Liberal Practice v. Liberal Theory

Daniel E. Burns

Current Issue

To a disinterested observer, the major events of 2016 might appear neither all that shocking nor all that related to one another. The American primary and Electoral College systems displayed their quirkiness. Global internet platforms designed to share user-generated misinformation did just that. The aftershocks of the Eurozone crisis reverberated. Five-year-old civil wars provoked by the brutality of two Arab dictators continued to feed the largest human migration since World War II. Europeans began to resist that migration, and a Turkish autocrat was paid well to help them do so. China grew.

But as Tocqueville warned us, Americans have a special penchant for fitting complicated data into a single time-saving theory, especially when it is a theory about the irresistible direction of history. So among the American commentariat, the year 2016 has become associated with the question of whether the World Spirit might now be spurning the charms of his longtime paramour Liberalism. A few hope it may be so. Many more fear it could be so. Others have jumped up to insist that, at all events, it need not be so. Every one of these reactions has amply vindicated Tocqueville's observation. Liberalism's critics, both at home and abroad, have touched an American nerve.

They have touched a nerve, in part, because everyone can see they are onto something. We need no grandiose narrative in order to acknowledge that 2019 does not quite match the expectations of 1989, 1999, or even 2009. Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed are both worth a close read, and both are subtler than the arguments often attributed to them. But one does not have to know much beyond their titles to see that each book tapped into an important element of the national mood when it was written.

On the other hand, Western critics of liberalism have also touched a nerve because people do not like seeing painful but true observations used to justify outrageous conclusions. It is very strange to watch grown adults who enjoy liberalism's blessings appear to fantasize about rejecting those blessings. And rejecting them in favor of what, exactly? Believable answers are rarely forthcoming.

Yet liberalism's critics rightly insist that such commonplace rejoinders fail to engage their real arguments. Liberalism's defenders, for their part, often feel themselves in the position of the theologian confronted with an atheist: The "liberalism" they hear attacked is one that they, too, do not believe in. Thus the parties have often been talking past each other, and not only because of an above-average amount of strawmanning on both sides. What one party sincerely regards as its clinching argument will seem a trivial observation to the other, and vice versa.

Many good-faith misunderstandings within these debates can be traced to an ambiguity in the term "liberalism." It refers, on the one hand, to a set of political practices, and on the other hand, to a political theory that purports to explain those practices. Defenders of liberalism are thinking first and foremost about liberal political practice, which they (almost all) defend by drawing selectively on liberal theory. Critics of liberalism are thinking first and foremost about liberal political theory, which they (almost all) attack by pointing selectively to liberal practice.

These attacks and these defenses share a common error. Both accept liberal theory's false claim to be the authoritative interpreter of liberal practice. The critics of liberalism are right to see liberal theory as fatally flawed: It cannot explain the workings of any real human society. But precisely because it is so flawed, liberal theory also cannot explain the weaknesses of our own liberal societies.

If we are to have a productive conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary liberal politics, a crucial first step will be learning to talk about liberal practice without relying on liberal theory.

LIBERAL PRACTICE

That we live in a liberal country is admitted on all sides. It is the primary reason we are interested in a debate about liberalism. We do not have to read a word of political theory before we see that the United States and several of its allies differ significantly from every non-liberal country, both today and throughout human history.

The modern term "liberal" originally meant a partisan of freedom against despotism. Today's liberal countries carry on an ancient tradition of political freedom that began in Greece, was modified by Roman law and by Christianity, and has been further updated for modern conditions. The most distinctive feature of liberal politics is the equal freedom of all citizens, which means first of all our equal subjection to the rule of law. This includes legal guarantees for private property and for the freedoms of speech, press, and religion. It includes the absence of a legal caste or class system, and hence the right of every citizen to a bare minimum of dignity or public honor. It includes due process for the accused, punishments corresponding to crimes, and (at least for Anglosphere liberals) trial by jury. Bound up with all these is an impatience with official corruption and an expectation that every man-made injustice within our borders represents a problem to be solved rather than a hardship to be endured. Equal property rights also secure the freedom of trade and of economic opportunity.

