American conservatives can advance the current debate over liberalism's future by better articulating the main difference between liberty and the products of liberty. That's, we must distinguish the concept of liberated individuals in the invaluable institutions that liberated individuals create with time.
Much of today's discontent with liberalism comes from the view that when the state sees its job as freeing people from coercion and enabling these to do as they will, society turns into a collection of atomized, alienated, frustrated, and polarized individuals. In this view, liberalism inhibits the good life by preventing solidarity and community-the stuff that can give us happiness, stability, and meaning. Indeed, when we understand liberalism as the maximization of individual rights, we'll focus our attention on unfettering citizens. We'll judge society's success through the extent to which an individual can say what she wants, own what she wants, do what she would like, and so on.
But that is a flawed \”snapshot\” knowledge of liberty. It looks at the freedom enjoyed by citizens at a moment in time. Liberty, however, should be understood as rules that set actual living, breathing humans into motion. In the real world, liberty is free citizens in action over time. We don't exist in suspended animation, and our societies don't suddenly materialize from thin air. Free individuals continuously bump into one another, and from all of those interactions we learn to build healthy societies. So liberalism is notable not only for the promises inked on parchment as well as the way it establishes conditions in which unpredictable but socially beneficial institutions emerge.
Products of Liberty
brilliant mind could study the rules of football and never predict that the I formation would end up as a classic arrangement for offensive players prior to the snap. That same genius could read the rules of chess rather than predict that the Najdorf variation from the Sicilian Defense would become an important opening. Only when millions of plays are run from scrimmage, and when billions of games of chess are played, do these sound strategies emerge. In reality, those strategies are found nowhere in the rules. It's when real people act within established parameters time and time and time again that robust solutions are discovered.
A form of this insight is found in game theory. The rules of the \”prisoner's dilemma\” seem to inevitably lead to a permanently suboptimal result. But play that game thousands of times in a tournament with other participants, and also the unintuitive but optimal \”tit-for-tat\” strategy is revealed. Such \”iterated\” games reveal that it is through activity inside of rules over time that we accumulate the wisdom necessary to succeed inside of those rules. We can call such strategies \”emergent,\” \”spontaneous,\” \”unplanned,\” or something else. But we must recognize them for what they are: evolved, experience-based responses to established conditions.
We should understand liberalism itself being an evolved, experienced-based response to the human condition. Over the course of scores of generations, some societies realized, for example, the danger of centralizing authority, preventing people from thinking independently, and permitting the state to invade homes and confiscate property. Over time, some of these societies fostered the development of concepts like natural rights, governments as protectors of liberty, political equality, the rule of law, and also the consent of the governed. These societies also helped establish concrete rules like separating branches of government, enumerating state powers, and protecting explicit individual rights. Though some of these ideas and practices preceded Enlightenment-era liberalism, together they help define contemporary liberalism.
But once government was limited and people were liberated, the lessons didn't stop. Free societies now had free individuals bumping into one another. And from those nearly infinite interactions over time, these societies produced evolved, experienced-based responses to the human condition as it exists inside of the rules of liberalism. We used our liberty to develop tools for amplifying the strengths and mitigating the risks of liberated individuals. These tools should be thought of as the products of liberty.
