Thursday, September 07, 2006

On the Balance Between Freedom and Order

There exists a basic tension between the two concepts of order and freedom. In a certain sense, the two are polar opposites; the claims of one often come at the expense of the other. In a healthy society, there exists a basic equilibrium between the two.

Let’s explain. Russell Kirk defines order as "the harmonious arrangement of classes and functions which guards justice and obtains willing consent to law and ensures that we shall all be safe together." Contrary to popular wisdom, the very first need of society is order, not freedom or justice. Without order there is anarchy, and one can hardly be free if others are not willing to respect those claims to freedom. Note that Kirk speaks of "willing consent," because although order can be kept against the will of a fraction of society, if even a substantial minority wishes to become disobedient, all the forces of government will not be able to suppress the masses.

The claims of freedom are more difficult to quantify (and really deserve book-length treatment.) When most liberals demand freedom, what they usual desire is license rather than freedom. They view "freedom" as did John Stuart Mill, meaning “doing as one likes” or “pursuing one's own good in one's own way,” and as an absolute. This is also the view of libertarians. Conservatives, on the other hand, understand that freedom cannot endure without order. As Kirk writes,

What is deficient in the thought of Mill and his disciples, it seems to me, is an adequate understanding of the principles of order. First, any coherent and beneficial freedom, surely, must have the sanction of moral order: it must refer to doctrines, religious in origin, that establish a hierarchy of values and set bounds to the ego...Freedom as an abstraction is the liberty in whose name crimes are committed. But freedom, as realized in the separate, limited, balanced, well-defined rights of persons and groups, operating through historical developments within a society moved by moral principles, is the quality which makes it possible for men and women to become fully human.

For what it's worth, I'll add that the Torah's view of freedom is quite different from mere license. Chazal say that "the only one who is free is only who engages in Torah study." How can this be? One is free if he is not a slave. Yet Chazal understood that freedom only comes when it is bounded by a moral order. The Jewish people themselves were not permitted to enter their land and experience the “freedom” of normative life until they had first learned to devote themselves to God during their many years in the desert.

At any rate, it is clear that order can exist without freedom, as in a totalitarian or Communist society. But the reverse is not true - freedom cannot exist without order. We can also understand why the two are not intrinsically compatible. We cannot have order without giving up at least some small degree of our freedom. For example, we trade our personal property (in the form of taxes, which reduce our financial freedom) in order to fund a police force to maintain civil order. As President Washington observed, "individuals entering into a society must give up a share of their liberty to preserve the rest."

An understanding of this idea is perhaps the principal contribution of Edmund Burke to political theory: when there is a healthy balance between the claims of freedom and the claims of order, then it is possible to obtain a large measure of justice. In fact, the attempt to achieve such a tension is the primary problem of modern politics.

The Founding Fathers of the United States had immense political and especially historical understanding. They realized that the primary threat to freedom came from the State. After all, government is the power of some men to control and regulate the lives of others. And as we all know, power tends to corrupt those it touches. It is the natural tendency of those who possess power to attempt to accumulate even greater storehouses of power. The Constitution, then, was not merely a guidebook for a specific method of governance. It was a system of restraint against the natural tendency of government to expand in the direction of absolutism. The basic idea was that by dividing the power among different branches and levels (local, state, national) each branch would zealously guard its own claims to power.

Of course, the Framers were not prophets. They knew that the laws of the Republic would be no match for those determined to disregard them. "What have you given us?" a woman asked Benjamin Franklin near the close of the Constitutional Convention. He answered, "A Republic, if you can keep it." By this day and age, it is clear that we have not kept it - both the executive and judicial branches have reached way beyond their borders. (How this came to be is a discussion for another time; needless to say it didn’t begin with the Bush presidency.)