Besides the rule of law, political freedom has always included self-government. Liberal citizens are ruled by our own representatives, elected freely and regularly on a predominantly majoritarian basis. Our rulers have their powers limited by constitutional checks and balances, including (at least in large countries) a federal division of power between national and subnational governments. Self-government also means a culture of widespread participation in civic life, of individual initiative, and of public spirit. Since our representatives are expected to govern in our interest, liberal societies harbor a spirit of resistance to, or at least skepticism of, established authority. By the same token, they feature a respect for reason, science, and innovation over against mere tradition, custom, or superstition.

Obviously, these observations about liberal politics are valid only up to a point (like all observations about politics). They hold true only insofar as we compare liberal countries to other countries. This is the only reasonable way to evaluate any country.

Defenders of liberalism often sell themselves short through their unfortunate habit of referring to these features of liberalism as "liberal ideals." They are not ideals. They are real, observable facts about the actual practice of the United States and similar countries today. Anyone who is not impressed by these facts is not studying comparative politics in a spirit of empirical inquiry. And if one looks around for Americans who would genuinely prefer to live in one of today's many non-liberal countries, one is forced to conclude that they must have all already taken advantage of our liberal emigration laws.

Like all real political goods (and unlike ideals), the features of liberal politics include unavoidable disadvantages. Our majoritarianism tends to encourage mediocrity. Our tolerance can and often does turn into indifferentism. Our personal liberty too easily becomes license. Our freedom of commerce is a breeding ground for pettiness and greed. Our rule of law can become cruelty toward criminals. Our reverence for science and expertise has left us prey to all manner of snake-oil salesmen, to say nothing of the obvious ambivalence of our technological progress. Our egalitarianism often leaves the natural human desire for hierarchy to be channeled into an unhealthy admiration for large and efficient top-down structures (such as the military, multinational corporations, and occasionally the governments of our enemies). Even our public spirit is sometimes hard to distinguish from jingoism and crude self-satisfaction.

We can always try to mitigate liberalism's disadvantages. But no one has found a way to eliminate them without creating even worse disadvantages. Nor do today's American critics of liberalism claim to be able to do so. When they attack it, they rarely take aim at all the good features of liberalism listed above. This is already a serious weakness in their position, since those are the actual characteristics by which we identify some countries as liberal and others as not.

LIBERAL THEORY

American critics of liberalism point instead to some recent and worrisome trends within the social-political life of liberal countries. These trends are indeed as real and observable as the blessings of liberal politics. In fact — and critics of "liberalism" ought to be clearer on this point — these trends are worrisome precisely because they threaten the blessings of liberal politics. It is even possible that these trends will one day be fatal to our country. (Something is sure to be sooner or later.) Critics of liberalism usually speak, though, as if they know just how much damage these trends are going to cause in the future. This requires them either to exaggerate the trends, or to claim to know how today's trends will develop tomorrow, or both.

They blame these worrisome trends on the unfolding influence of something called "liberalism." By "liberalism" they mean, not the empirically observable features of liberal politics described above, but rather a theory of politics elaborated in books. It is a theory given classic expression by John Locke and later adapted by Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and many others. Liberal theory is, in its own way, as real as liberal politics; books, too, are empirical facts. Liberal theory is a fact of intellectual history just as liberal countries are a fact of political history.

But intellectual history and political history are never as closely related as most intellectuals would wish. And liberal theory does not accurately describe the politics of real liberal countries.

For while liberal theory does center on freedom, it defines freedom rather differently than liberal countries do. At the heart of liberal theory is the claim that human beings are naturally autonomous individuals, "free" from any obligation that would seriously limit their own pursuit of their own good as they perceive it. This assumption is most clearly expressed through stories about a state of nature or original position. But it is also visible in theorists like Mill who reject such stories.

