Freedom and community: a Conservative perspective

BY PHILIP VANDER ELST

Living as we do in the age of the Internet and 24/7 radio and television, our lives and perspectives are now dominated as never before by the daily news cycle and the insistent pressures of the immediate present. The resulting shortening of our time horizons, combined with digital information overload, tends to blot out the past, and by doing so, reduces our ability to learn its lessons and benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone before us. One particularly damaging consequence of this is that our western societies have lost sight of the necessary moral, philosophical, and cultural foundations of political and civil liberty. Too few amongst our ‘educated’ classes have read and absorbed the great classics of the old western liberal and conservative tradition – a pardonable oversight perhaps, given the overproduction of modern academic books and publications, and the consequent lack of time available to university and college students to read anything else in the course of their studies. But however it has come about, this cultural blind spot has both paved the way for and been reinforced by ‘political correctness’. Instead of allowing what C.S. Lewis called “the clean air of the centuries” to blow through their minds via the reading of ancient texts, all too many people have become imprisoned in a kind of intellectual provincialism of the present, unable to question or challenge modern ideas and assumptions, because they cannot compare them with those of previous ages and cultures. As a small contribution to countering this phenomenon, I am therefore resurrecting, for 21st century readers, a slightly amended article I wrote in October 1995 about the relationship between freedom and community, and what we can learn about both these important subjects, and their interconnectedness, from the writings of the great classical liberal and conservative thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. As I think many readers may agree, its subject matter is arguably more relevant today than it was at the time it was originally written.

Freedom and community: a Conservative perspective (1995)

Tory MP, John Redwood’s recent suggestion that young single mothers should be encouraged to seek financial support from their families or consider having their babies adopted before becoming eligible for State aid, has predictably aroused a storm of controversy, but his concern for the moral and social fabric of society is symptomatic of an increasingly significant trend in British politics. The traditional post-war preoccupation with economic issues, while still very much alive, is increasingly making room for a growing political debate about moral and social values, as journalists, academics and politicians respond to public anxieties about rising crime, family fragmentation and the general coarsening of art, entertainment and city life in Britain.

A similar trend is also visible in other industrialized countries, notably the United States, and suggests that most of our technologically advanced western societies are in the throes of a very serious cultural crisis, the response to which will determine whether or not we succeed in preserving our liberties and a civilized social order in the coming century.

Although this cultural crisis has a number of different though interrelated causes, two stand out with particular clarity: the weakening and destruction of communal values outside the State; and equally important, the subversion and erosion of the virtues, values and traditions upon which freedom depends. Both these causes feed each other and have their roots in ideological changes that have been gathering force in Britain and elsewhere since the second half of the 19th century, producing a mental and moral climate which would horrify the great proponents and architects of Western liberty were they alive today to observe it.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

This reference to the thinkers of the past who have been instrumental in advancing the cause of freedom – men, for instance, like Adam Smith (1723-1790), Tocqueville (1805-1859) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) – introduces the central theme of this article: that most of our troubles stem from the fact that we have retrogressed in our understanding of human nature and society, because over a long period, our intellectual leaders and opinion-formers have ignored or forgotten some of the most important truths propounded by these famous exponents of the Conservative and classical liberal traditions.

The first neglected insight we must strive to recover is that since society is not identical with the State, the preservation or restoration of the ideal of community should not be seen as a recipe for increasing the powers and functions of government – the great historic error of the Left. By the same token, looking at the reverse side of that coin, the supporters of capitalism and the market economy should free themselves from the illusion that the pursuit of rational self-interest provides a sufficient motive for human action and an adequate ethic for a free society.

To acknowledge that we have duties and responsibilities towards our neighbour beyond simply looking after our families, doing our jobs, and respecting other people’s rights and property, is not a threat to personal freedom but simply a recognition that helping others in the right way adds to the sum of human dignity, happiness and achievement, by giving individuals opportunities they might not otherwise have to develop their talents, widen their horizons, and live life to the full. To celebrate what Adam Smith called “benevolence” is therefore not to condemn or belittle enlightened self-interest, but to recognize, as he did, that a good and healthy

Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

society cannot live by the commercial ethic alone. Conservative philosophers like Edmund Burke (1729-1797) have additionally reminded us that not only are we members of society rather than an island unto ourselves, but society itself is an organic compact between past, present and future generations which we ought to honour and cherish. Just as we benefit by inheriting the wisdom, achievements and advances of our ancestors, so we ought to be good stewards of this accumulated moral, social and intellectual capital, adding to it in our lifetime for the benefit of posterity as well as for ourselves.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

