Kearneysville, WV. I recently asked a group of bright students if they thought their freedom was being curtailed by an encroaching administrative state. Many were not convinced. Their lives seem free. They can do as they want. Limitless possibilities seem to stretch before them as they attempt to imagine their futures. Tocqueville, of course, would argue that part of the insidious nature of the modern bureaucratic state is that it reduces the imagination. Here’s his vision of bureaucratic tyranny:

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls….Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle….It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?…It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd.  It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.

Most would agree that this situation appears grim, but how would one know this was happening? Will the loss of freedom Tocqueville describes be readily recognized for what it is? One way to get at this question is to imagine what Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson would say if they were transported to our day. I think it is certain they would be shocked by the scope of government intrusion and the depth to which it has insinuated itself into our daily lives. So, do my students live in a free society? They say “yes” while Sam Adams would likely demur. Who is right?

Obviously, freedom exists on a continuum, so we are speaking in relative terms; however, another way to approach the issue is to consider trajectory: are we moving toward increasing freedom or away from it? Again, things are not as simple as one might imagine. If we look at civil rights, for instance, things are surely more free for African Americans than they were 150 years ago. Or fifty years ago. Something similar could be said for the freedom of women. Thus, on some level, the freedom of individuals has expanded in the past century.

However, it has been pointed out that with the expansion of individual freedom has come the expansion of the centralized state. Are the two dynamics related? Robert Nisbet, for one, argues that the emancipation of the individual from the complex web of social groups that constituted pre-modern Europe, ironically, has served to undermine the diffuse powers that held the state in check. Thus, with the rise of the atomized–though liberated–individual came the centralized, bureaucratic state to fill the void once occupied by secondary associations and complex social structures. The very dynamic that emancipated individuals fostered the rise of centralized state power. While few would advocate a return to some of the social and political forms of medieval Europe, we do well to wonder if it is possible to build strong social structures that could defend the dignity of every individual while at the same time provide make-weights against the centralized state.

Even if the loss of freedom isn’t as severe as some suggest, there are disturbing trends. Consider, for example, the recent story describing how some girls selling Girl Scout cookies ran afoul of the law. While laws are necessary, surely this is at least one example of bureaucratic over-reach and downright silliness that indicates a loss of good judgment, common sense, and simple decency between neighbors in favor of enforcing a regulation for its own sake.

The obvious question is this: how do we revitalize a culture that cherishes freedom and rejects intrusive state action? How do we cultivate virtuous citizens who prefer liberty to regulation and self-government to a bureaucratic administrative state? On the one hand, this is not likely to begin on a national scale. While the government could conceivably aid in the process, it will not be the driving force. On the other hand, fostering a durable liberty is not going to be done by the rugged individualist who fancies himself free of any social constraints or obligations. Rather, the key is vibrant local communities that create the space for diverse social groups to freely pursue various goods. Cultivating these takes time, effort, and commitment.

Tocqueville argued that freedom is an art, which implies that it can be learned but that, like all arts, it requires apprenticeship into a practice. Freedom, itself, looks radically different when we conceive of it as an art, a craft, or a practice rather than as merely a set of claims I make on society. The former is active and skillful and requires careful attention over a sustained period of time while the latter is passive and requires only incessant demands. The former necessarily implies discipline, self-control, and persistence. In this light, the latter begins to look like nothing so much as a spoiled child. These two concepts of freedom lead in two very different directions: one leads to a responsible and sustainable freedom rooted in a craft that is carefully attended and cultivated. The other leads, so it would seem, to individualism and, ironically, to statism. Like all crafts, freedom is the product of good work. Salvaging and cultivating the art of freedom is our urgent task.





Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. This passage from Tocqueville inspired similar skepticism among Georgetown students during a recent class discussion. For these students especially, they see a world in which their freedom to pursue their ambitions to be a direct legacy of America’s power and prosperity, and reject that administrative regulations can in any way be understood to be relevant to that larger and more expansive experience of freedom (as David Brooks wryly noted in his decade-old essay “The Organization Kid,” “today’s students don’t want to protest against the System; they want to climb it”). I suggested that it’s possible – and that Tocqueville meant – that we are more deeply “regulated” in ways that can’t be reduced to a cataloging of discrete regulations. I gave as an example the fact that now all syllabi at Georgetown have to provide a statement about the “learning objectives” of each course and how each course will provide meaningful “assessment” of how those “objectives” are met. These requirements are not even strictly required by any government – yet. But they are anticipations and an embrace of a creeping utilitarianism that has altered, and continues to transform, all human relationships in its image. How we measure value and worth is not always explicitly “regulated,” but there is a deep continuity between a government founded and shaped by the belief that the fundamental human goal was mastery of nature and the promotion of “industrious and rational” individuals, and a society shaped in subtle yet pervasive and unrelenting ways by such a belief. What bothers me are not jaywalking laws, which I think to be sensible in the main; what terrifies me more are the ways that modern humanity increasingly internalizes an insidious form of self-regulation which has as its basic motivation a pervasive materialist and utilitarian ethos and a debased form of cost/benefit analysis that discounts human solidarity, fidelity, humility, piety, and beauty.