Liberal theory describes political society as a voluntary association of individual adults, each of whom freely undertakes obligations to others in order to better pursue his own interest. It regards any limitation on the autonomy of an individual as justifiable only insofar as it is necessary to secure more autonomy for a greater number of individuals. Liberal theory thus asserts that political obligation should be understood on the sole basis of enlightened individual self-interest — of reason freed from the shackles of any tradition, custom, or religion. It posits family, ancestry, history, tradition, and culture as all equally irrelevant to the question of what we owe our country and its laws.

From these premises, liberal theory concludes that society must be governed by the absolute sovereignty of the currently living adult population. This sovereignty must be given visible expression in, at least, a constitution ratified by the living populace (who may alter it whenever they see cause), with all taxes ratified by the living populace or its directly elected agents. But not even the sovereign populace is permitted to authorize laws that rational, autonomous individuals would never consent to be ruled by. Hence the populace and its elected agents are forbidden from collectively defining or promoting any view of human flourishing or the good life, except for whatever is strictly required for effective social cooperation. Beyond encouraging us to get along with each other and perhaps teaching at most a bare deism, government must be absolutely neutral on all religious, theological, and (to the extent possible) even moral questions. If the populace or its representatives should pass laws that promote controversial views of the good life, then those laws may and should be struck down by enlightened judges.

Within these confines, liberal theory strongly supports the rule of law, understood as the best means to secure individual rights under the guidance of enlightened judges. Liberal theory would have the law protect, not controversial goods such as religion or public honors, but only the noncontroversial goods that are means to comfortable self-preservation. (This point is expressed through concepts like Locke's "life, liberty, and property," Mill's so-called "harm principle," or Rawls's "primary goods.") Liberal theory permits the law to protect the controversial goods too, as we each define them for ourselves. But the law must merely happen to do so, as an accidental byproduct of its protections for the noncontroversial goods. In the event of any conflict, the noncontroversial goods must win every time.

Liberal theory is confident that when all its strictures are followed, and only then, a society will be essentially just. It will no longer be imperiled by serious conflicts based on class, ethnicity, religion, or any other division. When properly constructed in conformity with liberal theory, the just society can endure indefinitely.

Clearly this liberal theory has many points of overlap with liberal practice. Indeed, if it did not, we might never have heard of it. Ever since the first page of Locke's Treatises of Government, a major selling point of liberal theory has been its promise to explain, to citizens and admirers of liberal countries, the true rationale behind political forms that they had known and cherished long before the theory was written.

But liberal theory has spectacularly failed to live up to this promise. It is incapable of accounting for some of the most visible features of liberal practice. In many cases, it flatly contradicts them.

For example, federalism as Americans know it has no place in liberal theory. Liberal theory demands the strict sovereignty of the entire (unitary) populace. No one has ever shown how to reconcile this demand with a partially sovereign national union under a government of enumerated powers, where the remainder of sovereignty is reserved to 50 subordinate communities whose governments have no jurisdiction over one another. Today's defenders of liberal theory tend to elide this difficulty by relying on a most embarrassing confusion of "limited government" with "government of enumerated powers." Limited government is indeed a central feature of all liberal theory from Locke on (and in fact goes back to Hobbes). But a federal government of enumerated powers is an American innovation at odds with Locke's whole view of government. Anyone who confuses the two implies that the federal government is our only government — a notion especially strange on the lips of American conservatives.

Liberal theory also demands strict government neutrality in religious matters. Precisely zero liberal countries have ever followed this demand or even made a consistent effort to do so. Many liberal countries have formally established national religions. The rest have not needed any formal establishment to have their laws visibly shaped by their citizens' widely shared religious views. All liberal countries are too democratic to conform to liberal theory. For most of American history, denying that we had a nationally established religion ("the first of their political institutions," Tocqueville called it) would have been like denying that England has a constitution. Even the past six decades' judicial dismantling of our informal religious establishment has proceeded only fitfully, as the recent Bladensburg Cross case reminds us.

