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Liberty and Civilization

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On October 25, 2010
Last modified:October 13, 2012


Liberty and Civilization is 160 pages of intellectual thought on the sources of liberty in western culture. It contains essays by notable thinkers like Jeremy Rabkin, Robert Bork, Paul Johnson and others.

Liberty and Civilization is a collection of ten essays that appeared in the American Spectator magazine in 2008. The concluding chapter, by the book’s editor, ties the essays together. The book itself is compact, printed on good quality paper, and uses a very legible font that does a lot to assist the reader in plumbing some of the more thoughtful articles.

This collection focuses on liberty or freedom in Western Civilization. It explores its causes, its effects, and assesses what threatens it.

The first essay is entitled Religious Freedom and the American Inheritance. Seamus Hasson takes a close look at the source of religious liberty, why it is important, and the lack of understanding regarding the system bequethed by the Founders. He also looks at the roots of the confusion introduced by the judiciary on the topic of religious freedom. He contends:

… that legally, religion in America is a lot like sex, race, or ethnicity in America. We don’t deal with diversity by pretending we are all male. We don’t deal with it by pretending we are all white. We don’t deal with it by pretending we are all Irish. Why should we have to deal with religious diversity by pretending we are all agnostic?

Hasson briefly examines America’s history of religion in the political arena. Beginning with the Pilgrims, Hasson explodes the myth that they came from England in search of religious freedom – at least not religious freedom for everyone. He also looks at the Puritans and the Quakers as well as Roger Williams’ Rhode Island experiment.  The disputes, rules, fights against heresy, and intolerance led to a growing belief in America that people were entitled to religious freedom. But the question remained: “How do you live together with people when you disagree with them about what life means in the first place?” The answer lies in a deeper understanding of why people are entitled to religious freedom.

James Madison came up with a good argument. In drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights, “he wrote that people were entitled to religious freedom because of how they were made.”

That Religion or duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence or compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it accord[in]g to the dictates of Conscience; and therefore that no man or class of men ought, on account of religion to be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges; nor subjected to any penalties or disabilities unless under colour of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society. And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity, towards each other.

The argument follows logically enough.  If we are, as rational creatures, obligated with a natural duty to follow our consciences, then we must have a “natural right” to do so.   It is how we are made. This idea gained traction and was adopted in the Declaration of Independence – all men “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”  An unalienable right is a right that cannot even be voluntarily surrendered.

Madison’s argument is what gives legitimacy to vesting power in the people over the government.

Hasson goes on to talk about the “cognitive dissonance” introduced by invoking the concept of “natural rights” to pertain to things outside of their realm, or in disrespecting their  practice within their proper sphere.

In his discussion of the judiciary’s role in interpreting religious freedom, Hasson points out that, due to the misapplication of the 14th amendment to the Establishment Clause of the first amendment, meaning has been inverted.  This misapplication transformed a structural provision – which branch of government is responsible for what – into an individual right.  Suddenly the religious clauses of the first amendment are now tied to the word “liberty” of the 14th amendment.  “No person may be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”   Since then, the Court has been unable to agree on a stable meaning for the establishment clause.  Different factions on the court have fought for different interpretations, some secular, some traditional.

The result, is that for the last 60 years, “a more or less constant majority of the Court has remained committed to scouring religion from public culture, without ever knowing quite why it must do so.”

Hasson concludes his essay with a compelling argument to remove this linkage between the establishment clause and the first amendment, and return to founding principles and intent.  He contends that the reason we have religious freedom in America is because human beings have a natural right to it and our system of government was built on that principle.

Paul Johnson’s essay follows Hasson’s and examines the significance of private property as an essential component of liberty.  Johnson’s writing is wonderfully clear, concise and logical.  In Individual Liberty and Private Property, he argues that the right of property is fundamental to free society.

Johnson contrasts the societies of Greece and Rome with that of the Germanic tribes that settled in Britain.  Without private property guaranteed by the rule of law, freedom cannot be maintained.  Johnson takes his reader through a brief history of English monarchs and their missteps and provides examples of how a propertied class, not dependent on the king, was able to keep the king in check by settling the big question:  “Was the king subject to the rule of law as much as anyone else?”  Once this was answered in the affirmative, it paved the way for (at least initially) wealthy aristocrats to challenge the abuses of government.