    So, to take one example, most students regard themselves to be self-creating free agents, but with very few exceptions indeed, most will postpone marriage and family for at least a decade while they make themselves economically viable. They will overwhelmingly agree that both partners should work – which they justify as a form of self-realization, yet never reflect as being a form of economic servitude. While university officials are at great liberty to discuss career prospects with students (indeed, every campus has an obligatory “career center”), it is rare and likely considered to be bad taste and even possibly a form of oppression and abuse to discuss a student’s future prospects for marriage and family (no mainstream campus has a “family center”). What we define as “liberation” and freedom is, in fact, a deeply internalized set of controls. One need only read Berry’s “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” to encounter the puzzlement that anyone would mistake work in a bureaucratized corporate structure as a form of “liberation.”

    Of course, to the extent that modern students (and not they alone) are shaped by this ethic, they don’t regard it as form of “regulation,” but liberation. This self-understanding reveals how deeply we are, in fact, regulated by a deeper set of controls that undergird modern liberal society; the fact that we do not, and increasingly can not, recognize them as such reveals how deeply and insidiously we are in fact “regulated.”

  2. What is at stake, I think, is the very definition of “freedom.” We have been taught in a thousand ways to think of this in negative terms: freedom as the absence of restraints, which is to say, license. But licentiousness can never be freedom and must always be the halfway house to slavery.

    To see freedom as a positive, as directed to the good and restrictive of the evil, to see it as self-reliance and independence, to see it as an on-going work that must be created each day, in the fields, in the home, in the workplace, this should be the point of our political and economic education.

  3. Would that the “shepherd” really remained a shepherd in the long run. What remains lost on many is the possibility that habituating one’s self to the idea of a government as benevolent shepherd will result inexorably in said shepherd becoming more wolfish with each passing decade.

    For their part, the sheep will come to demand more wolfish behavior from their shepherd because in replacing responsibility with unrestrained license , a bargain with enslavement is cast. Consigned servitude to a government or commercial controlling agent becomes a perceived freedom. As a result, increasing regulation and government intrusion is equated with preserving freedom. Definitions are subverted, just as they are now.

  4. “How do we revitalize a culture that cherishes freedom and rejects intrusive state action?”

    Ignore unjust laws. By cultivating a healthily disobedient (self-governing) citizenry, there is an increased possibility for freedom. This doesn’t mean to go out of one’s way to break a bad law (that would be foolish and reactionary), but also not to go out of one’s way to keep a bad law. Rather than opposing our fascist (what else is state-controlled industry?) government diametrically, we should opposite it perpendicularly. If we engage the violence of the central state, its power is only consolidated. Resistance must emerge on other fronts that will not engage the dialectical and centralizing thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Freedom is always already complete in each person, if only they’d use it.

  5. Stewart, I would like some clarification of this remark: “Freedom is always already complete in each person, if only they’d use it.” Surely, this can’t be true. Freedom must be cultivated, no? It must be learned, practiced. We are born into radical dependence, and could not survive a day apart from the breast. While the longing for liberty might be there (and even that isn’t clear), the practice of liberty certainly is not.

  6. You’re right. I mean not that there is any absolute freedom, but that persons have the potential for freedom always, more or less concealed or forgotten. Essentially, if everyone lived freely, no one could be repressed. If everyone acted freely now in defiance of repressive laws, those laws would die.

    There is always the possibility, even if it is only latent… Freedom is a power possessed, even if forgotten. But, as you said, the conditions for promoting the awareness of God-given freedom mut be cultivated. Without the proper vocabulary, one cannot even have many thoughts. Currently, ignorance is being trained.

    The practice for liberty, like enlightenment, can arise out of the soul, but usually persons need conditions to promote the realization of the liberty they have but have forgotten. Thoughts?

  7. Stewart, We have an excellent educational system. Not the formal one but the informal one of 24/7 advertising, teaching us to be good consumers. Our best minds and best talents go into this system, and it works. Even politics is a consumable, marketed like any other. Only collapse leaves open the possibility of citizenship, and that actions that you describe are the actions of citizens, not consumers.

    Our merrie masters have convinced us that the “consumer is king.” Of course, in reality, the consumer is a slave. I would say “to his own passions,” but in reality, even his passions aren’t his own, but constructed out of somebody else’s dream. Never in history has there been a system of education that deliberately set out to degrade the people, and especially the youth.

    Sorry to be such a downer, but there it is.

  8. Precisely: we are being educated effectively in “knowledge” albeit of worthless things, which I’d venture to say is false knowledge — ignorance of truth. Our educational system excels at making what it seeks to make — consumers — but not at making excellent men.

    Anyone living from paycheck to paycheck (or consumption to consumption) is only laboring in order to labor more. If all our labor/consumption produces is the ability to labor/consume more, then we are slaves. Contemporary country songs typify this slavery. If the weekend is just used to “recharge” in order to slave away again, there is no leisure, no culture, no real thought.

