Monday, March 14, 2022

Political freedom

I've ordered M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom, published next week. The purchase is partly nostalgic. Evans was important to my political formation. In high school and college I was reading, studying, and thinking a lot about political philosophy and particularly modern conservatism. In those days National Review was hosting an active debate between the various strands of conservative thought. M. Stanton Evans was an important participant and ultimately an advocate of what became known as "fusionism" attempting to reconcile the more libertarian and the more traditionalist tendencies of conservatism. It is difficult for me to imagine a political magazine today publishing a comparable debate. One of the more important contributions to the fusionist position by Evans was the Sharon Statement, the summary of conservatism adopted by the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) in 1960. A book that has been in my library since soon after its publication in 1964 is What is Conservatism, edited by Frank S. Meyer, and containing essays by Russell Kirk, F.A. Hayek, Garry Wills, William F. Buckley Jr., and others. This is from Evans' contribution, "A Conservative Case for Freedom."
.... The conservative, as I conceive him...does not share the authoritarian's readiness to coerce his fellow men into virtue, but neither does he share the libertarian's commitment to freedom at virtue's expense. The conservative believes man should be free; he does not believe being free is the end of human existence. He maintains that man exists to form his life in consonance with the objective order, to choose the Good. But "choice" of the Good can take place only in circumstances favoring volition. Freedom is thus the political context of moral decision; it is the modality within which the human mind can search out moral absolutes. In the conservative view, then, right choice is the terminal value; freedom, an instrumental and therefore subsidiary value.

To the conservative, economic and political freedom per se is not "moral"; only willed human actions have moral content, and freedom dictates no particular actions. A freely acting man may or may not be moral, depending on what he does. But while freedom is morally neutral, the possible alternatives, i.e., varying forms of coercion, are not. By their nature, all coercive systems require certain actions which we hold immoral: the arbitrary exercise of power over men by other men. .... The free economy permits morality but does not guarantee it; the coerced economy guarantees immorality. ....

The conservative, again, believes the two schools have reached their positions through a shared mistake in analysis; they fail to relate the question of man's nature to the problem of government. Concretely, they fail to see that government cannot be treated as something apart from "men" in the one case as the source of evil, in the other as the source of moral guidance. For what is government, after all, but men in the exercise of power? In the case of the libertarian, if men are naturally good, whence comes the evil of government? In the case of the authoritarian, if men are fundamentally evil, how does government become a force for virtue?

The conservative agrees with the authoritarian that men are not to be trusted, and his constant concern is to restrain the destructive tendencies he discerns in a fallen humanity. But he does not agree that such a judgment means man should be ruled by an aristocracy. For if men are evil, then potential aristocrats are evil, too, and no man, logically, can be said to have a commission to coerce another. "Absolute monarchs," in Locke's phrase, "are but men" and, as such, heirs to the same weaknesses of the human kind as are their subjects. Moreover, their ability to inflict evil on others obviously increases with the amount of power they wield. Among kings, aristocrats, and commoners, John Adams said, "there is no reason to believe the one much wiser or much more honest than the other; they are all of the same clay; their minds and bodies are alike.... As to usurping others' rights, they are all three equally guilty when unlimited in power." The conservative wants political freedom precisely because he fears the fundamental nature of man. James Madison, in Federalist No. 51, gives us the classic statement of the matter: "It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls on government would be necessary." ....
M. Stanton Evans, "A Conservative Case for Freedom," in What is Conservatism, 1964.

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