The Contexts of Individual Liberty

At the end of the day, the best and most deeply committed collectivists ought to be advocates of a small and limited government. Why? Because the state isn’t the only collective; it’s just the most obvious one. State collectivism received a devastating critique in James R. Otteson’s recent book (reviewed here), and I want to supplement Otteson’s case: In addition to the solitary individual staring down the centralized bureaucracy, we can think about the collections of individuals in civil society who are greater than the sum of their parts.

For the danger of state collectivism isn’t just that the individual will get squashed. The smaller collectives will, too. A government that is cavalier about respecting individual freedoms is not going to go out of its way to preserve collective freedoms. China is currently the largest country in the world to set itself against the family (the one child policy) and the church (for example, the Shouwang Church). That’s unsurprising, given the Communist Party of China’s commitment to state power.

But the state isn’t the only collective in town, and it’s a mistake to think it is. It’s also wrong to think local commitments will undermine national ones. As Edmund Burke remarked, “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.” The “little platoons,” far from fostering disaffection from the state, contribute to our love of country. Burke continues, “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”

Subsidiary institutions between the state and the individual can support free and limited government in three ways. First, they can actually enhance the affection that individual citizens have for the state (as Burke notes). Second, they provide their own unique reasons for action on behalf of specific communities, and beyond the borders of those communities. Finally, subsidiary institutions raise a bulwark against the state’s natural inclination to acquire more and more power.

Take the most obvious non-state collective: the family. The family is a collection of members, tightly interwoven through natural births, adoption, marriage—and when you have Grandma come to live with you in the summertime. In some cultures, family covers a wide terrain, from your brother to your second cousin once removed. In others, family just barely covers the people under one roof (and may not even do that). Regardless, fierce family loyalty need not conflict with the state. It can actually strengthen it. Consider, for example, four generations of McCains who have served in the U.S. Navy: Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a naval aviator in Vietnam and a prisoner of war, is the son and grandson of four-star admirals, as well as the father of a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Pledging allegiance to the flag is one thing. Seeing the courage of a man you admire—your father or your grandfather—heightens that feeling.

Families naturally extend an individual’s concern beyond himself. I’m not just making the obvious point about caring for one’s spouse and children. I’m also saying that, when a man becomes a father, he becomes concerned about the neighborhood. The right of parents to educate their children has been legally recognized in cases like Meyer v. Nebraska, decided in 1923, and Farrington v. Tokushige, decided in 1927. As Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) says:

The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

We forget that these court cases were about practical, local issues: whether or not a kid in Nebraska can learn German; whether or not every child is legally required to attend public school in Oregon (and thereby closing the parochial schools that some Oregonians feared). The fierce loyalty of parents to their children cannot be overcome by state power. If it’s illegal to teach your kid German, but you think you should teach him German anyway, then you teach your kid German, regardless.

Beyond the family, ethnicity also plays a role. You teach your daughter German, or Spanish, or Chinese, generally when there are communities that speak that language. Sometimes these commitments are linguistic. Other times they arise from a shared moral imperative. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed American law and culture with the support of his family, but most importantly with the support of African Americans who took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56 or the Selma-to-Montgomery marches a decade later. Yet African Americans can speak plainly and honestly about love for country. King does in many of his speeches. Since the start of the all-volunteer military, African Americans have had levels of participation greater than their share of the U.S. population. Whatever their individual reasons for joining the military, being willing to die for one’s country certainly says something about one’s attitude towards it.

Now consider churches, synagogues, and mosques. Given that over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians, I’ll focus on churches. From local churches to denominations, and from specifically outlined organizational attachments to commitments that can’t be articulated in a flowchart, Christian religious groups bring together a cross-section of the culture. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, almost perfectly matches the income distribution of the total U.S. population, and it is nearly the same for evangelical Protestants. So that means broad socioeconomic slices of the nation intermingle within discrete religious categories.

That means the truck driver, the doctor, and the bank president all attend the same parish church. As with the family, church identity can increase one’s affection for the local community and the nation as a whole. That’s because, even more than one’s family—united by blood ties, adoption, and marriage—churchgoing thrusts you into the vast ocean that is America. But, unlike those you encounter on a trip to the local Walmart, the people at church are united to you by a shared identity. The result: you’ll be sensitive to how what’s happening locally and nationally impacts people who aren’t in your family or part of your immediate social circles.

No wonder, then, that churches can and do resist the expansion of state power. They do so directly, through court challenges, and indirectly by offering a competing moral voice. So, for example, it wasn’t individuals but churches and religiously-minded institutions that filed some of the most prominent lawsuits over the Affordable Care Act. (One obvious exception is Hobby Lobby, but, even here, the religious beliefs of the owners featured prominently in the decision.)

Families, ethnicities, and churches are simply the most obvious examples. But there are many more: the University of Texas at Austin, for example, has an alumni base of almost half a million people (which is quite a burnt orange special interest group, if you ask me). And let’s not forget the persistence of lodges, bowling clubs, and other such groups, even if we are more likely to bowl alone.

These subsidiary institutions shouldn’t simply be defended. They should be celebrated as part of the fabric of our national heritage. The First Amendment recognizes the rights of free people to worship, speak, assemble, and print what they want. It’s right to do so, because people do not face the national government alone.