    While I hate pop-country, this is a great example of America’s consumptive cycle:

    Beer On The Table
    by Josh Thompson

    Every morning I get up before that rooster crows
    Heading straight to somewhere I don’t even want to go
    Eggs and bacon in my belly and a Folger’s coffee buzz
    Good ol’ radar detector it protects me from the fuzz
    Well, I do what I gotta do to get through working that 9 to 5
    It’s killing me but then again it’s keeping me alive

    It puts the gas in my truck, butter on my biscuit,
    couple bucks when I’m itching for a scratch-off ticket
    That poker makes me broker every Saturday night
    But I still got running water and they ain’t cut off the lights
    Come Friday night, My friends and I start peeling off them labels
    Working hard all week puts beer on the table

    Eighteen bucks an hour and a million dollar tan
    All them women whistle at me while I’m working for the man
    Making me some cold hard cash out in that summer sun
    Come Friday I’ll have money but by Monday I’ll have none
    Once the bills are paid and that bass boat tank has gone from E to F
    I fill that big ol’ cooler up there ain’t a whole lot left

    But I got gas in my truck, butter on my biscuit,
    couple bucks when I’m itching for a scratch-off ticket
    That poker makes me broker every Saturday night
    But I still got running water and they ain’t cut off the lights
    Come Friday night, my friends and I start peeling off them labels
    Working hard all week puts the beer on the table

    Oh, oh, I’m a simple man, yes I am
    All I need is a few good friends and a good job,
    And a good dog, maybe a woman that understands

    And a little gas in my truck, some butter on my biscuit,
    A couple bucks when I’m itching for a scratch-off ticket
    That poker makes me broker every Saturday night
    But I still got running water and they ain’t cut off the lights
    Come Friday night, my friends and I start peeling off them labels
    Working hard all week, yeah, puts the beer on the table
    Ho! Ha! Puts the beer on the table

    Would y’all pass me another one of them cold cans?

    Reminds me of how the Egyptians kept their slaves under control: alcohol every night.

    For all my parents’ faults, I’m glad they forbad television growing up. I was virtually advertising-free. To this day, advertisements make me turn the radio off and I cannot stand television.

  9. Wow. Advertising free. You do realize that from the standpoint of the wider culture, you are a twisted and repressed individual? We can likely get you some therapy for that.

    As for television, some think it is an invention of the devil. It is not; it is the invention of an angel of mercy and light. Television programming, however, is an invention of the devil, since its intention is not the program the television, but to program you; to turn you from a good citizen into a passive consumer, passionate only about your next purchase, and bored with it when you actually get it, so that you are ready to purchase the next piece of commercial happiness.

    The solution is to be your own station manager, to watch only what you decide and use CDs, downloaded shows, netflix, etc., to choose the best and avoid the rest.

  10. Precisely. Netflix must be causing Ad Men some serious stress. Don’t get me wrong, excellent films/television shows are superb. I’d just prefer not spending more than half of each hour having advertising screaming at me. One thing my upbringing did: when an advertisement hits me, I want to do the opposite. I hate being “sold” things, something I recognize as deviant.

  11. Amid all the tasty FPR-scout cookies of good sense above, the Samoa (i.e., the best) of the bunch has got to be Pat’s suggestion that colleges ought to have, in addition to career centers, “family centers” that help students devise a succesful spouse-finding and marriage-maintaining strategy. Yes, we know the heart of it would be good Berry-esque, Kass-esque, Lawler-esque teachings/courses about why marriage is good for you, how to think about love, and how to prepare yourself to be a good marriage partner and parent, and we know that Pat’s larger point is to do this via the education itself, and not in an actual “family center,” but still, we can’t help having the following tune come to mind:

    “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a catch…”

    And imagine the promotional materials: “79% of our graduates accepted offers from top-quality marriage partners within 3 years of graduation, with an average of 1.8 children resulting from said marriages in the first five years. The divorce rate for these marriages was half that of graduates of comparable institutions, as the following data…etc., etc.”

  12. Why would people want liberty (as described above) if they have to work for it? They can have freedom from hard labor by having the government support them. Why would those who have little material items risk what they have for more responsibility? This does not make them anymore comfortable. Why would those with great material wealth want either of the groups below from changing their mindset? They have a mass of drones to do their bidding. Finally who wants freedom (as described above) if it is only going to make you abnormal?

    I loved the article and it points out the problem that many do not realize they are slaves, working day to day. But I wonder if I were to go to many places in the world and told them that you have to work 70 hours a week but you get a roof over your head and 3 meals a day (or an Ipad if that is what it takes), how many would say no.

    More likely to create a change to freedom is not talking about freedom but a general feeling by a segment of society that Government has broken it’s deal of easy living. The Dictatorship of Mubarak was looked on positively by many Egyptian for 25 years. When the government was no longer able to supply jobs for the youth so that they could get their material needs he became a tyrant and had to go. As humans we need material items (food and the above Ipad) and asking for people to give up something they can hold (or eat) for something that sounds difficult will be a hard sell.

    I commend you all here at FPR for continuing your discussions as you seek away to convince individuals that society is more important than the individual even if that individual is you.

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