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Liberty Doesn’t Mean What They Think It Means

October 18th, 2019 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

In his new bookThe Case Against Socialism, Rand Paul writes that he hopes his readers will choose “liberty” instead of socialism. Likewise, in last week’s G File, Jonah Goldberg said a great deal about liberty in his response to First Things editor Rusty Reno. The one thing he never bothered to do was define what liberty actually is.

Here is one key paragraph in which he is responding directly to the post-liberal turn at First Things:

Of my myriad problems with this new idea is that it’s not new. Shorn of its grandiose verbiage and tough guy rhetoric (they invest vast amounts of moral and philosophic urgency in the idea that “fighting” is self-justifying and, like, really, cool), their idea is literally one of the oldest ideas in the history, and pre-history, of politics: Our side should be in charge and have its way. What they often dismiss as “procedural liberalism”—i.e., free speech, individual rights, property rights, etc.—are simply hindrances to doing what is right, by which they mean imposing some notion of the Highest Good. In other words, liberty isn’t a good in itself; it is, at best, a means to do good things, and if it doesn’t serve that function, it is a problem.

But, Sen. Paul, Mr. Goldberg, what is liberty?

Given their politics, I presume that liberty to them is essentially the Lockean idea: Amongst other things, liberty means that a person’s right to the fruit of their labor is as inalienable as the right to their own body. Imposing unchosen restrictions on a person’s behavior is, thus, a violation of their liberty.1

The problem here is how that idea has worked itself out. In a world of rampant wealth inequality in which the barriers to entry in many markets are basically insurmountable (save with the aid of VC money or a large amount of family money, both of which are not accessible to the masses), protecting this vision of “liberty” for Jeff Bezos or Adam Neumann means condemning workers to a dead-end lifestyle of stagnant wages, soaring housing, healthcare, and childcare costs, which means that they are deeply lonely and never more than one mistake or accident away from ruin. This is the reality of the world for many Americans.

We need a better idea of liberty.

Classically understood, liberty is not the crude thing that it is for Goldberg, the mere multiplicity of options available for one to choose wed to a minimization of restraints on one’s choosing. Liberty is not chiefly possibility, but, to borrow from Oliver O’Donovan, potency. “Freedom is exercised in the cancellation of all possibilities in a given situation by the decision to actualize one of them,” is how the great British moral theologian puts it in one of his books. Thus there is an inherently restrictive component to authentic freedom.

The free person is the one who is able to pursue their rightful end. Thus our current order actually obliterates freedom for nearly everyone—marriage, family, neighborhood, and religious life are made difficult for the masses, vocations have been reduced to ‘careers,’ and even the people who are “winning,” the mega rich, struggle to realize their true end because many of them are addicted to their work and have become incapable of recognizing authentic goods outside of it.

Turning to economic questions in particular, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes that,

The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.

There are, of course, ways of overstating the restrictive element. Many procedural goods secured by liberalism are authentic goods, provided they are ordered appropriately to the common good. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it this way,

The value of freedom, as an expression of the singularity of each human person, is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfill his personal vocation; to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state of life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature.

To whatever extent the integralists have diminished these truths, we should oppose them. But we should not act as if the integralists have departed from Christian orthodoxy in some unfathomable way. On the whole, theirs is the position far closer to traditional orthodoxy than the frankly bizarre libertarianism of Goldberg and company. You can salvage integralism rather easily: Fix the ecclesiological issues, restore a right emphasis on prudence as a political tool, and you’ve solved most of the problems. The issues with Goldberg’s neo-liberalism run far deeper.

The way forward will not be a return to the 1980s. Nor will it be finding “18th century solutions to 21st century problems,” as French called for at his first public debate with Ahmari. What we need is the fullness of orthodoxy.

We need a robust doctrine of the imago dei and thus a reluctance to curtail a person’s possibilities too hastily. But also we need an authentic commitment to the common good, built upon an understanding that man is a social creature and thus the communities he forms have an ontological status to them that will necessarily constrain human possibility at many points.

The husband is not less free because he is unable to have multiple partners. The child is not less free because their parents refuse to let them eat whatever they desire. What is alarming is that on Goldberg’s principles, I don’t see how he could agree.

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