Both people on the right and people on the left “alike seem confused about what liberty and progress really mean and require,” writes Ethics and Public Policy scholar, Yuval Levin in the October First Things.
The confusion, he goes on, “begins from the straightforward premise that liberty consists of the individual’s freedom from coercion and constraint—in essence, the freedom to shape one’s life as one chooses.”
For those on the left, freedom happens through government.
The poor don’t enjoy the freedom the rich can afford. Thus the government takes some of the “excess” from the rich and gives it to the poor. This increases the menu of options the poor are now free to choose.
Women risk pregnancy when they have sex and babies limit freedom so the government sees to it that women can get the contraceptives, abortions, and childcare subsidies they need. This then guarantees that they are as free from the consequences of sex as men are.
Same-sex marriages, family defined any way you wish, no-fault divorce, legalized marijuana, low interest rates on consumer loans, political correctness, and the list goes on—the working assumption is, Levin writes, “Our society is more just to the degree that individuals are free from what are deemed artificial social constraints.” Then he adds, “It’s for this reason that some liberals see ‘political correctness’ as ministering to a greater freedom” and work for “expanded government for the sake of freedom.”
If that sounds like the mirror image of you worldview and politics, consider the view from the right where, Levin writes, this flawed thinking serves as the foundation of the conservative vision of liberty as well.
The difference is that instead of wanting a growing government that provides the means for maximum individual choice, conservatives want a shrinking government that will get out of the way of maximum individual choice.
That is, while the progressive wants to pass laws and increase the size of government to empower the choosing individual, conservatives want to repeal laws and decrease the size of government for precisely the same reason. Both share the same view of the human person and the same view of liberty. Thus both occupy themselves by tinkering with laws and politics believing that good social arrangements are the key to freedom and human flourishing.
But, Levin points out, both also presuppose individuals who are capable of using freedom well: “Thus the dangerous impoverishment of our political culture today: The idea of liberty that both progressives and conservatives generally articulate takes the person capable of freedom for granted without pausing to wonder where he might come from.”
“The older idea of liberty,” Levin continues, “requires not only that people be free to choose but also that they will be able to choose well…. And to become capable of it, we need more than that liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain moral formation.”
Proper moral formation makes us capable of liberty, says Levin. It requires that we submit to the structures in which we experience the interplay between freedom and responsibility.
The family is not valuable, he asserts, because of utilitarian considerations (married couples are statistically happier, children in intact families tend to do better at school, children of successful parents tend to be successful). Instead, “the family, more than any other human institution, forms us morally” by thrusting us into relationships about which we have no choice and demanding that we love, take responsibility, and submit to others.
Work forms us morally because it “buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability.”
Education from kindergarten through graduate school is too often viewed as nothing more than vocational training. By contrast, a complete and liberal education “forms our souls through exposure to beauty, to truth, and to the power of the sublime that we can only glimpse through the mediation of rare artistic genius.”
Finally religious institutions are vital to the project. They are “are not just counterbalances but foundations of the liberal order. They command us to a mixture of responsibility, sympathy, lawfulness, and righteousness that align our wants with our duties. They help form us to be free.”
Passing or repealing formal and informal laws in Congress, in our churches, or in our families is easy and the right balance can give the impression of freedom. The moral formation of souls is difficult. Levin calls it “the long way to liberty” and it is central to the Christian understanding of freedom.
Too many of us have forgotten this to the detriment of our families, churches, communities, and country. It’s time to consider Yuval Levin’s timely reminder about real freedom and to get busy forming souls on “the long way to liberty.”
Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers.
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