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One Liberty, Indivisible

June 3rd, 2009 by Jim May · 5 Comments · Culture, Environmentalism, The Horror File

A few weeks ago, conservative John Derbyshire posted a revealing item over at National Review Online.  It is revealing, in that it exposes one of the fundamental commonalities between conservatism and the Left, that sets them in opposition to Americanism: the idea that there are different (and contradictory) “kinds” of freedom.

Notice that Derbyshire characterizes these four “notions of liberty” originally described by David Hackett Fischer, as being “subtly different”.  Let us examine these differences, to see how “subtle” these differences are.

1.  “Publick” liberty.  This is the so-called “collective” liberty of democracy.  This is the “liberty” of communism, socialism and fascism, where the individual moves only by permission of the collective — which, of course, means the State.  The freedom to obey, in other words.

1A.  “Soul” liberty.  Originating with the Puritans, as above, this is essentially the freedom to do what God — in the person of the rulers — tells you to do.

2.  “Hegemonic” liberty.  This, in short, is the “liberty” of the feudal aristocracy — which Derbyshire tells us with a straight face, “cohabited quite comfortably with race slavery”).

3.  “Reciprocal” liberty.  This is what we know now as freedom of thought — though Fischer and Derbyshire construe it primarily as being the individual’s prerogative to follow God *instead* of man.  This is “soul liberty” with the State middleman removed; here each individual is (in principle) free to determine for himself what God is really saying.

4.  “Natural” liberty.  From the description, this is the only one of these which emphasizes freedom of action, and by implication, of private property.  It is the only one that sets the individual against an imposed “order”.  Of course, the quotes chosen by Fischer and Derbyshire characterize it as anarchic.

It should be clear that 1, 1A and 2 are instances of tyranny, not “liberty”.  Since when is the difference between liberty and tyranny “subtle”?!?!   If all of these were liberty, what is the “tyranny” against which all of these stand opposed?  What is the principle common to all of these that makes them all instances of “liberty”?

Derbyshire is giving us a snapshot of the pre-American conceptions of liberty, in particular how fragmented and confused it was, as compared to the unitary principle of individual rights of 1776.  This is valuable in and of itself.

But consider the implications!  The historical facts that Derbyshire has given us, refute two key conservative falsehoods.

First is the idea that America was the culmination of a gradual process built upon a long tradition (going back to Christ).  Observe the sharp discontinuity between these “four notions” and the American principle.  While Americanism does indeed draw upon existing ideas that go way back in history, it does so in the way that Isaac Newteon or Albert Einstein did in physics — by introducing  a radical new integration that jettisons long-established errors and resolves ancient contradictions. In this case, the errors being eliminated are Derbyshire’s #1 (democracy) and #2 (aristocracy), while secularizing #3 (freedom of ALL thought) and integrating it with #4 (individual  moral sovereignty).

Second, is the idea that *current* conservatives understand what liberty is.  John Derbyshire has just confessed, on the open Internet, that his view of liberty is pre-American — conceptually fragmented, confused, contradictory, primitive, and hopelessly blind.

Whither the Left in all this?  Again, Derbyshire enlightens, in a manner he likely did not intend:

“Very approximately speaking, modern liberalism descends from the first and third of Fischer’s styles, modern conservatism from the second and fourth.”

“Very approximately” notwithstanding (more on that below), this is indeed an accurate summation of our predicament: modern “liberalism” (the Left) embraces one part tyranny (#1) and one part liberty (#3, and not much of it anymore), while conservatives are the complete opposite: they embrace one part tyranny (#2) and one part liberty (#4).

If I were to rewrite political terms of thought with the intention of confusing people about liberty, I could not have done better.

But consider this:  Derbyshire’s description, together with his connection of these fragments to the modern political “alternative” — is just as accurate a description *of our modern day* as it is of the pre-American milieu.  These aren’t just echoes; we apparently have completely regressed to a pre-American concept of liberty.

Oviously, somebody DID rewrite political terms of thought here.  How else could we have ended up here, in this 17th century intellectual cesspit again, *after* the concept of liberty had been integrated into a single whole by the Founders?  How did we reach such a pass that such anachronism could be introduced as seriously relevant to modern political discourse (as Derbyshire implies in posting this in response to Iain Murray’s implicit, yet correct assumption that liberty is unitary) without so much as a guffaw from the audience?

