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Communities Need Freedom, But Freedom Needs Community

Yuval Levin

Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

-Edmund Burke, Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont, November 1789

The future of freedom is communal. Its past was too, at least in practice, and so is its present. But our way of talking about freedom has long been thoroughly individualistic, in ways that lead us to mistake its true character.

Both its champions and its critics in our time tend to describe freedom as the condition of being independent of anyone else’s authority. As a cultural force, that sort of independence can be very attractive in periods of excessive cohesion, when every voice in our society tells each of us to be more like everyone else. Americans experienced such a time around the middle of the 20th century, and our culture still takes its bearings from that long-gone age to a peculiar degree. But we no longer live in such a moment now. Ours is a time of social dissolution, which many Americans experience personally as isolation and alienation. We are starving for solidarity, so that a freedom that presents itself as the antithesis of solidarity often strikes us as repellant, or at the very least as an answer to a question we aren’t asking. This has persuaded some thoughtful Americans that freedom isn’t what they need or want, which in turn has led some to seek after modes of authority very much at odds with the American political tradition.

But to understand what freedom is, we should begin by reflecting on its central place in that tradition. About a decade ago, the political scientist Carl Eric Scott produced a guide to that subject that deserves to be a classic. In an essay called “The Five Conceptions of American Liberty,” he offered a sketch of American history as told through our evolving definitions of freedom. Scott described “natural-rights liberty,” which we can find in the political thought of the founding; “economic-autonomy liberty,” which was powerful in 19th-century American jurisprudence; “progressive liberty,” which arose in response to growing corporate power in an industrializing society; and “personal-autonomy liberty” which emerged in the late 20th century and combines elements of progressive and economic-autonomy liberty into a radically individualistic and ultimately relativistic social libertarianism.

These four modes of freedom are more closely connected than we sometimes imagine. They are not enemies, but contentious kin. But they do not add up to a complete picture of the concept of freedom in the American experience. Alongside all four, present from the very beginning and always evident in the practice of American life (even if too rarely articulated in our theories of it), Scott identified what he called “classical-communitarian liberty,” which emphasizes the imperative for communal self-governance in American society.

Classical-communitarian liberty has been the ballast of the American love affair with freedom—the counterbalance to the dangerous excesses of all our other ways of thinking about liberty. Our philosophies of freedom have always stressed the liberation of the individual, but our practice of freedom has always stressed the formation of the individual, which is achieved by allowing formative institutions and communities the freedom to do their work.

Some of these, though certainly not all, are political institutions and communities. And political freedom in America has always involved the right to engage in government, much more than the right to be independent of it. Freedom in our tradition has not been an anti-political or anti-social concept. Consider the grievances the Americans lodged against the British crown in the Declaration of Independence. After articulating an essential set of truths that are the essence of “natural-rights liberty” in the first half of the Declaration, the colonists turned to their specific reasons for separating, and they began to list them this way:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

These are all ways in which the king prevented the Americans from governing themselves. They are violations of the rights of a community of people, even a nation, rather than just of isolated individuals.

Or consider how the U.S. Constitution describes its own purpose:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

All of these are common needs, to be met by common actions undertaken by a people organized as a political community—a nation. These two documents, the Declaration and the Constitution, are the pillars of the American republic, and they are understood by contemporary critics of America’s tradition of political liberalism as articulating the very essence of that liberalism, which these critics take to be anything but community minded. And yet here are both documents putting forward a vision of the free society that is not only free but also social.

Even when it turns to protecting core rights, in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution still implicitly conceives of its aims as communal, and even formative. Consider the rights protected by the First Amendment, which are often at the very heart of individualistic libertarianism in America. Are these really individual rights? The freedom of assembly obviously can’t be practiced individually. But neither really can the freedom of the press, of speech, of petition, or even the religious freedom that necessarily comes first. These are all rights that inhere in individuals, to be sure, but they are rights of individuals to participate in the lives of communities.

That’s a pretty good way to think about what freedom is, most of the time. It isn’t about being left alone but about being permitted to engage in social life, especially with the aim of forming others and of being formed to flourish. It is, in other words, a protection of the preconditions for exactly what people now are missing in their lives when they complain about feeling isolated and alone.

Freedom by itself won’t answer the longings these Americans describe. And neither will politics alone. It will take actual communities using their freedom to engage in truly formative work—formative of laws and customs, of traditions and practices, of civic projects, institutions and commitments, but ultimately and above all formative of souls.

Just how our souls should be formed is bound to be a controversial question. This is not because there isn’t a true answer, but because we don’t agree about exactly what that answer is. Such controversy over fundamentals is by no means a new problem. In fact, it is a function of freedom too. As James Madison recognized, “as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” To wish for the end of such controversy is to wish for the end of our (or others’) liberty to exercise reason. Or else it is to wish for the ultimate victory of one faction in the human struggle over how our souls should be formed—a victory that (at least if your soul has been formed more or less like mine) we should expect to see achieved at the end of days, but not to achieve on our own and in our day by political means. The means required to pursue that end politically are means from which many of our souls have been rightly formed to recoil, in no small part because prominent among those means must be the extinguishing of the freedom of others to exercise their reasons and follow their consciences.

That leaves us not in moral chaos but in a free society, the second-best environment for human flourishing, and the best that we can build ourselves in this world. But to be truly free, such a society must support the work of forming souls toward the truth. That requires more than individual liberty, because soul-forming is not the work of lone individuals. It is the work of cultures, and so demands both a cohesive common culture that supports and reinforces it and diverse subcultures that engage in it more comprehensively. It must afford communities the ability to raise their children in their distinct ways, within broad boundaries that embody more widely shared commitments and standards.

We plainly live in such a society, though it always faces critics and dangers. In our time, those tend in particular to threaten the commitment of the broader society—the nation—to sustaining the environment for soul-forming communal work. Some of them are arrogant progressives who believe they are in the undisputed moral majority and consider moral minorities an affront to the ideals they insist Americans must espouse. Others are despondent conservatives who think the framework of the free society can no longer protect their communities, so that politics must become a struggle for total power because there is no such thing as meaningful shared power. Both reject the premise that moral diversity could be compatible with human flourishing, and therefore that communal soul-forming work is possible for moral minorities in a free society. The practical reality of our society strikes them as impossible in theory, so they seek to throw away the practice rather than the theory. But plainly we need better theories of American life, which might come closer to living up to our practice, and to vindicating the work of communal soul formation, which is the everyday work of countless Americans. It is always threatened, and in some respects it is threatened now more intensely and profoundly than usual. But it goes on courageously nonetheless, and to pretend it is no longer possible is ultimately to shirk the demands of pursuing it.

The pursuit of that soul-forming work depends upon the defense of communal freedom. And that defense requires both a willingness to fight those who would threaten that freedom in the political and legal arenas and a willingness to make the case for that freedom to those who consider it futile or impossible, or simply fail to see its promise.

Both forms of defense require a case for freedom, properly understood. Such a case would certainly champion the freedom of individuals, including especially the freedom of each of us to exercise his reason, to practice his faith, to express his beliefs, to work to persuade others of them, and to live his life and raise his children by them. But such a case would also recognize that most of what we do with such freedoms involves participating in the lives of communities, and of a nation.

The pursuit of freedom, which is also the pursuit of happiness, is not the pursuit of independent isolation but of interdependent belonging. It is the pursuit of flourishing, and our future depends on it.

Yuval Levin is director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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