Liberty or Tyranny?

When my kids were still very young, they used to amuse themselves with a pair of small, wooden, humanoid counters, resembling those effigies we see on TV commercials advertising a cure for aching joints. One was called Snazzy Guy, the other Shabby Guy, and they would engage in furious battles which, after immense exertions and much thunderous pounding into one another, Snazzy Guy would invariably win. Shabby Guy would lie prostrate on the floor for some time before slowly reviving and preparing to enter the lists again. The battle, it seems, never ends and it is tempting to extrapolate. In the current milieu, the proponents of conservatism and limited government are the snazzy guys of the sociopolitical world. The socialist utopians and big government Statists are the shabby guys who oppose them.

“For the Statist,” writes Mark Levin in his bestselling Liberty and Tyranny, “liberty is not a blessing but the enemy. It isn’t possible to achieve Utopia if individuals are free to go their own way.” Founded on the premise of total control over the individual citizen whom it regards as a molecular constituent of the larger whole, Statism is all-encompassing and all-devouring. Thus, Levin continues, as if providing a gloss not only on a political philosophy but on Orwell’s 1984, the individual “must become reliant on and fearful of the state. His first duty must be to the state — not family, community, and faith.”

The debate involving the proper relation between the individual and the state is a hot button issue these days, but it has an impressively ancient lineage, going back at least to Plato’s Republic. And indeed, the political and philosophical argument in which we are currently embroiled, an integral part of the so-called “culture wars,” reprises with uncanny fidelity the discussion between Plato and his student Aristotle. Which term of the dialectic in play is to take precedence, the free individual or the overarching state, civil society or the governing apparatus, Snazzy or Shabby — in short, liberty or tyranny?

Plato is the father of the centralist or monist political tradition, most powerfully articulated in the works of authoritarian thinkers like Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, and in our time primarily by the philosopher John Rawls. The state Plato imagined is defined by three essential features: it is ascetic, monolithic, and mystical, a kind of organism in which the sense of oneness is created through the political bond alone. In Book II of the Politics, Aristotle took direct aim on the Republic, especially on what we would today call its communism (proposed for the Guardian class), its elitism (raising a cadre of philosopher-kings to govern the republic) and on its underlying premise that the state must be as little differentiated as possible. “Excessive unification is a bad thing in a state,” writes Aristotle. And again, “There comes a point when the effect of unification is that the state, if it does not cease to be a state, will certainly be a very worse one; it is as if one were to reduce harmony to unison or rhythm to a single beat.” He concludes, “a city must be a plurality.”

Plato desired to see the political organism become an assemblage of individuals devoid of individuality, a collection of monads, atoms, or integers emancipated from all communal or associational ties and identified exclusively with the state. There are no buffering or in-between guilds, fellowships, or “corporations.” Aristotle, on the other hand, saw the state as balanced by the power of other, smaller communities within the political order, such as kinship, religion, or locality, natural rather than artificial unions. He regarded these prepolitical, interstitial communities as vital to the human personality and to the health of what we call the civil society. He would surely have approved of Winston’s mother in 1984, who “possessed a kind of nobility … because the standards that she obeyed were private ones” rather than those of party loyalty.

Aristotle’s notion of these more intimate, intermediary unities on which the liberty of the person rests is the source of the pluralist or decentralist tradition that has been defended by conservative thinkers across the centuries, most famously by John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, and in the modern period, by Friedrich Hayek and John Kekes. “To love the whole,” counsels Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality. ... To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections.”

In other words, the individual is understood as defined by the agency of choice and native ability and by the inherent right to follow his inclinations and ambitions — to choose his friends, the groups and collegialities he wishes to belong to, the trade or profession he decides to follow — provided he remains within the boundaries of communal mutuality and respects the rights of others. A corollary of this conservative principle is that the individual is entitled, not to entitlements, but to the right to enjoy the fruits of his labor, which is to say, his property, diligently earned in the pursuit of his goals. Not is it only a question of material acquisition. “The main issue in the new American culture war,” writes Arthur Brooks in his just-published The Battle, is not merely “material riches — it is human flourishing. … People flourish when they earn their own success.” Such rights — freedom of enterprise, personal autonomy, and the legitimate possession of a significant portion of what has been earned — exemplify not “just an economic alternative but a moral imperative,” and constitute the individual citizen’s liberty.

The Statist, however, as has been often pointed out, most recently by Levin, is preoccupied not with liberty but with equality. “In his war against the individual, the free market and ultimately the civil society,” Levin writes, the “Statist must claim the power to make that which is unequal equal and that which is imperfect perfect.” The problem is that the Statist is interested not only in equality of opportunity, to which no reasonable person could object (assuming that opportunity is not manipulated to favor one class of persons over another, as, for example, affirmative action), but in equality of outcome, which sanctions the massive interventions of the state into the private domain.

This is what Levin’s immediate predecessor Brian Anderson in Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents calls “egalitarian overbidding” and the welfare state’s “tutelary despotism.” Allowed free rein, Anderson continues, “the passion for equality … undermines democracy itself,” leading to a soft despotism “under which liberty is lost and a bloated central power administers to the needs of an infantilized population.” In this way liberty subsides into tyranny as the Statist strives to “restore some mythic national community or to forge a future radical utopia.”

