Freedom and the Human Person

For friends of liberty, the early 21st century has been a confusing time. We are living through a period of rapid and perhaps unprecedented social and economic change, and our established ways of thinking about public questions have not been serving us well. Regaining our balance will require us to open our eyes to the simultaneously disturbing and encouraging trends before us. But perhaps more than that, we are both required and have the opportunity to reflect anew on who we are as free and relational persons. We can and must think more deeply about the contents of a fully human life, as knowing who we are is an indispensable prelude to figuring out what to do to sustain the future of personal and political liberty.

Some of our most familiar political and intellectual categories, adapted to suit 20th-century debates, now cause us to fall into a simpleminded individualism that we cannot really believe. Too many conservatives, for instance, persist in the tired distinction between individual freedom and collectivism. That unrealistic bifurcation helped discredit the communist or fascist reduction of the particular person to nothing but an expendable cog in a machine, plugging away in pursuit of some glorious paradise to come at the end of History. But today that distinction too often ends up placing in the same repulsive category any understanding of the person as a relational part of a larger whole — of a country, family, church, or even nature. It thus causes conservatives to dismiss what students of humanity from Aristotle to today's evolutionary psychologists know to be true: that we social animals are "hardwired" by instinct to find meaning in serving personal causes greater than ourselves, and that reconciling freedom with personal significance is only possible in a relational context that is less about rights than about duties.

The same simpleminded individualism leaves us unsure about how to approach the difficulties of the modern American economy. Given the complicated challenges posed by globalization, the fading away of the middle class, the breakdown of the family among the poor, the growing economic distance separating our "cognitive elite" from the decreasingly "marginally productive" ordinary American, and the indisputable need to trim our entitlements in order to save them (for a while), our ways of speaking about responsibility, work, mobility, and opportunity seem increasingly out of touch.

Everyone knows that success in the marketplace requires skills and habits that are usually acquired through good schools, strong families, active citizenship, and even solicitous and judgmental churches. Those relational institutions, however, are threatened, in different ways, by the unmediated effects of both the market and big, impersonal government. We also know that most people find that worthy lives are shaped by both love and work, and that the flourishing of love and work are interdependent. We even know that love and work are both limits on government, even as we know that middle-class Americans who have good jobs, strong families, and "church homes" are also our best citizens.

What we really know should point our political life in rather definite directions. Does our familiar political vocabulary provide us what we need to articulate those directions? Or does it confuse us more in this already confusing time? We have every reason to wonder whether even conservative Americans have access to a plausible account of the reality of our personhood, an account that could serve as the foundation of a public philosophy that would properly limit and direct a sustainable political life for free persons. What we lack most is an authentically empirical theory adequate to the complexities of American life in our time.

The natural inclination of any conservative is to seek out such a theory in our deep and diverse tradition of liberty, rather than invent one out of whole cloth. And if our search is guided by a sense of how our changing circumstances require us to reflect on the relational character of the human person, our tradition will not disappoint. But we have no choice but to look beyond the most familiar fixtures of that tradition toward some neglected American theorists of liberty who have highlighted the shortcomings of an overly individualistic understanding of American life. Complacently excessive individualism is the opiate of the American "public intellectuals" of our time.

One neglected resource in correcting for that excess is America's most original and deepest 19th-century thinker: Orestes Brownson. Author of The American Republic (published in 1865) and of much more, Brownson explained that our country's "providential constitution" is deeper and more comprehensively compelling than the Lockean theorizing of Jefferson and other leading founders and framers. Our framers, who built for the ages as great statesmen do, drew from all the sources that history, philosophy, political precedent, religion, and the rest of our civilized tradition had given them. It is because they built as statesmen, and not as abstract theorists, that they built better than they knew.

