liberty by conscripting religious institutions like Little Sisters of the Poor (and Notre Dame) to be providers of abortifacients, sterilization, and contraception—in the name of individual liberty. We can expect determined and even ferocious efforts to bend churches to accept gay marriage as a norm, even to the point of forcing them entirely out of the civil realm and removing their tax exemptions because of their “discrimination.”
We see increasing efforts of the government to “liberate” children from their families—represented perhaps most chillingly by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry explaining that the greatest obstacle to State education has been the pervasive notion that kids “belong” to families rather than belonging “to whole communities.” After nodding to the authority of families, she declared: “I believe our children are not our private property, they are not just extensions of ourselves. They are independent, individual beings. . . . we as a society, expressing our collective will through our public institutions, including our government, have a right to impinge on individual freedoms in order to advance a common good.”
This broader social, cultural, political, and economic pedagogy is having extraordinary success. A recent Pew study on the behavior and beliefs of the “Millennial” generation—those eighteen to thirty-two years old—suggests that this is the least connected, most individualistic, and therefore “freest” generation in American history. In comparison to previous generations at a similar point in life, they are least likely to belong to a political party, least likely to be members of a church, least likely to be married by age thirty-two.
They are a generation that is increasingly formed by a notion of autonomy as the absence of any particular ties or limiting bonds—and while they highly mistrust most institutions and relationships, they nevertheless view the government as a benign source of support for their autonomy. And they tend to be overwhelming supporters of liberal policies and politicians—in the name of liberty.
The Little Platoons
Conservatives of an earlier generation like Robert Nisbet recognized that the rise of individual autonomy and centralized power would grow together, that Leviathan would expand in the name of liberty. He understood that the most fundamental obstacle to the rise and expansion of the State was the “little platoons” praised by Edmund Burke: particular and real ties to familial, religious, and civil institutions.
He called for a “new laissez faire,” a laissez-faire of groups. He understood that what would prevent the rise of the kind of the liberty promised by Leviathan would be something like a robust patchwork of more local institutions and relationships that affords true responsibility demanded of adults: debts and gratitude to each other, obligations and responsibilities that should and must be grounded in real human relationships, not in a dependency upon a distant and impersonal State. Such arrangements reject the cold indifference of a world composed of radically individuated selves connected only abstractly through the State.
Even as we are about to be buffeted by countless political slogans, we need to recognize that conservatives have not cornered the market in promoting “liberty,” and if that is their totem, the Progressives will win the debate, as on most fronts they already are. What distinguishes Conservatism historically is not that it believes in liberty understood as individual autonomy, but that it has always understood that liberty—understood as freedom from an over-imposing state—is the necessary but not sufficient condition for living a human life in families, communities, religious institutions, and a whole range of relationships that encourage us to practice the arts of responsible self-governance.
"The Problem With Liberty: A Warning to Conservatives" is a slightly revised version of an article that first ran in the Irish Rover, Notre Dame's independent student newspaper.