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Friday, April 20, 2007

Fried's "Modern Liberty"

Here's my review, in Commonweal, of Charles Fried's recent book, "Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government."  A bit:

“Liberty,” Fried argues, “is individuality made normative.” It is the triumph of individuality “as much over authority that would govern by despotism, as over the masses that would subordinate the minority to the majority.” He concedes that there are social realities-cultures, religions, languages-in which persons are situated and by which they are shaped. “But all these things,” Fried contends, “are the products of individual persons.” Individuals, he insists, “come first. Whoever says otherwise is trading in metaphors.”  . . .

It is often, and rightly, observed that the libertarian moral anthropology, for all its Promethean trappings, is pretty thin, assigning greater moral import to our “separateness from each other” than to our dependence on one another. . . .  And while there is surely something to Fried’s claim that “a life without choice, a life consisting of unchosen goods, is an inhuman existence,” it is also inescapably true that many human goods are given, not claimed, and that to be independent and alone is more “inhuman” than to depend on others.

That said, Fried provides an important warning about the temptations to confuse the preferences of the majority with the common good and to slight, as merely selfish, the objections of those who resent the majority’s imposition. Certainly, it is possible to overstate or misuse the claim that “individuals come first.” And yet, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, in a little essay called “The Weight of Glory,” we “have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Posted by Rick Garnett on April 20, 2007 at 11:26 AM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink

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