Free Riding


Alexandria, VA A few nights ago in Washington D.C., Wendell Berry was among the speakers at what turned out to be a pep rally for opponents of global warming.  They struck me as an assemblage of D.C. cosmopolites, well festooned with iPhones and ultra cool glasses.  Many noted how far that they had had to drive or fly to be at the event.  Gazing out over this group, Wendell said that he had a good text for the evening, and proceeded to open – as is his wont – with a joke.

A friend from Berea likes to call witless people “wittees.”  Well, one time there was a wittee who was walking down the road and came across a large hole in the ground.  A fellow was at the bottom digging, throwing up dirt and dust and rocks and stone.  Wittee looked down and said, “what’s the hole for?”  The fellow looked back up at Wittee and replied, “It’s where we’re going to bury all the sons o’bitches.”  Wittee regarded the hole for a moment and asked, “Well, in that case, who’s going to fill it in?”

The assembled masses of enviro-activists laughed with delight – which stunned me, since so clearly W.B. was telling them that they were “sons o’bitches” who deserved to be in the bottom of a big hole.  He told them that his greatest fear was that someone might actually invent a plentiful clean energy source, as that would “wear out this tired old world within twenty years.”   I don’t think many there wanted to hear that.

It’s easy to point out the hypocrisies of others – we delight in it.  We do better, as Christ admonished us, to scrutinize ourselves first.  “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew, 7:3-5).

Among this group here at this electronic outpost and like-minded fellow travelers, there is a fair amount of self-consciousness about the various ways that “traditionalists” (or “paleo-libs??) free-ride on the broader culture that they otherwise criticize, no more evidently by employing a medium that can, at best, create only a “virtual” community  (Fr. J. Gassalascas said it best).    Farmer’s markets, new urbanism, bike paths, “the Benedict option” – most all of the various ways that community is forged today is less and less a result of organic communal forces required by necessity (e.g., live near water and arable land, don’t live too far apart since we don’t have internal combustion engines), but achieved by our prosperity.  In his at-times uncharitable review of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, Peter Lawler nevertheless was correct to note that not a few of the “crunchies” arrived at their destination by a circuitous, often well-travelled path, often ending up far from places of origin (or at least with many stops in-between departure and return), and benefit in oft-unacknowledged ways from the umbrella of security offered by America’s armed forces and the orderly world it largely affords.  Few of us would survive very long in Augustine’s world.

I feel perhaps more keenly than most this paradox of free-riding, working as I do at an elite mid-Atlantic university where much of what I believe and teach is at odds with the broader ethic of the institution, wed as it is to the ideals of progress, research and deracination.  Yes, it’s a full bore strip mining operation, removing largely inert human resources from varying far-flung locations and making them productive in the stream of international commerce.  We provide many opportunities for “career counseling” but exceedingly little in the art of living in a place, including that great and daunting mystery, raising a family.  I acknowledge fully and without hesitation that I benefit immensely in ways small and large from the position I occupy; and, moreover, that I fully seek to use the benefits, visibility and prestige of my position in an effort to criticize and even undermine the grounds for that institution’s prestige.  I would like to argue that, were I successful, my institution could remain noteworthy because it would be part of a changed culture – or would be a major part in changing it – and thus be honored for doing so, but I recognize that the more likely outcome (assuming such a change of institution were likely, which it is not) would be a loss of prestige in a largely unchanged world.   It’s likely that any success on my part would lead to a kind of failure.

This line of reasoning is clearly one of the most obvious, and oft-employed criticisms against arguments for localism in a world where to be local is simply one more “lifestlyle choice.”  Yet, if there is any defense to be made, it is a keen self-consciousness of this paradox, an awareness that a culture of choice forces every way of life into its paradigm – even those ways of life in which there is an effort to constrain choice.  Thus, its curiousness produces, to some extent, a salutary kind of perspective on one’s own life amid all of its compromises – not unlike that experienced by Augustine’s pilgrim – and thus, given the psychic distance and self-consciousness that it induces, the likely absence of the all-too frequent rigidity of the zealot or the ideologue.  I would argue that this very paradox is one of the sources of the good cheer amid the broader pessimism of this group (aided doubtless by substantial quantities of bourbon), and why it has never materialized as a programmatic or fanatic venture.  We are, in some senses, simply too self-conscious of the fragility of our own position.

