The suspicion that Frank S. Meyer’s “autonomous” individuals are not only abstractions but meaningless abstractions grows when we consider his conception of freedom…
In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo by Frank S. Meyer (179 pages, Regnery, 1962)
In this book, Frank Meyer proposes to give us “a conservative criterion for a good society, a good policy… a standard, not a program for immediate achievement.” Meyer is quite explicit in his intention to give us “a crystallization on the theoretical level, of the empirical attitudes of the widespread and developing American conservative movement.” The theory ultimately offered to us is, as Meyer tells us at the very beginning, a revised version of nineteenth-century liberalism, one in which metaphysical realism supplants utilitarianism as the philosophical underpinning for the defense of human freedom. We have, therefore, An Appeal From the New to the (corrected) Old Liberals. The argument of the book—freedom of the individual is the end both of theory and action in politics—centers around two basic concepts: freedom and individual. Since the book stands or falls on the validity of these concepts and the use made of them, our attention should focus unwaveringly in their direction.
There are, however, distractions from such a concentration of attention. The argument unfolds by way of a critique of “Liberal Collectivism” and “New Conservatism.” The incisive effectiveness of the attack on Liberalism, which makes it “must” reading for those who question the position, may well lead the hurried reader to conclude too readily that the conservative theory has at last been found. On the other hand, the attribution to conservatives of the Kirk, Nisbet variety of what is in effect the long discredited real person theory of society, as well as the suggestion that they are indifferent to freedom, could well lead angry new conservatives to deny the book for reasons that do not enter into the heart of its argument.
That heart can be stated briefly as follows. Since the individual person is the ultimate reality, no claims on him can be made in the name of “society,” which in the last analysis cannot be reduced to the individuals who compose it. Consequently, the only legitimate political claims are those made by one individual upon another. These are reducible to the classic one: to be left free to act in any way, provided one does not interfere with anyone else’s ability to do the same. Political authority is legitimately exercised only to preserve the social conditions conducive to this type of freedom in individuals. Authority’s necessary or natural functions, therefore, are reducible to two: (1) the coercive repression of violence and fraud, (2) the adjudication of conflicting interests among individuals. To these are added the third, of military defense of the community against aggression.
If we examine this argument in detail, we find it rides upon the two concepts identified earlier. In more detail, Meyer conceives of the individual as the voluntary source of freely established interpersonal relations. This individual, first of all, is an abstract, undifferentiated entity about which only one politically relevant thing can be said: he has “innate” freedom. Secondly, there is no consistent indication why the individual establishes interpersonal relations in the first place. Or, at least the reasons why are not considered relevant to the problems of political theory. Thus, we are left uncertain, at least in the book itself, whether Meyer thinks man is by nature a social animal who must enter into a variety of interpersonal relations in order to realize his nature as man, or whether, in contrast, he views man as a “completed fact,” after the manner of the philosophical individualists like Hobbes. His stress on virtue as the end of man, by suggesting the first view, does not conclude the doubt. For this is balanced by his reluctance to concede anything to the new conservatives concerning the value of society, a point normally included in any theory that man is social by his nature. In his attack on liberalism, Meyer explicitly rejects the idea that men are atoms to be manipulated politically as engineering principles dictate (p. 105, cf. p. 145 especially). Yet in his quarrel with the new conservatives, he refuses to admit any politically relevant reality except individuals (p. 145). It seems clear that on one of the two basic concepts of his theory, Meyer does not tell us in any organized way what he means. At most “social” means “that each man has a multifarious set of relations with other men” (p. 28). And when we attempt to spell this out from his critiques, we find that the various positions cancel one another out.
The suspicion that Meyer’s “autonomous” individuals are not only abstractions but meaningless abstractions grows when we consider his conception of freedom.
There is no doubt that In Defense of Freedom is deeply committed to the propositions that man is born free, and that he ought to be left free. But the freedom Meyer is preoccupied with in his analysis is “innate” freedom (p. 25). This can only be understood as the general capacity of man to make choices without inner necessity. And Meyer identifies this freedom, which is the condition or precondition (means) for virtue, as precisely the freedom that is the end of political theory and political action (p. 137).
Now a number of observations can be made about this identification. The first is that it is utterly consistent with the conception of the abstract, faceless individual, the individual, that is, whose only significance for theory is that he has the capacity to act freely. For, however important the concept may be for a philosophical identification of an important aspect of rationality, viz., a capacity to act freely, it of itself denotes simply a quality of the isolated, undeveloped and unidentified individual. Meyer’s society is not actually a society. It is a collectivity, i.e., a multitude of these free autonomous individuals. The bare capacity for freedom is a politically faceless thing, a third position between good and evil since it is simply a capacity for both.
This leads to the second observation we can make about “innate” freedom. The subject matter of political theory is not man considered statically, man capable of action, man in his essence, but man considered dynamically, man actually acting, choosing, deciding, man motivated, man, that is to say, considered in his nature as that nature unfolds in and through action. It is tautological to say that man ought to have “innate” freedom. It makes sense to say that this freedom should not be interfered with as to its exercise (although Meyer must in the same breath say its exercise has limits that can be enforced). But at the point of crucial significance, it is question-begging to assume that man can act freely simply because he is not restricted in his action by political authority. Meyer’s conception of freedom, because it is essentially static, can permit him to say, “For moral and spiritual perfection can be pursued by finite men through a series of choices, in which every moment is a new beginning!” (p. 55; emphasis added).
Now every free action is not a new beginning; the formation of habits of vice or virtue is a necessary consequence of free action. And this in turn deeply affects every succeeding choice, and even the perception of possibilities of choice. It was Aristotle who first saw that the politically relevant conception of freedom as not that of capacity, but that of use. According as man uses his freedom, he becomes good, i.e., mature, i.e., free; or he becomes evil, i.e., unfree. The political order does not emerge simply because man has a capacity for freedom. That is why children live in the familial, not the political order. The political order emerges, or man emerges into the political order, when through proper use of innate freedom, he becomes free. Freedom is a means to virtue. But actual freedom, freedom at the moment of action, is possible only to a virtuous man, one in whom reason rules rather than sits as a spectator of passion-dominated action. It is out of such stuff that a political theory is born. We can all agree with Meyer that bureaucratic authority stifles the activation of the capacity to act freely, and that law should not displace the exercise of choice. But Meyer does not give us a theory about this; rather he has issued a stirring call to resist oppression. He has not answered the great question of every political theory: Who should rule? In fact, he has not even set the question up. For this reason, he has not, as he set out to do, “vindicate(d) on theoretical grounds the native belief of American conservatives that freedom as a prime criterion in the political and social sphere is not alien to the conservative view of man’s nature and destiny” (pp. 6-7). He has, however, compelled us to see that freedom is not an univocal term.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1964).
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