Liberal theory cannot explain, and indeed directly undermines, liberal citizens' awareness of their obligation to die for their country when it needs them. That awareness has been inculcated through institutions including our public schools and our military, institutions that never have been and never will be "neutral" on questions of the good life. Without such institutions' flagrant disobedience to the dictates of liberal theory, there would be few countries left today where Locke could even be read. The survival of liberal politics has depended similarly on liberal nations' reverence for their ancestral inheritance. In the American case, this includes our founders, our Constitution (understood as something more than the latest whim of the living generation), and our shared history. Liberal theory has no place for this reverence.

Trial by jury, the common law, and an independent executive — institutions so treasured by English-speaking liberal nations — have no grounding in liberal theory. They are certainly not demanded by it, and they are (at the very least) in tension with some of its doctrines. Finally, for better and for worse, no nation has ever been able to conduct foreign policy according to the dictates of any consistent liberal theory. Even those parts of liberal theory quoted in the Declaration of Independence must be selectively ignored in dealings with our illiberal allies, from Louis XVI to Mohammed bin Salman. Every liberal statesman has known as much, with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson.

Of course, this far-from-complete list of our divergences in practice from liberal theory has already begun to recall the warnings of today's critics of liberalism. From federalism to the public role of religion to our reverence for the Constitution, many of the features of our politics that most defy liberal theory are precisely the features we see most under attack today. It is true that many Americans view themselves somewhat more like the autonomous individuals of liberal theory than their great-grandparents did. And it is also true, as Pope Benedict XVI often emphasized, that the "rationality" of the public culture in Western countries looks increasingly like the Enlightenment rationality promoted by Locke, Kant, Mill, and Rawls: a reason cut off from any roots in tradition or custom or religion, and thereby blind to the deepest questions and richest experiences of human life. Are the critics of "liberalism" right, then, to think that liberal theory is gradually winning out after all?

THE WEAKNESS OF LIBERAL THEORY

That liberal theory is having an effect on our public culture is undeniable. It is also unsurprising. The worrisome trends just mentioned are largely emanating from our judicial and educational institutions. These institutions are overseen and run by individuals who, in many cases, have studied and been influenced by works of liberal theory. Where intellectuals affect politics, intellectual history affects political history.

But conservatives have long decried pointy-headed intellectuals who undermine reverence for our national traditions. If that were all that today's critics of liberalism had to offer, then nothing about their view would appear so timely or suited to our peculiar post-2016 moment.

Instead, their criticism of liberalism appears more relevant because they assert that our age-old liberal practice is itself somehow to blame for our intellectuals' much more recent, deleterious, and highly selective adoption of certain aspects of liberal theory. Once we had included a reference to social-contract theory in our Declaration of Independence, it was apparently only a matter of time before we had the administrative state, video-game addictions, campus dis-invitation mobs, and the gratuitous punishment of Christian bakers.

This amounts to a claim that liberal theory has been operating stealthily for centuries on millions of people who have never heard of it as a theory, who would not recognize it if it were presented to them, and whose deepest political commitments are directly at odds with it on key points. Anyone who advances such a prima facie implausible claim ought to at least explain the mysterious causal mechanism allegedly at work here.

Perhaps liberal theory's critics have assumed that its massive historical influence on Americans is simply obvious. A superficial reading of American political discourse can certainly give this impression. Thanks to the founders' uneven adoption of certain phrases and concepts from Lockean thought, the idiom of liberal theory has found its way into the realm of American political commonplaces. But how much does this prove?

Not one American in a thousand, when speaking of "unalienable rights," has any thought of the liberal-theoretical paradox of the criminal who retains the right to kill his executioner. Americans say "unalienable" and mean something like "inviolable, at least for innocent people." Virtually no American who speaks of "consent of the governed" thinks that our Constitution is only as valuable as 51% of us today feel it to be. Only a small (if occasionally illustrious) group of Americans has ever thought that "no law respecting an establishment of religion" required all our governments to be fully agnostic or religiously neutral. Practically no American has ever thought to expurgate from our marriage laws any moral claims beyond the bare requirements of social order or of comfortable self-preservation; our family law has always been shaped by other considerations alien to liberal theory, from Protestant moral doctrine to the more pagan desire for public honors. And the Declaration of Independence itself is a fabric woven out of many strands. Can anyone seriously think that a single one of its signatories viewed politics as a mere vehicle for comfortable self-preservation?