For all these reasons, it is unfortunate that one prominent American libertarian thinker, Ayn Rand (1905-1982), whose philosophical novels have exerted a huge influence on American and British libertarians, should have made the serious mistake of identifying altruism with collectivism. Whilst her eloquent celebration of personal independence and creativity in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged provides a much-needed corrective to the collectivist notion that the individual exists only for the sake of the community, her depiction of altruism as the morality of self-sacrifice, and therefore incompatible with the idea that individuals are ends in themselves, is simply false. As the Christian concept that we should ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ makes clear, there is no conflict between the recognition that we have a duty to help the innocent victims of misfortune and, at the same time, have a legitimate right to the fruits of our labour which justly limits the claims others can make upon us. In both cases, respect for the individual is the value that should govern our outlook. By promulgating an oversimplified and unbalanced philosophy of freedom, Ayn Rand’s writings ironically reinforce the erroneous socialist assumption that charity and capitalism don’t mix, and therefore only the State can ensure the relief of poverty, disease and ignorance. Her influence has also helped to persuade many libertarians of the equally mistaken proposition that all taxation is theft, a view based on the questionable idea that private property rights are absolute whereas in reality there is a trade-off between these rights and other moral obligations and considerations.

Mazzini and John Stuart Mill’s more balanced conception of liberty

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

The writings of 19th century classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, by contrast, express a more generous and balanced conception of liberty, and reveal a more profound understanding of human life and society which is extremely relevant to any potential resolution of our current cultural crisis. It is, for instance, particularly interesting that the great 19th century prophet of Italian liberalism and nationalism,

Joseph Mazzini (1805-1872)

Joseph Mazzini (1805-1872), combines in his great book, The Duties of Man, a stern critique of selfish individualism, support for workers’ co-operatives, and eloquent advocacy of the Brotherhood of Man, with fierce opposition to socialism. His perceptive condemnation of the destructive totalitarian tendencies of collectivism provides the clearest possible demonstration of the falsity and shallowness of those ideologies on both the Left and the Right that see an inherent conflict between individualism and community. The example of Mazzini shows, on the contrary, that a desire to combat greed, snobbery, exploitation and materialism in no way implies any belief in the inherent desirability of enlarging the sphere of the State.

This truth is vividly conveyed in John Stuart Mill’s illuminating Principles of Political Economy, which was first published in 1848 and remained the bible of English economics for most of the Victorian period. In this wide-ranging and very readable book, as well as in some of his other works, Mill examines the whole question of what is the legitimate province of government and what ought to be left to individual and private initiative, and develops a coherent philosophical position which is both critical of the extreme laissez-faire position that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of persons and property against force and fraud, and at the same time constructs a formidable case against extending the powers and functions of government in ways which threaten freedom and undermine personal responsibility and human dignity.

Just as he defends the role of trade unions but insists that membership of them should be voluntary and their activities non-coercive, so Mill displays the same balanced approach in his attempts to determine the proper conditions and limits of State action. Having argued that State intervention is morally justified if it provides opportunities for personal growth and social advancement which would not otherwise come into being, he subjects this argument to four extremely important qualifications which are as relevant today as they were when he first enunciated them.

His first rule is that the State should never organize or undertake any activity that can be provided or organized more effectively by private groups or individuals. Secondly, even if the State can provide a particular service more efficiently than the private sector, it may still be preferable that it should refrain from doing so if the provision of that service or the discharge of that function by non-governmental bodies offers individuals the possibility of training their characters and stretching their abilities in a manner which enables them to handle greater responsibilities. Thirdly, he argued, public provision for those in need should be so organized and directed as to encourage its recipients to become self-reliant and independent rather than a permanent drain on the taxpayer. Finally, Mill insisted, even if the case for government intervention is an overwhelming one, the State should never be allowed to monopolize the provision of that particular service. Every effort should instead be made to allow the maximum possible room for private initiative and experimentation, not only in order to stimulate all those personal qualities and attributes essential to human enterprise and progress, but also in order to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of government officials. As Mill put it most eloquently in his famous essay On Liberty (1859), no country can remain free otherwise than in name if government controls all the roads, railways, banks, large companies, universities, and other significant social institutions – even if it still remains a democracy.

