You are for liberty, but what kind? 5 conceptions of liberty classified by a political philosopher

11 Aug

From Professor Carl Scott:

In American civic and political life, nearly everyone is a champion of liberty, but not everyone means the same thing by that term. We hold several conflicting ideas about liberty, though we are usually unaware of that fact. This lack of awareness means that, whenever a conflict between these conceptions leads to a political dispute, people on all sides of the dispute are apt to be shocked and to regard their opponents either as enemies of liberty or as lacking any understanding of what it really means.

This adds to both the bitterness and the confusion of our most prominent political and cultural battles. To better understand our common life, therefore, we need to step back and examine the different meanings of liberty and how they have played out in our history and continue to shape our contemporary debates.

When we carefully consider the idea of liberty through the lens of the American political tradition, we find that Americans have held, and continue to hold, five interlocking but distinct understandings of the term. First and foremost, liberty has been regarded as the protection of natural rights — a notion of liberty we might simply call “natural-rights liberty.” Second, we have taken liberty to refer to the self-governance of a local community or group, a conception we might call “classical-communitarian liberty.” Third, we have taken the term to refer to economic individualism, or what we might call “economic-autonomy liberty.” Fourth, we have understood it to refer to the social justice of the national community, or what might be called “progressive liberty.” And fifth, we have understood liberty to refer to moral individualism, which we can call “personal-autonomy liberty.”

Each of these has a claim to being the correct conception of political liberty, as well as the most genuinely American one. Over the course of America’s political history, these conceptions have been posed against one another in various ways, and several have also cooperated with or been combined with one another. But they are theoretically distinct and fundamentally in tension in ways that have shaped our history and will certainly shape our future as well.


The first two conceptions of liberty can be plainly discerned in the political thought and action of the founding era and the early republic. The core principles of natural-rights liberty are those expressed in the opening of the Declaration of Independence, and they are correctly regarded as reflecting the teachings of John Locke, as well as other early-modern liberal thinkers. The core practice of classical-communitarian liberty, meanwhile, is given most vivid display by Alexis de Tocqueville in his descriptions of the participatory townships he observed in 1830s New England. That the principles and practice of early-American politics tended to answer to two different understandings of liberty is one key reason why the political teaching of the American founding is no simple matter.

In contending with some political questions, such as breaking away from Britain, these two conceptions complemented one another. But regarding other questions, such as the ratification of the Constitution, they tended to oppose one another. Many of the Anti-Federalists — the writers and activists who opposed ratification — insisted that the key political unit for the fostering of liberty would have to remain the small polis-like republic, whereas the authors of the Federalist Papers famously made a case for the superior ability of the extended republic to secure natural rights.

Of course, certain Lockean understandings of politics permeated the thought of many of the Anti-Federalists as well. Their most eloquent 20th-century scholarly champion, Wilson Carey McWilliams, stressed that, although they seldom spoke about “private rights,” they “characteristically spoke of a state of nature.” Similarly, aspects of the classical-communitarian conception permeated the thinking of the founders most consistently associated with the natural-rights tradition. Thomas Jefferson had an appreciation for the wisdom of communitarian republicanism — he urged Virginia to imitate New England’s township pattern of local government and encouraged all Americans to maintain an agrarian way of life. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton not only adopted the Roman republican pen name “Publius” when writing the essays that composed the Federalist Papers but made examinations of ancient confederacies, founders, and constitutions key parts of their argument. Still, it is easy to show that Jefferson was more Lockean than classical republican when it came to the fundamentals of politics, and it is easy to recall several famous passages from the Federalist Papers that warn that small republics foster, among other rights-endangering maladies, majority faction and continual war-making.

Natural-rights doctrine did a great deal to light the fire of American independence: We can trace its influence upon key figures like James Otis, John Dickinson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and others, and we can work out the way it supplied key doctrines of the revolution. (It is visible, for instance, in the maxim “no taxation without representation.”) What is not as widely understood is that the classical-communitarian conception of liberty was at least as critical to American political life in that era.

This point is well illustrated by an anecdote from the 1840s about a conversation between an elderly veteran of the Battle of Concord, Levi Preston, and a young historian, Mellon Chamberlain. When Chamberlain asked Preston whether he and his fellows had been influenced by James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Locke, Preston said he had “never heard of ’em. We only read the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.” When asked why he and his fellows had fought the British, he said, “[W]e had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” As Tocqueville and many historians have suggested, the experience of a comparatively high degree of community self-rule which had developed among the Americans, colony by colony and town by town, was a primary cause of their vigorous resistance to Britain’s effort to increase its control of colonial affairs after 1763. That experience had significant influence in key respects prior to their widespread adoption of natural-rights doctrine.

Over time, the hold that the classical-communitarian conception of liberty had exercised over our thought and sentiment ebbed, particularly as the prominence of the town in American life diminished. Still, it has remained an important, albeit lesser, part of the American political tradition, providing sustenance to groups like the Populists and the Southern agrarian writers, and to all sorts of theorists wanting to promote fraternity or “participatory democracy.” Its common identification with the practice of Christian brotherly love extends back to its colonial Puritan and Quaker articulations, and, while that identification is not emphasized by all of its contemporary proponents, it remains important.

The natural-rights doctrine, of course, retained a central place in American political thought and most notably was re-emphasized by Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship. The embarrassing fact of America’s initial toleration of slavery reminds us, however, of an important self-limiting aspect of natural-rights liberty. The Declaration’s third sentence begins with the word “prudence,” and goes on to explain that revolutions for the sake of securing natural rights should occur only when a pattern of serious violations against them has become evident and indicates a trend toward tyranny. A similar spirit of prudence pervades the Federalist Papers, which is one long reflection about what kind of union and government is necessary to preserve liberty given what experience teaches us about human nature, political dynamics, and geostrategic realities. Though the leading founders regarded slavery as a basic violation of natural rights, they evidently made the judgment that they could not get the Constitution ratified if they were to first insist upon slavery’s dismantling; this was another instance of prudence at work, as they understood it.

The founders were not for a come-what-may insistence upon perfectly securing all natural rights, nor were they for following out every implication of natural-rights thought. Such radicalism would likely result in the inability to establish or maintain effective government, and thus in the inability to secure any rights at all. Instead, the founders (and perhaps adherents of natural-rights liberty in America more generally) understood liberty as the prudential protection of natural rights.

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