Like barbarian raiders coming upon a temple, Americans have disassembled the imposing edifices of Lockean theory and repurposed their marble to rougher and readier uses. The remnants of the old structure, in their new context, have come to signify something far removed from the lofty aims of the original builders. Even if the new building may lack some of the beauty of the original, those of us disinclined to worship at the old altar should be glad of the exchange.

In short, to the extent that Americans have been exposed to snippets of liberal theory, most of them have grossly misunderstood it, and have certainly not guided their lives or their politics by its dictates. This poses a terrible difficulty for anyone attempting to trace recent failings of American practice to essential defects of liberal theory.

Americans are known throughout the world as a practical-minded people. As Tocqueville noted, our practical bent has generally been good for our political stability and bad for our intellectual life. For better and for worse, we have enjoyed a fairly high degree of national immunity to ideologies. And liberal theory — in its Lockean, Kantian, Millian, Rawlsian, or any other form — is an ideology in the precise sense of the term. It is a blueprint for human society deduced from philosophic principles. It offers direct political guidance meant to apply universally, to human communities everywhere (at least once they have reached a certain stage of historical progress). And it condemns as illegitimate all political arrangements that fall short of its strictures.

To be sure, the temptation toward ideology has always been present within the American educated class. But, God bless them, they have never been very good at it. It is hard to say whether Locke would have laughed or cried to watch American thinker-practitioners flailing through the Pacificus-Helvidius debates, or the antebellum controversies over the nature of our social contract(s), or our tortuous postwar Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Locke certainly would not have confused such half-attempts at intellectual consistency with his own accomplishment in the Treatises — a book that, whatever else it is, is at least a masterpiece of deductive logic. American practicality will always be the bane of intellectuals who wish to turn American political thought into ideology.

Today, many American intellectuals go so far as to prefer liberal ideology (whether of the left or the right) over the real historical experience of liberal nations, including our own. This error has provoked much overreaction by today's critics of liberalism. But the damage it has done to our political discourse goes far deeper than that.

The fact of the matter is that liberal ideology is false. It is false because all ideologies are false. Aristotle tried to warn us that politics is not subject to universal formulas and deductive syllogisms in the manner of mathematics or physics. After the experience of the 20th century, the burden of proof should really be on anyone who wants to assert otherwise.

Ideas, of course, have consequences. But politics is always so full of bad ideas that it is hard to predict which ones will have what consequences. A bad theory of politics, by definition, does not accurately describe politics. Its worst consequence is that it impedes citizens' political judgment by blurring their vision of reality. Whether that blurred vision then produces any political consequences will depend on chance circumstances. Divine-right ideology had terrible consequences under tyrants. It also staved off some unnecessary bloodbaths whenever a mediocre king succeeded his mediocre father. Marxism had unspeakable consequences because Lenin decided to selectively adopt elements of it. Had Lenin held out for the worldwide revolution predicted by Marxist ideology, Marx's bad ideas might have been virtually consequence-free.

Our would-be critics of liberal theory are giving it more credit than it deserves. It makes no sense to attribute bad political outcomes to the practical application of a false theory. A theory that contradicts reality does not have practical applications. If you try to follow it in one respect, you will inevitably contradict it in some other respect. Perhaps you will lead a proletarian revolution against bourgeois oppressions only to find yourself running the most cruelly oppressive oligarchy in recorded history. Perhaps you will try to export the Islamic Revolution to your Shi'ite-majority neighbor only to find yourself relying on secret arms sales from the Great Satan via the Zionist Entity. Or perhaps you will make great strides toward dismantling the American religious establishment only to find yourself making highly illiberal demands for coerced speech by bakers and florists. None of these represents a more "consistent" version of a bad theory in practice. If it is a bad theory, it has no consistent version in practice.