For Brownson, to think clearly about both our Constitution and about particular human beings means avoiding the excesses of thinking too universally (or abstractly) or too particularly (or selfishly). It requires finding a mean between the two extremes of American political thought. On one side, Americans properly appropriate the truthful dogma of human equality, and remembering that all persons equally possess rights is what directs us away from the excessive concern for particularity that characterized aristocratic Southerners in Brownson's time, with all their secessionist, racist, and even pagan impulses. But at the opposite extreme, humanitarians and their abstract egalitarianism — like some transcendentalist, pantheist Northerners in Brownson's time — have divorced the theory of equality from its properly personal theological context. What remains is an empty universalism that overvalues the possibilities for redemption in political reform and denies the truth about personal being, and therefore about personal rights. As the Yankee Brownson acknowledged, despite their many faults, the Southerners were right to defend the particularity of relational individuality; they claimed to know and love real persons and so to have no need for any interest in abstract "humanitarianism."

The American, constitutional mean between abstract universalism and tribal secessionism, according to Brownson, is a limited political unity of citizens who know they are also more than and less than citizens. All of us equally are shaped by natural, personal imperatives having to do with flourishing as material, political, and spiritual beings. When we forget any of the three, we fall into trouble. The material being is concerned with the personal subsistence of himself and his family. The political being is concerned with the common good shared by citizens in a "territorial democracy" in a particular part of the world. The spiritual being is concerned with discovering his relational duties to his loving personal Creator and sharing that personal news with his fellow creatures through the church.

The fully human being attends to all three parts of who he is as a free and relational person born to know, love, and die. He doesn't regard himself as less than he really is by thinking of himself as only a producer and consumer or only a citizen, and he doesn't think of himself as more than he is by confusing his limited and dutiful freedom with the unlimited freedom of God.

This full account of who each of us is means that the economy, the family, and the church aren't to be politicized. True theology is "catholic" in the sense of not being the exclusive preserve of a particular political community or merely "civil theology." This full account of the person's relational responsibilities also means that the political community is for more than serving the selfish needs of particular persons; politics doesn't exist for the sake of economics. Thus loyalty to your country is a real and indispensable virtue — one, Brownson says, particularly lacking in any country too obsessed with rights. What raises the country above the tribe is that this loyalty is to a genuinely common good, a real conception of justice. The American Constitution, Brownson explains, reconciles "liberty with law, and law with liberty" through the devoted affirmation of mediating constitutional principles such as self-government, federalism, the separation of powers, and religious freedom.

Rightly understood, we can see in Brownson's idea of law and liberty a theoretical justification for an enduring practice of American liberty that affirms a constitutional order that "secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual — the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society."

Brownson, at the very least, can help today's Americans to think seriously about the complex interplay between political and economic liberties and the relational life of creatures and citizens. It is that kind of thinking that the friends of liberty require if they are to overcome the confusion that defines our time.


To see how Brownson might help us think about some contemporary challenges, we can begin by looking more closely at the features of America's current political economy, keeping in mind his view of the whole truth about the free and relational person.

When they think about economics, many conservatives and libertarians focus almost exclusively on the injustice and counter-productivity of constraints on the freedom of entrepreneurs, "job creators," and members of our cognitive elite. But this perspective is flat and one-dimensional. It fails to consider the legitimate fears of a larger cross-section of our working and middle classes. Many members of the middle class — people who run small businesses, do skilled manual labor, and make up "middle management" — feel less and less secure these days, and with good reason. The various "safety nets" that cushioned workers and their families from market competition are eroding: Unions and various forms of tenure are toast, as are employer and employee loyalty, pensions, and, for many ordinary jobs, even benefits. Some people celebrate the new birth of freedom in which all employees become independent contractors, selling their flexible skills to whoever needs them at the moment. But others talk about the sinking — meaning the decreasing productivity and status — of members of the middle class, especially but not only the bottom half of the middle class. Their skills are worth less than ever, and so even when they work hard they make less and less. Given their inability to find jobs that accord them at least the dignity of providing for those they love (as unionized factory jobs did half a century ago), they sometimes decide that work just isn't worth it.

