Religion & Liberty Online

Order and the American Culture of Liberty

There should be a tension, a balance, between liberty and order, but the aim is always liberty. The Founders knew this even if some on the right have forgotten it.

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There is an insightful exchange in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World between Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Aubrey is all about discipline and order, while the doctor’s inclination is toward mercy and liberty. In a heated debate over the proper balance between liberty and order aboard a wartime naval ship, Captain Aubrey finally yells in exasperation: “Men must be governed! Often not wisely, I will grant you, but governed nonetheless.” The doctor dismissively responds that this is “the excuse of every tyrant in history, from Nero to Bonaparte.”

Royal Navy frigates no doubt require a greater degree of order and illiberality than diverse, commercial republics. But the debate between these fictional characters touches on a point of real dispute, particularly right now on the American right: What is the proper balance between liberty and order most consistent with human dignity and the pursuit of the common good?

During my two decades as a history professor, I found that the most effective way to help students manage the complexity of the grand sweep of American history was to cast it as what Russell Kirk calls, in The Roots of American Order, “that healthful tension between order and freedom.” This tension over how to balance individual freedom with the common good has proved an enduring feature of the American project. This American order requires a subsidiary role for a limited central government and is predicated on a vibrant civil society where the primacy of a culture of liberty demands that prudence be applied to human affairs.

To talk about liberty does not negate the need for order nor does it imply that one is unconcerned about it. Order is the precondition for liberty, but liberty is the aim. Kirk wrote that order is the first need for any society—only then can liberty and justice be reasonably secure. It should not surprise us that following a revolution to end a decades-long attempt by Great Britain to violate colonial customs and common law, Americans would first stress liberty over order. After all, they had fought to preserve the social and political order they had inherited when it was threatened by distant bureaucrats. They wanted to return to the liberties they had enjoyed prior to the new colonial system with its common law violations. Because of this firsthand experience with tyranny, the American revolutionaries knew better than to create their own administrative state. Instead, after having fought from 1775 to 1781 as 13 independent states, in 1781 they created in the Articles of Confederation a loose federal republic bound together by a limited government so that Americans could remain free. The Articles stressed the liberties of the states, each of which “retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.”

A convention called in 1787 to reform the Articles in response to political and financial instability instead produced the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution redressed problems with the Articles, such as the lack of an executive branch and federal judiciary. While retaining the principle of subsidiarity in the form of federalism it also strengthened the new U.S. government in precisely those areas where it needed to be strengthened: foreign policy and interstate commerce. Most importantly for today’s arguments about liberty and order, the Constitution accomplished this by restraining the federal government and without suggesting that the new central government be employed to police or inculcate virtue in the populace. When George Washington became president, serious disagreement remained over decentralization, subsidiarity, trade, the sources of virtue, the size of the government, the relationship of what the Articles recognized as “sovereign” states to the new central government, and religious freedom, in addition to a deep concern about corruption should the U.S. government involve itself in protective tariffs, banking, and transportation infrastructure.

This is not to say that the Constitution’s framers did not also worry about demagoguery and populism. When James Madison pointed out that “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason” in democratic assemblies, he said so in defense of the Constitution’s checks and balances, which he argued would protect the citizens of the Union from its central government. Americans thus faced the task of how to maintain a republic that respects liberty but where both the centralized government and the people’s irrational passions could be restrained.

The Founders wrestled with these issues, however, not in the name of order but in the name of liberty. This is true even of Alexander Hamilton, often seen as completely a man of order, who described this challenge in Federalist No. 37 as the quest to combine “the requisite stability and energy in government, with the inviolable attention due to liberty.” Madison, too, worried about balancing the need for a republican polity to govern its citizens at the same time it needed to govern itself. One must not do so, Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, by “destroying liberty,” because such a remedy “would be worse than the disease.” Liberty, he said, “is essential to political life.” What would it take to promote and preserve liberty without causing a destructive level of disorder?

Positive law and coercion certainly can preserve order. As Hamilton put it, “The passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without restraint.” But as Alexis de Tocqueville later argued, more operative than law in the American order was Americans’ mores—their customs and habits. These could be enshrined in law but most often were left entirely to civil society and associative life. Think of the simple examples of driving 60 mph in a 55 mph zone and wearing sweatpants and a hoodie to a job interview. The first is illegal while the second only violates custom and etiquette. But which of these rules are people more likely to break? There is a way in which customs are more binding than laws, especially when those laws are unreasonable or unjust. Traditions and customs do not require bureaucrats.

In some sense, then, we can trust traditions and customs as restraints more than we can laws to protect people’s rights and liberties. One, however, needs prudence to preserve what G.K. Chesterton calls “the democracy of the dead.” One must prudently consider whether laws are necessary in any given situation or whether virtue, custom, and tradition can better benefit the common good.

Religion best fits in the category of tradition. It acts upon the consciences of individuals and within the natural society of the family, promoting piety and cultivating the right ordering of the soul. This cannot be done properly or justly through law or state church establishment or through a national church that possesses coercive powers in the name of the higher good. This is why religious freedom has long been and should remain the linchpin of liberty in America.

