By Derek Monson
What is American freedom? With terrorists killing hundreds of civilians at a time as part of an existential attack on the West and its cultural and philosophical ideas, this question is becoming very important.
Perhaps we can best approach it by answering a different question: Which philosophical view of freedom is the most sensible one for America? One way to come at this question is to look at the core idea of freedom within each perspective, and consider where the logic of that idea leads. At its core, if American freedom is to be valuable and good to people, then it ought to point them toward lives that are desirable and worth aspiring to.
So let’s start with the libertarian view. As David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute writes in the opening pages of his 2015 book The Libertarian Mind, “Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom … libertarians believe people ought to be free to live as they choose unless advocates of coercion can make a compelling case.” In other words, the core of the libertarian idea of freedom is freedom from coercion.
The full definition of “coerce” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is “to restrain or dominate by force,” “to compel to an act or choice,” or “to achieve by force or threat.” So freedom from coercion means freedom from things that use force or threat to restrain, dominate or compel our choices.
So where does the logic of that idea take us? Many of the most basic actions of a human being are, in fact, compelled by threat or force. Our bodies force us to eat regularly, drink, breathe and sleep under threat of pain, suffering and even death. So if we follow the core libertarian logic of freedom to its end, it would seem that the ultimate act of freedom is to end one’s own life, in order to liberate yourself from the coercion of everyday human life.
That is plainly nonsensical.
How about the progressive view of freedom? In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, President Barack Obama writes that “implicit in the Constitution’s structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth.” So the core idea of progressive freedom is freedom from absolute truth.
But this core idea of progressive freedom is nonsensical on its face. How can a person reasonably maintain that there is absolutely no such thing as absolute truth? The logic contradicts itself in the first instance. Because of that, it’s hard to see how this contradictory logic could lead people anywhere except into a contradictory existence – a life with an innate lack of coherent meaning. Is meaninglessness something that anyone, anywhere reasonably aspires to?
Finally, let’s look at the conservative view of freedom. In a 1774 speech upon his arrival in Bristol, England, Edmund Burke said “The only liberty I mean is a liberty connected with order, that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist without them.” So the core idea of conservative freedom is freedom grounded in order and virtue.
The full definition of “virtue” in Merriam-Webster includes “conformity to a standard of right” or morality, “a particular moral excellence,” “a commendable quality or trait,” or “a capacity to act.” So freedom grounded in order and virtue means freedom grounded in a structure that includes moral excellence, commendable human traits and the capacity to freely act. The logic of this core idea points people toward lives defined by the cultivation of moral goodness toward themselves and others, development of praiseworthy abilities and personality traits, and free human activity. In other words, the core conservative logic of freedom points to a life that most of us already desire and are currently aspiring to.
So what is American freedom? Insofar as the core logic of the competing ideas of freedom can answer that question, the conservative view of freedom would seem to be it. In a time defined by extremists attacking the West with both physical violence and ideological propaganda, we would do well as Americans to think carefully about what idea of freedom we stand for. Because if we don’t get the American idea of freedom right, we will lose the battle of ideas that is as important to defeating terrorism as the military battles are.