Taking the Long Way

Disciplines of the Soul are the Basis of a Liberal Society

.. Restrictions on campaign contributions provide one example, prohibitions against hate speech another. The liberal vision of freedom deems these limitations legitimate if they are aimed at expanding the realm and reach of individual autonomy overall. Thus the paradox of liberalism: expanded government for the sake of freedom.

.. But many conservatives (and all the more so libertarians) root their complaints in the same radical individualism as the progressives they oppose. They don’t object to the liberal view of liberty. Instead, they see liberalism as betraying it. They insist, for instance, that public redistribution of wealth is a greater constraint on free choice than the economic want it is meant to address.

The same goes for campaign finance laws and many other liberal efforts to limit liberty for the sake of greater liberty. They deem the paradox of liberalism a fatal contradiction.

.. Poverty in this sense does not necessarily involve injustice. By contrast, government redistribution of property can directly impinge on our rights of ownership, and thus can easily be seen as unjust.

.. This conservative idea of liberty, then, is less concerned with giving different people equal power to make their choices matter, but more concerned with letting every individual do what he wishes with what he has—provided he does not take from others.

.. The progressive sees freedom as a power to act while the conservative sees freedom as an absence of restraint.

.. both seem to believe that ­advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way.

.. Modern thinkers since Machiavelli and Hobbes have tended to assert that the purpose of society is simply to meet our basic needs for security in our person and property and our desire for liberty in all other things. This minimal view allows us to hope that an arrangement of institutions, incentives, and interests that keeps us out of each other’s hair will be enough.

The market economy, too, is premised on the notion that if all we want is prosperity and comfort, then we should be able to achieve those in spades without having to argue about moral premises too much.

.. A population of citizens generally capable of using their freedom well, not the American Constitution or the market system, is the greatest modern achievement of our civilization. That achievement is the prerequisite for liberalism, whether progressive or conservative

.. 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. Such a person is not someone we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom.

.. 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.

.. This liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction. To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become ­capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation.

.. Religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of the press—these are liberties designed to protect our traditions of moral formation

.. the liberal political theory we claim as our birthright emerged in Britain after an era of nightmarish religious wars, in part to justify an already existing society in terms other than the contentious religious and political ones on which it had originally, gradually, come to be. This involved the formulation of an alternative creation story (man in the state of nature)

.. in essence, our liberal theories offer us truths wrapped in falsehoods

  • the truth that we are all created equal wrapped in the falsehood of a society built by independent individuals choosing to unite;
  • the truth that we all deserve to be free wrapped in the falsehood that freedom is the absence of restraint.

The truths may add up to a case for the long way to liberty, but the falsehoods can easily be taken as a case for the short way: the liberation of the individual from outside constraints to pursue his wants as he wills.

.. The long way to liberty begins unavoidably with marriage and the family, and the case for the short way begins as a case against their necessity.

.. But work also buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability. It can help form us into better human beings and better liberal citizens. To see only its material utility is to imagine that work, like family, could be replaced by more efficient forms of distribution.

.. Progressive economic policy at least since John Maynard Keynes has appealed to a sense that the ideal economy would be less focused on work. But this view ignores the formative potential of work beyond its utilitarian value.

.. in higher education, we are increasingly squeezing out liberal learning to make room for more skills training and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees. We surely need technical education, but that cannot be all that ­education means.

Liberal learning is out of step with our times because it offers us not vocational skills but the shaping of habits of thought and practice. It forms our souls through exposure to beauty, to truth, and to the power of the sublime that we can only glimpse through the mediation of rare artistic genius. It is, in this sense, closer to an aristocratic idea of leisure than to the modern idea of training.

.. We have almost all agreed that leisure is an opportunity for entertainment and unmediated pleasures. It would not be easy now to make the case for a different understanding of leisure as an opportunity to build habits of virtue, although some people do of course continue the practice of such edifying leisure.

.. “Local institutions are to liberty,” he tells us, “what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions, a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty.”

.. But if the long way to liberty is truly to lead us to a freedom that is more than license, it must draw as well upon an ideal of human emancipation that is more than political.

.. Religion in this sense offers a direct challenge to the ethic of the liberal society, and an explicit correction of its excesses.

.. And what is true of religion in particular is true more generally of the institutions of the long way to liberty: They are foundational to liberalism not so much because they counteract its vices as because they prepare human beings to handle the burdens and responsibilities of being free.

.. In our time, a commitment to the long way requires us to defend against a corrosive pseudo-liberalism. Cham­pioned by some progressives, but too often enabled by conservatives, it encourages precisely philistinism—a form of freedom that is but license for the morally unfree, and actively disparages every form of nobility, refinement, dignity, order, and transcendence.

.. What happens on the long way to liberty is so offensive to today’s progressives because the authority of our traditional institutions stands in the way of the social transformation they desire.

.. The progress that progressives dream of involves remaking the social order so that it becomes friendlier to an idea of liberty as the emancipation of the will—remaking society so that it becomes finally worthy of the liberated, autonomous individual.

.. But this has things backwards. Real progress very rarely looks like social transformation. It more frequently looks like personal transformation

.. bearing the duties and responsibilities of freedom without being prepared for them poses great dangers, especially the danger of abandoning our liberty in return for security or the passing pleasures and distractions of our abundant age. This danger is avoidable only if we take the long way to liberty