When it comes to figuring out how to live together in society, there’s one thing we can all be sure of. It’s this: There will be order. One of conservatism’s icons, Edmund Burke, captures this concept beautifully in a 1791 letter:
What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?
It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; inproportion as they are disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good in preference to the flattery of knaves.
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.
It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
So many great little gems there from Edmund Burke. Liberty, he argues, if it is not bridled by wisdom and virtue, can run unrestrained into folly, into any number of vices, and finally into unrestrained madness.
Conservatism holds that ordered liberty is the optimal way to secure freedom while maintaining order in a civil society. But in order to maximize freedom, each of us must control our appetites and our passions. Because if we don’t, some external force will control them for us.
If we cannot rely on self-control; if our families are too broken to love us and teach us and nurture us; if our religions are too corrupt to call from within us the better angels of our nature, or if we are too corrupt to hear that call; if our schools are ineffective wrecks; if all of this is true, if these little platoons, as Burke called them, fail us, we will still have order.
Society might, as it has throughout history, devolve for a time into chaos. But some one, or someones, will seize control in the chaos and produce some form of order. It might be a dictatorship. It might be an oligarchy. It might be socialism.
Some may say America is now no better than any other country, and worse than a lot of them at maximizing freedom. It is true, in the U.S., we have seen the rise, for instance, of the police state and the diminution of individual rights. Partly, we can blame this on the natural desire of man to rule over man, but also partly, we can safely say, this is the result of the failure of individuals, families, churches and the other “little platoons” to sufficiently self govern. As families and churches fail, government will naturally, and with little encouragement, fill the void.
But there is hope. The United States, along with many other countries, was created as a nation of laws, and not of men. And, fortunately, the foundational laws that created our republic, and the free market economic system built alongside it, both reflect the realities of the inherent good and evil of human nature. Other ideologies actually try to change human behavior, which is why they always have and always will fail. So, yes, ordered liberty does require some government coercion, but in a free society, that coercion conforms to human nature.
No system is perfect. But America is built on the most solid foundation yet devised by humankind. The responsibility, therefore, lies with us. If civil society is crumbling around us, the repairs must start with us, with our families, with our little platoons. Because there will be order. How much freedom we will have to go along with it is up to us.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Dave Buer. Thanks for listening.
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