As far as the conservatives are concerned, they remain active and knowing participants in the crime, even if they weren’t the ones to blow the first hole in liberty’s defenses.  Errors of this size are not made innocently.  The history is too well established, and the Declaration of Independence is available for all to read — so there’s no “we didn’t know” excuse.  Rather, when we examine the peculiar version of “history” that conservatives have written for themselves — one where the first true expression of Leftism/the political Enlightenment (treated as identical) was 1793, while 1776 was actually “a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation”(1) — removes any doubt about what those people are doing; this intellectual retrogression is something they wish to exploit.

So who did crack liberty open once more?  Conservatives historically have not had the intellectual capacity or the position to engage in the deep-level corruption we are dealing with here.  Here, as elsewhere, they are not the vanguard, but are instead pilot fish following the sharks.  As the ideological history reveals, the sharks turn out to be — wait for it — Marx and Engels, two of the first full-blown Leftists.

While liberty was implicitly seen as indivisible in early 19th century America, the glue that holds that integration together –  the principle of individual moral sovereignty, deriving from Derbyshire’s #4 — never really “took” in continental Europe, where self-determination was seen as belonging to nations, not individuals.  Against that backdrop, it was easy for Marx and Engels to break liberty apart again.  What had previously been implicitly understood as simply “the system of natural liberty” was renamed capitalism, a term which substitutes a mere economic characteristic — the ownership of capital — for liberty, in a classic definition-by-nonessentials subversion.

By intellectually excluding the right of property from the rest of liberty, the Left could attack and destroy this most poorly-defended aspect of liberty while still passing themselves off as friends of what would henceforth be seen as political liberty.  The ploy worked; by the time the Russian Revolution blew the lid off that lie, the Left was firmly in charge intellectually, the intellectual Enlightenment was gone, and the economic/political dichotomy was solidly entrenched (and still is to this day).

The religious conservatives in America did not really notice the opportunity opened up for them by the Left until after World War II, but once they had, they got busy.  They can brazenly characterize the difference between instances of  liberty and tyranny as “subtle”, with straight faces, expecting that there no longer exist in the mainstream those minds who can call them on it.

I hold both conservatives and the Left as responsible for the results:  modern-day Americans willingly trade away liberty for trinkets (only to lose those too — h/t Billy) while those few who properly sense that something is going wrong, find a rat’s nest of conceptual confusion designed to mislead, frustrate, and thereby neutralize them.   Compare the confusion that paralyzes mainstream thought about liberty and politics, to the radiant blast of clarity and insight that comes from minds that operate on the premise that “freedom is of a piece”.

There is no aspect of the American concept of liberty which says or implies that individual rights cease to apply in those chosen acivities deemed  “economic” (or otherwise).  Liberty does not have “disposable” parts.  The idea that liberty can be safely fragmented is the lie relied upon by those who insist that capitalism is “just an economic system” and that government involvement in the economy is compatible with liberty.

In fact, only under conditions of liberty can there be a true separation between systems of economic organization and systems of governance; this separation is one of liberty’s necessary consequences, and can only exist within the understanding that liberty is indivisible.

To compromise one aspect of liberty is to compromise (i.e. surrender) it all.

I will not surrender it.

(1) Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind,  seventh revised edition, p6

5 Comments so far ↓

  • Harold

    Great piece. It’s given me a lot to think about.

    “By intellectually excluding the right of property from the rest of liberty, the Left could attack and destroy this most poorly-defended aspect of liberty while still passing themselves off as friends of what would henceforth be seen as political liberty. “

    Sort of like when they say: “Capitalism has nothing to do with morality” huh? Interesting.

  • Ashley

    Was Derbyshire saying there are different kinds of liberty or was he saying that different 17th and 18th century immigrant groups had different ideas about liberty? I took it as the latter. Did I miss something?

  • Jim May

    Derbyshire said:

    “The four root stocks of Britons who formed the founding population of the U.S.A. brought four subtly different notions of liberty with them to the New World (says Fischer).”

    So by his letter, it’s your second option — but by his characterization of the whopping contradictions as “subtly different”, his intended meaning ends up as the first one. His goal is to paper over the contradictions in conservatism (in particular, the attempt to introduce the notion of a society that is ideologically comfortable with slavery, as a type of “liberty”), at the price of emptying the concept “liberty” of any real meaning. He does this in the same manner and for the same reasons as the Left is doing when they substitute democracy for freedom.

  • Peter Saint-Andre

    I wrote an essay about Ayn Rand and American Culture for the UK Libertarian Alliance years ago that incorporated some of David Hackett Fischer’s insights. You can find it at and you might find it of interest.

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