That said, we are also generally aware of the ways that the culture we oppose – of mobility, deracination and placelessness – is also based upon widespread free-riding.  The culture of liberalism – writ large – has always free-ridden on the health and vitality of a pre-liberal, even anti-liberal culture.  Most basically it assumes the existence of, but does little to support or replenish, the culture of good families.  It relies upon the virtues of children raised in those settings, even as  it is suspicious of – even destructive of – what are necessarily “paternalistic” (or “maternalistic”) features of those settings.  It has sought to open every closed association and civil institution, ultimately emptying them of the capacity to elicit loyalty, memory and stability.  It relies on the good will and sacrifice of citizens even as it assumes that we are fundamentally rational actors driven by self-interest.  Tocqueville wrote of Americans that “we do more honor to our philosophy than to ourselves,” meaning that although we explain all of our actions in terms of self-interest, we actually act out of a deeper wellspring of altruism and fellowship.  Over time, he observed, our actions would begin to conform to our words, however, thus eviscerating the deepest and better sources of our behavior.

Similarly, over the past century and a half, liberalism has free-ridden on the millenia-long accumulation of “resources” that it has shown exceptional ability in accessing and utilizing, but very little capacity to spare or save.  “Drill baby drill” is akin to the adolescent refrain of “it’s MINE, it’s MINE,” uncognizant of the work and fortune that went into every inheritance that we may have come into.  We have been free-riding on the back of mountaintops removed, all the while congratulating ourselves for our hard work and accomplishment.

The difference in these forms of free-riding, I would suggest, is that liberalism seeks mightily to obscure or ignore the extent to which it’s riding on the cheap.  It works diligently to disassemble the deeper sources of its own viability, convincing itself that it’s  simply making the world more just and equitable (all achieved by its own efforts alone), all the while forging a world in which people will have fewer children and in which there will be less of the world’s bounty for the children that happen to be born.   They increasingly do more honor to their philosophy that shapes their selves.  In its willful (or ignorant) disregard of its free-riding, it permits itself a self-certainty and ideological rigidity, perhaps ironically – and ultimately – undermining its own basis for existence, but not before leaving some considerable amount of devastation in its wake, both moral and environmental.


  1. Well put, Patrick. At The New Pantagruel I always felt it was our mission to “argue ourselves out of existence.” So I wish you good success in arguing Georgetown out of existence!

    I am also put in mind of T.S. Eliot:

    “The fact that a problem will certainly take a long time to solve, and that it will demand the attention of many minds for several generations, is no justification for postponing the study. And, in times of emergency, it may prove in the long run that the problems we have postponed or ignored, rather than those we have failed to attack successfully, will return to plague us. Our difficulties of the moment must always be dealt with somehow: but our permanent difficulties are difficulties of every moment. … There is one class of persons to which one speaks with difficulty, and another to which one speaks in vain. The second, more numerous and obstinate than may first appear, because it represents a state of mind into which we are all prone through natural sloth to relapse, consists of those people who cannot believe that things will ever be very different from what they are at the moment. From time to time, under the influence perhaps of some persuasive writer or speaker, they may have an instant of disquiet or hope; but an invincible sluggishness of imagination makes them go on behaving as if nothing would ever change. Those to whom one speaks with difficulty, but not perhaps in vain, are the persons who believe that great changes must come, but are not sure either of what is inevitable, or of what is probable, or of what is desirable.”

  2. Great thoughts on parasitic free riding. A culture must be cultivated. In a garden, one cannot simply take the fruits the garden yields, he must give back–whether it be manure for fertilization or, more importantly, of himself in toil. It seems America has refused to give back to their homes. They are depleting their culture’s soil.

  3. Fascinating article, and your point is well taken. But doesn’t this all suggest that liberalism and traditionalism have something of a symbiotic relationship? Perhaps some permutation of the two is possible after all.

  4. This reminds of a class discussion we had in college about how a society that consistently adhered to John Locke’s principles could defend itself in a war. Since putting him in harm’s way violated the social contract, one being obligated only insofar as government actually protected life, liberty and/or property, the soldier did not have a duty to risk his life. So, in order to defend itself, such a society needed soldiers drawn from a pool of people that did not hold to Lockean views.

  5. I would add another thing to this thread. If I’m remembering my ancients correctly, the philosophical life is only available to those who do not have to engage in money-making. But how does one earn that leisure? In the past, if you were a noble, that was easy enough. But today? Unless you are a Buckley, it is unlikely that you’ll be independently capable of such pursuits. Academics and, to a lesser extent, journalists rely on the accumulated wealth of others and their own “marketability.” And I say this as someone looking to enter either academia or journalism.

    Modern capitalism is eminently worth of criticism, but it has also opened up remarkable opportunities for leisured pursuit of wisdom. I think of my own alma mater, the University of Dallas, which was founded by wealthy capitalists interested in furthering Catholic liberal arts education. There is a balance to be struck between criticism and gratitude. I am more than sympathetic to Dr. Deneen’s critique of the liberal tradition, but I am interested in seeing how we avoid “biting the hand that feeds us.”

