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.

Reader Discussion

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on November 07, 2017 at 12:33:26 pm

"There is no self that is actualized only by the self."

This may be true "analytically", as the author suggests, but in practice, channeling Rieff, it is false "sociologically." The attempt to achieve a totally autonomous self is exactly how we operate. To say that something is false in the abstract isn't to say that it can't be true in practice, and I'd argue that that is exactly where we are.

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on November 07, 2017 at 18:38:44 pm

As the professor suggests (or outright says), you can be an autonomous agent, a person beyond the influence of coercion or threat who makes their own intentional choices--while still being shaped by other people's lives.

If I watch someone play baseball and decide of my own free-will (without being bribed or threatened) to take up the sport because I believe that it will be intrinsically enjoyable--I am still an autonomous agent, even though I am self-actualizing vicariously through another. Obviously, until I've actually starting playing my self and have personally affirmed that I intrinsically enjoy the sport, I can't say that I've taken a path toward self-actualization.

But the fact that the reason I had to believe that I would enjoy the sport, came not from any personal revelations, but from watching others, doesn't mean that I can't trust the feeling that I may in fact enjoy it. I don't need to feel like I would enjoy baseball apart from ever seeing others playing it, to be a fully autonomous agent..

Just as, I don't need to come to the conclusion there is a god (or isn't one) on my own, to be a fully autonomous agent. I can be persuaded by another, so long as it is by rational arguments and facts, and not bribery or threat. So long as I make the decision myself, I can make the decision based on arguments and information others have provided.

Autonomy is not about not being persuaded or inspired by others, its about searching one's own feelings and beliefs and values, and coming to one's conclusions and decisions on one's own (after hearing all the arguments, facts, etc.) irrespective of government bans on certain religions or activities.

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on November 07, 2017 at 21:49:51 pm

We can all agree that we shouldn't do traditions for traditions-sake. You don't go to church because you're parents did, you don't avoid drugs because you're parents did. But you can do these things so long as you think they are good ideas, and you should not do these things if you think they are bad ideas. But your decision whether to do them or not should be based on reason and logic, not because that's how they've always been done, or that's what my family has always done.

The question is, how old does something have to be to be a tradition? Are the bill of rights a tradition or are they still revolutionary since the middle east hasn't adopted them? What about the Warren Court decisions like Brown, Mapp and Griswold--much of Europe still doesn't use the exclusionary rule or the ninth amendment, does that mean they're still revolutionary?

Is Brown revolutionary for my parents, because they were born a few years before it, and a tradition for me, because i was born decades after it? Millennials think the Warren Court is part of the fabric of America and can't imagine living in "backwards"/"third-world" countries that don't have these rights yet. When we go to a country without separation of church and state, the exclusionary rule, or the freedom to have an abortion, it's literally like going back in time. America is literally centuries ahead of nearly all the world---that is why Millennials sympathize with migrants who simply want to come to the future that is the U.S.

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Millennial 101
on November 08, 2017 at 14:20:26 pm

Ha! That's one of those classic dismissive remarks offered by economists, philosophers, and people who study the flight of bumble bees: "Well, your thesis may be all right in practice--but how does it work in theory?"

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on November 08, 2017 at 15:10:49 pm

luvv'd it!

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on November 08, 2017 at 15:13:49 pm

Hereditary slavery was a traditional way of life. Classical liberalism precludes hereditary slavery. Ergo, the implementation of classical liberalism destroys tradition. Q.E.D.

Now, I suspect McGinnis and I might agree that liberalism reflects an effort to optimize the trade-offs between autonomy and traditional ways. But to agree with that proposition, McGinnis would need to acknowledge that there is a trade-off.

Moreover, I do not regard my extreme example as so atypical of the trade-offs in this world. Arguably parents exercise control over their unemancipated children that looks a lot like slavery. When the state intervenes to keep a husband from abusing the other people in his household, some people regard this as an intrusion into the husband’s traditional authority, and into the husband’s autonomy. Others regard it as a vindication of the autonomy interests of the other family members. I would regard it as both.

