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Ordered Liberty Starts at Home

By Alexander William Salter

The new debate on the American right is a very old debate on the American right: whether freedom or virtue should be our first public principle. Broadly, the libertarian wing of American conservatism supports putting liberty first, while the traditionalist wing supports putting goodness first. The quest for ordered liberty has never been free of spirited disagreement, and likely never will. That is good. Groupthink is stultifying.

My contention is hardly original, but it is one I think we need to consider anew: There is no necessary opposition between being free and being good. In fact, the American experiment itself is predicated on an institutional resolution to the implied tension. Federalism and subsidiarity—governing less, governing locally—are essential components of that institutional architecture.

The paradigm we know as fusionism, hailing from the post-World War II consensus of American conservatives, is usually understood as a mere coalitional strategy, a big-tent political movement gathering together libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists to achieve shared policy goals. But this was never the heart of the fusionist contention. Instead, fusionism asserted the fundamental harmony between goodness and freedom. For a fusionist, the patrimony of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome—with valuable supplements filtered through London, Edinburgh, and finally Philadelphia—consisted in a shared emphasis on both of these values, neither of which was negotiable.

  The American settlement rests on two pillars. The first pillar is human dignity. Because each of us bears the image of God, our coercive institutions ought not compel fellow citizens into a life of virtue. There are things we may not do to human beings, even for their own good. The second pillar is self-governance. Communities have a right to pursue some shared vision of the good without undue interference from outside parties. Political consent is an important part of self-governance, but there are deeper and more humane forms of consent than plebiscites. Traditions and folkways will necessarily play a large role in the public life of a free society.

Here is where federalism and subsidiarity come in. Through the long (and often messy) trial-and-error process of history, we have learned to promote freedom and virtue by orienting distant political institutions to the former and nearby political institutions to the latter. There will never be a complete and total separation: Washington will always have some legitimate concern with cultivating virtuous citizens, and City Hall will always be on the lookout for threats to our freedom. But by and large, we recognize that the closer our politics is to hearth and home, the safer and more beneficial it is for citizens to act in concert to preserve shared values.

No sane person wishes his home to resemble San Francisco, a once-great city now mired in squalor and decay. And no sane person wishes to live in a society as regimented as a barracks. Ordered liberty, American style, is not merely the virtuous mean between two degraded polities; it is uniquely freeing and ennobling because our constitutional inheritance at the national, state, and local levels empowers liberty to augment order, and vice versa.

State and local governments are well-positioned to contribute to human flourishing in ways that would be impossible for the national government. Citizens often have different preferences for the mix of goods and services they expect the public sector to supply, as well as the tax-prices they are willing to pay for them. Allowing citizens to self-sort into their preferred mix is often reasonable. Furthermore, decentralized governance permits widespread experimentation. We Americans are a pragmatic people. While our fundamental values are fixed, the way we pursue them in policies and institutions ought not be. The boundary between private and public, and hence the combination of market, government, and civil-society activities that enable us to live our best lives, should be regularly tried and tested. We see this playing out before our eyes. American patriots have good reasons to cheer the nation’s ongoing verdict on the comparative merits of the Texas-Florida governance model as compared to the California-New York governance model.

Yet things are far from satisfactory. We must confront an uncomfortable truth: Federalism as a constitutional principle is significantly weaker than it should be, and that is largely our fault. The story of eroded dignity and atrophied self-governance is not one of heavy-handed national usurpation. Municipal, county, and state officials have willingly ceded their power to Washington in exchange for secure cash flows and insulation from difficult yet necessary political decisions. Federalism and subsidiarity were not stolen from us. We gave them away.

The Founding Fathers regarded the “power of the purse” as the ultimate locus of sovereignty. Even today, there is no surer indication of ruling than the ability to compel households and businesses to relinquish the fruits of their labor in the service of causes they find objectionable. That is why the Founders placed tight restrictions on both the content and process of taxing and spending activities—perhaps now we wish they were even tighter. Degraded federalism undermines those safeguards, even if the constitution remains otherwise unbesmirched. If politicians can turn to external funds to evade the political burden of raising an internal revenue, the whole edifice comes crashing down. And that is where we are now.

  For lovers of ordered liberty, it is time to focus less on what is being decided and more on who decides. Many state and local officials boldly proclaim communal independence on the campaign trail. Yet once safely ensconced in office, they attach themselves, remora-like, to the national tax base. We must be willing to send ostensibly conservative governors and state legislators packing if they accept a penny more in national funds beyond which is required by statute. As we know, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” We do not get to complain if we refuse to shoulder the fiscal and regulatory burdens of our own communal decisions.