  6. There is no “symbiotic” relationship between traditionalism and liberalism, but there is a “parasitic” one. Liberalism appears to thrive only so long as it expends the resources accumulated previously by a pre-liberal (or “illiberal”) society. This, I believe, is crucial to Patrick’s argument. When that inheritance is gone, liberalism has only left the massive state apparatus it has put in place to keep some appearance of cultural and material wealth alive.

    Accusations against the traditionalist or would-be aggrarian of “free-riding” on the liberal largess make no sense at present. All western persons now live in liberal societies of some kind and therefore to the extent that they live, eat, and breathe, they are beneficiaries of those societies. As I said just above, however, liberal society itself feeds on the achievements of the pre-liberal. I pray that we might “cut out the middle man,” dispense with the myriad and malevolent projects of liberalism, and at long last coax the present back into cautious and fruitful continuity with the riches of our forefathers.

    On a more pedantic note, I do not see how the inventions of modern ingenuity bear a causual dependency on liberal society. Does anyone really believe that the internet, or other such technologies, are the direct off spring of a rootless, administered political order? If it were, it would not flourish nearly so well as it does in the caves of Pakistan.

    If I owe a debt in justice to the liberal order, I shall be happy to pay it. But I would greet with disgust any suggestion that the totality of my life is so indebted and that, therefore, it would be a violation of justice for me to undermine or counter that order.

    I have done.

  7. This is twisting the concept of “Liberalism” from its formal dictionary meaning to nebulous propaganda.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

  8. I don’t think you have to choose between liberalism and traditionalism, at least in English speaking cultures. Liberalism is part of our tradition. The traditionalist conservative’s task is to make sure that liberalism doesn’t consume or supplant other worthy aspects of our cultures.

  9. RE: James Matthew Wilson

    I look forward to your essay on Kalb. I did have one quibble with your earlier comment, however.

    I find it hard to imagine the Internet springing up in a culture that doesn’t privilege rootlessness, innovation, and mobility. At the very least, I think many of liberalism’s defects have certain salutary side-effects (extremely rapid technological development comes to mind). Whether this trade-off is worth it is another question entirely, but a comprehensive critique of liberalism ought to at least acknowledge its very real achievements.

  10. @Will & James Matthew Wilson

    I have to agree with Will on this. The internet grew specifically because of mobility. Of course, it was first to share information between schools, but obviously it grew beyond that. Here’s a question: is it possible for the internet to have grown the way it did in such a uniform fashion were it not for Microsoft’s monopoly on operating systems? If there were less “big business” I really doubt that the internet would exist the way it does today. The connections on the internet now exceed the complexity of a single human brain… If this didn’t happen because of “rootlessness” I have a much harder time saying it happened because of “rootedness.”

    Certain technologies really were collaborative efforts, such as the cellphone. Corporations banded together to create a product none of them individually could create… of course, whether that’s a good thing is a totally different question.

    The internet, whether it grew from “roots” or not–it didn’t–now facilitates the search for place, community, and quality. I don’t mean virtual communities, but the monopoly Microsoft maintained held within it the seeds of its own destruction. By facilitating a Word Wide Web and with the introduction of Broadband internet, Open Source software has emerged: Ubuntu, OpenOffice, Firefox, Wikipedia… The quality of things is regulated not by a bureaucracy or big business but by people who care about things. In Open Source software, if it is bad, it is not used. In Wikipedia, if it is false, someone corrects it.

    But is the internet itself part of having roots? I need a convincing argument to agree with that.

  11. Great post – it hits at the sore point of all of us who wish to criticize, reject, or reform the liberal order but find that we are speaking as its children, at best as teenagers who complain about the wrongs committed by their elders but will soon find themselves on roughly the same track, committing roughly the same mistakes, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary. It reminds me of a passage in Plutarch’s Life of Phocion, in which the Athenian statesman meets a fellow citizen who, fed up with the endemic corruption of the city-state and upset by its fall from power, argues for adopting the austere ways of the Spartans. Phocion silences his interlocutor by asking whether he intends to make obligatory the infamous “black broth” as the regular diet of the Athens?

    Unfortunately, the only alternative of being a hypocritical critic seems to be the Nietzschean view that the only path out is to move further into decadence. But it seems impossible to do so without “turning evil into innocence” (Simone Weil).

  12. Perhaps I made a point too strong or too fine that should have been filled with the kinds of equivocation and qualifications that are my preferred moded. I would entirely agree with the above posts that the internet and most communication technology bears the stripes of its invention in a highly mobile age. And, indeed, I think the kinds of critiques Wendell Berry has made of technology derive from the fact that there is some kind of causal relationship between the worst features of liberal modernity and the kinds and forms of technology that so dominate our lives.

    Let me provide a narrative rather than a conclusive argument, in hopes of clarifying my thoughts.

