Is Individual Liberty Actually a Conservative Idea?

Is the defense of individual rights a distinctive feature of democracy? 
A new book offers a surprising take on that question

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Trump supporters at a rally near Orlando, Florida, October 2020.
Trump supporters at a rally near Orlando, Florida, October 2020. Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Over recent months, hundreds of millions of people have been subject to restrictions that would have been hard to imagine a year ago. Coronavirus emergency regulations have led to aggressive lockdowns and to a need for social distancing and the wearing of face masks. In many countries this situation has contributed to the creation of a political schism, with rival camps positioned on each side.

One camp raises the standard of common concern for the general good: preservation of the health and life of all people. The second camp warns against both a blow to individual freedom and the brutal intervention of the state in its citizens’ lives. What results is a standoff between two core values: the public welfare and the freedom of the individual.

In fact, the two poles need not be mutually exclusive. In most countries, many people are positioned somewhere between the camps, among them people who think a lockdown is a legitimate measure but think it is not being implemented fairly. But in the United States, the conflict between advocates of individual freedom and proponents of social solidarity has assumed a distinctly political character.

The Democrats opposing President Trump’s reelection are by and large wearing face masks faithfully and are outraged at the administration’s ineptness in adopting or enforcing measures to contain the crisis. By contrast, many of the president’s Republican supporters have demanded the “opening of America” and object to wearing masks. The vociferous ones among them have portrayed the curbs on freedom as an imposition of communism or a new form of Nazism.

Trumpists’ outcry

The Trumpists’ outcry against the infringement on their freedom may be grotesque, but the question at the core of this debate is one of principle: To what degree is the state entitled to restrict citizens’ freedom? The experience of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and the present regime in China as well, would seem to show that restraining the power of the state is of incalculable importance. In general, there is widespread concern that individual rights, a central element in a properly functioning democratic regime and one that was achieved through struggle and revolution, are undergoing dangerous attrition.

But perhaps the situation can be viewed in a different way. A new book, “Freedom: An Unruly History” (Harvard University Press), by Dutch historian Annelien de Dijn, puts forward a provocative thesis: that the principle of freedom, in the sense of protection of individual rights against the power of the state, is a conservative idea. It is not a product of the era of revolutions, but precisely a reactionary counter-response of elites to the rise of the first democracies.

Like other historians and political philosophers, De Dijn distinguishes between two types of political freedom. One, which she terms democratic freedom, refers to the freedom of a people to determine its own fate. In her reading, that is what the leaders of the French and American revolutions meant when they talked about freedom: self-rule of the people.

According to this definition, rooted in the Greco-Roman concept of freedom, she writes, “a free state was one in which the people ruled itself, even if it lacked a bill of rights [or] an independent judiciary.” This notion of freedom is also bound up with the principle of equality, and from it derives the necessity of a just distribution of a society’s resources.

However, the author notes, in the 18th and 19th centuries, conservative thinkers began to put forward another concept of freedom: limiting the power of the state in order to preserve their own space as individuals. They argued that personal freedom is optimally maintained in non-democratic countries, such as monarchies headed by an enlightened ruler.

The German philosopher Johann August Eberhard maintained that Prussia under King Frederick II was an example of this: There, subjects were not required to pay high taxes, and they also enjoyed freedom of religion. Democratic regimes, in contrast, undermine freedom and create “democratic bondage.”

Fearful of lower classes growing more powerful, these thinkers, who were members of their societies’ social elites, encouraged the strengthening of the rule of law and of the institutions limiting the power of the government. Their ideas influenced 19th-century liberal movements that sought to advance individual freedoms, and were subsequently adopted in equal measure by conservative thinkers and politicians in the Cold War era, who cautioned against the communist interpretation of the concept of democracy.

From some perspectives, De Dijn’s portrayal of democracy and the principles of the French Revolution resembles that of conservative thinkers who warned against progressive collectivism and identified its roots in that revolution. One of these was influential Israeli historian Jacob Talmon, who argued that a foundation of “totalitarian democracy” was inherent in the principles of the Enlightenment and the revolution.

Targeting the Supreme Court

De Dijn herself comes down firmly on the side of the Democrats. She describes the liberal perception, according to which the way to protect freedom is by creating institutions and norms that oversee and limit the power of the people, as a distortion of democracy. Her arguments must be read against the background of current political debate in the United States, of course. The American right applauds the freedom of the individual, protection of private property and freedom of expression, and raises the alarm about the “tyranny” being promoted by the Democrats.

De Dijn also takes issue with such contemporary liberal intellectuals as Yascha Mounk, who in his book “The People vs. Democracy” asserted that liberty must be protected from the people. De Dijn, on the other hand, manifestly identifies with the radical camp of the Democratic Party, which calls for amendment of the Constitution so as to limit the power of the Supreme Court and eliminate the electoral college system, with the goal of making America more democratic. In her view, there is no essential contradiction between democracy and freedom, if we return to the original meaning of the concept of freedom.

In the view from Israel, the move to clip the wings of the Supreme Court is identified with the right side of the political map. Arguments in this spirit have been voiced in recent years by journalists and intellectuals who are fans of Benjamin Netanyahu, among them Gadi Taub and Avishay Ben Haim. They call for democracy here to be based on majority rule – though by this they mean the Jewish majority, and do not include the millions of Palestinians without citizenship who live in territory subject to Israeli control. In any event, the local perspective places the conflict between the two concepts of freedom in a different light.

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