Economic inequality is rapidly increasing, and candid libertarian futurists like George Mason University law professor Tyler Cowen acknowledge that this trend will continue. But our libertarians are right that inequality by itself hardly undermines the case for liberty. A prosperous free country is a place where everyone is becoming better off, although some, because of their hard work and natural gifts, are finding far more success than others. Libertarians often point to the progress of technology as benefitting us all. And thanks to technological development and the global competitive marketplace, productivity has increased. But wages have stagnated, and many Americans don't see the democratic benefits of the progress of economic liberty.

Meanwhile, our entitlement programs are costing us more, and we can't afford to fund them as we now do for much longer. In this respect, progressives have mostly become "conservatives" in the precise sense, defending the benefits status quo and often in ways that are misleading or downright dishonest. President Obama lied to many Americans when he said that they could keep the health plans they had, and he misled Americans when he campaigned on the promise that entitlement reform could be avoided. In both cases, he was offering an impossible level of stability. James Capretta, among others, has shown that the future of our entitlement system is imperiled less by our culture of dependency than by our huge demographic transformation. We have too many old people and not enough young and productive ones. So we're stuck saying that the old need to become more productive — and to some limited extent they can be, given improving health and longevity. The truth is, however, that not all that much can be expected from such remediation.

The primary cause of our entitlement crisis is less the culture of dependency than evolving individualism. While the millennial lifestyle is often discussed as the proof of our society's increasing individualism, evidence is also abundant among the elderly. People are living longer because they are more attentive, as concerned individuals, to the risk factors that imperil their existence. And they are having fewer children, at least in part because they view generating replacements (out of love) as imposing intolerable burdens on their autonomous and productive lives. There is a connection, of course, between this individualism and dependency: As relational institutions like marriage and churches atrophy, government often ends up stepping in to fill the void. That's one reason why single women, and especially single mothers, tend to vote Democratic while married women tend to vote Republican.

The impending entitlement implosion will make it hard for the elderly to experience their techno-gift of unprecedented longevity as they should — as a genuine new birth of freedom. We could say they'll just have to rely more on their families, as their grandparents did in the midst of the Depression. But the disintegration of our relational institutions — including, of course, the intergenerational bonds of family — is reflected in the fact that one of our fastest growing demographic categories is men over 65 without any close connections to a spouse or children. Part of the new birth of freedom has been the explosion of divorce among parents whose children are finally out of the house. With so many years left, why not be responsive to every aspect of one's quality of life?

All in all, many of our most promising and troubling economic and cultural changes can be traced to an increasingly individualistic philosophy of living. The more consistently individualistic ethic is deeply linked, of course, to the fact that we live in a world in which children are growing rarer and in which marriage is becoming a whimsical lifestyle option rooted solely in feeling in love. Europe is becoming post-political, post-religious, and post-familial, as political philosopher Pierre Manent has observed, and he sees this as a form of progress that is based on hatred of bodies or those relational constraints we necessarily have as social beings born to love and die. And our country, truth to tell, is not that much different now. The libertarian notions that citizenship is just another word for "rent-seeking" and that national borders are nothing but arbitrary barriers to the uninhibited flourishing of the global marketplace are becoming mainstream. Certainly many libertarians and many of our "role models" in Silicon Valley are also easily seduced by the transhumanist impulse that we can live a sempiternal existence as conscious machines.

From this liberationist perspective, it is easy to define social progress as the growing understanding of Americans — men and women, gay and straight — as equally free to determine their personal identities independently of religious and political oppression. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy has been advancing that view for more than two decades, and his outlook is increasingly dominant. Women are free, as Kennedy (with two other justices) said in the plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, not to understand themselves as mothers and to be unfettered political and economic actors just like men. Gays, Kennedy added in Lawrence v. Texas a decade later, are free to determine what relational autonomy means for themselves, just like straights. Despite government regulation and NSA intrusiveness, these are clearly the best of times to be a free individual.


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