The Challenge of Committing to Liberty—and Meaning It

It is all too easy to abandon liberty when its practice inconveniences us.

It’s easy to say you’re committed to liberty. To speak in the rhetoric of robust rights and freedoms, to celebrate free expression and free association, to talk about the benefits of free trade and private industry. It’s easy in large part because those things are clearly good, their opposite clearly bad. People don’t just want liberty, they deserve it. Liberalism isn’t preferable to authoritarianism because it works better and produces more, though it does. It’s preferable because it’s moral and authoritarianism is not. To commit to liberty is to commit to the right and the good over the unjust and the wrong.

But rhetorical commitment is not the same as principled commitment, and commitments are only as strong as our will to maintain them. It’s easy to say you’re in favor of liberty. It’s also easy to backtrack—to soften your commitment or carve out exceptions. Liberals become illiberal, often in subtle ways, and often without even being aware of the backsliding themselves.

The reason backsliding happens as often as it does—the reason why staying committed to thorough liberalism is so challenging—is that genuine and full liberty, defined as a society where each person has the maximum possible individual liberty and autonomy compatible with the same for everyone else, is inevitably unstable and destabilizing. Not at the macro level, because free societies tend to in fact be quite stable, with relatively consistent growth and a healthy cultural climate overall. Rather, liberalism’s instability comes at the micro level: To be an individual in a truly free society is to live in a world constantly changing around you. The economy grows, but that growth comes through creative destruction. Businesses succeed (or some of them do), but then fail (or most of them do), only to be replaced by new businesses that end up in the same cycle. Whole industries and technologies rise and fall, making skills and creative pursuits lucrative one day and economically valueless the next. 

Our social environment isn’t free from creative destruction, either. Culture inevitably shifts, tastes go in and out of style, preferences evolve, ideas have a half life, and even personality traits might be rewarded today but viewed as undesirable tomorrow. To live in such freedom is exciting and bracing, but also scary, because the lifestyle we’ve put so much effort into building might, through the aggregate actions of everyone else simply exercising their liberty, prove more difficult than it was, bring less reward than it did, or come in for more criticism than used to be the case. It might be that your religion was at one time dominant and celebrated, but now is seen as fringe and backwards. It might be that your profession was at one time remunerative and held in high prestige, but now is seen as less necessary or lower status. It might be that you were at one time looked to as a thought leader and your opinions valued at the commanding heights of culture, but now you face criticism and social and intellectual marginalization.

All of this is baked into freedom. You can’t keep a society static without denying its people liberty. Nor is stasis desirable even if it could be achieved without violating inviolable rights. Cultural change brings cultural progress. Economic change brings economic progress. There’s no historical point we can look back on and reasonably, wisely say, “Things would be a whole lot better if that’s the best they ever got.” Not every change is good, of course. Culture can take wrong turns. Preferences can shift in directions that later look silly. The economy can inflate bubbles, go all-in on industries without much value, or abandon industries that still have value. We have moral panics and market crashes. But the people who claim to predict the good changes in advance, or have a clear eye, before the dust has even been kicked up, for whether a particular cultural shift will look bad in hindsight are wrong at least as often as they’re right, and we all suffer from status quo biases that causes us to prefer, to one degree or another, the way things are—or have “always been”—over the way they’re going, ignoring the relentless history of status quos that today we wouldn’t want to go back to, and frequently recognize as profound moral wrongs.

Progress under freedom is rarely orderly. Marginalized people agitating for the liberties and dignities the status quo has denied them don’t always agitate in ways that won’t offend or won’t make those quite comfortable within that status quo quite uncomfortable. This chaotic freedom is partly just a fact of humanity’s messiness. We aren’t all-knowing and all-wise and even when our cause is just, we can overshoot the market, or direct our ire where it isn’t due. We can punish those undeserving of it, and leave innocent victims in the wake of our march towards a better world. In retrospect, the errors of strategy and tactics might be clear, but in the messiness and chaos of the moment, it is too much to expect perfection. But there’s another reason that march can be loud and caustic and disorderly: The alternatives have failed. No one calls for civility with more vigor than those seeking to maintain the status quo. Those seeking to challenge it or change it are invariably told they should make their demands known through the proper channels, and with the proper measured tone of respect. And while civility can be a virtue, in so many cases it is instead employed—or the demand for it is employed—as a means to tell those who might be unruly to give up on finding freedom, respect, and the dignity liberalism builds its egalitarianism around, and instead to accept what the system has given them, or accept when the system, through its proper rules and procedures, denies them their due.

Again, this doesn’t mean all agitation is wise, or that all goals held by the agitators are worthy from the perspective of liberal freedom and values. Protests can be in the service of vicious ends, and incivility can be in the service of cultural and economic regression. The challenge for the committed liberal is to stay committed, however, by not letting his comfort in the status quo, and his distaste for the destabilization of his own interests and social standing, convince him, consciously or unconsciously, that in this particular instance cracking down on freedom’s dynamism isn’t because those who might destabilize are a threat to liberalism, but because they are a threat to his stability.

It is too easy to fall into the trap of concluding that any changes that make you less comfortable are the result of narrowing liberty, instead of its exercise. If we care about liberty at a fundamental and principled level, we have no choice but to accept that it means what we are used to is likely to, at some point or another, shift, evolve, or be replaced. We have no choice but to accept that our status, being relative, might in some ways drop as others’ climbs, and that dropping status isn’t the same thing as restricted liberty. To value liberty, and to really mean it, we need to give up the idea that we will always benefit personally from its exercise, and give up the urge to characterize any exercise we don’t benefit personally from as not the exercise of liberty, but a sign of its decline. Otherwise we risk becoming liberals in rhetoric only, while sliding into illiberalism in the name of our own comfort.

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