A minor, common good defense of individual liberty

I’ve noticed some people enjoy listening to audio readings of posts. Experimentally I have uploaded an audio reading of this post to Odysee. Maybe that habit will become something more, maybe not, I’m just experimenting. It is only an audio reading of what you’ll find below, so don’t click over expecting something more elaborate! Your comments on the experiment are welcome.

Last week the Wall Street Journal had a nice interview called Hope for the Lost Souls of Liberalism essentially about how classical liberalism, with its concern for individual liberty and religious neutrality, is increasingly unpopular in the United States1. I am tempted to say that we live in a world in which concern for “human rights” is being thrown away and replaced with an idea of the “common good”… and woe to the man who understands what is best for the common good in a way other than the state. But I say “I am tempted to say” because what I actually see is not people who say “I don’t care about human rights”, which would be honest of them, but rather people who entirely redefine the phrase to itself mean something like “whatever supports the common good” in their understanding, and if we have to strap you to a table and inject you with something you don’t want, that is pro-human-rights. (We could insert a discussion about positive liberty v. negative liberty here, but I won’t.)

But I appreciated that the interview talked about the need to, now, go back and make the fundamental case. The “problem” is that when classical liberalism was birthed, people were living through circumstances that made the need for something like liberalism obvious. In particular they were living at a time when people had strong connections to church, family, and other institutions, and the concern was how to live at relative peace with people who had strong connections to other different institutions. But today, they don’t have those strong connections, they are disconnected atoms floating through the universe (and are perhaps, if I may editorialize, made to feel that way intentionally), and disconnected atoms see things differently and have different concerns.

One more thing - last year I had a piece in The Federalist trying to make a moral case against mask mandates. I’m not even going to link it for you because I would say some things differently now (we’re all learning here), but… I do think I was spot on with the intuitive sense that we needed to make a moral argument (truly, appealing to moral understanding our culture still has leftover from Christianity, but that’s what we have to work with). “But that’s tyrannical” or “but that violates individual liberty” or anything like that means nothing to people who look out and can only see the state trying to keep everyone safe on the one hand, and people with a selfish and totally irrational concern for themselves on the other. So we have to make the more fundamental argument.

On that note, here are three, you might well call them “common good arguments for individual liberty”. More could certainly be said, but here are a few things that could be said.2


Let me grab a tweet Twitter was pushing a few days ago to make the first comment.

Now I know next to nothing about Andrew Wiggins myself, but I share this to point to the 16,000 likes on this tweet… people are thrilled. Furthermore if you search for “Andrew Wiggins” on Twitter right now, you will find tweet after tweet mocking him and taking pleasure that he will be forced to submit or not play. Why? Are people heaping scorn upon Wiggins because they’re just so gosh darn concerned with everyone’s health? Obviously not. They’re celebrating because they’re bigots and a chance to force their will on people they consider to be a lower form of human is a pleasure to them. And we can make one point from that.

  1. A concern for human liberty reduces human cruelty.

Not only does it practically stop it, as in “you want to harm this person and we’re not going to let you”, which is obvious, but I think it even reduces the desire to do harm itself. The ability to act on your desire to harm someone, either directly or through the intermediary of the state / corporate power, feeds that desire and makes it stronger. If all people could do is rant impotently on Twitter, sure some of them still would, but knowing that all it would ever be is impotent ranting would, I think, prompt some of them to engage in better pursuits.

For a fair number of people on the political Left (overrepresented on Twitter, I hope), politics is primarily driven by a desire to punish people you hate. “The cruelty is the point” is a phrase I’m seeing more and more often in recognition of that fact. How do you reconcile “bake the cake bigot, discrimination is discrimination”, which we saw a few years ago, with the present endorsement of engaging in just about every kind of discrimination you can imagine against the unvaccinated, no matter how little sense it makes? Because the constant in both cases is a desire to punish the out-group, punish the people you despise. That’s the consistent principle underneath it all. If all they could do was rant powerlessly many of them would decide to stop ranting and go plant a garden or something.

My second point is well illustrated by our pandemic response:

  1. Liberty preserves the existence of outliers and “control groups” that keep alternative ways of living alive, and can correct the majority if its actions are wrong or non-ideal compared to an alternative.

(A subset of this might be, “we’re presently ruled by crazy people, and if you personally wish to preserve the right of you and yours to live life sanely, you favor individual liberty3”.)

There are about a billion examples that could be provided here, which itself makes the point. Homeschooling is a nice one4. Suppose 100% of the students in America were educated in public schools and then people came along and said… hey, how about you let me teach my kids at home instead? I think I could do a better job. How would people respond to that claim? No doubt a significant number would think it insane. You think you, little house mom, are going to do better than our highly trained, credentialed teachers? But now look at the result. Without the liberty to actually try the alternative we would have never known.

