American conservatives can advance the current debate over liberalism’s future by better articulating the difference between liberty and the products of liberty. That is, we must distinguish the concept of liberated individuals from the invaluable institutions that liberated individuals create over time.
Much of today’s discontent with liberalism stems from the view that when the state sees its job as freeing people from coercion and enabling them to do as they will, society becomes a collection of atomized, alienated, frustrated, and polarized individuals. In this view, liberalism inhibits the good life by preventing solidarity and community—the things that can give us happiness, stability, and meaning. Indeed, if we understand liberalism as the maximization of individual rights, we will focus our attention on unfettering citizens. We’ll judge society’s success by the extent to which an individual can say what she wants, own what she wants, do what she wants, and so on.
But that is a flawed “snapshot” understanding of liberty. It looks at the freedom enjoyed by citizens at a moment in time. Liberty, however, must be understood as rules that set actual living, breathing humans into motion. In the real world, liberty is free citizens in action over time. We don’t exist in suspended animation, and our societies don’t suddenly materialize out of thin air. Free individuals continuously bump into one another, and from all of those interactions we learn how to build healthy societies. So liberalism is notable not just for the promises inked on parchment but for the way it establishes conditions in which unpredictable but socially beneficial institutions emerge.
Products of Liberty
A brilliant mind could study the rules of football and never predict that the I formation would end up as a classic arrangement for offensive players before the snap. That same genius could study the rules of chess and never predict that the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defense would become an essential opening. Only when millions of plays are run from scrimmage, and when billions of games of chess are played, do these sound strategies emerge. To be clear, those strategies are found nowhere in the rules. It’s when real people act inside of established parameters time and time and time again that robust solutions are discovered.
A version of this insight is found in game theory. The rules of the “prisoner’s dilemma” seem to inevitably lead to a permanently suboptimal result. But play that game thousands of times in a tournament with other participants, and the unintuitive but optimal “tit-for-tat” strategy is revealed. Such “iterated” games show that it is through activity inside of rules over time that we accumulate the wisdom necessary to succeed inside of those rules. We can call such strategies “emergent,” “spontaneous,” “unplanned,” or something else. But we must recognize them for what they are: evolved, experience-based responses to established conditions.
We should understand liberalism itself as an evolved, experienced-based response to the human condition. Over the course of scores of generations, some societies realized, for instance, the danger of centralizing authority, preventing people from thinking independently, and permitting the state to invade homes and confiscate property. Over time, some of these societies fostered the development of concepts like natural rights, governments as protectors of liberty, political equality, the rule of law, and the consent of the governed. These societies also helped establish concrete rules like separating branches of government, enumerating state powers, and protecting explicit individual rights. Though some of these ideas and practices preceded Enlightenment-era liberalism, together they help define contemporary liberalism.
But once government was limited and individuals were liberated, the lessons didn’t stop. Free societies now had free individuals bumping into one another. And from those nearly infinite interactions over time, these societies produced evolved, experienced-based responses to the human condition as it exists inside of the rules of liberalism. We used our liberty to develop tools for amplifying the strengths and mitigating the dangers of liberated individuals. These tools should be thought of as the products of liberty.
Many exist outside of government as institutions or “social formations,” like traditions, customs, and norms. For instance, realizing the costs of unbridled expression, societies developed rules of civility. Appreciating the need for community despite legal autonomy, they developed a constellation of voluntary and civic associations. Recognizing the dangers of unregulated behavior, they developed norms of social conduct. The list goes on: schools, local journalism, courage, soup kitchens, grit, marriage, charity, volunteerism, fables, and so on. F.A. Hayek astutely noted that liberal states develop a reverence for such organic institutions, habits, and customs. “Paradoxical as it may appear,” he wrote in “Freedom, Reason, and Tradition,” “it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.”
But some products of liberty take the form of government—typically local and state—action. That is, among our liberties is the right to engage in the process of producing democratically legitimate government rules. As G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The liberty to make laws is what constitutes a free people.” Indeed, our Constitution isn’t merely a list of individual freedoms; it fully intends to cultivate participatory self-government. Its Article I creates a democratically elected legislature charged with making laws; its Article IV guarantees a republican form of government in each state; its 10th Amendment gives states and their subdivisions the authority to legislate broadly under “police powers.”
Importantly, the laws that emerge in a democratic republic don’t fall from the sky, and they are seldom the result of speculation and reason alone. Instead, they grow from the traditions and experiences of citizens and their representatives. People living in liberty learn lessons about family formation, theft, vandalism, homelessness, land use, professional licensing, alcohol sales, taxation, gambling, and much more. If a community reaches a consensus on such a matter, maintains that consensus for long enough, and deems that consensus sufficiently important, the community can codify it.
With both types of products of liberty—the non-governmental and the governmental—it is important they primarily remain local, differentiated, and malleable. Different geographies will have different heritages and different animating principles. They will have different experiences and cope with different challenges. They will develop different strategies and adjust them over time. This is America as a community of communities. So long as their varied products of liberty are small-scale and don’t run afoul of clear constitutional and legal prohibitions, they stand as invaluable ways for groups of citizens to learn, deliberate, compromise, and self-govern. Those on the right should remember that such ideas have been at the heart of American conservatism. For example, Russell Kirk’s ten principles of conservatism include respect for custom and convention, the appreciation of variety among such traditions, and the recognition that such traditions are brought to life and sustained by local democratic action and voluntary association.
We can see, then, that the defense of individual rights is not the only goal of liberalism. Also important is the preservation of those things we use our liberty to create.
Elitism vs. Liberty’s Products
Unfortunately, there are those who claim to respect liberty but have little compunction about undermining its products. Whether under the banner of progressivism, libertarianism, or something else, they would, for instance, meddle with the membership and activities of voluntary associations and overturn state statutes and local ordinances that flow from custom and practical experience. Generally, they will defend their actions as necessary to protect individual liberty. But we must recognize how continuously undermining the products of liberty undermines liberalism.
Many modern critics are concerned that liberalism in practice deracinates and disconnects us. By fetishizing individual autonomy, it is argued, liberalism untethers us from our forebearers and longstanding conventions and breaks the bonds between people today. In the place of such beliefs and affiliations, elites substitute progressive sensibilities about immigration, global citizenship, public assistance, social policy, and more. The upshot is a citizenry that is unmoored and deprived of agency and that then seeks solidarity through other, often unwholesome, means.
Some believe that this is the unavoidable consequence of liberalism: Liberalism in full bloom, with its prioritization of liberty, individualism, and reason, leads ineluctably to the displacement of traditional beliefs, attachments, and ways of life. That argument is, however, too deterministic in my opinion. That liberalism has too often not accommodated a wide enough array of policies and practices does not that it cannot. Liberalism is not inherently incompatible with traditionalism or small-scale democracy but it can be distorted in ways that make it functionally hostile to traditionalism and small-scale democracy. To put a finer point on it: Judges, administrators, and other distant authorities who routinely presume to know best make it difficult to reconcile liberalism with a constellation of communities reaching different conclusions about the good life.
Liberalism, when led and managed by those lacking sufficient humility and those unwilling to show deference to the seasoned, reasoned, stable views of communities, becomes anti-democratic, anti-pluralist, and anti-tradition. This, we must appreciate, is a key contributor to liberalism’s current wobbliness. Shoring it up will require more modest governing elites. They should understand that different communities will draw different but similarly legitimate conclusions by following their particular histories, faiths, governing principles, local circumstances, and democratic deliberations.
It is time to recognize that, in our diverse, continental republic, protecting the products of liberty—institutions, traditions, associations, norms, ordinances—is essential to the preservation of liberalism.