We must also keep in mind the mutual impingement of political and economic outcomes. A perfectly executed program to restore ordered liberty will be of no avail if we cannot keep ordered liberty. Politically independent households and communities must have a stake in the social order. A humane polity requires a humane economy. Quasi-imperial restrictions and regulations that stop families from acquiring productive property and putting it to use are a major cause of local enfeeblement. Here, too, is an opportunity to advance both freedom and virtue: If we roll back Leviathan, creative self-governance and visionary entrepreneurship become complements instead of substitutes.

In terms of principles, all this may sound attractive. But what of policy? National conservatives believe the politics of liberty is, in practice, the politics of capitulation. Only the strong hand of Washington can guide the citizenry back to virtue. State and local governments are unequal to the tasks that confront us: countering China, curbing Big Tech, restoring the middle class, and revitalizing faith and family. Public-institutional neutrality on matters of moral import is a mirage, and fusionists have been deceived. Since government cannot be indifferent, it ought to be good, say the national conservatives.

This objection misses the mark. First, it is not true that fusionism requires governmental neutrality among competing visions of the public good. Our nation is predicated on the natural rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These moral commitments are rooted in anthropology: an understanding of what it means to be a human person. For most citizens, this comes from sincere and sustained witness to an Abrahamic faith, particularly Christianity. Governments at all levels have an interest in forming such citizens, for without them America cannot be what she is. Fusionists do not deny the importance of shared moral commitments. Ordered liberty presupposes that which legitimates it.

Second, even the politics of liberty grants to government the power to protect citizens. Tariffs, capital controls, and deliberate excess capacity meant to strengthen us relative to foreign enemies are, properly understood, defense policies. The ultimate objective is not changing prices and redistributing income but creating and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to defeat those who threaten us. We can debate the expediency of these measures, but they are not in principle ruled out.

Third, arguments for nationalizing the politics of virtue are largely uncompelling once divorced from the core functions of government as proclaimed by the politics of liberty. The power of Big Tech, for example, primarily comes from implicit and explicit collusion with government to silence citizens. We do not need to expand an unaccountable regulatory apparatus—one that will soon fall into the hands of the enemies of ordered liberty—to deal with this problem. We need only to punish the colluders. 

As for protecting manufacturing jobs and bolstering the middle class, industrial policy will likely backfire. Many of our imports are raw materials and intermediate goods used by American businesses to produce final goods and services. Even if tariffs could preserve jobs in import-competing sectors, it is not likely to help workers if jobs are destroyed in import-using sectors. Likewise, subsidies for favored industries look much less appealing when considered in light of decades of overspending. Publicly held national debt approximately equals the value of all U.S. output in a year. Undermining government’s fiscal integrity will do nothing to relieve today’s workers. (It will likely burden tomorrow’s workers; someone has to pick up the tab).  The cumulative effects of these policies on employment and wellbeing are ambiguous at best, but it is certain that crony capitalists will flock to the government-created largesse like vultures to a corpse. Attenuating economic freedom predictably encourages political vice.

Fourth, state governments are often capable of resisting Washington’s social engineering projects. For example, Texas and Florida have recently had notable successes in primary and tertiary education. Again, we can debate the prudence of these policies, but they are clearly having the effects intended by their supporters. (Perhaps the best evidence is the outrage of their adversaries.) In response to those who cynically ask, “But what if California and New York respond by doing the opposite?” fusionsits can say, let them! Significant variation in public policies and institutions at the state level is fine. That is how it is supposed to work if we take federalism seriously. Encourage the various localities to experiment. Migration between states will tell the tale. So far, the results look promising for those unafraid to confront civilizational saboteurs. 

We already have the tools we need to renew America. Instead of jettisoning the logic of ordered liberty, we simply need to discern the best way to apply it to contemporary affairs. But in our rush to tackle new problems, we must not overlook ancient wisdom, which teaches us that order in the commonwealth reflects order in the soul. Should we be surprised our public affairs are in sorry shape when our own loves are disordered? We often care more about distant capitals than our homes and neighbors. What business do we have governing the nation when we can’t be bothered to serve on a parish council or give testimony at city hall? To be clear, I am not advocating we retreat from public engagement or service at the national level. At minimum, these things will be necessary to return politics to its proper scale. But I am saying that all the time, effort, and resources in the world will not do us any good if we abandon the institutional prerequisites of ordered liberty. We can enjoy freedom and practice virtue if we govern less and govern locally. We will enjoy neither if we predicate our public endeavors on the constitutional settlement of our enemies.

Alexander William Salter is Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University. This essay is based on his remarks at the Philadelphia Society in September 2023.


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