At the close of the American Constitutional convention in 1787, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” to which Franklin famously replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
These words — spoken off-the-cuff by one of our nation’s most famous founders — are a challenge. The United States is one of the most powerful, most young, and most respected nations ever to appear on the world stage; and the words of Franklin concisely portrays the fragility of the force which holds it together: freedom. Unfortunately, many today do not fully understand the requirements of freedom that must be met if we intend to keep our Republic.
Very few today will tell you that freedom is improper, wrong, or impractical. Indeed, freedom and free societies are often seen as taking the moral high-ground — they assume that freedom is better than no freedom (and I agree). Yet as a result, many take freedom for granted and can forget what it means, stands for, and costs.
When I say “costs,” I’m sure you think first (as I do) of the blood that was shed to acquire it, and the blood that has been shed to keep it. But in addition to this cost, is the cost of diligence. Freedom must be maintained and handed down from one generation to the next — not only as an inheritance but also as a duty. As the brilliant Dr. Os Guinness in his book A Free People’s Suicide, points out, “Liberty is therefore a marathon and not a sprint, and the task of freedom requires vigilance and perseverance if freedom is to be sustained. If the revolution’s winning of freedom was a matter of eight years and the Constitution’s ordering of freedom was completed in thirteen years, the challenge of sustaining freedom is the task of centuries and countless generations, including our own.” Put differently, liberty isn’t winning the jackpot, it’s earning a salary.
The Requirements of Freedom
Freedom is, by its nature, a bit paradoxical. For every allowance of freedom includes the freedom to destroy freedom. Thus, to sustain freedom, certain requirements ought to be met.
Yet to say that freedom has requirements seems like an oxymoron itself; however, upon investigation, it becomes clear that to claim freedom has no requirements is to make it synonymous with anarchy. By definition, unrestrained freedom is anarchy; and while freedom appears admirable, anarchy quickly reveals its wickedness. Thus, the question is no longer whether freedom has requirements, but what it requires.
To understand the requirements of freedom it is important to understand the two different kinds of freedom: positive and negative. This is as simple as it appears. Negative freedom is freedom from constraint and regulations. Positive freedom is the freedom for excellence in whatever defines that excellence. Both are sides of the same coin, and both can and have been abused (negative freedom to promote anarchy, positive freedom enforced through excessive regulation). However, freedom requires both the negative and the positive.
Unfortunately, today many view freedom as only an issue of choice (to be free from restriction). However, we can never truly be free from everything — for that would require quarantining oneself from the outside world, which is the opposite of freedom. In the same way, excessive positive “freedom” leads to many weighty regulations on the community as a whole, which is the opposite of freedom. To quote Dr. Guinness once again, “[N]either positive nor negative freedom is complete without the other. They each describe complementary sides of the same full freedom, which always rests on two conditions: the complete absence of any abuse of power, which is of negative freedom, and a vision of a positive way of life, which is the essence of positive freedom. In a free society understood this way, free citizens are neither prevented from doing what they should (the denial of positive freedom) nor forced to do what they shouldn’t (the denial of negative freedom).”
Negative freedom is easy to understand and embrace, but with positive freedom we are much more hesitant. For in order for positive freedom not to violate negative freedom (and vice versa), the requirement of positive freedom becomes self-government. Self-government is a virtue, and virtue is moral excellence. Thus, in order for there to be a unified understanding of self-government, there must be a unified understanding of morality. As a result, freedom requires the denial of moral relativism (the idea that right and wrong are relative to the individual), and moral relativism undermines our freedom.
It is interesting that when we think of freedom we think of it as universal, not relative. We think everyone should be free, but we don’t want to claim to know what is moral. Since these beliefs contradict, my question to the reader is: do you believe in absolute moral truths, or do you believe freedom is a hoax? There is no middle ground.
The founding fathers of our nation understood this well. As Jonathan Witherspoon once warned us, “A republic, once equally poised, must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty.” Similar arguments have been made by George Washington, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams (“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”).
