Fighting for Liberty and Virtue

by Robert Maynard 

Robert Maynard

The rise of both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in the current GOP Primary has inspired a sometimes-contentious discussion within the conservative ranks between those who focus attention on liberty and those who more concerned with virtue. Such a discussion raises the question of whether these ideals are actually at odds with one another. In his book “Fighting for Liberty and Virtue: Political and Cultural Wars in Eighteenth-Century America“, Marvin Olasky reminds us that the American Revolution was fought over both and our founders were concerned with both. Their understanding of the relationship between these two ideals was expressed in the Declaration of Independence with the listing of the unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” that they were fighting for.

The order in which they are listed reflect a view on how the public good is obtained in human society. Life, of course, is first because nothing else is possible without the precious gift of life. Liberty is next as it is fundamental to the striving of humans in society. As a being who bears the image of our creator, liberty is such an integral part of our nature that any attempt to realize the public good without upholding individual liberty is doomed to fail.

There have been utopian schemes going all the way back to Plato’s Republic which saw society as one collective entity. The pubic good was achieved by rulers subordinating the “selfish” interests of individuals to the greater good of the larger society. The founders were well aware of these schemes and the historical fact that they only end in misery and tyranny as they violate the fundamental principles of human nature. The notion that human nature required the free association of individuals pursuing happiness to realize the public good was know as “Spontaneous Order”.

The key to understanding how this fit together is to understand the phrase “pursuit of happiness”. Today our view of happiness tends to be hedonistic. We want to feel good immediately and tend not to think too far ahead. So we see a night out or a pleasant activity as a route to happiness. This was not the view that the founders had in mind.

The ancient Greeks had a very different perspective on happiness. Aristotle spoke about achieving eudaimonia, which is roughly translated into happiness.

Eudaimonia is not an emotional state; it is more about being all that you can, fulfilling your potential. The idea is that by living in a way that reaches your full potential you bloom or flourish and so display the best version of you that you can be. This meant striving for “arete”, which loosely translated means excellence or virtue. Achieving this required intense striving, or what the Greeks referred to as “agon” and was not something that could be simply provided to someone. This is why the unalienable right was to pursue happiness. The actual achievement of such a goal is within our own realm of responsibility and depended on a framework of liberty for its achievement.

The modern American conservative movement got its start by both libertarians and traditionalists reacting to the rising power of the state as an instrument of social engineering. Libertarians saw the expansion of state power as a threat to liberty and traditionalists saw it as a threat to virtue. The shared sense of seeing the expansion of sate power as a threat to the ideals they held dear was the glue that created a movement. That the expansion of state power is a threat to liberty is not a controversial idea. The question some may ask is “how is the expansion of state power a threat to virtue”? The answer to this question is found in the writings of French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to America in the early 19th Century to write about our experiment in ordered liberty. He was concerned that the all-powerful state had a natural tendency to want to take from individuals “the trouble of thinking and the pain of living,” turning citizens into “timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” This was a threat to both liberty and virtue, ideas, which he saw as intertwined: “[Liberty] considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” The buffer against an all-powerful state was what he referred to as America’s “Little Platoons”, or voluntary associations. The tendency of Americans to form voluntary associations was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic “Democracy in America”:

Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.

Today the expansion of the role of the state not only threatens individual liberty but usurps the virtue-sustaining role of these “Little Platoons” as well. Conservatives of all stripes need to stop fighting with one another long enough to oppose this expansion.