And as we get into the weeds of what classical liberalism entails, the trade-offs proliferate. Sure, classical liberals would agree that people should have autonomy rights. They might even agree that the state should defend those rights. But they might disagree about the specific behaviors that state agents should engage in (or refrain from) to vindicate autonomy rights.

As a concrete example, a classical liberal might agree that a criminal defendant should have the right to remain silent. (Assuming the classical liberal acknowledged a criminal code, and the need for criminal proceedings.) But would the classical liberal acknowledge that the arresting officer has an affirmative duty to inform the defendant of her rights at the time of the arrest? Because traditionally I expect that many defendants would regard themselves as in the posture of a slave—submit to what the person with power demands of you, or face physical punishment. Police might not have the legal discretion to impose the punishment, but defendants wouldn’t necessarily know that. I suspect there was a traditional mode of existence in many places regarding the interactions between cops and citizens who frequently came within the cop’s custody. When cops had to start informing/reminding people that they had no duty to cooperate with the cops—indeed, when cops started having to acknowledge out loud that defendants had no duty to cooperate—I expect that this altered a traditional dynamic that stretched back to the days of Scotland Yard.

Now consider people living in the most traditional societies you can imagine. Hunter-gather societies. Self-sufficient agricultural societies. Amish societies. Hassidic societies. Traditional Native American societies. The monks depicted in Kung Fu. The people depicted in Fiddler on the Roof. People grew up in these societies never realizing that any other life was possible—or, at least, that any other life was available to them. And the authority figures in those societies would have interacted with other members of the society based on the presumption that the members of the society had no viable path to leave. In this environment, arranged marriages would flourish because, well, that’s all there is.

Along comes modernity, offering to the people in these societies the option—not a mandate, but an option—of pursuing something else. What result? Traditional life for those who choose to leave is forever altered. But also, traditional life for those who stay is forever altered. The authority figures no longer wield the same authority, because people now know that they have alternatives to yielding to the authority.

Since it’s the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, compare the lives of European Christians before and after the reformation. Before the reformation, what relationship did people have to their religious authorities? And given this fact, how did those authorities behave? Fast forward to an era when there are multiple churches in every town, and people have the discretion to choose among them. What has happened to autonomy? And what has happened to tradition?

Compare lives in black ghettos before integration and after: Afterwards, the most upwardly mobile blacks chose to move out. Hey, that’s autonomy. Their choice to move out altered their lives forever. And it altered the lives of the people they left behind forever.

Compare the lives in the Soviet Bloc countries, before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall: same dynamic.

Compare the lives of American women before and after the rise of no-fault divorce: pretty similar dynamic, anyway.

Compare the lives of gay Americans before and after the rise of LGBT recognition: pretty similar dynamic, at least in most urban areas.

You can like these results. You can hate these results. But the one thing you cannot do is conclude that granting people greater autonomy had no effect on tradition.

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on November 09, 2017 at 12:23:37 pm

McGinnis does not sketch for us what he means by the term classical liberalism is but I assume he means the Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Hamilton-Madison line of liberal Anglo-American Whiggism that emerged after 1660. Such liberalism simply did not preclude slavery before the 19th Century. Rather, as private property is the corner stone of this strain of liberal political philosophy and slaves were certainly private property; Anglo-American Whigs found themselves defending hereditary bond slavery to the last ditch at Appomattox.

On the other hand, there is another line of thought that emerged from the English Reformation, Democratic-Republicanism, which took less account of property and paid more attention to political rights and the need to limit any state or national government. Democratic-Republicanism is based on local communities rather than the state. Whigs' summum bonum is and always was property; Democratic-Republicans' summum bonum is and always was salus populi suprema bonum est.

Whigs emerged from the Presbyterian faction of the Long Parliament. Democratic-Republicans emerged from the Independent faction of the same Parliament. The Independent faction settled New England between 1630-50 and the Presbyterian faction along with old royalists settled the southern plantation economies and the mid-Atlantic Crown Colonies after 1650.

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on November 09, 2017 at 13:47:52 pm

Yep. Exactly what I was after.

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