    I read Berry’s “Why I Don’t Own a Computer” (or whatever the precise title) and the essays that followed from it many years ago. They convinced me, and yet I continued to use a computer. It is possible — some would say likely — that I simply continued skating on the ice of contradiction and hypocrisy of which traditionalists in the liberal age have always been accused. But I would suggest (in a rare, Hegelian or Adornian moment) that Berry’s critique was accurate but inadequate. There are aspects of technology that neither ratify nor derive from the morphology of our moment.

    If I am patently incorrect on this, please let me know. If I am convinced of my error, however, then I will be retreating further from the techno-splendor of our age than I already have. For the moment, let’s bear in mind that a great deal of rational inquiry and practical ingenuity went on before our present age, and its spirit is not definitively soiled by the horrendous features of liberalism. It would require a highly sensitized critical instrument to discern what aspects of the technological present are expressly owed to the liberal order. Stewart’s comments shed some light on this, but I at least cannot see how his claims — again — create a clear and exclusive causal relationship between liberal society and the internet.

    Perhaps, in any case, I should make some effort to work this out and provide a post.

  13. I don’t think there needs to be a “causal relationship” between liberal society and the internet. It is the way it is and I think what is more pressing is what should be done about it, not whether its source is something other than liberals. Might something else have caused the internet? I suppose it’s possible, but it hadn’t happened before. “What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation.”

    I see the place of technology as incomplete, but always holding the possibility of completion. Objectifying the world makes power itself a goal, not power for something. Technology today is closely related to the Cartesian mind-body dualism in which the entire world is a collection of objects. What should we be concerned with? Techne. Beauty. Truth. What are we concerned with today? Affluence, longevity, youth–but for what? The technology of life has subverted the techne of life, but this does not mean that a computer, typerwriter, or pen is somehow “bad” in itself. Each offers vital opportunities and perhaps an equal number of dangers. Shunning technology only handicaps the cause and places power in the hands of those who use it indiscriminately. Technology is not precisely “neutral” but holds the possibilities for great harm and great good. Not owning a computer will not likely help others, and probably not yourself. But I say this with a qualifier: I hope to reach a point in my life where I do not need a computer. It’s not that I refuse to use them (I work with them!) but that I see they are merely tools.

    As an artist has his tools, and so we have our technology. We can play with technology as if it were a toy or we can use it to create art. Or we can hide from it. Technology is always part of art and today’s technology holds great possibilities.

  14. Is it not a capitulation to a more liberal, absolutist, overratiocinated frame to concede that there is a contradiction in using a computer or the Internet, etc.? The criticism that we do not live fully in line with the strictest logic of our arguments arises from a irrepressible passion for uniformity, an urge AGAINST the variety of life as it is. If we do not live up to our arguments, we rightly feel the incongruity. But we are not hypocrites. The situation is more complicated than that. We have families. We need to make a living. We can ameliorate the problem. It cannot be finally solved. Not by fleeing to the fields, not by us giving up our computers. We do not live in contradictions. We live in an in-between. The in-between is not contradictory, because the extremes are not Manichean opposites. We must do what we can, but there is no systematic answer for that. And the desire to point out our own lives as contradictions comes from a prideful desire for omniscience, not the humility of accurately knowing one’s own maximum and minimum.

  15. In remarkably short time, the subject under discussion switched and the terms of argument were altered, so that I find my comments failing to argue points they were never intended to argue.

    My response was to Deneen’s moral reflection on “free-riding” in or on the liberal order. I there said that such accusations (or self-accusations) only could really apply if we could demonstrate that the thing in which we participate (modern communications technology) were directly and inextricably tied to the liberal world order in some causal way. This reflection therefore did not enter into the much broader questions of the nature of technology or its moral quantum.

    On the latter point, I almost entirely agree with Stewart, whose argument is perfectly expressed. I can agree with him despite the appearance of our comments coming as responses to each other precisely because it does not seem that they are really answering the same question.

    To the extent that they do overlap on a single question, it is on whether such modern technology can be evaluated as good or evil. Stewart says that it is not morally neutral, but can potentially be harnessed for good or evil. I think if a given technology can be used for good or for evil ends, then it must in itself be morally neutral. But, moreover, I would agree with him that no technology is morally neutral, and one way a traditional conservative might evaluate the merits and demerits of, say, the internet, is to discern to what extent that thing is merely an offspring of the liberal order. To offer a more obvious example, genetic material “selection” such as that soon to be offered in the United States (so the paper said yesterday) clearly bears the marks of our consumerist and post-humanist age. Is it possible to identify this technology as morally neutral? Only to the extent that it is either not used at all or used for some purpose unrelated to that for which it was invented. Only knowledge, an idea, can arguably be so neutral — since by definition it is not determined to an action.

    But let me retreat from this long rumination and draw attention once more to the sure-footed analysis Stewart makes of techne and technology.

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