For all the decade’s lurid brutality and revolutionary upheaval, the Sixties were not a complete break with the spirit of the American past. Rather, those years saw an explosive expansion of certain American (and Western) ideals and a corresponding severe diminution of others. That deserves to be stressed because if modern developments are in the American grain, if they grow from our roots, as there is reason to believe they do, they will be much harder to reverse than it is comfortable to think.
Though the Sixties brought American concepts of liberty and equality to new extremes, that possibility was always inherent in those ideals. Equality and liberty are, of course, what America said it was about from the beginning. The Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson declared: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." It is customary to grow misty-eyed about the elegance and profundity of that formulation. It speaks in the vocabulary of natural rights, which many Americans find congenial, though without examining the full implications of that vocabulary.
It was indeed stirring rhetoric, entirely appropriate for the purpose of rallying the colonists and justifying their rebellion to the world. But some caution is in order. The ringing phrases are hardly useful, indeed may be pernicious, if taken, as they commonly are, as a guide to action, governmental or private. Then the words press eventually towards extremes of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that court personal license and social disorder. The necessary qualifications assumed by Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration were not expressed in the document. It would rather have spoiled the effect to have added "up to a point" or "within reason" to Jefferson’s resounding generalities.
The signers of the Declaration took the moral order they had inherited for granted. It never occurred to them that the document’s rhetorical flourishes might be dangerous if that moral order weakened. When they had won their independence and got down to the actual business of governing a nation, the Founders were not so lyrical. The "unalienable Rights" of the Declaration turned out, of course, frequently to be alienable. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, for example, explicitly assumes that a criminal may be punished by depriving him of life or liberty, which certainly tends to interfere with his pursuit of happiness.
The tension between the rhetoric of the Declaration and the practicalities expressed in the Constitution is instructive. The former articulates a confident liberalism, while the latter assumes that there will be restraints on that liberalism. To note this is not to adopt the old canard that the Constitution was the instrument of a conservative reaction against the liberalism of the Declaration. To the contrary, the Constitution and the laws it permitted expressed the constraints on liberty assumed by those who signed and welcomed the spirit of the Declaration. But these assumptions and restraints are passive and proved ineffective to halt the aggressive march of liberalism to its present condition.
Liberalism does not vary; it is always the twin thrusts of liberty and equality, and these never change. What distinguishes apparently different stages of liberalism—classical liberalism from modern liberalism, for example—is not any difference in liberalisms but a difference in the admixture of other elements that modify or oppose it. Liberalism itself (putting aside, for the moment, its egalitarian element) is nothing but an effort to struggle free of restraints on the individual.
Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and the Declaration of Independence is an Enlightenment document. That means not only faith in the power of reason to build a just and stable social order, but also emphasis on the individual as the building block of society. The Enlightenment optimists made a serious mistake about the nature of the individual human in whom they placed so much faith. Robert Nisbet notes that the men who laid down the principles of liberalism—Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and Jefferson, for instance—thought "such traits as sovereign reason, stability, security, and indestructible motivations toward freedom and order " constituted the nature of man, that man was "inherently self-sufficing, equipped by nature with both the instincts and the reason that could make him autonomous."
What we can now see with the advantage of hindsight is that, unconsciously, the founders of liberalism abstracted certain moral and psychological attributes from a social organization and considered these the timeless, natural qualities of the individual, who was regarded as independent of the influences of any historically developed social organization.… A free society.… would be composed, in short, of socially and morally separated individuals. Order in society would be the product of a natural equilibrium of economic and political forces.
The American Founders shared those sentiments. Jefferson said, "the Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist, had he intended man for a social animal, without planting in him social dispositions.…" Gordon Wood comments that "Americans, like others in those years, … posit[ed] this natural social disposition, a moral instinct, a sense of sympathy, in each human being.… It made benevolence and indeed moral society possible."
Men with such views of human nature would naturally continually emphasize liberty. Though they surely did not envision a society resembling ours, they set in motion a tendency that, carried far enough, could and often did eventually free the individual from almost all moral and legal constraints. (Again, I am speaking of areas of life where radical egalitarianism does not hold sway.)…
The consequences of liberalism, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness pushed too far are now apparent. Irving Kristol writes of "the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society—a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism.… [S]ector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other." I would add only that current liberalism’s rot and decadence is merely what liberalism has been moving towards for better than two centuries.
We can now see the tendency of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence, and On Liberty. Each insisted on the expanding liberty of the individual and each assumed that order was not a serious problem and could be left, pretty much, to take care of itself. And, for a time, order did seem to take care of itself. But that was because the institutions—family, church, school, neighborhood, inherited morality—remained strong. The constant underestimation of their value and the continual pressure for more individual autonomy necessarily weakened the restraints on individuals. The ideal slowly became the autonomous individual who stood in an adversarial relationship to any institution or group that attempted to set limits to acceptable thought and behavior.
That process continues today, and hence we have an increasingly disorderly society. The street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made. They would have done better had they remembered original sin. Or had they taken Edmund Burke seriously. Mill wrote: "Liberty consists in doing what one desires." That might have been said by a man who was both a libertine and an anarchist; Mill was neither, but his rhetoric encouraged those who would be either or both. Burke had it right earlier: "The only liberty I mean is a liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them." "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 risque congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints." Burke, unlike the Mill of On Liberty, had a true understanding of the nature of men, and balanced liberty with restraint and order, which are, in truth, essential to the preservation of liberty.
The classical liberalism of the nineteenth century is widely and correctly admired, but we can now see that it was inevitably a transitional phase. The tendencies inherent in individualism were kept within bounds by the health of institutions other than the state, a common moral culture, and the strength of religion. Liberalism drained the power from the institutions. We no longer have a common moral culture and our religion, while pervasive, seems increasingly unable to affect actual behavior.
Modern liberalism is one branch of the rupture that occurred in liberalism in the last century. The other branch is today called conservatism. American conservatism, neo or otherwise, in fact represents the older classical liberal tradition. Conservatism of the American variety is simply liberalism that accepts the constraints that a clear view of reality, including a recognition of the nature of human beings, places upon the main thrusts of liberalism—liberty and equality. The difference, it has been said, is that between a hard-headed and a sentimental liberalism. Sentimental liberalism, with its sweet view of human nature, naturally evolves into the disaster of modern liberalism.
"During the past 30 years, "William Bennett writes, "we have witnessed a profound shift in public attitudes." He cites polls showing that "we Americans now place less value on what we owe others as a matter of moral obligation; less value on sacrifice as a moral good, on social conformity, respectability, and observing the rules; less value on correctness and restraint in matters of physical pleasure and sexuality—and correlatively greater value on things like self-expression, individualism, self-realization, and personal choice." Though I think the shift in public attitudes merely accelerated in the past thirty years, having been silently eroding our culture for much longer, it is clear that our current set of values is inhospitable to the self-discipline required for such institutions as marriage and education and hospitable to no-fault divorce and self-esteem training.
Our modern, virtually unqualified, enthusiasm for liberty forgets that liberty can only be "the space between the walls," the walls of morality and law based upon morality. It is sensible to argue about how far apart the walls should be set, but it is cultural suicide to demand all space and no walls.
[From Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (Harper Collins, Regan Books, 1996), 56-58, 63-65.]