Many exist beyond government as institutions or \”social formations,\” like traditions, customs, and norms. For instance, realizing the costs of unbridled expression, societies developed rules of civility. Appreciating the need for community despite legal autonomy, they created a constellation of voluntary and civic associations. Recognizing the dangers of unregulated behavior, they developed norms of social conduct. The list goes on: schools, local journalism, courage, soup kitchens, grit, marriage, charity, volunteerism, fables, and so forth. F.A. Hayek astutely noted that liberal states develop a reverence for such organic institutions, habits, and customs. \”Paradoxical as it may appear,\” he wrote in \”Freedom, Reason, and Tradition,\” \”it is most likely true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be considered a tradition-bound society.\”
But some products of liberty take the form of government-typically local and state-action. That is, among our liberties is the right to engage in the process of producing democratically legitimate government rules. As G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, \”The liberty to create laws is what constitutes a free people.\” Indeed, our Constitution isn't merely a list of individual freedoms; it fully promises to cultivate participatory self-government. Its Article I results in a democratically elected legislature charged with making laws; its Article IV guarantees a republican type of government in each state; its 10th Amendment gives states and their subdivisions the authority to legislate broadly under \”police powers.\”
Importantly, the laws that emerge in a democratic republic don't fall from the sky, and they're seldom the result of speculation and reason alone. Instead, they grow from the traditions and experiences of citizens and their representatives. People living in liberty learn lessons about family formation, theft, vandalism, homelessness, land use, professional licensing, alcohol sales, taxation, gambling, plus much more. If a community reaches a consensus on such a matter, maintains that consensus for long enough, and deems that consensus sufficiently important, the community can codify it.
With both kinds of products of liberty-the non-governmental and the governmental-it is essential they primarily remain local, differentiated, and malleable. Different geographies may have different heritages and different animating principles. They're going to have different experiences and deal with different challenges. They will develop different strategies and adjust them over time. This is America like a community of communities. So long as their varied products of liberty are small-scale and don't run afoul of clear constitutional and legal prohibitions, they stand as invaluable methods for groups of citizens to learn, deliberate, compromise, and self-govern. Those found on the right should remember that such ideas happen to be at the heart of American conservatism. For example, Russell Kirk's ten principles of conservatism include respect for custom and convention, the appreciation of variety among such traditions, and also the recognition that such traditions are brought to life and sustained by local democratic action and voluntary association.
We can easily see, then, that the defense of person rights is not the only objective of liberalism. Also important is the preservation of those things we use our liberty to produce.
Elitism vs. Liberty's Products
nfortunately, there are those who claim to respect liberty but have little compunction about undermining its products. Whether under the banner of progressivism, libertarianism, or something else, they would, for instance, meddle with the membership and activities of voluntary associations and overturn state statutes and local ordinances that flow from custom and working experience. Generally, they will defend their actions as essential to protect individual liberty. But we should recognize how continuously undermining the products of liberty undermines liberalism.
Many modern critics are worried that liberalism in practice deracinates and disconnects us. By fetishizing individual autonomy, it's argued, liberalism untethers us from our forebearers and longstanding conventions and breaks the bonds between people today. In the place of such beliefs and affiliations, elites substitute progressive sensibilities about immigration, global citizenship, public assistance, social policy, and more. The upshot is a citizenry that is unmoored and deprived of agency and that then seeks solidarity through other, often unwholesome, means.
Some believe that this is the unavoidable consequence of liberalism: Liberalism in full bloom, with its prioritization of liberty, individualism, and reason, leads ineluctably to the displacement of traditional beliefs, attachments, and methods for life. That argument is, however, too deterministic in my opinion. That liberalism has too often not accommodated a wide enough array of policies and practices doesn't that it cannot. Liberalism is not inherently incompatible with traditionalism or small-scale democracy but it can be distorted in ways making it functionally hostile to traditionalism and small-scale democracy. To put a finer point onto it: Judges, administrators, and other distant authorities who routinely presume to know best make it difficult to reconcile liberalism having a constellation of communities reaching different conclusions concerning the good life.
Liberalism, when led and managed by those lacking sufficient humility and people unwilling to show deference to the seasoned, reasoned, stable views of communities, becomes anti-democratic, anti-pluralist, and anti-tradition. This, we should appreciate, is a key cause of liberalism's current wobbliness. Shoring it up will require more sensible governing elites. They should understand that different communities will draw different but similarly legitimate conclusions by using their particular histories, faiths, governing principles, local circumstances, and democratic deliberations.
It is time to recognize that, in our diverse, continental republic, protecting these products of liberty-institutions, traditions, associations, norms, ordinances-is necessary to the preservation of liberalism.