THE ALTERNATIVE TO LIBERAL THEORY

Whatever problems face our liberal politics today, they do not call for any new "post-liberal" political theory. We do not need one more ideology. Those who wish to replace liberalism with any other "-ism" are still, in at least one respect, under the sway of the liberal theory they claim to have rejected.

The alternative to liberal theory is not a "theory" at all, in the sense in which we usually use the term. The alternative to liberal theory is statesmanship, pure and simple. And since modern technology has left us with only nightmarish alternatives to liberal politics, any statesmanship worth practicing today will necessarily be liberal statesmanship.

Statesmanship poses enormous intellectual challenges. But they are not the challenges of working out or applying any "theory" of politics. Statesmanship has been practiced fairly well by thousands of men and women unacquainted with liberal theory or any other theory. Its goals are commonsensical. Its basic principles are familiar to anyone who has experienced being a citizen in a free republic. Its greatest examples are well known to all of us.

Today, though, common sense is obscured by countless ideologies that cut us off from our own natural experiences as citizens. An education for statesmanship therefore requires the study of texts that train us to look at politics without ideological filters. This education begins from a deep historical and literary grounding in human, and especially American, experience. Most of our primary and secondary schools have all but given up the attempt to offer any such grounding. But in one of the remarkable signs of hope for American liberalism, a growing number of charter and religious schools throughout the country are rediscovering this indispensable civic mission.

Eventually, our future statesmen must also be formed by studying the many non-ideological texts within the tradition of American political thought, of which the Federalist Papers remain the unsurpassed exemplar. And they must be formed by reading, without help from any ideological narrative or cheat sheet, the texts on politics that formed the thinking of American statesmen from James Madison to George Kennan and beyond. This means reading the classics above all: Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, and others. That was, after all, the education that allowed our founders to read Locke with such marvelous selectivity. (The University of Dallas, where I teach, is one of a handful of schools where these texts remain at the heart of the politics curriculum.)

The classical educators of statesmen show us the real alternative to liberal ideology. They teach us how to conduct a non-ideological appraisal of our own liberal politics with a view to preserving and improving it. With Xenophon we ask, who constitutes the American ruling class, and how are they educated? With Thucydides we ask, where are the seeds of civil strife within our community, and how well are we keeping those seeds dormant? With Aristotle we ask, what views does our community pass on to its children? What moral and mental habits does it instill in them? With Plato we ask, how well does our community foster the things that make human life worth living, including love, friendship, and family? How well does it make space for things higher than politics, including knowledge, divine worship, and human excellence in general? With Cicero we ask, in light of our answers to questions like these, how can we make the best of the admirable but imperfect regime we find ourselves in? By what concrete policies can we encourage its strengths while discreetly shoring up its weaknesses?

Liberal theory, as I have been using the term, dismisses these sorts of questions as irrelevant to the practical tasks of statesmanship. That has not stopped some modern political philosophers from raising similar questions about the liberal regimes they admired. If one should insist on calling Montesquieu, Burke, or Tocqueville a "liberal theorist," one would obviously be speaking about a very different kind of "theory" than what we usually mean by the term today. These men did not all ask the same questions, nor reach the same conclusions, as their ancient counterparts. But they did keep alive, by their own lights, the centuries-old tradition of non-ideological political thought. That tradition needs to be carried on and applied in our contemporary situation just as these great liberal thinkers carried it on and applied it in theirs. This is the only "theoretical" response demanded by the bankruptcy of liberal ideology.

