Tradition and Liberty

It seems sometimes as though diagnoses of “what’s wrong with America” are a dime a dozen. We’re not free enough, some say; we’re not moral enough, others say. We don’t follow the Constitution, but should; we do follow the Constitution, but shouldn’t. We’re too obsessed with equality; we’re not obsessed with equality enough. And so it goes.

At the risk of being tiresome, I’m going to hazard a diagnosis of my own: America is too anti-traditional. (OK, in truth, it’s not really my diagnosis; I’m just adapting and updating an old indictment make by Burke, Kirk, and Co., quite some time ago.) I don’t think that’s our fundamental problem (I’ve talked about what I think that is elsewhere), but it’s certainly one of our bigger issues, and is really a symptom of that fundamental problem.

Now, keep in mind that I’m using “tradition” in the sense of “custom” or “a people’s well-established and often unexamined ways of being and doing.” Traditionalism is comfortable with doing a thing because, well, that’s just how we do things here. In this respect, it’s the opposite of social rationalism, which more or less presumes to “wipe the slate clean”–to subject a society’s ways of life to systematic doubt–and which refuses to accept the legitimacy of a custom unless it can first be justified before the bar of human reason. That doesn’t mean that traditionalism sees no place for reason; it’s just that, as Burke and F. A. Hayek both argued at different times and for different purposes, traditionalism recognizes that there are limits to human reason which must be paid heed or a society may suffer serious damage. Therefore, traditionalism would urge that reason be employed wisely and with humility, always keeping in mind that “politics is the art of the possible” and that our political decisions–just like any other type of decision–have unintended consequences.

The funny thing about our time is that so many equate the word “tradition” with “oppression.” If you’re a traditionalist, then you must not have a very high opinion of liberty, so the thinking goes. I say that’s “funny” because, quite honestly, it would seem that the opposite is in fact the case. Quoting from Hayek: “Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.” How strange that sounds to our twenty-first century ears!

But Hayek is right, when you think about it. His “tradition-bound society” is, I think, one where there is a high degree of respect for customary ways; it’s a society which affirms and celebrates, rather than ridiculing, its roots in the past, and in which people happily and voluntarily, rather than begrudgingly and under compulsion, follow those previously-mentioned customary ways. This “tradition-bound society” is one which humbly acknowledges that sometimes we do without necessarily understanding–at least fully–why; it doesn’t arrogantly apotheosize the human intellect and refuse to render obedience unless Reason the Sovereign Lord of All is first appeased. It’s a society where the presumption is that children should obey their parents, not where parents must first make a convincing case for their own authority, where the disrespectful student must justify himself to the teacher, not where the teacher must justify himself to the student. And if all that’s true, then the society Hayek is talking about is the opposite of our own, in so many ways.

Now, what about the link between tradition and liberty? Where a society’s traditions instill a solid sense of morality, and to the extent that that society is “tradition-bound” in the sense outlined above, then you have a society where the role of the state is likely to be relatively limited. If people generally do what is right without the state, then a plethora of laws, rules, and regulations designed to enforce a society’s moral code will largely be redundant. And, paraphrasing Barry Goldwater, as the realm of government contracts, the realm of liberty expands. So then, respect for tradition is essential to liberty; where that respect begins to wane, liberty is jeopardized.

Consider it this way, to see the practical effects: There was once a moral consensus in this country, which was grounded in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition; sadly, that no longer seems to be the case. What this means is that there was once a widely-held belief that parents have a responsibility to provide for their children, but that belief seems to be losing ground. And what’s the end result of that? Welfare programs aimed at counteracting the resultant poverty, all of which grow the realm of government and thereby contract the realm of liberty. There was once a widely-held belief that children should obey their parents, but that belief also seems to be losing ground. Again we ask, what’s the end result of that? Increased juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancies, etc., all of which have led to a growth in the realm of government (through increased law enforcement efforts with the former, more welfare programs again with the latter) and corresponding decrease in liberty. There was once a widely-held belief that one not only had rights others ought to respect, but also responsibilities owed to others; listen to people talk today and you’d hardly know that’s the case. And the result? An increase in social pathologies of all sorts, which lead to–you guessed it!–more government programs, and greater loss of liberty. That’s what follows when a society loses respect for tradition.

So maybe tradition isn’t so oppressive, after all.

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