Freedom vs. Choice

It’s fashionable at the moment to write conservatism’s epitaph. Such epitaph writing is not my project here, but there is a sort of inherent tension in the recent history of conservatism which I would like to examine briefly.

For the last hundred years and more, conservatives have often found themselves arguing against those in the political and economic spheres who believe that we can achieve a great improvement in society by instituting some sort of centrally controlled state economy. Socialism, communism and fascism all attempted, in different ways, to create new and better societies through assigning people roles and resources rather than allowing their allocation to occur through a decentralized system of millions of individual decisions taking place independently every day.

Perhaps this is the great modern temptation. People looked at the incredibly intricate (sometimes seemingly orderless) organization of society resulting from custom and the summed decisions of millions of individuals and thought, “Now we have the ability to plan all this instead and do it better!” Various sorts of ideologues tried to impose various sorts of new order on society, and conservatives dragged their feet and tried to keep things as they were, allowing people to make their own decision as they saw best whenever possible.

I think that conservatives have been right in this, but the difficulty is that in the process of defending freedom, we often fall into defending the ways people use freedom. We go from defending freedom to defending choice.

The example that springs most readily to mind is when a pro-life organization we donate to brought out Laura Ingram as a speaker a couple years ago. In her talk she made the toss-off comment, “Of course the Democrats in congress are wanting to increase environmental standards, so my broadcasting team and I all put in together to take out a lease on a new Hummer.”

Now, I tend to think that CAFE Standards and other attempts to regulate the mileage cars get don’t work very well. (Indeed, arguably the whole SUV craze was kicked off because fleet mileage regulations created and incentive to get customers who didn’t like micro-cars into “light trucks”.) So in regards to cars I’m in favor of freedom and against regulating behemoths like the Hummer out of existence. And yet, I see no reason to like the big ugly thing, which provides virtues neither of cargo capacity nor seating capacity. I’m against regulating against Hummers not because I’m in favor of Hummers, but because I don’t think regulating against that sort of thing works very well. We should only regulate against things which represent a truly grievous harm to society and are easy targets for legislation.

The difficulty is, it’s mentally difficult to defend against regulating people’s behavior without slipping into actually supporting the behavior itself. And so it’s easy to find oneself celebrating Hummers to spite the environmentalists, celebrating cigarettes and fatburgers to spite the health regulators, and declaring we have no obligation to help the poor to tweek the social democrats.

And yet many of the ways in which some people choose to use their freedom (over consumption, fiscal irresponsibility, lacking any sense of responsibility for other members of the community) in turn create the demand for just the sort of massive society-shaping programs which as conservatives we oppose. If we fail to stigmatize (or even celebrate) the bad behaviors which we maintain people’s freedom to engage in, we create the environment in which people no longer see those freedoms as worth their cost.

I don’t have a policy recommendation here. I don’t suggest that we stop upholding personal freedom and distributed decision-making networks, nor is it possible to summon up a set of social stigmas from no where. But I do think that it’s important that, even while opposing top down solutions to social and political problems, we make sure that we don’t applaud choice simply because we uphold freedom. Somehow we must build a set of social judgments and stigmas such that we encourage people to use their freedom rightly. Otherwise we simply open the way for collectivist solutions which will try to use the blunt force of the law to regulate the most minute every-day decisions.

10 Responses to Freedom vs. Choice

  1. paul zummo says:

    Very well said. It’s been a bugaboo of mine for some time as people seem to relish championing bad choices all in the name of freedom. I once commented to a friend of mine about how silly I thought it was to own and operate a Hummer, and he made some kind of comment about the freedom to buy any vehicle a person wants. But I didn’t say anything about regulating hummers out of existence – I merely stated my own personal opinion on the matter. Of course, that brings up a semi-related subject: getting called on the carpet for wanting to suppress free speech when all you’ve done is make a criticism of what another has said, but that’s another matter.

    And here’s a little Edmund Burke to hammer home the point:

    But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a mad-man, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the galleys, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic knight of the sorrowful countenance.

  2. Joe Hargrave says:

    I appreciate this post because I have been coming across this same phenomenon myself – celebrating what is inherently disordered out of spite for those who wish to regulate it.

    People have been doing it to the Church for a long time, celebrating every deviant kind of sex in an effort to annoy. There is something cathartic about spite, it makes us feel like we’ve done something without really doing it. It’s what the feminists and others on my college campus would do, holding public lessons on how to properly put on condoms to spite the Protestant preachers there to give an earful to the kids about the dangers of sexual immorality.

