Freedom, Tradition, and the Conservative Disposition - Conservative Persuasions

Freedom, Tradition, and the Conservative Disposition

Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society. F. A. Hayek1 What does freedom have to do with tradition? At first glance, the two may seem like opposing forces, vying for dominance of our society’s self-understanding and people’s ways […]

Yuval Levin

Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.

F. A. Hayek1

What does freedom have to do with tradition? At first glance, the two may seem like opposing forces, vying for dominance of our society’s self-understanding and people’s ways of life.

To be free is to be unencumbered, able to make choices on your own, blazing your path as you see fit. To be tradition bound is to begin from what others before you have done, guided by their choices, following a preexisting path. Freedom chafes against tradition; tradition is suspicious of freedom.

But a first glance is not enough. When we look more closely at what freedom and tradition really are, we can see how they depend on and reinforce each other. And we can see how their relationship sheds light on the conservative outlook on the world, helping us understand its roots and implications.

To imagine that freedom is merely liberation from constraint is to assume that every human person starts out ready to be free and to use his or her freedom effectively and responsibly. In this view, the only reason we are not all free is that some are held down by oppressive institutions and forces. The struggle for justice is a struggle for the liberation of the individual. And such a struggle often does conflict with tradition—which can appear as one of those oppressive forces compelling conformity and subjugation.

But if freedom is merely the absence of restraint, how do we know what to do with our freedom? How can we be trusted with such freedom and trust one another with it? Is the human person so morally perfect that we require only liberation from outside coercion to live well? Is being left alone to go our own way all we need? Could any of us really believe that about ourselves?

Something like that very optimistic anthropology lies at the heart of the idea of freedom that moves modern progressives and libertarians. Both approach politics with an eye to protecting the oppressed from their oppressors, with a sense that injustice is a function of burdens imposed on us and obstacles placed in our way. “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains,” they say, so the struggle for justice is a struggle to break chains.2

Conservatives approach the matter with more skepticism of the individual. We want freedom, too, and yearn to live in a just society, but we think the human person is far from morally perfect. Liberation from coercion alone does not prepare people to use their freedom well. Injustice begins in the human heart, and not just other people’s hearts but all of ours. “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” we say; the struggle for justice is a struggle to change souls.3

This view begins from greater humility about the human person and a sense that we all start out limited, crooked, or fallen. That doesn’t mean we have to end up that way. But if we ignore human moral frailty in framing the order of our society, we are likely to end up no better than we started and perhaps much worse.

To simply liberate a person to pursue his or her wants and wishes is to liberate that person’s appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being. Such a person is not someone we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom or power.

If freedom is merely the absence of restraint, how do we know what to do with our freedom?

The freedom we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by emancipating the individual from not just coercion by others but also the tyranny of unrestrained desire and vice. This older idea of liberty requires not only that people be free to choose but also that we be able to choose well. Such liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so the moral law, the civil law, and our own wills largely align and choice and obligation point broadly in the same direction. To be capable of freedom and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation. To be free people and remain free people, we need to be decent people too. And to be decent people, we need help from our society.

That help generally comes in the form of institutions capable of forming us: families and communities; churches, synagogues, or mosques; schools; economic enterprises; political frameworks; and more. The task of those institutions is extremely delicate and complicated. Because we expect them to prepare us to be free, they need to shape us without crushing us, to guide without coercing, to form without deforming.

There is no simple formula for building and sustaining such institutions. But there are complicated formulas that have passed the test of time. Sometimes, these are rooted in religious or philosophical truths we take to be authoritative. Sometimes, they prove their worth by their effects in our lives and the lives of those who came before us. Either way, they are often adapted and evolved through many generations of trial and error. And such evolution can hope to succeed only if it remains open to continued learning, adaptation, and experimentation in response to failure and disappointment, innovation and insight, and the unexpected turns our culture always takes in an ever-changing world.

Is it realistic to imagine that such an ongoing process of building and refining institutions and practices is possible? It isn’t easy to achieve, but such a process does exist. It’s called tradition. Properly understood, tradition is not a resistance to change but a mode of change grounded in humility about our own capacity to improve on what we have been given.

Traditionalism, the view that tradition should be central to how our society works to meet its needs, begins from the same premise as the view of freedom we have just considered. It starts by assuming that human beings are highly imperfect but capable of improving. That means when we are faced with a problem, especially an enormously complicated social challenge, we shouldn’t expect to be able to craft a solution from scratch. Rather, we should try to learn from the experiences of others who have confronted similar problems and see what they have gotten right and wrong—to apply their approaches while adapting them to our circumstances. And our society offers us a kind of canvas of such trial and error over time.

The lessons learned in that process are not contained in a book, a list, or the mind of any one expert. They are contained in the products of that process: the forms, practices, and institutions of our society itself, which have evolved over time through that process of gradual change in response to needs and wants. So when we confront a complicated social problem—how to raise a child, punish a crime, lift up the poor, humble the powerful—we should begin from where our society has landed so far in its efforts to address such problems and try to build on what has worked about those solutions to address what has not. Rather than throw out the status quo and all that has preceded and produced it, we should take it as vital guidance and see what we can draw from it that might be of value.

Approaching problems this way restrains and enables us and ultimately helps us become able to be free. The alternatives to such a process are all less friendly to freedom, because they all involve empowering some collection of experts and officials to impose their preferred approach to addressing a problem we face, rather than drawing on the collective experience of our society in ways that allow for far more flexibility and experimentation and that ultimately let our choices guide the evolution of our culture.

Of course, our inheritance can include institutions and practices that are not only ineffective but also unjust and need to be altered or ended. But on what basis can we assess them, and where can we find the knowledge to alter or improve them? Tradition does not require blind obedience but rather careful adaptation, rooted in gratitude for what is good about what we have, in humility before the wisdom of our predecessors and the truths they helped lay bare, and in an appreciation for how difficult it is to build functional social institutions and how easy it would be to lose them.

Edmund Burke, the late-18th-century British statesman who is considered one of the fathers of modern conservatism, laid out the case for this approach to addressing society’s problems in a way that emphasized its ability to adapt to the complexity of our common life. He argued that adherence to tradition is not about looking backward but going forward. To overthrow tradition would be to throw away the lessons our society has learned by painful experience over countless generations and begin again from barbarism. To embrace tradition is to benefit from what has been built by those who came before us, prudently adapt that inheritance to our own needs, and build on it further for those who will come after.

It is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon blind, unmeaning prejudices—for man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.4

“Always” is surely too strong. But over time, societies learn how to live and especially how to approach the most enduring human questions. Humanity can become wiser in this way by both respecting its inheritance (especially when it comes to the truth about our purpose, nature, and proper ends) and learning from its mistakes (especially when it comes to trying out various means of serving those ends). Those experiments are civilizational proving grounds.

We can be wise, in other words, if we are permitted to be free. And we can be free, effectively and responsibly, if we are enabled to be wise.

In just this way, freedom and tradition depend on each other and reinforce each other. If freedom is understood not just as the absence of restraint but as the capacity to live well without being coerced to be good, and if tradition is understood not as the imposition of the preferences of prior generations but as the benefit of a long, adaptive process of working to address enduring problems and pursue enduring truths, then it becomes clear that freedom and tradition depend on each other and that the free society is the product of their combination.

Both this idea of freedom and this understanding of tradition are ultimately grounded in an understanding of the imperfection and the fallenness of the human person. But both aim at the elevation of the human person and the recognition of our equal human dignity. That understanding and that aim define the conservative worldview.


  1. F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 122.
  2. These are the opening words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762).
  3. Job 5:7.
  4. Edmund Burke, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1901), 2:95.
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