This is the fundamental reasoning behind the conservative idea of limiting government. It is not, as I have seen claimed, because conservatives would simply like to get rid of all government. (On DailyKOS, I saw one commentator asking why anyone should vote for the GOP to take control of the government, as they "just want to get rid of it anyway?") As I pointed out above, that would simply lead to anarchy. Rather, the more the government gains power, the less freedom the average citizen retains. Keeping the government in check is the only way to prevent its ultimate slide to absolutism (whether in the form of Tocqueville's "democratic despotism" or some other sort of tyranny.) Most people living in modern day America, raised in a society that has perhaps obtained the greatest amount of freedom for its citizens in history, cannot comprehend that that freedom may someday be lost. But as Kirk points out, one need merely stand upon the ruins of the Acropolis of Athens, or on the Roman Capitoline to see that this is not so.

The truth is, we must be wary of any power that the government or even the electorate seeks for itself. It is true that at first such a power might be used to our benefit. But who knows what will happen in the future, when the power is used by others of a more malicious demeanor?

Take for example, the relatively new phenomenon of public referendum. Although by the 1920’s most states had laws allowing for some sort of direct referendum, such laws were rarely put to the test. This changed in 1978 with Howard Jarvis and California’s Proposition 13. As Fareed Zakaria explains,

[Proposition 13] provided a new, magically simple way around the cumbersome process of changing public policy. Instead of voting scores of legislators out of office or lobbying them to vote on bills, why not pass laws directly?…By the 1990s, the number of initiatives had almost quintupled, to 378. In 2000 alone, voters decided on 204 pieces of legislation.

Now, it is certainly true that many of the laws passed can only be described as conservative in nature. Many states have successfully passed referendums on anti-tax laws, homosexual marriage, etc. Yet it is my opinion that a conservative should vigorously oppose such referendums. It is true that having such laws passed through the traditional channels would be infinitely more difficult, and maybe even impossible. Yet once a power is acquired, even for a good purpose, that same power might be wielded for evil elsewhere. This is especially true in the case of referendums, in this modern age of mass media and demagoguery.

It is for this very reason that the Framers made it so difficult to amend the Constitution itself. True, it is exceedingly difficult to muster the requisite majority – as the recent attempts to ban flag-burning and homosexual marriage show. Yet if the power to change the basic laws of governance was more simple to obtain, such a power might eventually change the Constitution for ill. Both Gandalf and Lady Galadriel refuse to take the ring of power, despite the fact that they surely would have used it on the side of good. Tolkien’s point was that power, once released, can in the future be used for the opposite effect.

I write about all of this now to help give an understanding to the background of certain recent events, namely the recent “phone-tapping scandal,” and of the Bush administration's admission that it placed some detainees in the War on Terror in secret FBI prisons.

The truth is that those who cry out in alarm have a good point. It is not easy to balance the claims of order and freedom, especially during wartime. Nobody, for example, would impugn the conservative credentials of William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review. Yet in 1952 Buckley declared that because the apparently "invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union" was a menace to freedom, we would be forced to acquiesce to Big Government to defeat it. (Presumably, once the Soviet Union was defeated, the government would then be hewed down to size.) My point is that it is not always easy to find the golden mean. Of course, the eavesdropping was used against terrorists. But as I pointed out above, although a power might be used now for good, the same power, or a more general power of the bigger Leviathan government, might be used in the future to restrict freedom in unpleasant ways.

I offer no policy judgments here; I’ll leave that to others for now. I'm merely saying that one can make a good case in either direction. But I would like to make one final point. It seems mighty hypocritical for liberals among the MSM (mainstream media) and the blogging community to be crying wolf at this stage of the game. For literally decades, liberals have sought to increase the power of the government. This was the only way they could push through many of the liberal schemes of radical egalitarianism and individualism. Yet now they protest when Big Government assumes even more power for itself. Unfortunately, I’m forced to conclude that it is the Bush presidency that truly bothers these shrill harpies rather than the policies themselves. I have no problem with a rational discussion of the powers of government. Yes, let’s discuss whether the executive branch has usurped more power than it ought to in the War on Terror. But let’s also question the need for the taxes that finance the Welfare State. Those who cannot or will not see the connection between the two are being disingenuous at best, and ignorant at worst.

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