In philosophical liberalism, the concepts of “freedom” and “the individual” are closely related to each other, perhaps inseparably. This may come as a surprise to those who associate the word “liberalism” primarily with 20th and 21st Century political liberalism. That liberalism frequently uses the language of the common good to justify ever increasing attempts on the part of the state bureaucracy to administer our everyday lives. Usually, the only time contemporary political liberalism reverts to the language of individual freedom is when it is speaking of freedom of the individual, not from political control, i.e., the control of the state, but from the control of tradition, religion, and morality in the realm of lifestyle ethics.
Many conservatives, in response to the abuse of the concept of the “common good” on the part of contemporary political liberals have grown suspicious of any and all use of this concept. This is unfortunate because this concept, which so dominated the political and ethical writings of Plato and Aristotle is fundamental to any stable model of society. A stable society is the only kind of society in which the rights, dignity, and freedoms of individual human beings are ever truly protected by law. It is also the essential goal of conservatism. Conservatism conceives of society as an organic whole uniting past, present and future generations in a union in which the present generation enjoys society as a possession as an inheritance from past generations, held in trust for future generations, with an ensuing duty to preserve that society intact. This is the sine qua non of conservatism.
Conservatives who adopt the language of liberal individualism in response to the more recent collectivist political liberalism are in fact espousing philosophical liberalism. Those who recognize this fact usually prefer to call themselves libertarians rather than conservatives, although this is not always the case.
When we speak of philosophical liberalism or libertarianism, we can be referring either to a general idea or to a complete political ideology.
Libertarianism as a general idea, is the idea that people should be free to live their own lives, should let other people live their own lives and that laws (rules enforced by government) should prohibit only actions which harm others, whether in their persons or their property.
There is nothing wrong with that kind of libertarianism, indeed there is much to commend it. It raises a number of questions however, to which the answers of libertarianism the political ideology, prove unsatisfactory.
When we say people should be free to live their own lives, by “people” do we mean individuals considered as separate from everybody else or do we mean people as they really are – people who live their lives as part of families, who make up communities, which make up a society? The answer to this question greatly affects our understanding of freedom, for freedom cannot be understood apart from an answer to the questions “Free from what?” and “Free for what purpose?”.
Ideological libertarianism asserts that only individuals are “real”. Society in all of its manifestations, and all of its institutions from the state down to the family and the family up to the state, exist solely for the benefit of individuals qua individuals, according to this ideology. Freedom is the sovereignty of the individual over his person, life, and property, and this means freedom from all external control. The only legitimate social relationships are those carried out on a mutually voluntary contractual basis and the only legitimate social institutions are those defined by such relationships.
From this we see, that for liberalism the question “free for what purpose” has no meaningful answer. For while liberals may still give lip service to Aristotle’s identification of “happiness” as the highest good and argue that freedom is a means to that end, in actuality their understanding of the individual, society, and freedom demands that freedom be regarded as an end, indeed the end, in and of itself.
This ideology is unsound for a number of reasons.
First, it’s understanding of human nature clashes with what is observably real. People are not first individuals, then everything else they are by voluntary choice. The most fundamental relationships in life are not contractual relationships and, apart from marriage and friendship, are not entered into on a mutually voluntary basis. You do not choose to be the son of your father or the daughter of your mother. You do not choose whom you will be siblings with. You do not choose to be the grandchild of your grandparents, and they, apart from their initial decision to become parents themselves opening up the possibility of grandchildren, do not chose to be your grandparents.
These relationships exist within the family. The family is a social unit consisting of several people. It is society in microcosm and it is also prior to the individual. You are born into your family which existed prior to you. The family, and not the individual, is the basic unit of society.
Liberal individualism is also unsound and in a dangerous way because it sets the “individual” against society. By effectually if not nominally making the freedom of the individual the supreme good liberalism teaches the individual to regard any and all limitations on his freedom as prison walls. It doesn’t matter if the limitation is a genuinely unjust law, like a law telling you that you cannot smoke in your own home, or a perfectly reasonable and just one, or even a social limitation imposed through means other than government power, such as most limitations on individual freedom will be in a civilized society. If you are a “sovereign individual” these limitations will all seem like unfair confinement in a jail cell to you.
In G. K. Chesterton’s book The Poet and the Lunatics, there is a short story entitled “The Yellow Bird”. In this story, a young man named Mallow who is jealous that Laura the girl he loves has fallen for another man, visits her house with a couple of friends where they have an interview with his rival, a Russian professor named Imanhov, who was the author of a book called “The Psychology of Liberty” and who had escaped from a prison in Siberia by blowing up the wall of his prison. After Imanhov has explained some of his progressive views, about a future where man will “conquer the planets and colonize the fixed stars”, Mallow and Laura go off and discuss his views. Their conversation is interrupted by Mallow’s friend Gabriel Gale – the poet and hero of the book – who rushes them away from the house as fast as he can. When they finally force him to explain, he tells them how he had seen a canary that Imanhov had “liberated” from its cage earlier that day, torn to pieces by the other birds. This suggested that the professor had taken his ideas on liberty a bit too far. But when Gale noticed that the professor had also “liberated” goldfish from their bowl by smashing it, he knew the man had rapidly progressed into madness, and there was no telling what he would do next. At this point the house explodes and Gale comments “It was only the prison gun…the signal that a prisoner has escaped.”
In telling this story, Chesterton explains that true liberty is impossible without limits. He tells it both by the illustration which is the story itself, and directly in these words he places in the mouth of Gabriel Gale:
What exactly is liberty? First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself. In some ways the yellow bird was free in the cage. It was free to be alone. It was free to sing. In the forest its feathers would be torn to pieces and its voice choked for ever. Then I began to think that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself limitation. We are limited by our brains and bodies; and if we break out, we cease to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be anything.
Liberal individualism is like the madman in Chesterton’s story. By taking individual liberty to an extreme, making society subservient to the individual, and refusing to allow any concept of the “common good” to balance it, it lost sight of the distinction between the walls of a prison, which exist only to confine those within, and the walls of one’s home which generate a living space within which one can live, free and secure from the elements and intruders.
Philosophical liberalism’s origins go back to the Social Contract theory of the so-called “Enlightenment”. This theory held that the state of nature for mankind, was one of absolutely free and sovereign individuals, who formed society as an artificial construction by making contracts with one another in which they voluntarily gave up a part of their freedom in return for some benefits. This theory, as we have seen, does not correspond to the reality of human nature. We are born into social units (families). Society is our nature. The individual outside of society is the unnatural person.
The idea, however, that the individual human being has dignity and value, that society should protect with guaranteed rights and liberties, is much older than liberalism. Long before the Enlightenment Project and the Modern Age Christianity taught that each individual human being possessed value in the eyes of God. From the Genesis creation account, in the Scriptures Christianity inherited from the Hebrew faith, Christianity taught that each individual was made in the image and likeness of God, an image that remains although marred by sin. Christianity further taught, that on the Last Day, at the Final Judgment, each individual would stand before God and give an account of his life on earth.
Christianity shaped the Western world for well over a thousand years, teaching the importance of the individual within rather than outside and against the context of the family, community, and society. The conservative today, seeking a restoration of personal liberties that have been swallowed up by contemporary collectivist liberalism, must look for a foundation for personal liberty that is older than the Modern Age, one grounded in Western traditions that draw from Christianity and the Greco-Roman classical heritage and which are not hostile to stable society and the common good.