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Is Freedom the Highest Political Value?

In his ambitious new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Regnery, 2022), the distinguished Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony poses a sharp challenge to the view that freedom is the highest political value, and in this week’s column, I’d like to address his challenge, which I find illuminating, though mistaken. By “freedom,” I mean what Rothbard, following Locke, calls “self-ownership.” Hazony does not reject freedom, but he thinks it is only one of several competing political values and, further, that it has been overemphasized by free-market liberals who neglect the values of public order, the inculcation of virtue by the state, and the assertion of national self-interest.

Hazony states the thesis we will be looking at in this way, criticizing F.A. Hayek:

It is clear that the freedom of the individual is not, for Hayek, an empirically derived moral rule which must be balanced against other such principles in seeking to steer the ship of state. What he calls our “faith in freedom” is, in fact, an axiom or dogma from which other articles of belief can be deduced as in any rationalist system. And this insistence on individual freedom as a dogma, as “the supreme principle” and the “highest ideal” of politics, is not something that can be reconciled with an empiricist or conservative political outlook. It is a statement of a liberal faith that is intended to override evidence and argument. (p. 312. All page references are to the Amazon Kindle edition)

It would be better to say that self-ownership is a right that imposes constraints on what may permissibly be done to the bearer of the right than to say that it is the “supreme” or “highest” value, because the highest value might by outweighed by other values, in sufficient combinations, and thus this sort of talk invites the balancing that it is the essence of Hayekian position to reject. But I have spoken of “highest value” in the title because this is the way Hazony chooses to consider the issue. Further, acceptance of self-ownership does not preclude acknowledging the good of loyalty—far from it. Politics is not the sum and substance of morality, but rather a framework—in the language of Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, a “metanormative” framework—within which individuals can pursue the good life. Hazony is aware of this position, or something very much like it, as he shows in his discussion of the “fusionism” of Frank Meyer, but he rejects it because it counts freedom as always of overriding importance in politics.

What I find most interesting in this is the contrast that Hazony draws between rationalism and empiricism in regard to ethics. John Locke is his main enemy in the argument about the supremacy of freedom, and though in epistemology the rationalist René Descartes usually is taken to be an opponent of the empiricist Locke, this was not so, Hazony avers, in ethics. In this area, Locke is a rationalist, holding that morality can be derived from the self-evident axiom of freedom. He says,

Locke is often described as an empiricist. But his reputation in this regard is based on his Treatise Concerning Human Psychology (1689), which is an influential exercise in empirical psychology. His Second Treatise on Government is not, however a similar effort to formulate a theory of the state from an empirical standpoint. Instead, it begins with a series of axioms that are without any connection to what can be known from the historical and empirical study of the state. (p. 44)

Hazony proceeds to raise a series of objections to what Locke says. States in fact do not arise by voluntary agreement through a social contract. Far from being self-evident, the axiom of equal freedom is rejected by most people; instead, they sharply distinguish between members of their family, tribe, and nation, on the one hand, and outsiders, on the other, when they delimit the bounds of freedom. As an empiricist, Locke doesn’t earn a passing grade.

To this, there is an obvious response, to which I’ll return below: one doesn’t have to defend freedom through a rationalist procedure that starts from an unsupported axiom but instead can defend it by an argument from human nature. But even if for the moment we accept the starting point Hazony attributes to Locke, his argument still fails, as it neglects an important feature of ethics; there is an apparent difference between descriptive and normative statements that needs to be addressed. Judgments about ethics are claims about what ought to be the case. Even if Hazony is right that governments aren’t formed by consent, maybe they should be dependent on consent. Hasn’t Hazony confused the normative and the descriptive?

Hazony anticipates this objection and responds by denying the relevance of the distinction I have just made.

Liberals sometimes reply that the empirical falsity of their premises should be ignored because what they propose is not meant to be a descriptive political theory, but a normative one…. But words such as “normative,” or “what ought to be,” are not a magic wand that can, simply by being waved, turn an argument that is entirely detached from reality into one that is competent and true. For instance, if it is empirically untrue that human beings can sprout wings and fly about if they choose to do so, then it is nonsensical to say that, as a normative matter, human beings “ought to” sprout wings and fly about. (p. 131)

Hazony’s response does not work. It is true that there is a widely accepted principle of ethics that “ought implies can” (though the limits of that principle are hard to state accurately): a principle cannot require people to do what is impossible. But what is supposed to be the impossibility in people’s following the self-ownership principle? Again, Hazony confuses a view about what people should do with a descriptive theory about what people actually do or are likely to do. It is as if in response to “thou shalt not commit adultery” one were to object that many people do commit adultery, so this commandment is entirely detached from reality.

Suppose, though, that one follows Hazony and, rejecting “rationalism” and embracing “empiricism,” one provides a descriptively accurate account of how people behave, with due attention to their loyalty to kith and kin. Why would this be more than a description; why would it tell people what they ought to do? Hazony answers in this way:

Academics often say that one cannot make a legitimate inference from what is to what ought to be. In the present case, the argument would be that there is no legitimate way to move from a description of relations of mutual loyalty that are the basic building blocks of all human hierarchies (“what is”) to a description of the political obligations that arise from such realities (“what ought to be”). But this argument overlooks the fact that ideas or concepts are always normative in character, describing what an object ought to be if it is to be a tolerably good instance of a certain kind of object. Similarly, relations among ideas or concepts are always normative in character, describing what a relation ought to be if it is to be a tolerably good instance of a certain type of relation. That means that every object and every relation is known in our experience through a normative standard that we use to recognize it, and that this same normative standard is also what we use to distinguish a better from a worse object or relation of its kind. (p. 443n22)

Hazony’s point is well taken, but it does not do the ethical work he wants it to. We can speak of a good thief or a good communist, but “good” in this sense does not get us to morality. To do that while acknowledging Hazony’s point, one would have to speak of “good human being”; and if one did that, one would of necessity deal with the essence of being human in a way that Hazony’s reliance on empirical description does not. Hazony is of course aware of Aristotelian and Thomistic natural law ethics and says this can be seen as a “rationalized reconstruction” of the biblical tradition (p. 446n20); elsewhere he notes that he is “not an adherent of the rationalist natural law teaching of Thomas Aquinas” (p. 20).

Hazony urges us to follow the empirical method of trial and error, but there is a difference between the application of that method in science and in ethics that he neglects. In science, one can say that a hypothesis has been confirmed or falsified, but in ethics, the standards for judging are themselves matters in dispute. Whether a proposed course of conducts “works” or not, whether our trial of it has led to “error,” is itself a matter for ethical evaluation. For Hazony, the answer to this question lies in God’s revelation at Sinai, which he holds gives a universally valid natural law imperfectly understood by human beings. He may well be right, but whether he is or not is not sufficiently shown in this book.

I hope in future columns to return to Hazony’s stimulating book.

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