Auster and the folks at View from the Right have an interesting discussion going on concerning traditionalism’s understanding of freedom: “Has VFR failed to define political freedom?” It involves my favorite V.F.R. commentator, Kristor, as well as a civil Randian. This libertarian Bob is evidently a funny man; he referred to Kristor as Auster’s “Realist philosophical consultant.”
I wrote the following comment to Auster:
Regarding your freedom discussion with Bob A., I think that it is important to emphasize Kristor’s point about the moral virtue and cultural strength of a self-governing citizenry. Bob A. rightly worries about the insane excesses of the majority. Imagine being ruled by the current residents of San Francisco, were they to have plenary power. That would involve a nightmarish tyranny of the absurd. The libertarian answer is to gut communal control completely, as libertarians have no appreciation of man as a political and social animal. I wonder if Randian man is like Rousseau’s uncorrupted savage man . . . an insane and utterly ahistorical depiction of primitive humans as solitary animals who come together at various times only to copulate.
The traditional solution, by contrast, is to have a morally sound citizenry with a good understanding of human nature and a healthy respect for tradition as the accumulated wisdom of many generations. This traditional wisdom involves an understanding of the proper limits and the scope of competence for various levels of authority (the whole community, particular fields with their professional societies, the family, the individual). So, I do not think that traditionalists are “majority rule” zealots. Rather, traditionalists respect the various levels of social authority, of which communal authority is (arguably) best preserved and executed through localized self-governing. That involves some sense of majority rule—or at least majority consent.
The aim of the political community ought to be the common good, which facilitates human flourishing. Traditionalists see the American experiment as a means to this goal. For the liberal, there is no common good—there is only the “freedom” to pursue one’s own individually chosen good as unrestrained as possible. From that perspective, the American experiment at its inception was only a shadow of true individual autonomy. To use Constant’s language, liberals only want the liberty of the moderns; they have no use for the liberty of the ancients. As such, they want the rights of the individual to limit not only the federal government but all government. Hence, they support the madness of the fourteenth amendment, which destroyed our constitutional order. To butcher the words of a good lady, the consistent liberal believes that there is no such thing as society. We are all just willful atoms swirling in the void.
Some of you might be surprised by my friendly words about majority rule. I assure you that I have not converted to being a democrat. I shall always detest mobocracy. However, I think that there is a place for localized civic engagement and self government. The wise of old thought that a mixed regime is likely the hardiest constitution, and I find such advice intelligent. In a mixed regime, the democratic element is best suited for local governing, and I admit that many individual and political virtues come with the active citizenship that democratic life cultivates. For democracy works best when everyone knows everyone else who is making and who is affected by the decisions. Moreover, the average man is more apt to choose the best course of action in matters close at hand. Average intelligence does not serve the masses well in considering abstractions or the long view on social evolution. It is usually good enough to see the advantages and disadvantages of normal, everyday, practical decisions.