The most humane way to restrain disordered ambition while respecting liberty is virtue, the habit of doing good and seeking the good. This strain of American thought has been most identified with Thomas Jefferson, because he argued that yeoman farmers are the most virtuous Americans due to their independence from the market economy, debt, and commerce. Although not a strict agrarian like Jefferson, Washington agreed with his fellow Virginian about the need for virtue in a free society. Once people lost the virtue needed to do the right thing, Washington thought, they would be incapable of preserving liberty. Instead, they would enslave themselves to pure individualism, leading to the very opposite of an ordered society composed of free people mindful of the common good. Therefore, like Hamilton, Washington tended to emphasize law and order, because he thought that “the few … who act upon principles of disinterestedness are, comparatively speaking, no more than a drop in the Ocean.” Washington, in other words, recognized that the pervasive nature of sin—the inclination toward reckless selfishness—had implications beyond the interior life of the individual human person.

Edmund Burke also recognized that the reality of sin had ramifications for state and society. Thus, he argued that “liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” But limited how? For Burke, these limits would be long-established customs and traditions, inherited wisdom, and virtue. Beware positive law and bureaucracies, because these make substantial room for the arbitrary imposition of will. Burke recognized that liberty was a good to be expanded not an evil to be limited. The test of a people, Burke thought, is to see how much liberty, not how little, they can live with.

Since the 1950s, American conservatives, much like the Founders, have tended to emphasize liberty in the “healthful tension between order and freedom.” Accepting this tension as fruitful while recognizing the need that liberty be rightly ordered has strongly informed conservative thinking on liberty and its limits. According to Kirk, this is especially true among those who see the American experiment in ordered liberty not as an ideological “attempt to turn a nation upside down and create something that never before had existed” but rather as a project “to secure in a practical fashion the American institutions and rights that already existed.” Kirk concludes that the goal of the whole project was “simply to preserve the justice and order and freedom that the American colonies had long enjoyed.” Freedom without order is anarchy, Kirk rightly notes, and order without freedom or justice is tyranny. It is with prudence that we must determine the balance.

Whereas Kirk provides a framework for conservatives that emphasizes a prudent balance (rooted in experience and tradition) among justice, order, and liberty, Patrick Deneen in “In Defense of Order” argues for the “priority of order over liberty.” To be fair, Deneen is making a prudential judgment of his own, and one hopes that scholars of goodwill genuinely interested in the truth of things can disagree on these points. But it is incorrect to claim, as Deneen does, that “especially conservatives” have ignored the framework laid out by Kirk, in a reckless, individualist quest to expand the bounds of liberty. Even Kirk himself did not write of merely order or merely liberty but of “the healthful tension of liberty and order.” This is true also of most of the American Founders. After all, Patrick Henry didn’t say, “Give me order or give me death,” and because he stressed liberty doesn’t make him an anarcho-capitalist.

The good news is that the category of order that post-liberals argue has been overlooked or marginalized remains ripe for analysis and exploration. Post-liberals ought therefore to be congratulated for stressing the importance of order. In an implicit recognition of sin, their focus is mostly on American vices and corruption. Adrian Vermeule is in one sense correct to worry about “‘private’ corporate power, tech monopolies, banks engaged in ideological policing of financial access, woke universities, and other nongovernmental bodies” as much as he worries about “overweening state power.” He chides “old Reaganite ‘conservatism’” (what he also calls “right liberalism”), which he thinks is only worried about the potential excesses of the state. Yet what each of these allegedly “private” entities cited by Vermeule has in common is that it is not private. Rather, each subsists in a governmental and hyper-regulatory ecosystem of cronyism, subsidies, public funding, and corporate favoritism. Thus, the Chinese-style bureaucracy Vermeule is fond of is not a workable solution, for it is incapable of overcoming vice and corruption. Indeed, any Leviathan government invites the very corruption Vermuele laments because of its centralized power and authority. The reality of sin and human dignity counsel us that the best safeguard against corruption is small government and a free society that ensures space for the cultivation of virtue. At the same time, we must constantly measure ideals against experience, remembering that good government is rare but possible, whereas perfect government is nonexistent because it is impossible. Doing so will enrich and develop our understanding of the importance of the American founding rather than undermine it with reductionist slogans about liberalism, individualism, and order.

To promote virtue is to promote order, and true virtue is impossible without liberty, since to be virtuous, choices must be free choices. Or in Tocqueville’s formulation, “What is virtue if not the free choice of what is good?” Lord Acton describes this balance best:

Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

Like Burke, Acton points to the truth that the human person is imperfect. We are free but capable of sin, and though we are social, we are also selfish.

A “healthy tension” does not mean that we prioritize order over liberty any more than it advocates for license in the name of liberty. To be clear, though, the balance must be asymmetrical as a consequence of human nature. We ought, like Burke and the American Founders, to place the emphasis on liberty—in a prudent balance with order, yes, but on liberty nonetheless. A free and virtuous people will produce an orderly commonwealth. When “we lack order in the soul,” Kirk concludes, we will lack “order in society.” A.G. Sertillanges calls “virtue the health of the soul.” An imposed, bureaucratic order of the State’s choosing, even when well intentioned, will not heal and enliven souls or produce virtuous citizens. Order in the soul, and by extension order in the commonwealth, requires freedom.

John C. Pinheiro

John C. Pinheiro is director of research at the Acton Institute and lectures nationally and internationally for Acton on topics such as the American founding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee, degrees in history and religious studies from California State University, and he studied Italian at Universitá per Stranieri di Perugia. Dr. Pinheiro currently serves on the advisory board for the Ferris State University Economics Program, the editorial board of the Journal of Markets & Morality, and as consulting editor on James K. Polk for the American President resource at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.