The Primacy of Liberty

Is progress an unmitigated good? Not for everyone. As social arrangements shift, some benefit while others are uprooted. Scientific advances, especially in the short run, have often been “combined with that suffering which is inseparable from extensive changes in the condition of the people,” observed the great English historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg, a.k.a., Lord Acton (1834-1902). Yet it is just such volatile events that occasion “men of speculative or imaginative genius” to make matters far worse by dreaming up utopian societies reminiscent of “the legends of the golden age.”

Topping the list is the belief in a mythical aboriginal paradise of unlimited and unclaimed resources. In his revised version of Genesis in The Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) declared that such a state ended when the first human appropriated a piece of ground, claiming it as his alone, an act from which all other evils originated—moral, social, and economic. Although pure fantasy, the political potential of Rousseau’s myth is dynamite. “Only the attraction of an abstract idea, or of an ideal state, can unite, in a common action, multitudes who seek a universal cure for many special evils,” said Lord Acton. But if notoriously effective in inciting revolt, those “false principles cannot serve as a basis for the reconstruction of civil society.”

Acton identified three preeminent, nefarious abstractions: “the theories of equality, Communism, and nationality,” specifically the “improper” nationality meaning authoritarian, variety. Unlike the “proper” version, this was “not only the most powerful auxiliary of revolution, but its actual substance.” With uncanny foresight, Lord Acton all but predicted the emergence of nationalist socialism, the three-headed hydra of leveling: one vision, one race, one dictator/party. Lord Acton would not have been in the least surprised by Hitler’s Arian militarism, Stalin’s anti-“cosmopolitan” communism, Chinese hegemonism, and now neo-tsarist Putinism.

Slyly manipulated by powerful elites, these abstractions spread throughout Europe. By the twentieth century, England stood nearly alone in appreciating their evil potential. For through the centuries, the British had developed the political capacity to implement the necessary checks on government. What is more, argues Lord Acton, they understood that “a people averse to the institution of private property, is without the first element of freedom.” Americans are the lucky inheritors of this legacy.

In pre-modern times, it had been the duties of men to their superiors that mattered most. Nobles had duties to the king, peasants to their lands, and so on. This had gradually been changing throughout the Middle Ages, culminating in the thought of John Locke (1632-1704), sometimes considered the “Father of Liberalism.” The English physician and philosopher’s most revolutionary contribution to political thought, according to political theorist Leo Strauss, was a “shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights.” In Locke, writes Strauss, “the individual, the ego, had become the center and origin of the moral world, since man—as distinguished from man’s end—had become that center or origin.”

This idea may suggest an atomic, monadic notion of individualism, yet Locke believed in a “common humanity.” We are “by nature fitted to form unions, societies, and states,” he wrote in The Second Treatise of Government (VI. 63). Unlike the Stoics who attributed this propensity to “the sense of mutual attraction [by feelings of benevolence and sympathy] which unites human beings,” Locke thought it rather “grounded on [man’s] having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will.” In his view, it is common reason, not sentiment, that philosophically justifies the equality of natural rights defined as life, liberty, and “estate,” which all fall under the right to personal property and the fruit of one’s labor. He did not disagree that sympathy is important, but reason sufficed to justify consensual rule.

Locke had thus pioneered the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment, which according to Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, “took a form very different from that of its counterpart on the continent.” For while the Scots like Adam Smith and David Hume acknowledged that reason is common to all human beings, it was the virtues of benevolence and sympathy “which, the British believed, naturally, instinctively, habitually bound people to each other. They did not deny reason; they were by no means irrationalists. But they gave reason a secondary, instrumental role.” Or as she put it elsewhere, “[w]here the British idea of compassion lent itself to a variety of practical, meliorative policies to relieve social problems, the French appeal to reason could be satisfied with nothing less than the ‘regeneration’ of man.” Whereas the French were engaging in Platonic republic-building, the practical Brits were working with humans as they were, not as they might be.

A system that claims to substitute equality for liberty will inevitably sacrifice both.

This was even more true of the Scots. For while they agreed with Locke regarding the centrality of the individual in political life, the universality of rights, and the need to protect the rule of law against illegitimate government power, no matter how putatively well-intentioned, they put greater faith in common sense. Ultimately, the combined Anglo-Saxon contribution to the American experience exceeded that of the French. Had it been otherwise, wrote Himmelfarb, “Americans could have injected into their Revolution a larger utopian mission, rather than the pragmatic, cautious temper conspicuous in The Federalist and the Constitution.” A great admirer of Lord Acton, she agreed with his view of the American revolutionist as the true liberal. He is someone who “stakes his life, his fortune, the existence of his family,” wrote Lord Acton, “not to resist the intolerable reality of oppression, but the remote possibility of wrong, of diminished freedom.” The American Constitution was unique in being both democratic and liberal: “It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess…. It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law.”

Lord Acton had disdained the French revolutionaries whose notorious “passion for equality made vain the hope of freedom.” He advocated semantic vigilance. For “[i]f hostile interests have wrought much injury,” he wrote in The History of Freedom in Antiquity, “false ideas [about liberty] have wrought still more.” Lord Acton was prepared to offer a proper definition: “By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.” Ideally, such an assurance should be provided to every human being, unqualifiedly. A just state will do that; but whether that assurance is effective depends on prudent statecraft. Going one step beyond Aristotle, Lord Acton offered an objective criterion: “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”

Foremost among those minorities are the Jews, whom Lord Acton praised for their moral and political acumen. He credited “the Chosen People [with providing] the first illustrations of a federated government, held together not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant. The principle was carried out not only in each tribe, but in every group of at least 120 families; and there was neither privilege of rank nor inequality before the law.” Their example, alongside the American experiment, thus offers a useful lesson. “[T]he parallel lines on which all freedom has been won,” wrote Acton, are clear: “the doctrine of national tradition and the doctrine of the higher law; the principle that a constitution grows from a root, by process of development, and not of essential change; and the principle that all political authority must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.”

Writing in The New Criterion at the turn of the new millennium, Gertrude Himmelfarb found Lord Acton perhaps more relevant than ever. She was convinced that “a generation that has experienced the horrors of totalitarianism and the atrocities of the Holocaust can appreciate, as his contemporaries could not, the importance he attached to the principles of liberty and morality, and even prescient.” Yet the opposite has happened: far from resisting the slow encroachment of illiberalism, elites went woke. Egalitarianism has metastasized into a virtual secular religion, perhaps to compensate for the decline of traditional ethical principles that have long been predicated on human agency and responsibility.

Perhaps the pessimism of Acton’s aristocratic French counterpart, Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville (1805-1859), had been justified. Though conceding that democracies have a natural taste for freedom, Tocqueville feared that “for equality, their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.” His prognosis was dire: “All men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion, will be overthrown and destroyed by it.”

But all is not yet lost. Lord Acton’s vision, consistent with the Declaration of Independence, based on natural individual rights in a biblical context, offers a warning, yet stops short of declaring the battle lost. A political system that sacrifices liberty to any other goal is logically incapable of being good: “[L]iberty is not a means to a higher political end,” he declared. “It is itself the highest political end.” A system that ignores that fact by claiming to substitute equality for liberty will inevitably sacrifice both, as anyone who has experienced such a tragedy will testify. May we learn liberty’s indispensability before we lose it.