LIBERALISM WITHOUT IDEOLOGY

The tradition of non-ideological political thought is patriotic. From Athens to Rome to Florence to England to France to America, political philosophers have loved their city or nation for (among other things) being free and strong enough to permit well-intentioned internal critique. They have known that open debate about the principles of politics is a rare gift that demands our gratitude. They have acknowledged this debt by respecting and supporting the political preconditions of their own intellectual activity. Among grown-ups, at least, any debate today about "liberalism" must start from the premise of loyalty to the regime that permits this debate.

Acknowledging that we are all Americans and therefore (in some sense) liberals is an act of intellectual honesty that should open up, not foreclose, the most interesting debates about where our regime is and ought to be headed. For it is difficult to have a serious debate with someone who appears to want to saw off the limb he is sitting on. Anyone can see a problem when Noam Chomsky critiques the supposed illiberalism of America and Israel on the basis of reports from free American and Israeli media. Conservative critics of liberal theory, if they wish to be taken seriously, will need to avoid the same error.

Today, instead, well-fed American authors breezily eulogize illiberal strongmen, while the same strongmen offer very different living arrangements to any of their own subjects who would speak of America with equal warmth. Others spout Schmittian drivel about replacing liberalism with a view of "politics as war and enmity" — apparently as confident as Rawls himself that our politics will never again degenerate into actual war and enmity. And young Catholic monarchists express their nostalgia for an imaginary 13th century in 280-character tweets, which are surely the most American form of intellectual discourse ever invented.

If all knowledge begins with self-knowledge, let us recognize that our debates about liberalism are very American debates about a very American version of liberalism. At that point the more interesting conversations can begin. And they are in many ways just beginning. Readers of this journal do not need to be reminded how often stale dogmatisms of either left- or right-liberal ideology have impeded the creative political and policy thinking so badly needed by our liberal politics today.

Both our practical and our theoretical debates could be much improved if we would simply bear in mind the gulf separating the classic texts of liberal theory from the actual practice of liberal countries. Yet many intellectuals today speak as if they would not even know how to recognize liberalism without relying on Locke, Kant, Mill, Rawls, or their disciples. This has unfortunately been true of liberalism's critics and defenders alike.

It is therefore worth revisiting Tocqueville's description of what we could easily call his own liberalism. The following are sentiments that he famously shared in common with the Americans he had observed. Thanks to the growing influence of liberal and other ideologies on our intellectual culture, no American today finds it easy to give articulate voice to the sentiments that Tocqueville expressed so eloquently. But those sentiments do live on, in defiance of all ideologies. It will be a while yet before they become foreign to us. Here is liberalism without any help from liberal theory:

I have often asked myself about this passion for political freedom that, at all times, has made men do the greatest deeds that humanity has accomplished. What is its source? In what sentiments does it take root and grow?

...I do not believe that the true love of freedom has ever been born of a regard merely for the material goods that it procures, for such a regard often ends up eclipsing the love of freedom. It is quite true that for those who know how to hold onto it, freedom in the long run always leads toward ease, well-being, and often wealth. But sometimes it temporarily prevents the use of such goods. At other times, only despotism could allow one to enjoy them for the moment. Men who care only for these goods have never preserved their freedom for long.

In every age, what has so strongly seized on the hearts of certain men is the attraction of freedom itself: its own charm, independent of its benefits. It is the pleasure of being able to speak, to act, to breathe without constraint — under the government only of God and the laws. Anyone who seeks in freedom something other than itself is made to serve.

Some peoples...tire of freedom in the midst of their prosperity. They let it be taken from their hands without resistance, for fear of impeding through their efforts the well-being that they in fact owe to it. What do they lack in order to remain free? What? The very taste for being so. Do not ask me to analyze this sublime taste; one must experience it. By itself it enters into the great hearts that God has prepared to receive it, fills them, enflames them.

One must abandon the attempt to make it understood by the mediocre souls who have never felt it.

Daniel E. Burns is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas. He is currently on leave, serving as a congressional staffer. The views expressed here are solely his own.


Insight

from the

Archives

A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.

advertisement

Sign-in to your National Affairs subscriber account.


Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


subscribe

Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

SUBSCRIBE
Subscribe to National Affairs.