    One conservative friend of mine decided to leave all his lights on during that hour when the environmentalists wanted all lights off as some sort of reminder of the threat of Global Warming. I’m not even sure he is convinced that GW is “fake”, but he was so annoyed by the effort – a purely voluntary effort in this case – that he wanted to “show them”.

    I wish we could do better, but even I like the thrill of spite, though I usually don’t engage in it politically. More on a personal level.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    One can never have too much Burke! He, the Founding Fathers and Lincoln are my main political guiding lights. Burke put the point succinctly in a phrase I have never forgotten: “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations,”.

  4. One of the best recent theologians on this topic is the Belgian Dominican, Servais Pinckaers, whose _Sources of Christians Ethics_ is one of the best texts on moral theology of the 20th century. In that work and others, he distinguishes “freedom of indifference” and “freedom for excellence” (others have similarly distinguished “freedom from” and “freedom for”); it’s clearly the former notion which is dominant in general American discourse, unfortunately.

  5. Matt says:


    And so it’s easy to find oneself celebrating Hummers to spite the environmentalists, celebrating cigarettes and fatburgers to spite the health regulators, and declaring we have no obligation to help the poor to tweek the social democrats.

    I’m not so sure that the former is really true so much as the Hummer is used a symbol of this particular freedom, I doubt that Laura actually has a hummer. That said, I don’t believe for a SECOND that many conservatives would suggest that there is no obligation to aid the poor, and the evidence is overwhelmingly the other way. Conservatives give FAR MORE to charity even excluding religious contributions than do liberals, we take our PERSONAL obligations to charity very importantly. I really think your comparison is apples to oranges. We can argue deep moral theology about the rightness of ever owning a hummer, smoking cigarettes or eating fatburgers, but there is not question as to the immorality of denying to PERSONALLY aid the poor and most vulnerable. The latter should be taken to heart by the “social democrats” such as Obama, who gave paltry sums to charity until he started running for national office and even then is dwarfed by the generosity of Bush and Cheney.

    Keeping ones lights on as a protest against an act of earth-worship seems like a reasonable protest, and really, relative to the cost of a rich liberals private jet flights to the site of similar protests is really not harmful to the environment (not to mention the environmental harm in promoting the earth-worship).

  6. That said, I don’t believe for a SECOND that many conservatives would suggest that there is no obligation to aid the poor, and the evidence is overwhelmingly the other way.

    It’s a fine distinction, but I have heard a number of other self identified conservatives say that they have no obligation to help the poor, but should be left free to choose to do so (or not) as they see fit.

    I would tend to say, on the other hand, that we do have an obligation to help the poor, but that some or all of that obligation should be left up to free action rather than being forced. (In similar terms, I suppose, how we as parents have an obligation to care for our children, but the state doesn’t step in and take care of them for us until neglect becomes severe.)

    The data is, of course, that — whatever the reason — conservatives do have a tendency to give more to charity than their liberal economic peers.

  7. We are obliged not just as individuals, but as a society to aid those in need… I think that sometimes we overreact to the statist impulses of some by claiming that no such communal obligation exists, when in fact it does.

  8. Donald R. McClarey says:

    The government should aid those who cannot aid themselves. The problem is that we have too many people receiving assistance from the government who could work and who are simply getting an undeserved free ride. This of course detracts from aid that should go to those truly in need.

    An all too typical disability scam is reported on here:

    As the father of a son who, because of his autism, will probably never be able to work outside of a sheltered workshop environment, I have only contempt for healthy individuals who through fraud and scams take tax payer funds that could make life so much better for those unable to work.

  9. Donna V. says:

    True, Chris, and I also know that in my own case (because I admit having the “OK, this environmentalist is scolding me? I’m going to run out and buy a steak and turn the heat up, so there!” reaction), it’s also a desire to tweak the left’s puritanism.

    Leftists are not puritanical about sex, so they think they’re not puritanical. However, their prudishness has been transferred to other spheres – eating, drinking, health, and consumption. And as far as turning on the lights during Earth Hour, well, I made no special effort to have my place ablaze with lights, but, like Al Gore, I didn’t turn off my lights either. I agree with Glenn Reynolds on this one when he says he’ll start acting like global warming is a crisis when the people who tell us it is one behave like it themselves.

  10. Agreed, Donald. This is another reason why subsidiarity is so important, not just theoretically, but practically as well: if problems are addressed at as small a level of government as possible, there is greater efficiency and more room for the exercise of prudence (as opposed to bureaucratic process; cf. MacIntyre).

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