Mill’s analysis vindicated by the history of the 20th century

The history of the 20th century, including the global experience of socialism and the growth of State welfare in the western democracies, has fully confirmed the truth and wisdom of Mill’s analysis. As Dr David Green has shown in his book, Reinventing Civil Society, first published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1992, the growth of publicly funded and government controlled health care, education, and social insurance in Britain, has produced a degree of monopoly and levels of taxation which have largely (though not entirely) crowded out private provision, self-help and philanthropy in these vitally important areas, halting in the process the hopeful advances in these fields which so strikingly characterized Victorian England. We are thus confronted by the irony that the socialist attempt to strengthen communal values by increasing the power of the State, has undermined civil society, encouraged the formation of a perpetual underclass dependent on State handouts, and helped to produce a materialistic culture in which people have more incentives to acquire personal computers and go on foreign holidays than to play an active part in the education of their children or the care of their ailing relatives.

The destructive impact of collectivism, however, is not, as I indicated earlier, the only reason for the sad condition of our present day culture and society. The rejection of traditional values and the abandonment of high standards of personal behaviour have played an equally significant part in corroding our social fabric. And here again we can learn valuable lessons by rediscovering the ideals that not only inspired and motivated eminent classical liberal philosophers and statesmen like John Stuart Mill and Joseph Mazzini, but also inspired and influenced the attitudes and conduct of millions of ordinary men and women during the Victorian era.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922- )

In that regard, two excellent books by American historian and sociologist, Gertrude HimmelfarbOn Looking into the Abyss (1994) and The De-Moralization of Society (1995) – contain a great deal of relevant and useful material on this subject, documenting, on the one hand, the virtues and achievements of the Victorians, and on the other, contrasting them with the values which currently prevail in our coarse and morally dysfunctional society. Interested readers should therefore consult them for a more exhaustive discussion than is possible in this article. What I would emphasize here is that many of our present difficulties arise from the fact that contemporary western culture has largely abandoned the ideal of duty and service because it rejects the notion that there is an objective and eternal Moral Law, or standard of Right and Wrong, by which we ought to live and set our goals. This means that a culture that once valued liberty and independence as necessary conditions for the pursuit of goodness, beauty and truth, has been replaced by a culture that increasingly denies or derides these concepts, and regards freedom simply as a license for sensual gratification and the promotion of self at the expense of other people and higher ends. The result of this development is not only the barbarization of society and the transformation of market economies into stressful jungles in which all too often the greedy and ruthless get to the top, but also the eventual discrediting and destruction of the ideal of liberty itself. After all, why should anyone value freedom and strive to preserve it, if it fulfils no objectively useful or transcendent purpose?

Finally and perhaps worst of all, the erosive impact of growing selfishness and immorality on families and communities reinforces collectivism by encouraging people to look instead to the State as the primary instrument of social cohesion and stability, despite the moral frailty of politicians and officials and the obvious dangers of concentrating too much power in their hands.

The lesson from history we therefore most need to recall is that moral relativism and cultural anarchy paves the way for tyranny. That was true of ancient Rome, pre-revolutionary Russia, and the Weimar Republic. It will be true of us too if we do not heed this lesson in time.               


Copyright © 2017 Philip Vander Elst


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Philip Vander Elst, is a British freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar. After graduating from Oxford in 1973, with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and writing for conservative and libertarian papers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, Human Events, the American Spectator, and the Freeman. Since 2003 he has become increasingly engaged in Christian apologetics, having made his own journey from atheism to faith during the 1970s. He is the author of many and varied publications including: C.S. Lewis: a short introduction (Continuum 2005), Is There No God? the improbability of atheism (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, bethinking.org 2010), Can we be free without God? (bethinking.org 2010), From atheism to Christianity: a personal journey (bethinking,org 2011), Power Against People: a Christian critique of the State (The Moral Liberal 2012), and The Principles of British Foreign Policy (Bruges Group 2008). An experienced speaker and former officer of the prestigious Oxford Union Debating Society, Philip has completed nine lecture tours of the United States since 1975, speaking in many American universities and colleges, including Mary Baldwin, the University of Richmond, the University of Colorado, Washington and Lee, Georgetown University, the University of Alabama, George Mason University, the University of Virginia, West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.


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