But I said the pandemic response is also a good illustration here. I had this thought early in 2020, when states were “locking down” and a few resisted, and there was tremendous pressure on those states to lockdown as well. Why? Well I thought then, and still think, for a lot of people (and especially political leaders) there was this concern that, if some states do different things, and those states turn out just as well as our state, that’s gonna look pretty bad on us. You could say the very same thing today about efforts to force 100% of schools to require masks or to mandate vaccinations - let’s eliminate the control group that could tell a different story. (That said, I have been almost impressed by how successful US media has been at just ignoring any data that would call into question a preferred narrative - whatever happened to Sweden, anyway?)

Now the great weakness of this point in our day is that, to understand the value of it being possible for someone to demonstrate that you are wrong, you first have to believe that there is actually some possibility that you are wrong, or be willing to accept that correction. But part of the “right side of history mindset” is deleting that possibility from your brain. We have a teenage society in that we know nothing and think we know everything (no offense to the teenagers I know personally, who are in most cases wiser than our society). Everyone is on the side of traditional human rights when they personally feel violated. What we have right now is a fair number of people who are on the side of the presently powerful on every single issue and for some reason think they always will be, so why do we need individual liberty?

  1. Liberty is humanizing because it respects human reason and the human conscience. Coercion is dehumanizing because it disrespects both.

As Ken Gardner was pointing out to me a couple days ago, whether we’re talking about the issue of abortion (which was his concern at the time), or every Western leader’s new favorite thing to say, “all of your problems are because of the unvaccinated”, great evils begin and are justified by dehumanizing some segment of the population. People find it easy to steamroll an abstraction, but most will refrain from crushing a friend even if they have major disagreements with that friend. We can stop evils before they begin, or at least restrain them somewhat, by preserving a respect for the fundamental human dignity of everyone around us. Understanding that their reason and their conscience are things that should never be violated casually preserves that respect.

I appreciate the Westminster Confession of Faith on this point:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

I do love that they tacked on “and reason also” at the end, and it would be fun to eavesdrop on whatever little conversation got those three words included. God is Lord of the conscience and part of our respect for human dignity is respecting reason and conscience.5

1

In fact I saw the piece shared on Twitter from just about every possible perspective, because there are plenty of people within Christianity and conservatism today who themselves think classical liberalism is basically a failed project now and we need a new (or return to an older) way of organizing society… but this post would get too long to engage with all of that thinking right now. But for one obviously-titled book on that subject, you might see Patrick Deneen’s, Why Liberalism Failed.

2

By the way, there are two perpetual problems with writing a piece like this. One, are you going to say that the problem is bad human reasoning, or human sin? The answer is almost always “little bit of this, and a little bit of that”, and in fact they interact and promote each other. But you tend to lean one way or the other when you write, and in writing it is usually more fruitful to make reasonable appeals. And the second question is, who are you writing for? Another way to say that would be, who would even care to hear an argument like this? Because there are plenty of people, particularly people who have the power and feel on top right now and are enjoying being there, who just don’t care. On that point I probably have most in mind people like my college students who are still forming their reasoning on topics like this and so would actually benefit from such arguments.

3

I need to write another piece about the self-selection bias problem of modern life. It is pervasive. Why are we ruled by crazy people? Well, many reasons, but in part because it is immature and usually badly-educated activist types who see political power as especially desirable and so run for office in the first place. That’s not the only problem, because people do still vote for them, but it does mean the Overton Window of what is politically acceptable is set mainly by people who should have never had power in the first place. The people raising four kids and working 9-5 who just want to be left alone are at an inherent disadvantage in modern democracies compared to those who live for political activism. We would have better leaders if they were picked randomly from the population, and I mean that quite sincerely. Or, why are many epidemiologists apparently, if surveys are to be believed, ridiculously overconcerned about their personal risk from COVID? Well, likely in part it comes from what sort of people choose to go into that profession in the first place. (And joy of joys they get to set health rules for the rest of us.)

4

I write this part with a little trepidation, since the legalization and growth of homeschooling in the US was, I understand, significantly a 1970s and 1980s phenomenon. Therefore I certainly don’t remember it at all, but some older readers might, and therefore might think “wait a minute, I was there, that isn’t how it was!”. If so I welcome your comment.

5

PS, if you want to listen to some more on this topic (not from me), you might enjoy an August Presbycast on “The Value of Freedom, The Prospects for Liberty”. I think it was at some point during that podcast that Chortles said, “if freedom has a PR agency, they are really not getting their money’s worth”, everybody loves to dump on freedom today, and perhaps that helped to motivate this post.