Liberty, License and a Defense of Yuval Levin

“But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” – Edmund Burke


The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski has taken issue with Yuval Levin’s assertion that man is a political (or in the Greek understanding, social) animal, though I’m not sure if he realizes what he has done.

Levin recently wrote an essay in which he argues that we must be careful to “take the long way” to liberty by shaping the souls of people for the freedom they possess, rather than taking a short cut by simply expanding the autonomy of the individual.

Tracinski states: “Levin’s argument [is] that what is required as moral preparation for liberty is the rejection of individualism.” About this, he is not wrong, if he means that Levin considers it a dangerous notion that we are not a social animal. Levin hopes to remind people of this foundational understanding within 2300 or so years of Aristotle-influenced Western civilization so that we will have a correct view of human nature from which to understand how the moral formulation required in a free society comes about.

Tracinski’s (mis)understanding of Levin’s thesis is that he means that we must become collectivists. The former is a fan of Ayn Rand, so it is not surprising that he constructs false dichotomies.

It is imperative that the reader understand that Levin never suggests that government be grown or that the welfare state continue in perpetuity. Indeed, he considers what is necessary for the preservation of our constitutional liberty (and has the audacity to entertain the possibility that the existence of that Constitution is not in itself a sufficient condition.) Ultimately, he does not believe that individual rights should be any less protected than does Tracinski. Tracinski’s position is simply that liberty is expanded by, well, demanding liberty. Levin’s position is that liberty is a good thing, if we use it virtuously.

Tracinski’s own words prove Levin’s point about the idea that some conservatives agree with the progressive liberal idea that society itself is what must be structured for human virtue and happiness. He writes the following:

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.

This is dangerously false, especially so because of how close it is to the truth. Tracinski erects a false equivalence between the exercise of liberty and independence. Independence is the virtue of adulthood, of self-sufficiency. But Tracinski’s take amounts to little more than “Give men freedom and they will become good.”

One of the primary reasons conservatives object to anything other than limited government is we understand that the associations of healthy civil society are better at providing our social needs than the state. That healthy civil society must exist however. It is not wrong to say that a healthy civil society is made up of free individuals, but it is a utopian conceit to believe that all human beings without the chains of tyrannical government will behave in ways that build the trust necessary for those social connections. That is the same sort of naïve view of human nature that poisons the progressive philosophy.

A sympathetic comment on Tracinski’s response reads this way: “If you’ve never had liberty, and you get liberty, you’ll probably screw it up a couple times, just like most 16 year olds get into an accident or two when they get their driver’s license.” I doubt Tracinski would disagree that this illustrates his point.

I, of course, was unaware that 16 year olds were not required to prove a basic level of qualification before receiving that “liberty” to drive. Leaving analogies behind, the French Revolutionaries got into a bit more than an accident or two before getting liberty right. (Have they even done that yet?)

The founding fathers would have ridiculed the idea that morality is not integral to living freely. Every one of them asserted precisely the opposite. Some of them even required that the government support be given to institutions that inculcated morality, via, for example, the Northwest Ordinance: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

But – aside from the apparently automatic learning of virtue that takes place by simply exercising liberty – Tracinski appears frighteningly uncurious about how human beings become moral. Levin mentions the concept four times as frequently and Tracinski considers it in a much more flippant fashion. Levin writes:

In reality, however, such hopes are possible because we presuppose the existence of a human being and citizen capable of handling a remarkably high degree of freedom and responsibility. We do not often enough reflect on how extraordinary it is that our society actually contains such people. 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, not only at its origin but in every generation. Thus the dangerous impoverishment of our political culture today: The idea of liberty that both progressives and conservatives generally articulate takes the person capable of freedom for granted without pausing to wonder where he might come from.

Levin, like Burke in the opening quote, recognizes that while the proper exercising of liberty is a virtue, liberty and virtue do not necessarily accompany each other in the human experience. There are virtuous people who are not free. There are even free people who are not virtuous – though, as Burke points out elsewhere, they are not likely to be free for long.

Levin puts it this way:

For us, too, 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, the way that prepares us through the practice of responsibility and through the formation and refinement of our souls.

The young (often white) college student, accustomed to prosperity in his own life, looks around and sees inequality. Were he refined for liberty as he ought to be, he would understand how rare the tenuous progress that brought about such wealth really is and he might think with some accuracy about how to preserve and extend it. All too often, he turns to socialism for his answers. Then he votes – and his kind is numerous.

If Mr. Tracinski needs an argument in terms of a more “crass utility,” in Levin’s words, this is it. Liberty requires virtue to persist; it does not create its own mechanism of self-perpetuation. If an appeal to authority is permitted, George Washington said this: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Tracinski snorts:

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.”

He must have forgotten that the Jews actually did start to complain that they were better off in slavery.

I would like conclude that Tracinski and Levin don’t really disagree – and that is true when it comes to preserving individual rights, though Levin is concerned with the type of people we ought to be to exercise those rights well. By comparison, Tracinski’s is a hazardous moral relativism. In truth, liberty is an essential moral good for general human happiness – as are all of the moral goods that can be unleashed in men and women when they are made free. But they have to be there in mankind in the first place.

“The effect of liberty to individuals,” Burke warns, “is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints…. [L]iberty when men act in bodies, is power. Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions they have little or no experience…”

Give me liberty or give me death, but give me that liberty that is more than simply license.