It’s easy to make broad claims about the nature of freedom. America’s history is full of battles over what specific freedoms to give to its citizens. But before the liberal and conservative grudge match can begin, it’s worthwhile to discuss why our tradition of individualism is valuable in itself.
Peter Johnston, in a recent column (“The ignoble indifference of the individualist,” 10/25), targets the individualist, who he claims is “unmoved … indifferent and self-absorbed.” Johnston believes this monster to be ever-present in our society, so much so that his individualists have enthroned themselves as the “new orthodoxy.” His central assertion is that the individualist gladly sacrifices “all higher claims to the altar of choice.” This argument fails to give an understanding of the importance of the individual, or why freedom is fundamental to our society.
Who is Johnston’s hero? One who, according to his words, believes that the Declaration of Independence “emphasizes the concepts of divine providence, natural hierarchy and a respect for authority.” Yes, for indeed it is self-evident that the Revolutionary Founders wanted nothing more than to express their deep regard for George III, by God’s Grace king, ruler of America.
He furthermore pins his article on a wonderful parade of horrors, stating that a society of individualists cannot “maintain a free and ordered society. A formless society would remain, anarchy would ensue, and the rise of despots and political planners would be near at hand.” For Johnston, the false American cannot freely associate with others; rather, giving him the liberty to mind his own business and affairs will inevitably lead to the French Revolution.
This is nonsense. Individual moral choice and decision-making do not lead to anarchy, but rather are the cornerstones of our democracy. This nation was founded by Puritans who sought to remove themselves from greater English society in order to establish their own way of life. The Founders wanted nothing more than to break those traditional bonds, to seek freedom to worship as they chose. While they respected tradition, they most certainly did not enthrone it, nor follow it blindly. Rather, they violently and boldly broke from their past in order to fulfill their own goals at the expense of England’s.
The Constitution, as Johnston might learn if he read the Federalist Papers more carefully, intentionally used self-interest, balancing one interest against another’s in order to produce a strong society and government. Our free market system relies on this same principle. Individual choice, despite allowing people the ability to err, nonetheless provides the best path. These are our values, despite Johnston’s denial.
Johnston apparently thinks most of us lead lives of “rampant consumerism, disordered families, broken communities and interest-driven politics.” Is that really what we are promoting with our choices? Is our willingness to examine new solutions to old problems really so horrible? Whom do we respect more in our community: those who blindly follow the conventional wisdom, or those who thoughtfully choose whether to reject or accept the past, and thus choose to take risks, both academically and personally?
I believe that conservatism works best by preserving the innovations and discoveries of the past, but also leaving room for change. Freedom of conscience is not valuable merely as a means to an end, a tool to produce the perfect conservative platform and then to be discarded, but rather is an end in itself. Johnston argues that the individualist upholds strict contract theory because of a hedonistic desire to do what he wants. That’s simply not true. He doesn’t even care about political philosophy; he wants merely to be left alone to make his own choices, socially, politically and religiously.
As a conservative, I respect the past, but I respect more than anything else the legacy of freedom of conscience that Western civilization has so carefully protected. Johnston misses the point of that heritage: blind respect for the past is not the conservative way. Each individual’s choice to preserve that which he loves of our heritage, and not cling to that which he does not, is the true conservative path. Individualism is not a recent innovation; rather, freedom of conscience is what has always made our nation great.
David Kasten is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.