However, it wasn’t just the wealthy who ultimately gained sway.  Private property in the form of land ownership became a defining factor in American political life.   A people vested with freedom and the expectation of improving their lives are a happy people on the whole.  However, Johnson argues that once property is no longer sacrosanct and the poor are disenfranchised, social unrest follows.

Poverty, or more correctly the consciousness of poverty, depends not just on income, but also on possessions.  The very poor own virtually nothing, and to them the democratic apparatus of the state is meaningless, if not actually hostile.  When the propertyless are a majority they either withdraw from the public process altogether or invest their hopes in some kind of radical revolutionary change, hopes that call forth brutal repressive measures from those who stand to lose from any change to the status quo.   Either way, freedom is the first casualty.

Johnson concludes by asserting that the best way to ensure freedom is to secure property ownership for as many in society as possible, in particular home ownership.  He contrasts the collectivist impulses of socialists who contend that the needs of the working class are best served by publicly subsidized rents for housing. Interestingly enough, Johnson points out that the social consequences of this have been disastrous, and that such policies have been largely abandoned.  While the consequences have indeed been disastrous, Johnson wrote this essay in 2008, well before the administration’s 5 year plan and the House (HB 4690) and Senate bills, advocating just such a course.

Anne Applebaum’s essay  takes a different approach and examines the consequences of a society that is not vested with freedom.  In Liberty in the Post Communist World, she looks at the workings of a “civil society.”   She uses the example of the Polish Women’s League, first in 1945 – prior to the influence of communism, and then how this organization was taken over and supplanted by the communist government.  Her analysis of what happens to a society that is stripped of self-reliance and taught to fear responsibility is even more interesting.

Applebaum contrasts Poland and Soviet Russia and illustrates the moderating influence of the Catholic Church in the former and the totality of control in the latter.  Accordingly, Applebaum is more sanguine about the future of Eastern Europe than of Russia.

Remi Brague’s essay, Liberty and the Judaeo-Christian Inheritance, is a philosophical analysis that fits very well with the first essay in the book.  He more fully develops the nature of man’s relationship with his creator and dives even deeper than Madison’s “natural rights,” although he does not contradict the concept.

Brague starts out with two assumptions: 1.) liberty is not a merely political fact (it is in the nature of man), and 2.) liberty in the political realm is not a phenomenon of the enlightenment (it is part of a far older tradition that is traceable through the Old Testament.)

In his essay, Brague takes us on a tour of the the Old Testament, looks at slavery from an historical and philosophical standpoint, and gives God a job!   (God’s “job” is to free people.)   Brague offers many insights which may surprise some readers. His comparison of Islam to Judaeo-Christian beliefs is especially interesting.  In particular, Brague points out that according to Islam, everyone is born into that faith.  Any disobedience to that “natural” religion is worse than heresy, it’s treason.  Brague’s arguments are compelling and logical.

Robert Bork brings us back from the sources of liberty to a discussion of the limits of individual freedom. In his essay, Individual Liberty as The Constitution Understands It, Judge Bork is forthright in his analysis of where we are as country and why.  His writing is extremely rational and logical … and angry.

Bork discusses the significance of many landmark court cases in his arguments against judicial activism and the inverse application of the Bill of Rights.  Bork asserts that the Bill of Rights was never intended to guarantee libertine behavior, which he contrasts with liberty in his discussion of its limits.

According to Bork, who in turn cites Irving Kristol, moral anarchy is a key component of the liberal ethos.

Moral anarchy is usually discussed as favoring liberty.  It should not be.   As such things as incessant vulgarity, obscenity and pornography, rap music celebrating the violent abuse of women and the killing of police proliferate, persons who want to live and raise families in a decent environment are deprived of a crucial liberty – one that they have tried to preserve through laws and regulation, only to find themselves overruled by courts entranced by the liberal ethos Kristol described.

Bork supports his arguments again by citing Court decisions and then juxtaposes their protection of such “free speech” with what he refers to as the Court’s  “unremitting hostility to public manifestations of religious belief.” He continues with other examples of areas in which the Court has begun to legislate and create new interpretations of the Constitution out of whole cloth.  He quotes Justice Scalia:

What secret knowledge, one must wonder, is breathed into lawyers when they become Justices of this Court, that enables them to discern a practice which the text of the Constitution does not clearly proscribe, and which our people have regarded as constitutional for 200 years, is in fact unconstitutional? … Day by day, case by case, [this Court] is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize.

