I originally wrote the following essay in May of 2009 as a companion essay to "On Being a Tory in the Age of Whigs". In "On Being a Tory in the Age of Whigs" I made a case for social institutions like the family, church, and community and for the authority within these institutions - parents in the family, for example - based upon tradition and prescription. In this essay, "Our Traditional Liberties and the State", I made the case for personal liberty against statism.
I wrote both of these essays before I started this blog but the theme of both is reflected in the blog's title. "Throne and altar" is an old expression summarizing what the Tories, the original conservatives, stood for, i.e, social order and continuity grounded in the ancient constitution of church (altar) and state (throne). Liberty is personal freedom.
When William F. Buckley Jr. started National Review in the 1950s to be the printed voice of the American conservative movement, his writers included traditionalists like Russell Kirk who drew inspiration from the older conservative tradition that included high Tories like Samuel Johnson and classical conservatives like Edmund Burke. Buckley's writers also included libertarians, i.e., liberals who continued to believe in the individualistic liberalism of the 19th Century after mainstream liberalism became collectivist in the 20th Century. One of the men Buckley invited to join him in editing National Review was Frank S. Meyer. Meyer is best remembered as the proponent of fusionism - a theoretical attempt at synthesizing classical conservative traditionalism with classical liberal libertarianism.
My joining the idea of "liberty" to the "throne and altar" of Toryism is similar, in one sense, to what Meyer was attempting with fusionism. In another sense it is very different. All periods of liberalism, both classical and modern, have been periods in which the modern state has developed, grown, and concentrated power that had formerly been diffused throughout society into itself. The root ideas of contemporary, North American, progressive or collectivist liberalism, can be found in the ideas of classical individualist liberalism. In titling my blog Throne, Altar, Liberty therefore, I was not, like Meyer, trying to create an artificial synthesis between classical conservatism and classical liberalism, but stating outright that old Toryism is more consistent with personal liberty than any form of liberalism.
Since this essay goes with "On Being a Tory in the Age of Whigs", I recommend reading the two essays together. It is an ovesight on my part that I did not post this essay here much earlier, when I posted its companion. The theme that links the two essays is the idea that prescription and tradition is the source of both our liberty and government authority, and that the modern state, by growing so big and intrusive, threatens both the foundation of its own authority and our personal liberty.
Our Traditional Liberties and the State
By Gerry T. Neal
May 4, 2009
Liberty or freedom is the state of being able to choose for yourself, what you will think, say, or do, rather than having your every thought, word and deed dictated to you by others. Liberty is a good thing, something which men ought to value and seek, both for what it is in and of itself, and for other good which arises out of it.
Liberty, like most good things, has its limits. The man who wishes for unlimited liberty can obtain it only by giving up other goods, namely every good which arises out of living with other people in society. If he goes off on his own, to live on a desert island apart from other people entirely, he will have his unlimited freedom. But if he wishes to enjoy the benefits that come from living among other people in a civilized society, he will have to accept the limitations that come from living under rules. Society and civilization cannot exist without certain basic rules being in place and being enforceable..
There is an old saying that illustrates very well the reason why this is so. It goes: “your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”. In addition to cleverly explaining the limits to liberty which naturally arise from living with other people, this saw also gives us a hint as to the principles determining when it is appropriate for society to limit individual freedom and when it is not. If your activity harms someone else, such as when your swinging fist makes contact with the nose of the person next to you, that is when society, with its government and laws, has the right to step in and tell you to cease and desist. That is what laws and governments are there for.
If the only person your action harms is yourself it is not the government’s place to tell you to stop. If what you are doing causes injury to yourself and/or your property but does not cause harm to other people and their property, your activity is private, and the government has no legitimate authority over it. The legitimate authority of government, is over public activity, i.e., activity that affects others. When your acts cause harm to other people, to their property, to the institutions of society or property belonging to the institutions of society, that is when the government has the authority, and the duty, to step in and prohibit your behavior.
When the state fails to make this distinction and prohibits private acts it threatens our liberty, an essential part of our traditional heritage. The freedom to make our choices for ourselves must include the freedom to make wrong choices, choices which will harm us. We are not free, if we are free only to make right choices, choices which have only good consequences.
The modern state has greatly overstepped the bounds of its legitimate, prescriptive authority over the public sphere.
Today the government tells you that you need its permission to build a house on a piece of land you own. Moreover, you must get its approval for the design of your house, and use materials it has permitted, and builders it has licensed.
To get from one city to another, in a vehicle which you own, the government tells you that you need their permission, in the form of a driver’s license. Moreover, the government tells you that you cannot exceed a speed limit they have arbitrarily chosen, or have alcohol in your bloodstream over a certain percentage they have arbitrarily set. It is one thing for the government to say that if you kill or injure someone else with your reckless speeding or by driving under the influence of alcohol, that you will face a severe penalty. It is quite another thing for the government to say that if even you have caused no damage to other people or property you will still face a severe penalty for driving too fast or too drunk. The latter is an abuse of state power.
Seat belts are installed in vehicles for you to use for your own protection. It is your choice whether you want to use them or not. If you do not buckle up, the only one who can be hurt by it is you. Yet the state insists that if its agents catch you driving without your seatbelt done up they can ticket and fine you. Tyranny done in the name of “your own good” is still tyranny.
The government’s legitimate authority is over public activity. The state has no business telling us what we can or cannot think. It has no business telling us what we can or cannot say. The only time it is appropriate for law to limit what you can say is in a case like a crowded theater, where it is illegal to yell “Fire!”. Yelling “Fire!” in such a situation is an act of mischief, designed to spark a riot, and get other people hurt. So in that instance it is really an act, and not words themselves, that are prohibited.
Today, however, the government criminalizes certain forms of speech because of the thoughts they express. This is what so-called “hate crimes” laws are about. For example, Section 13 (1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act reads:
It is a discriminatory practice for a person or a group of persons acting in concert to communicate telephonically or to cause to be so communicated, repeatedly, in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament, any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.
This amounts to a prohibition because the Canadian Human Rights Act exists for the purpose of prohibiting discriminatory practices. It is also utterly draconian. Note that the words communicated electronically (the courts have extended “telephonically” to include other forms of electronic communication) don’t have to express “hatred or contempt”. They don’t even have to actually expose anyone to hatred or contempt. They just have to be “likely to” do so.
But lets suppose someone’s words went beyond that. Lets suppose they did expose someone protected by the CHRA against discrimination to “hatred and contempt”. Lets suppose they expressed such “hatred and contempt” themselves. Even in that case it would be none of the government’s business. The government is there to protect people, property, and society itself from harmful actions, not to protect people’s feelings from hurtful words. The freedom to think our own thoughts and express them in our own words is one of the most fundamental of our traditional freedoms. It is too important to sacrifice to the cause of political correctness.
In fact the entire Canadian Human Rights Act is an attack on our basic freedoms. It would be one thing for the government to say that it will treat all of its citizens equally in providing the protection of the rule of law and justice. It is quite another thing for the government to prohibit private discrimination, which is what the Canadian Human Rights Act does. If we aren’t free to decide who we want to associate with, who we want to live with, work with, or do business with, how can we be said to be free at all? Freedom of association, another one of our basic traditional freedoms, is too important to sacrifice to the egalitarian agenda.
We need to stand up firmly for our traditional rights and freedoms and demand that our government return to the limits of its traditional authority over the public sphere and abide therein.
My Last Post
5 months ago