Freedom and our political order
Ronald Reagan, our happiest modern president, famously quipped, “The person who 80 percent agrees with you is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” His assessment could be supplemented by observing that a person who 100 percent agrees with you is either a liar or a fool. As I indicated in my first essay, a fundamental requirement of modern Western freedoms is that those who argue in good faith are inevitably to disagree on issues of ethical, political, or religious concern. With that in mind, I am grateful to my friends and allies who have been generous enough to contribute to this forum.
All contributors who were neither liars nor fools raised valuable objections and challenges. Titus Techera presented the first sentence. Even if my report on our freedoms is accepted, he asks, what are we doing against the rise of a great power, China, which specifically rejects it? And how can we protect them against the internal threats of digital technology?
The former question is easier to answer than the latter. My answer is based on the recognition that we are again embroiled in a rivalry between political entities that not only represent different peoples, but also different and often opposing cultures. The journalist Ari Roussinos updated Samuel Huntington and called this development the rise of the “civilization states”.
Dealing with this rivalry requires not only strategic caution, but also a renewed understanding and renewed defense of the historical, cultural and institutional sources of our way of life. On the one hand, this means opposing a naive progressivism that regards the worldwide spread of personal freedom and peaceful cooperation as inevitable. On the other hand, it is an alternative to the constrained nationalism that places the United States against our continental neighbors as well as traditional allies. In looking for this middle ground, I suspect that we will find that the “idea of the West” has not yet lost its value. Although my paper did not explicitly consider geopolitics, I think it can serve as part of this enterprise.
Techera’s second question is more difficult and overlaps with issues raised by other contributors. Digital technology not only makes it easier for retail companies to shape our habits by giving us what we want before we know we want it. It also encourages us to indulge in the cheap thrill of false association. The communities we are drawn to are increasingly based on negligible “likes” rather than real shared tasks.
Greg Weiner points out the consequences of this tendency in politics. Instead of working together towards specific goals, we see politics as a platform for expression of opinion, which should be popular in circles of like-minded people. Freed from the obligation to provide persuasive arguments or tangible benefits to a skeptical audience, it is always tempting to step up the praise of allies and condemnation of rivals. The result is a misperception of the relatively calm conditions by historical standards as a battlefield of war and enmity.
I agree with Weiner that the best remedy to counter this threat is to give the associations significant authority – and therefore significant responsibility – for the outcomes that matter to their participants. To speak only of formal politics, it requires sustained efforts to save political parties from a century of misguided reforms that have undermined their ability to regulate and moderate political disputes. In the written constitution in particular, mass parties were a true American innovation for addressing the challenges of personal freedom on a large scale. Our ability to do so was reduced by their eclipse.
Since I don’t think we ever had a “regime” in the classical sense, I’m a little less worried about losing it.
John McGinnis mainly shares Weiner’s analysis, but contradicts my preference for simplicity in public order. He points out that a political and institutional landscape defined by freedom of association and personal responsibility will be more complex than one designed by a single agency. Shouldn’t we see this complexity as a feature rather than a flaw?
Like the unfortunate Mr. Salter in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, I can only say “up to a point”. A society characterized by multiple institutions that offer real advantages and make real demands will be more complicated than one that is rationally planned. At some point, however, this complexity can overwhelm the ability of many citizens to process information and make conscious decisions. In this case, they are more likely to accept the authority of anyone willing to choose them.
I propose that we should prioritize simplicity to prevent such abdication – and the bureaucratic bloat that it encourages. When it comes to healthcare, for example, studies suggest that even experts are unable to wisely choose from a multitude of confusing alternatives. McGinnis implies that the alternative to the so-called paradox of choice is one size fits all. While I am not an expert in this area, it seems to me that we still have a long way to go before this becomes the main risk. The goal should be to improve normal people’s ability to make meaningful decisions (i.e., decisions whose risks and benefits they can understand and predict) rather than simply multiplying decisions.
However, it is possible that I miss the forest for the trees. Scott Yenor suggests that the United States go through a regime change that in a curious way makes such concerns irrelevant. In addition to the geopolitical, technological and institutional challenges mentioned by other contributors, he emphasizes the burgeoning alliance between “bright ideologues, big media, corporate capital and the administrative state”.
If I didn’t share Yenor’s fears in any way, I probably wouldn’t post on this website. Still, I find his portrayal of America in the solar eclipse too apocalyptic. I suspect that the cause of our difference lies in different attitudes towards the concept of “regime”. The concept, borrowed by Leo Strauss from ancient Greek political philosophy, implies a higher degree of coherence and stability than the appreciation for the same personality and the large extent of modern states allows. Indeed, I would like to argue that the institutionalization of modern Western freedoms makes a “regime” impossible in the Greek understanding. On this question of political theory I consider Constant and Hegel to be better leaders than Strauss.
Since I don’t think we’ve ever had a regime in the classical sense, I’m a little less worried about losing it. Instead, I consider our present discontent as the latest in a series of disagreements dating back to the creation of the United States (just to mention that country). While it is easy to imagine that Americans had a calm consensus by about 1960, American history was marked by repeated and often violent conflicts over the boundaries of government, the requirements of citizenship, and even the nature of humanity. The view that today’s divisions are unique in their depth and intensity seems to me to be more closely related to the rhetoric-enhancing properties of digital politics than to serious historical comparisons.
And old societies were exposed to their own contradictions. Helen Dale notes that Roman law deals with tensions between freedom, civil and family authority. Despite the long eclipse of Roman law, especially in English-speaking jurisdictions, the tensions seem surprisingly familiar. She suggests that “the rise of the modern enterprise, its leadership class and discretionary private governance has revived the debate on issues very similar to the old debates about familia: who is it? What do you give up of your personal autonomy in order to become a member? What are their rights and obligations? Under what circumstances can they be thrown away? “
I don’t know the old answers to these questions, but Dale’s report got me to study more Roman law – a finding that she admits when describing her teaching experience is not an easy task. The Romans remind us that freedom is not everything, since not everything valuable is freedom. In this respect we moderns still have lessons to learn.