By the time November 8th came around the public was still largely distraught by both candidates. The two were far from most people’s first choices and neither seemed to deserve the presidency for their own particular reasons.
As I was driving home from voting on election day, I heard this opinion once again from the DJ on a country station. He admitted that listeners may not like Trump and Clinton, but regardless, he urged everyone to still vote because voting is a part of our freedom, and our freedom is what makes us great.
This last part struck me. Do Americans really know what it means to be free? Does our liberty lie in our right to vote? Or is it largely defined in our ability to live life as we choose? Unfortunately, the term freedom in the American vocabulary is broad and somewhat opaque.
I strongly believe that there is an aspect of freedom that has been missing from our political dialogue that will not only give color to our idea of what freedom is, but it should also be at the forefront of our thoughts during this stormy political season. It’s the idea that freedom is something people need to be conditioned for by moral and religious institutions.
In what I consider to be one of the best political opinion pieces I have ever read, Yuval Levin does an exceptional job of describing the cause of what we know as our American freedom. (If anything read this article, it’s well worth your time.)
For Levin, both progressives and conservatives tend to put the cart before the horse in their pursuit of liberty. Progressives believe that the purpose of a liberal society is to enforce equality across different groups by removing any economic, social and political constraints that hinder an individual in pursuing the lifestyle they desire. Conservatives, on the other hand, are committed first and foremost to individual freedom through the enforcement of individual rights and limiting the power of government.
In their pursuit of obtaining their visions of liberty, both groups look to achieve this by the correct ordering of society. But instead of focusing on society as a whole, they should be focusing on the souls of the individuals that make up society.
Levin notes that Americans widely believe that if we structure an environment that ensures individual freedom, we assume that the individual can appropriately handle this excess of freedom and responsibility. The problem is that while we look to maximize liberty, we take “the person capable of freedom for granted without pausing to wonder where he might come from.”
This person comes from what Levin calls the “long way”, which is the process of conditioning individuals through various establishments to responsibly live the free life, as opposed to the shorter way of offering freedom without any prerequisite of knowing how to handle freedom well. Its purpose is to morally prepare a person so that they are relatively untethered by their raw passions and desires, so that “we want to do…what we ought to do, so that the moral law, civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment.”
How does the long way achieve this end? By offering and defending institutions that promote our moral development. The family instills a sense of obligation and is an excellent environment for the moral upbringing of children. Work instills responsibility, dignity and ingenuity. A liberal education gives an appreciation for the good, sublime and true. Religious institutions, above all, condition the human soul to live freely.
In summary, to have a truly free society, we must have a people that is taught to live the free life well. To have a morally conditioned people for liberty, the institutions mentioned above must be functioning properly.
But what if these establishments deteriorate? (It seems that they already are) What happens if the people are morally unconditioned?
Edmund Burke,the great Irish statesman, gave us his answer to these questions over two centuries ago. He wrote:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will or appetite be placed somewhere; the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” (Writings, 332).
When people’s passions are restrained, the idea of a strong government isn’t even a question.
Burke’s observation is relevant now more than ever—especially in Trump’s young, yet scandal-ridden presidency. For one, there is no greater check on all three branches of government than a people conditioned for liberty. Corruption and power grabs wouldn’t be tolerated by a society that appreciates its freedom too much to have it be encroached upon.
There is nothing more important to me than to freely worship the God I love, enjoy the community of my family and friends, and to enjoy life as I see fit. I can enjoy this liberty because of the men before me who had preserved it and passed it along to us. I also in turn plan on passing it down to my children and grandchildren.
One of my greatest fears is that we will promote a government that will slowly take away our liberty largely because we increasingly become unfit for freedom. As Alexis de Tocqueville argues in Democracy in America, freedom is a costly thing and can only be maintained by a people who are fit and willing to pay the price to uphold it. If they are not, then they will likely grow to tolerate a more tyrannical democracy that offers a cheaper equality among citizens at the expense of freedom.
Therefore, let us preserve the long way to freedom. Let’s uphold and rebuild the institutions that are the foundations of our liberty, insteading of discarding them as unnatural burdens. The long way is costly and hard, but it is a battle that has been fought since this country’s independence and should be taken up by us as well. Without it, all the policies and candidates in the world are meaningless.