Friday, August 08, 2008

'Ordered liberty' - oxymoron?

Being one who views philosophical discussions more as a somewhat necessary evil than an entertainment, I had never knowingly encountered the phrase "ordered liberty" until I spent a few minutes in the car Aug. 1 and caught some of Rush Limbaugh's 20th anniversary show. There I was, innocently driving along, when suddenly:
"Rush, it's Rich Lowry at National Review. I just want to give you the hardiest congratulations. You've been an affliction to liberalism for 20 years and to the rest of us, you've been an inspiration, a joy, a comfort, an education and a friend. You long ago joined the annals of conservative greats, the defenders of ordered liberty, our civilization's highest accomplishment. I know how proud Bill Buckley was of you. I know he's proud even today from his celestial seat. Rush, it's been an inspired 20 years. Now we expect 20 more. Take care, and God bless."
I tried wrapping my brain around the concept of "ordered liberty," but instead the word oxymoron kept bouncing between my ears. A search suggested it's synonymous with the more familiar phrase "liberty under law," but I couldn't shake an ominous feeling that descended over me when I heard "ordered liberty, our civilization's highest accomplishment."

Is ordered liberty simply a phrase that compresses Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous thought, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins"? Or is something more sinister than that? The latter seems more possible because Google associated the phrase most often with people who advocate using Big Government force to control personal choices such as who may marry whom or what substances or medicines an individual may ingest.

I buy Holmes' proverb wholeheartedly; I'm not so sure I could endorse "ordered" liberty. It seems to me liberty is often a spontaneous and disorderly celebration, and that is a good thing. I seek greater understanding of this bizarre combination of words.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

conservative greats, the defenders of ordered liberty, our civilization's highest accomplishment

What he's remarking upon here is liberty with order, which is a state to be favorably compared with anarchy (liberty with disorder). That is, it's a society that prioritizes the liberty and in so doing creates order. This is basically "classical liberalism" as implemented sometime in the not-quite-near past of the West.

I distinguish it from "libertarianism," an unfortunately-necessary reaction to modern socialist statism, as being the traditional heir of the enlightenment and British-and-American economic scholarship. That is, it's steeped in a culture that valued the theories of minarchy and choice of the individual.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, as a way to maintain consistency with Leftism (i.e., reduce its political power) is often reduced from a reasonable way to limit government into an improbable philosophy. The trick is making clear that government not only need not but must not be totalitarian. Then the collective politics can be properly divorced from personal philosophy.

So what is ordered liberty? It's the state of personal freedom in a culture that values personal freedom. We do not now have that, as we once did. Today, rabble rousers agitate for government privileges against other citizens (cf, muslim suits against employers in the US and Britain, "vice" bans, massive wealth redistribution).

Conservatism doesn't exactly have a built-in mechanism to combat that because it works within a freedom-loving tradition (that's what it's supposed to be conserving!). Libertarianism has the correct goals, but lacks a cultural mechanism to establish itself; in fact, when it's turned into more than a political philosophy, some people are wont to argue in support for _greater_ statism as a result of a lack of reasonable referants (e.g., the economics of negative externalities ignored for ulterior purposes). Of course, none of that is very useful because of its youth and reputation of lack of political viability. If it were taken more seriously, it would look more "traditional," which is the enemy of people with pathological opposition to the West (which is another long comment in itself).

In short: "order" is not a sinister modifier that undermines "liberty" to create a code word. Rather, it acknowledges that a civilization without the love of liberty has no liberty. If one is not attached to the tradition in which this is manifestly obvious, it seems incongruous to "limit" liberty. If one is in that tradition, one might find it difficult to articulate why the culture one takes for granted matters at all (which makes it easier to waste it). But as we all know by now, minimal government is not compatible with society-by-government.

11:24 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home