The Statist refuses to accept that imperfection is rooted in human nature, that some people are born brighter than others just as some people are born more beautiful or taller or more athletic than others, that individual talents and characteristics and dispositions cannot be legislated, and that hard work, unlike what is claimed for virtue, brings more than its own reward. “Whether or not we succeed,” says Arthur Brooks, “should depend on our abilities and efforts”; conversely, people should be allowed to “fail on their own merits.” Brooks appropriately cites James Madison from Federalist No. 10: the “first object of government is the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.”

We might put it this way. Economic programs should not seek to reward someone’s failure with another’s success, but to stimulate prosperity for all. The effort to establish a level playing field is certainly commendable and is the sign of a fair and compassionate society. The attempt to determine in advance and to impose the score of whatever game may be played on that field, or to hand the victor’s trophy to the loser, is destructive of human liberty and is the infallible sign of the totalitarian mindset.

The consummation of the tyrannical dream, or rather nightmare, is not equality in any meaningful sense of the term but an absence of distinguishing features, a lack of personal initiative, an attitude of submission, a renunciation of self, in short, a drab and languid sameness, a generic shabbiness. This condition was liltingly ridiculed by Gilbert & Sullivan in The Gondoliers, whose protagonists wish to turn the kingdom of Barataria into a workingman’s paradise: “The Chancellor in his peruke,/The Earl, the Marquis, and the Dook,/ The Groom, the Butler, and the cook,/They all shall equal be.”

The point is, obviously, that equality cannot be imposed from above or created by fiat. Promoting everyone “to the top of every tree,” as the operetta’s Grand Inquisitor sings — an ironic description of the redistributionist ethic — means in practice that we can all be poor, live in dismal concrete blocks, and spend our energy waiting in lines for shoes and meat — except for whoever passes for philosopher-kings and their favorites. The program which envisages so distorted an intention, whether by advancing theoretical impossibilities, entertaining romantic assumptions, applying military compulsion, or devising economic innovations, leads inevitably to personal and social calamity. “Measures to establish social equality,” warns Isaiah Berlin in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, “crush self-determination and stifle individual genius.” And Berlin was no right-wing ideologue; fiercely anti-communist, to be sure, and a proponent of pluralism, but also deeply suspicious of laissez-faire capitalism.

As the Serbian writer Milovan Djilas clearly understood, invasive state control, ostensibly devoted to improving the human lot, is always counter-productive, subject to an intrinsic flaw in its theoretical analysis of the human condition. “Men must hold both ideas and ideals,” he writes in The Unperfect Society, “but they should not regard these as wholly realizable.” The trouble with the radical sensibility that wishes to construct an ideal state on the detritus of a customary society is that it is governed by an unrealizable utopianism. This is finally why communism was bound to fail. “The communists were chiefly to blame for their own misfortunes,” which were the “result of their obstinacy in pursuing an imaginary society, the belief that they could change human nature.” Utopia, or revolutionary despotism, always fails “to bring itself into harmony … with unidealized, natural desires.”

The quest for perfection, for the comprehensive whole in which all our conflicting desires and values turn out to be somehow compatible with one another, can prove, and has proven, literally fatal. Human nature, which is not as postmodernists believe a social, intellectual, or linguistic construct, does not allow for eschatological harmonies. The slightest acquaintance with contemporary history should put us, so to speak, on red alert.

The presentiment or conviction, as Oscar Wilde sets it out in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," that Utopia is “the one country at which Humanity is always landing” and validates the “map of the world,” is always with us, of course, but it needs to be rigorously monitored. We recall that even as Tocqueville lavished praise upon the democratic experiment in the United States, he remarked upon the disturbing American inclination to exalt “the scope of human perfectibility,” an imminent danger to its well-being. As Levin and others recognize, the main battleground between the competing philosophies of conservatism and statism is now the United States. Europe seems already lost.

What the Statist has not understood, is simply incapable of acknowledging, or is prone to discounting out of an insatiable greed for power, is that the conservative principle, when it is not subverted, does not purport to flash-freeze the past and preserve it intact, as if it were a museum exhibit. It does not worship a graven image or try to resurrect a fossil. Quite the contrary. Conservatism’s mandate is to conserve what is best in the history of a people or a nation, to maintain the force of tradition that provides for cultural continuity and social stability. “If a nation does not show and teach respect for its own identity, principles, and institutions,” Levin writes, “the nation will ultimately cease to exist.”

The commitment to social cohesion, a common set of values, and broadly accepted norms of behavior, however, by no means rules out beneficial progress — a charge often levied against the conservative principle by its liberal rivals and antagonists. As Karl Popper noted in The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which he took on Plato and Hegel, “piecemeal social engineering” is a mainstay of the democratic polity. The word “engineering” may have unfortunate connotations in today’s frame of political reference, but Popper was writing at an earlier time and the emphasis is meant to fall on “piecemeal,” the gradual and considered amelioration of inequities inherent in all human societies, as opposed to the revolutionary and utopian slash-and-burn method of operation.

Snazzy Aristotle and shabby Plato are still banging heads. But the outcome of the conflict remains undecided although the shabby guys, it must be admitted, appear to have the upper hand, at least for the time being. The sorry fact is that in the actual world, befitting sequels are reversed and Snazzy Guy finds himself rather more often on the floor than his shabby opponent, both in the current scrimmage and the larger historical context. But his native resilience should not be underestimated as he picks himself up once again for yet another round in the brawl of ideologies.