The truth of this argument can be plainly seen. Hans-Adam II, the reigning prince of Liechtenstein, says in his book The State in the Third Millennium that the role of the state is primarily the rule of law and foreign policy. And many others would agree (perhaps even if they disagree with his minimalist approach) that the rule of law is a primary function of the state. Thus, when a people are unruly, rebellious, or damaging to a nation, it is a proper function of a government to regulate such people. However, when most or all people behave in such a manner, the state is forced to regulate the freedom of the majority, which destroys freedom. As Benjamin Franklin once observed, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Yet if, in an attempt to be free again, the people dissolve the state, we are brought back into anarchy. And anarchy has chains of its own: any citizen can do whatever they want without a thought of consequence to another. Even if the consequences are magically restricted to the person who committed the act — such as the theoretical case of drugs — chances are high that the individual will become addicted, and freedom will still not be achieved.
This is the same issue that was dealt with by Montesquieu, Blaise Pascal, John Locke, Augustine, and Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart” before us. They may be old truths, but as many old truths, these have been forgotten by many.
The Presumption of Virtue
In order for morals to be universal, there must be a moral law-giver — namely, God. If finite and imperfect man attempts such a task, the laws would not be universal or apply to all times (for other men could come up with equally valuable standards), and we would return to relativity. Thus, in order for the virtues which support our freedom to be meaningful, they must trace their roots to God.
Virtue in itself identifies humanity’s imperfection. For if we were not imperfect, we would not need virtue. Thus, to recognize virtue is to recognize that there is something wrong in our own condition — a nature that is evil. Virtue says that we are what’s wrong with the world, and that self-government produces a proper guideline for acting against our nature. Virtue is also an act of hope — it recognizes that living for the moment is short-sighted, impractical, and ultimately wrong. Virtue assumes life after death — why else should we restrain ourselves?
Michael Knox Beran wrote of our unrealistic and dangerous ideals when it comes to elections and governments in National Review‘s November 12 issue (“Falls the Shadows”).
The pursuit of an ideal happiness in the private sphere, and the connected belief that such a happiness can be attained by transgressing customary limits, have their counterparts in the public sphere, where politics has for some time been characterized by an extravagant lack of restraint and a refusal to accept the limitations that life places on felicity. The Constitution speaks of a “more perfect Union” and assumes the fact of an imperfect world. America’s is thus a mature political order, for such an order involves an acceptance of limits, a knowledge that in a world formed as ours is, no system of politics or political economy can be wholly acceptable: One must choose the least bad.
The only ideology which coherently provides the foundation for human imperfection, virtue and freedom is Christianity. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden explain our imperfections (Genesis 3; Genesis 6:5), God’s law provides us with a basis for virtue (Exodus 20; Mark 12:28-34), and eternal life through the grace of Christ provides an incentive to be virtuous out of love (John 14:15; Ephesians 2:7-9). (If you believe you know of a belief system that is more coherent in explaining these issues, please leave us a note in the comment section below.)
The Path Towards Sustainable Freedom
So how do we sustain our freedom? Os Guinness provides a good model in A Free People’s Suicide:
Tocqueville called it “habits of the heart,” and I call it “the golden triangle of freedom” — the cultivation and transmission of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which in turn requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom and so on, like the recycling triangle ad infinitum.
See how this works? In order for freedom to operate, virtue is required; in order for virtue to operate, there must be religious faith; and in order for there to be religious faith, there must be freedom. Its cyclical nature is what perpetuates itself.
Our duty to future generations is to preserve the most free nation on the earth for future generations that they might grow to know the truth in a world of deception and lies. As the famous author Eric Metaxas tells us, “If you are serious about America, be familiar with its themes and expect to discuss them and to be tested on them. Rest assured that you will be, because America is now herself being tested on them.”
When the group of Englishmen set out on the Mayflower on their way to America in 1620, they were escaping religious persecution (see William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation). Their group became a colony, and those American colonies became the American revolutionaries over a hundred years later. The virtue of the Plymouth Plantation was strong (a point which I defended last year), and provides an honorable motivation for us today.
The Plymouth Plantation and American Revolution won freedom, our founding fathers ordered freedom with the Constitution, it is now up to us to sustain and renew our freedom by virtue.