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The Challenges of Adulthood for a Liberal Society

by Michael Novak

Mr. Novak held the George Frederick Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. at the time this article was written. This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 27-September 3, 1986, pp. 744-745. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

"Confirm thy soul in self-control," the hymn about the blessedness of America instructs us. For liberal societies, intellect and liberty are intimately related. Liberty is symbolized by a woman -- not a warrior (nor a guerrilla with a submachine gun); by the light of intellect; and by a book.

The American concept of liberty -- symbolized by the statue in the Harbor -- entails light, not darkness; learning, not nonchalance; seriousness, not dissipation; purpose, not scatteredness; character and integrity, not lies, duplicity or fraudulence. Thus the highest liberal symbol in New York City is the statue, not the sex shows on 42nd Street.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is wrong to judge liberalism by the pornography in Times Square. Like the rain that falls upon just and unjust alike and the wheat and tares that grow together, liberalism tolerates license. But it aspires to liberty -- the liberty founded in light, inquiry and self-mastery.

The first people to call themselves liberals stood for three liberations: political liberty from tyranny and torture; economic liberty -- not total, but with an unprecedented degree of freedom from state control over economic transactions between consenting adults (and, thus, liberty from poverty); and liberty of conscience, inquiry, ideas and information. These three liberations -- political, economic, moral-cultural -- suggest why the classic liberal flag is the tri-couleur.

Book, torch, wit and conscience are crucial to all three liberations. Intellect brings the wealth of nations as a society is shaped to promote invention, discovery, enterprise, wit and (well named from the Latin word caput, or head) capitalism. The self-mastery that humans achieve when they govern their passions and their sensuality with intelligence rings about a working democracy, for unless each person can govern self, self-government by all is impossible.

In its youth, liberalism stood for liberty from the ancien regime. Now, in its maturity, liberalism is the regime. In its youth, liberalism understood liberty (mostly) as rebellion from. Now, in its maturity, liberalism must decide what it is for. The challenge for liberals now is to learn how to use liberty. In our possession is an unprecedented range of liberties. As a youth, liberalism could claim that sex shops on 42nd street represented emancipation. As an adult, liberalism no longer has that excuse, since there is no "ancient order" against which to rebel.

Today there are only rebels! Even those who are now conservatives are rebels. They see themselves as outsiders looking in and fighting against a heavily entrenched, wall-to-wall liberal establishment.

It follows that both American liberals and conservatives face a parallel problem: pluralistic societies are not morally comfortable for anyone. The beliefs and convictions of practically everyone are offended either by the license insisted upon by some or the constraints demanded by others. Gunnar Myrdal observed 40 years ago that nearly every day Americans say to each other, on the one hand, "This is a free country, no one can tell me what to do!" and, on the other, "There ought to be a law against that!"

In this context, a mature liberal order needs to think anew about two themes: (1) liberty and law, and (2) liberty and responsibility. Law and responsibility are quite different. Sometimes it is the law that distinguishes liberty from license, decadence or complicity in evil. That is, an abuse of liberty is identified, and the law is expanded to cover it.

But liberty may also be distinguished from license, decadence and complicity in evil in another way: by a responsible public treating certain behaviors with disdain, contempt and mockery. It is not always necessary to pass a law in order to diminish the public scope of certain behaviors; raised eyebrows, ridicule or a touch of satire are often sufficient.

The central point is that any mature society -- including a mature liberal society -- must choose against some behaviors. To act as a free society is always to choose; and human choice is, necessarily, for some things and against others. Adulthood means learning to choose -- learning to say No. Liberalism has slowly been learning this lesson -- as it must.

In the political order, liberalism is not for laissez-faire, but for checks and balances. In the economic order, liberalism is not for laissez-faire, but for political economy that assigns many crucial economic roles to the state. Similarly, in the moral-cultural order, liberalism is not -- and cannot be -- for laissez-faire. Just as liberals now oppose air and water pollution, concern will increase in the near future about our moral environment.

A liberal society already makes moral choices. It chooses against racism, sexism and other such habits. And these choices are appropriate, for a liberal society values liberty (insight to see and will to choose) for each person. To demean what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the content of their character" is to treat people as empty of their humanity.

Thus, the danger of free speech is that it can be extremely costly to the freedom of others. Speech that is racist, antisemitic, antifundamentalist, antiwoman, or in other way demeaning, injures others and undercuts the speaker's own humanity.

Choosing against such abuses need not always mean imposing new laws. In this society -- as in all societies -- there are some things that the public does not (often for quite good reasons) permit one to say. A liberal society has long lists of things enlightened persons ought never to say. We impose these quite effectively -- even apart from law.

I return to my prediction: In coming years, our liberal society will think more and more about the virtues that free persons ought to have, about the moral environment that we choose to create, and about the type of people that a free liberal society chooses to encourage. A mature society chooses its own moral models -- models of liberty, not license.

Two other issues must be confronted by a maturing liberal society today. The first is terrorism. A traveler to Europe will note that ancient European cities are walled. They are walled because, before there were cities (and, hence, civilization), entire countrysides belonged to brigands, robbers and murderers. Civilization is little but a constant struggle against terrorism -- an effort to build layer upon layer of protection against the worst that is in every human breast. In this century, two powerful regimes -- Lenin's and Hitler's -- were explicitly built upon terror, which they regarded as an ultimate secret of the human heart.

How can we fight against organized, state-supported, international assaults upon innocent civilians and civil institutions, especially when the terrorists use our free speech to further their purposes?

Nearly all terrorists today claim to represent a higher ideological cause. This end, they claim, justifies murder. Then, instead of discussing such people as murderers, many among us are seduced into talking about the "causes" of terrorism. But the causes lie in the will of those who choose murder. No further causes should be sought.

The Statue of Liberty has a book in her arms. Those who genuinely seek liberty will find many other routes to it than the direct, willful, deliberate murder of civilians. Those who choose murder should be held in the respect that murderers deserve.

The other issue that confronts liberalism today is freedom of the press when that freedom conflicts with matters of national security. What is an adult liberalism to do? For those people who are confident in the security of the United States and take its survival for granted, the main good to be concerned about is the freedom of the press. But what if liberty does not survive? What if in 100 years none of the currently free nations -- about 35 of 165 -- has retained its liberty, and tyranny reigns everywhere?

Everyone has always said that the United States is living out an experiment. Lincoln said at Gettysburg six score and three years ago: "We are testing whether any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Suppose that this experiment -- the noblest that human beings have ever conducted -- were to end like a comet that blazed through history for 200 years and then went out? I do not think it is hard to imagine the oil of the Middle East falling into Soviet hands via the fall of Iran; or to imagine the Finlandization of Europe; or to imagine the United States being surrounded by hostile satellites of the Soviet Union.

One weakness of liberal societies is their reluctance to confront evil directly. Complacence is liberty's besetting danger -- just as vigilance is its hope.

These reflections do not alter the importance of freedom of the press in all aspects of national security. Rather, my point is that the press may be constrained from discussing crucial aspects of national security, not only by constraints imposed by government officials, but also by those imposed by prevailing myths of American omnipotence. This happened in the 1930s; neither Europe nor America was prepared for Hitler.

When was the last time you read an article describing how the Soviets might defeat us, and how liberty might perish in this world? We do not think much about that. Why not?

Liberty and mind are linked. Liberty depends on vigilance of mind. That is why the statue carries a light and a book.


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