Bork ends his essay by saying that we are in the midst of a culture war which must be won if freedom is to prevail.

Every essay in this book is thought provoking and educating.  It is, therefore, fitting that one of them is devoted to academic freedom.   Robert P. George’s is entitled Academic Freedom and What it Means Today.  In it, he discusses what an education in liberal arts should mean and the efforts to co-opt it.  He is very direct in his critique.

George also explores the confusion between the concepts of libertinism and liberty.  He argues that “if it feels good, do it” is not a moral strategy that  prepares responsible citizens. In fact,  to postulate that reason must always be the slave of passion, is antithetical to a real liberal arts education.  George asserts the true liberal arts ideal

… is rooted in the conviction that there are human goods and a common good, in the light of which we have reasons to constrain, to limit, to regulate, and even to alter our desires.

George uses Washington as an example.  George Washington’s constant efforts to conduct himself as a virtuous person with self-mastery, epitomize this concept.  Dr. George concludes that the ability to transcend self is freedom from slavery to self.

In Feminism and Freedom, Christine Sommers outlines the history of the feminist movement and describes the two complementary and sometimes contending philosophical schools.  These were typified by Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More. On the one side was a near total rejection of the notion of differences between men and women, and on the other a celebration and exploitation of those differences.   Both had as a goal, political and societal equality.  Today, Wollstonecraft’s school is typified by the vile Vagina Monologues and those who glorify them.

Sommers quotes Clare Booth Luce to summarize her own view and that of Hannah More.

It is time to leave the question of the role of women in society to Mother Nature — a difficult lady to fool.  You have only to give women the same opportunities as men, and you will soon find out what is or is not in their nature.  What is in women’s nature to do, they will do, and you won’t be able to stop them.  But you will also find, and so will they, that what is not in their nature, even if they are given every opportunity, they will not do, and you won’t be able to make them do it.

The last two essays in the book deal with the locale of liberty.  In particular, Jeremy Rabkin, in his Liberty and the Nation State, discusses the circumstances which are unique to national organizations and allow freedom to exist.  Rabkin, like several of the other essayists in this collection, cites the Federalist Papers in making his arguments.  In fact, both he and Judge Bork refer to the same Federalist – No. 2.  While Bork refers to the problems likely to occur from the encouragement of diversity for diversity’s sake, Rabkin uses Jay’s words to explain the glue that holds nations together.

Rabin goes on to discuss the problems faced by the EU and the dichotomy between the lack of enfranchisement of Europeans and the power that is being wielded without oversight.   He also discusses the subversion of the UN and the hypocrisy innate in such an organization.

In Freedom and the City, Brian Anderson also looks at where liberty flourishes, and at the historical impact of the city as an engine for economic liberty.  According to Anderson, the city is is the source of civility and urbanity.  Furthermore, early missionaries were compelled to spread the gospel where the people were – the cities.  His thesis: “without the city, no democracy, no Christianity, no capitalism, no West.”

Like Paul Johnson,  Anderson looks at social engineering in the cities as disastrous.  He calls out the city planners and liberal establishment for trying to do away with poor neighborhood ecosystems via centralized planning and strictures on zoning.  Interestingly enough, he quotes the book’s editor, Roger Scruton who claims that the slums are “harmonious classical streets of affordable houses, seeded with local industries, corner shops, schools and places of worship, that had made it possible for real communities to flourish in the center of towns.”

Anderson also looks at the results of the modern welfare state and the impact on the city.  He uses New York as a case in point and explores the calamitous effect of having 1.1 million people on welfare in 1995, and the turn around under Mayor Giuliani.

He concludes with a sober assessment of the current state of affairs.

Middle-class families have started to trickle back into urban areas, but high taxes and unacceptable public schools stand as obstacles to further renewal.  The crime turnarounds demand  perpetual vigilance.  And left-wing “community organizers” and interest groups work night and day to bring back the ruinous policies of the liberal era.  Worse, they now have their national leader: Barak Obama, a man wedded to a refuted conception of the city and its needs.

Liberty and Civilization is a book worthy of attention.  If these essays typify the caliber of material in the American Spectator, then it’s a journal that merits subscription.


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