Does freedom have a future? A generation ago, the question hardly seemed worth asking. The turn of the 21st Century was not the placid utopia optimists hoped might emerge in the wake of the Cold War. Nor was it a era of bipartisan good feelings, as both nostalgists and their critics now like to imagine. At a higher level of abstraction, though, there was remarkably little debate about the basis of our political order or the goals it should pursue. Apart from a few malcontents—some of whom are now enjoying justified opportunities to gloat—liberty seemed as unshakably American as the physical monuments erected in its honor.
The scene looks different today. Partly in response to disastrous wars justified as crusades for liberty, partly due to the mounting economic power of Communist China, partly due to widening moral disagreements at home, freedom no longer functions as conceptual halo that sanctifies every action or policy pursued in its name. The left speaks equity and of expertise, but rarely of freedom. On the right, invocations of national cohesion and divine judgment increasingly replace the rhetoric of constitutional government and individual rights that characterized it for half a century.
In one sense, defenders of freedom should welcome these developments. John Stuart Mill was wrong to think the boundaries of freedom could be settled by any single principle, But he was right to observe that ideas tend to become “dead dogma” when they are too thickly insulated from criticism. His insight applies no less to arguments about freedom than those concerned with other political subjects. The populist movements that loom so large, not only in the United States but around world, are in part justified reactions against a narrow consensus in foreign affairs, in political economy, and matters of culture. Rather than heresies to be extirpated, such challenges should be treated as opportunities to unearth forgotten premises, to replace dated examples, to assess more rigorously and honestly the gap between intentions and results.
At the same time, we cannot share Mill’s confidence, so characteristic of 19th century liberalism, that history has a discernible trajectory and that reason will inevitably win out. Intellectual, political, religious, and economic freedom are not interchangeable—and sometimes in tension. Interludes of each have been fleeting. They have been better sustained by the prudence of politics than the consistency of the seminar room.
The contributors to this symposium on the future of freedom assess the prospects of freedom from different intellectual and political backgrounds. They include libertarians, conservatives, and unclassifiable partisans of the ancient ideal of a way of life fit for free people. These differences are by design. Rather than claiming a more united front than actually exists, we want to acknowledge productive disputes even among allies.
At the same time, the contributions reflect several areas of rough agreement. The first is that freedom is a component of the common good, properly understood. That is not to say freedom is the sole desideratum of politics, or that it always trumps other considerations. But it does mean policies that dictate too much to too many of its citizens is unlikely to enjoy civil peace, economic prosperity, cultural achievements, or other accomplishments that our Constitution describes as the “blessings of liberty”.
The reference to the Constitution indicates a second point of contact. Our contributors agree that freedom is a distinctively, though not exclusively, prominent feature of the American political tradition. That tradition has always been subject to a variety of influences beyond modern political philosophy, including Biblical history, Christian theology, classical republicanism, and English common law. But appeals to fundamental liberties, often articulated in the language of rights, are central to our politics in a way that is not historically the case elsewhere.
Securing freedom isn't always as simple as removing inconvenient constraints, however. We need to recognize and uphold the difference between the blessings of liberty and counterproductive license. The ability to do so is not spontaneous; it requires both intellectual and practical cultivation. That cultivation includes the continuing discipline of familial, religious, and local community.
These points of contact are not final resolutions of philosophical and political dilemmas that precede us and will continue after we have left the scene. Instead, they are attempts to rejoin a tradition of thought and practice that extends back to the origins of Western civilization in the mixed inheritance of Jerusalem and Athens. In the coming months, we will publish Essays and Observations on topics including the merits of international trade, the role of civic education, what voters really want, and even the economics and politics of fertility, among other topics. The arguments will vary, but they are consistent with our belief that freedom is a contributing element, not an enemy, of human flourishing, the common good, and public sentiment.
We invite you to join us, in dispute as well as agreement. The release of energy through reactions among opposed particles is what fusion is all about.
Samuel Goldman is editor of FUSION.