The tyranny of misunderstood freedom

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” — John 8:32.

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” — Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

Everyone says freedom is a good thing. Christ promised it. America is based on it. Libertarians and libertines want it. Even the Chinese call their armed forces the People’s Liberation Army. But what is freedom?

Answers differ, because people’s concerns differ. A libertarian wants freedom from government regulation, a libertine freedom from moral restrictions, and an old-line Chinese communist freedom from poverty, foreign domination, and other social evils. The quotations above from St. John’s Gospel and the Supreme Court suggest two different approaches to the question, both backed by eminent authorities. Catholics and many others accept the first, based on the sovereignty of truth, but influential and respectable people today increasingly insist on the second, based on the sovereignty of human choice.

Catholicism views human life as a whole, and accepts that man is naturally oriented toward goods beyond himself. For that reason, it views freedom comprehensively: prison, poverty, and physical handicap are restrictions on freedom, but so are habitual drunkenness, obsessive greed, and—as John’s Gospel suggests—ignorance of the Faith. The last point is important. The freedom that matters most, in the Catholic view, is not freedom to get what we want but freedom to pursue what is best. A Catholic society would see overcoming sin and moral ignorance as part of human freedom, because those things get in the way of our goal as human beings. When St. Peter was put in chains or St. Francis married Lady Poverty they were freer, in a Catholic sense, than the careerist who is mainly interested in professional success and high-end consumer goods.

We live not in a Catholic society but one in which the view of freedom expressed by the Planned Parenthood court is generally accepted by social authorities. In that view, freedom is freedom to choose what to treat as real and meaningful. The ideal is to let our choices determine what makes sense for us, rather than let what makes sense determine our choices. Human will and not truth is at the center. An example will illustrate what that principle means. Freedom in a secular liberal sense now means that choice itself is good, and the more people’s choices differ, the better. Religious and lifestyle diversity should be celebrated, because they show the range of goods on offer and the creativity of the human spirit. “Gay marriage,” for example, demonstrates that people make their own decisions on their own grounds, and the desire for public validation of those decisions has made marriage once again important in the eyes of secular liberals.

So we are faced with two opposing understandings of freedom, one that views freedom as the unfolding of individual creativity and one that views it as reaching for something greater and better than we are. Which is right?

Those who line up behind the Supreme Court majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey think their case is a slam-dunk. Why is following truth freedom when you can invent your own truth and go for it? And anyway, if truth were the standard, some particular idea of truth would have to be put in charge. Whose will that be? So the Catholic view of freedom is not taken seriously. People say that it’s really just freedom to be a Catholic and do what the Church tells you to do.

The argument flows very smoothly, but it slides over important points. One key point is that if something is going to be used as a supreme standard—and that’s what freedom is today—it has to deal adequately with everything that affects our well-being. Otherwise, it will ride roughshod over what it slights in favor of what it emphasizes. And the secular liberal view of freedom leaves out a consideration that is absolutely basic: what choices are worth. It looks at what individuals choose, which is certainly important, but downplays the setting in which choices are made and the value of the choices that setting makes available.

That point is recognized to some extent with regard to economic matters. What sense, many people have asked, does economic freedom make if it’s freedom to starve? Shouldn’t the freedom of the rich to make money be subject to the freedom of other people to make a decent living and live in dignity? Most liberals conceded that point when they abandoned classical liberalism in favor of the welfare state. The question can be updated, though, and expanded to social issues. One could ask whether sexual freedom should be limited by respect for the freedom of ordinary people to form stable families that provide a favorable environment for children to grow up in. If we’re concerned about the freedoms that matter most to people, isn’t the latter the one we should emphasize?

The answer given by secular liberal theory is “no.” Secular liberals favor substantive economic freedoms, like access to employment, but not substantive social freedoms, like access to normal family life, because money is neutral and normal family life is not. You can use money for anything from prayer books to pornography, so increasing and diffusing prosperity increases people’s ability to define their own meanings and make whatever choices they want. The same is not true of increasing and diffusing traditional sexual morality. It might give people better choices, but it doesn’t give them more choices. Secular liberals can’t accept that as a good thing without giving up neutrality as to what life is all about. They would have to admit that some things—for example, sex—come with their own meanings, and we cannot define whatever meanings we want for them. And that would mean giving up what secular liberalism has become.

Other problems arise when freedoms conflict. What happens—as in the case of Catholic employers and contraception—when the freedom to engage in sexual relations with no cost or inconvenience conflicts with the freedom to join others in living by a common understanding of what makes for a good life? According to the Obama administration, it’s a slam-dunk victory for sexual freedom. And from their standpoint, they have a point. Sexual freedom has to do with the right of the individual to define his own goods and meanings, while the right of the employer to deny coverage is more the right of a group to promote some goods and meanings but not others. The individual person is more real than the group—a point that Catholics will agree with—so if the question is simply the freedom to do as one chooses the first should take precedence over the second. Anything else would be the tyranny of the collective over the individual.

The problem of substantive social freedoms nonetheless remains. It seems obvious that the value of freedom comes from the goods to which it relates. What good are 500 channels with nothing to watch? What good is sexual freedom that makes it hard to get married and have kids in anything like the environment you’d want? And, since man is social, what is the point of an understanding of individual freedom that means common commitments carry no weight? Who wants to live like that?

These problems are serious, and they are becoming more so. Our society is progressive, and it’s loaded with lawyers, bureaucrats, and accredited “experts” whose job it is to make sure its official ideals are applied more and more comprehensively. The result is continual destruction of substantive social freedoms that present us with choices worth having in favor of the neutral and strictly individual freedoms represented by the requirement that Catholic employers provide all forms of birth control to their employees. There is no limit to that tendency in theory, and no center of power—other than churches with a long history of defeat and compromise—that sees any reason to resist it. So it’s likely to go very, very far. Regardless of the immediate outcome of current disputes, Catholics had better prepare themselves for a long struggle and bumpy ride in the years to come.

Editor’s Note: In my May 2011 Catholic World Report review of James Kalb’s book, The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI, 2008), I praised the work for “describing and analyzing the current situation in the West by adeptly using a wide range of tools: historical research, political philosophy, moral theology, psychology, sociology, Christian apologetics, common sense, and—last but certainly not least—Catholic social doctrine.” I think very highly of the book and Kalb’s other work, so I am pleased and grateful that he has accepted CWR’s invitation to write a regular column, “Ecclesia et Civitas,” for CWR on the intersection (or collision, as it may be) of Church and state, the relationship between faith and citizenship, and the continuing tensions between the City of God and the city of man.

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About James Kalb 147 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).