How Classical Liberalism Preserves Tradition

At an excellent colloquium on Tradition, Culture and Citizenship run by the Tradition Project of St. John’s Law School, a central question was what kind of politics allows traditions to flourish in the modern world. For me the clear answer is classical liberalism.

The classical liberal order leaves space for tradition in two ways. First, it justifies a state which has its object only providing the public goods that the family and the market cannot provide. As a result, the state has no business imposing wide ranging obligations that may burden traditional practices, so long as those practices do not interfere with these relatively few public goods, like the rule of the law, national defense and the regulation of substantial externalities, like pollution, that the state provides.

Second, classical liberalism recognizes that mediating institutions, like churches and mutual aid societies, are themselves important producers of public goods. It is these mediating institutions that are best at handing down traditions from generation to generation. A classical liberal constitution in fact provides special protection for religious exercise and free association in part to facilitate these institutions and reduce the need for the state to use its coercive power to produce public goods. The exercise of state power on behalf of public goods has many downsides, because citizens have such trouble controlling their agents through voting. Thus, the state is always in danger of becoming a movable feast of rent-seeking. Mediating institutions can, in contrast, be controlled though exit. Members won’t put up with others free riding on them.

Nevertheless, at the conference interesting objections were raised based on the view that classical liberalism is not ultimately coherent and inevitably yields to a left liberalism which justifies a large state devoted to social engineering and much less friendly to tradition and mediating institutions. The reason for the slippage is that liberalism seeks to protect autonomy—really the liberation of the self—and comes to see many of the mediating institutions, particularly religion, as preventing the free choices of individuals. Thus, to give an example, left liberalism wants to have the state run education to make sure that young people have the choice of whether to continue with the traditions of their parents. That was the basis of Justice Douglas’s opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder, where he argued that the state must be permitted to educate Amish children through high school even if that education harms the Amish way of life.

This objection has some sociological but no analytic force.  It is wholly consistent to believe that the state should prevent others from using force to constrain choices, but should not try to prevent general social influences that affect those choices. It is not even clear how the state would contain social influence in any  politically neutral way. As one of the participants noted, no left liberal seems concerned about the indoctrination someone might get who grew up solely on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Living in that precinct can be an encompassing way of life as well.

Indeed, left liberalism’s desire to liberate the self from tradition is itself not coherent.  While individual autonomy can be understood as freedom from the coercion of force or fraud, it cannot sensibly be understood as freedom from influence. Our decisions occur because of influences—be it those of family, friends, or schools.  There is no self that is actualized only by the self.