Liberty and Civilization
The Western Heritage
edited by Roger Scruton
Encounter, 160 pp., $23.95
Between the extremes of religious fanaticism and secularism, or of libertarian libertinism and moralizing statism, we would do well to seek what Aristotelians call the virtuous mean: that metaphysical and religious worldview which promotes a healthy conception of man and his place in the cosmos, and a political philosophy that supports such a conception.
The Western tradition does just that. Its core understanding is that man was created for freedom, and that this freedom is neither a freedom of indifference nor a freedom from constraint, but a freedom for excellence. In Liberty and Civilization, Roger Scruton has brought together 10 of its leading contemporary intellectuals to discuss various aspects of man’s freedom and its political ramifications. Originally appearing in the American Spectator through John Templeton Foundation funding, these essays provide sophisticated yet accessible discussions of central, longstanding debates in their modern formulations. Perfect for prompting discussions in undergraduate seminars, or for the professional on the go, the essays here deserve a broad audience.
The easiest way into these topics is by considering political rule directly. Two eminent legal scholars, Robert Bork and Jeremy Rabkin, discuss the ways in which the nation-state protects individual liberty. Bork focuses on how the American Constitution, originally meant to protect freedom, was hijacked for advancing lifestyle-liberalism in a way that has undermined the values of a free society. Rabkin explores recent calls for world government and international law to show how, in practice, these institutions undermine the political liberty that only the nation-state has proven able to protect.
Descending from such lofty heights, the editor of City Journal, Brian Anderson, emphasizes the importance of cities for freedom. In a learned essay tracing sources from Athens and Jerusalem down to present-day New York, he suggests that most of the ordinances affecting people’s daily lives are municipal and, more important, that the city was crucial to Western development: “Without the city, no democracy, no Christianity, no capitalism, no West.”
But political entities are sustained—and their power constrained—by prepolitical institutions, as essays by two leading social historians underscore. Paul Johnson shows how the rise of private property, beginning in the Middle Ages, limited regal power by granting small pockets of it to a sufficient number of citizens. Conversely, Johnson argues, private property is only protected under the rule of law, in a regime that respects property rights. As Johnson notes, “In Zimbabwe, where every adult theoretically has the right to vote, but where real power and property belong to the dictator and the leading members of his party, voting can change nothing.”
Anne Applebaum draws lessons from the post-Communist world about how cultural differences can drive the vast political differences between places like Russia and Poland. While the Poles never lost their desire for freedom and private enterprise, or developed unquestioning obeisance to the state, Soviet leaders were more successful in quashing resistance and promoting hostility to private initiative and firm state loyalty. The reason, for Applebaum, is that the Poles were able to keep alive the organs of civil society, even under communism, in underground theaters, presses, and galleries, especially thanks to a Roman Catholic Church that resisted co-opting by the Communists.
The role of religion in limiting government is underdeveloped in Seamus Hasson’s essay on religious freedom in America, but it should be stressed that, in marking off what we ought to render to God, we limit what Caesar can legitimately claim. Protecting religious liberty, besides being important in itself, is an important hedge against state overreach. Hasson, the founding president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, discusses the American experiment’s checkered history regarding religious pluralism and offers an anthropological argument for protecting religious liberty: to wit, it is man’s nature to seek out and adhere to whatever religious truth he might find. He urges us to be less concerned with the establishment clause and more concerned with the free exercise clause, as the former is at the service of the latter.