Years ago, I saw Michael, a boy then only 5 years old, racing a girl from his school in a park. She was the same age but, at this stage, was bigger and faster, and was pulling ahead. This was an informal race, with no rules, and the boy felt free to do as he wanted.
So he pushed the girl over and raced ahead.
For an exuberant boy such as Michael to grow into a good man, he must be constrained by others from such behavior, and internalize and develop the virtue of self-restraint or self-mastery, traditionally called temperance. He must learn that his own freedom isn’t just balanced by constraint as a countervailing force, but it depends on constraint. Even an informal foot race is not really a race if the runners don’t allow each other to run. They must recognize some basic rules and constraints.
But some conservatives of libertarian persuasion, political philosopher Yoram Hazony argues, see liberty as freedom from constraint. Author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and organizer of the influential Washington conference in July on National Conservatism, Hazony argues that failure to understand the importance of constraint—internal and external—for the life of an individual, family, and nation is a failure to appreciate the conditions for freedom itself.
He argues that constraint is necessary so that each of us can be free. The freedom to drive a car depends on others not stealing or vandalizing the car and on our all following, more or less, the same rules of the road. In the same way, the freedom to say what one wants depends on others tolerating it and not driving one from one’s job because they disagree. “But for others to tolerate what I have to say requires constraint, not freedom,” he writes in an essay for the American Mind.
In order to grow up free, the boy must learn to follow the rules of the game—any game he wants to play, whether chess or football, playing the violin, or indeed a job or career, or marriage or family life, or service to the nation. Constraint, as Hazony concludes, “is the key to everything productive or good that we do in life.”
“Constraint does much more, however, than establishing freedom. If I wish to be able to play the guitar or piano, or to prepare cooked meals, or to defeat an armed opponent bare-handed using aikido, I gain the necessary skills not by insisting on my freedom, but through constraint: Through studying and practicing at length every day, even when I find it disagreeable and feel overwhelmed by the desire to be doing something else.
“In the same way, my marriage, remaining faithful to my wife and bringing children into the world and raising them, involves a massive, daily curtailment of my freedom. To make it work, I am constrained to take a job that I may not want so I can make a living. I am constrained to refrain from relations with other women, much as I may desire them. I am constrained to care each day for young people who are often angry, troubled, or sick. Yet all of these constraints are the price of building up a family that can endure and flourish, contributing to my nation and to the things that I believe in, long after I am gone. And the same can be said of serving in the military and paying taxes, observing holy days and sabbaths, and everything else that is of value,” Hazony writes.
Such a list already suggests limits to the capacity of rulers, states, empires, and their police and bureaucrats to impose such constraints. When the self-restraint of the people, the norms and mores reinforced in families, churches, and synagogues, and communities are strong, the state can afford to be mild. When such self-discipline and the honoring of those who exercise it, even at high personal cost, are strong, the need for coercion, for bureaucratic and professional substitutes for informal care and control is weaker.
This rule applies not only to areas where government agencies take on the functions once performed by families and faith communities, but also to the functioning of markets. A friend of mine, a priest who had served in Nigeria, told me how he had attended a woman there at her execution. The condemned woman was a merchant who had dealt with two competitors by hiring hit-men to kill them: a more deadly—to all concerned—application of young Michael’s approach to dealing with competition. Where the rules and constraints of a free market are well established and accepted, such measures—not unknown in U.S. history in the form of urban gangsterism—become less the rule than the exception.
A good society depends on virtuous people—for example, those who work and sacrifice to sustain marriages and stable family structures, or serving the nation in the military, teaching the young, or personally caring for the infirm and aged. But a nation may make it easier or harder for its members to practice the virtues needed to lead good lives. A nation may, in its laws, customs, and moral environment, support stable marriage and family structure that enable children to thrive. Or on the contrary, it may promote and facilitate, in its laws and its TV shows, easy divorce and out-of-wedlock birth with all their attendant costs for children. It may recognize and honor tradition, duty, and sacrifice, or ridicule them as constraints on individual autonomy.
We live in a time of reckless abandonment of those structures and constraints that enable us to flourish, both as individuals and as a nation. It’s not just a matter of carelessness and neglect. The demolition of the nation’s traditions, vigorously and vindictively promoted by liberal and libertarian elites, is “at bottom, a struggle to prevent government, schools, and private institutions from giving honor to norms inherited from the past,” Hazony argues.
Bishop Robert Barron often reminds us that “your life is not about you.” But the dominant culture of our elites promotes the opposite message. It’s all about you, your freedom as an unencumbered autonomous individual, unconstrained by duty to family, faith, or nation, all of which must, in their view, be torn down in the interest of freedom, understood as freedom from constraints.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.