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Phil-osophically Speaking: August 16, 2012

Freedom: A Double Edged Sword

It is now axiomatic that economic freedom begets political freedom. Capitalism works because of its potential to reward the entrepreneur whose success depends upon meeting the needs and wants of others. Steve Jobs is a classic example as are many others. So it’s a two-way street or, if you like hygienic metaphors, one hand washes the other. Freedom does not, however, make one successful or virtuous but merely creates the condition for becoming so. Too much of it carries the potential for harm, which is why we not only have laws restraining freedom but also traditions, customs, mores and institutions. All these mediating forces tame and pacify the liberating instinct so it does not, by a sinister osmosis, mutate into anarchism and undermine all manner of authority. It is one of the salient themes of John Milton’s Paradise Lost where the poet essentially asks what the nature of freedom is when it means freedom from God. What does this mean for morality, the very essence of fellowship? The “new atheists,” with iconoclastic delight, argue that rubbing out the stain of superstition from the garment of humanity will unshackle minds and hearts thus diminishing violence and even enlarging our beneficence. I have my doubts. But whether people are moral because of a divinity that ineffaceably inscribed eternal laws into the catalogue of human nature or, like Darwin maintained, that evolution embraced these moral values because developing a personal and social conscience increased the species’ chances of survivability, the question of freedom’s impact on values has been significant and defining.

In the 1830s, when America was rough and raw, Alexis De Tocqueville, a physically frail Frenchman, traveled 7,000 miles on foot, horseback and steamboat to observe firsthand the great American experiment. It was an intellectual pilgrimage that produced Democracy in America, a classic unmatched in exploring the American character. While recognizing its vast potential for good, the book also acknowledged that freedom’s ineluctable logic could also undermine the very community that breathed life into it. Consequently, De Tocqueville also favored a mediating middle ground since he believed freedom alone cannot serve as a foundation for ethics much less sustain the social capital so necessary in a commonwealth. The philosopher Immanuel Kant syllogistically posited that if one person has different moral sentiments than another, does it then not follow that he has different obligations. Indeed it does. Without a general consensus of the common good, components of society fly apart from each other like the galaxies of the universe.

What has greased the wheels of change has been the combustible character of capitalism. The civil rights movement, environmentalism, feminism and the sexual revolution were all galvanized by the juggernaut of economic expansion. It was the industrialization of agriculture that precipitated the exodus of blacks living in the South to move to northern cities enabling them to acquire a measure of political power unimaginable in years past. At the same time, the mechanization of household appliances and scientific advances in birth control revolutionized the sexual division of labor, which relegated most women to domesticity but now catapulted them into the business and corporate world in unprecedented numbers. With the advent of television and mass communication the world became much smaller, and while these mediums at first mirrored the culture they could not bridle capitalism’s restlessness which was oriented not to conformity but to a fevered diversity where the profit motive, as mentioned elsewhere, sought to fulfill every taste and desire. Capitalism, rather than being a musty, cramped closet is a big, open air meeting hall with a creed that cries out for social inclusion and moral adaptability.

As a vehicle for promoting human rights these developments have been profitable and beneficial; other aspects of personal liberation, however, have been an unqualified disaster. The sexual revolution has exponentially spiked the illegitimacy rate and has brought down upon the shoulders of society all of its concomitant maladies. Children are marginalized, abortions more frequent, communicable diseases deadlier and marriages weakened. Among various populations, sexual liberation is a plague leading to a perpetual underclass, the feminization of poverty and an epidemic of criminality. It’s a culture where fathers see abandoning their children as normal behavior.

While wealth and education have cushioned the more affluent classes from some of these afflictions, greater liberation has scarcely resulted in happier lives. Divorce is far greater than it was decades ago, so is drug addiction, nervous breakdowns and suicide. Today’s most prescribed drugs are anti-depressants. We are bigger, stronger and healthier than past generations, but my view is that our grandparents and great grandparents were better than us: less indulged, more selfless, resolute, honorable and courageous. They seemed ignorant of entitlement but deeply conscious of obligation.

Families were stronger and more intact. Now, we seem more concerned about redefining the family than reaffirming its historical role. In freeing themselves from the fetters of the past, the young (though not only them) see themselves being guided by some inner light rather than the gravity of public opinion. Studies in social psychology richly, abundantly and overwhelmingly demonstrate that collective social likes and dislikes are extraordinarily influential. Those maturing minds that flatter themselves as independent thinkers are more likely slaves to fashionable convention.

This is where tradition is a great leveler, an instrument of sobriety and a reliable compass in a storm. I subscribe to the view that nature provides the first draft which experience corrects and revises. Bound together by history, culture, custom and natural law is enough to garrison ourselves from the mercurial novelties of the time. But it helps to get back to the fundamentals of which the family is the most basic and important. The 18th-century parliamentarian Edmund Burke nailed it: “To be attached to subdivision, to have the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle and germ of our public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and mankind.”

A timeless truth burns in that literary nugget; an equilibrium of thought and felicity that makes it as relevant today as it was then.