The following is from a thirty-year-old article (“The Challenges of Adulthood for a Liberal Society” (1986, The Christian Century)) by Catholic theologian Michael Novak, who died just two days ago on February 17:
For liberal societies, intellect and liberty are intimately related. Liberty is symbolized by a woman -- not a warrior (nor a guerrilla with a submachine gun); by the light of intellect; and by a book.
The American concept of liberty -- symbolized by the statue in the Harbor -- entails light, not darkness; learning, not nonchalance; seriousness, not dissipation; purpose, not scatteredness; character and integrity, not lies, duplicity or fraudulence.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn [was] wrong to judge liberalism by the pornography in Times Square. Like the rain that falls upon just and unjust alike and the wheat and tares that grow together, liberalism tolerates license. But it aspires to liberty -- the liberty founded in light, inquiry and self-mastery.
The first people to call themselves liberals stood for three liberations: political liberty from tyranny and torture; economic liberty -- not total, but with an unprecedented degree of freedom from state control over economic transactions between consenting adults (and, thus, liberty from poverty); and liberty of conscience, inquiry, ideas and information. These three liberations -- political, economic, moral-cultural -- suggest why the classic liberal flag is the tri-couleur.
Book, torch, wit and conscience are crucial to all three liberations. Intellect brings the wealth of nations as a society is shaped to promote invention, discovery, enterprise, wit and (well named from the Latin word caput, or head) capitalism. The self-mastery that humans achieve when they govern their passions and their sensuality with intelligence rings about a working democracy, for unless each person can govern self, self-government by all is impossible.
In its youth, liberalism stood for liberty from the ancien regime. Now, in its maturity, liberalism is the regime. In its youth, liberalism understood liberty (mostly) as rebellion from. Now, in its maturity, liberalism must decide what it is for. The challenge for liberals now is to learn how to use liberty. In our possession is an unprecedented range of liberties. As a youth, liberalism could claim that sex shops on 42nd street represented emancipation. As an adult, liberalism no longer has that excuse, since there is no "ancient order" against which to rebel.
Today there are only rebels! Even those who are now conservatives are rebels. They see themselves as outsiders looking in and fighting against a heavily entrenched, wall-to-wall liberal establishment.
It follows that both American liberals and conservatives face a parallel problem: pluralistic societies are not morally comfortable for anyone. The beliefs and convictions of practically everyone are offended either by the license insisted upon by some or the constraints demanded by others.
In this context, a mature liberal order needs to think anew about two themes: (1) liberty and law, and (2) liberty and responsibility. Law and responsibility are quite different. Sometimes it is the law that distinguishes liberty from license, decadence or complicity in evil. That is, an abuse of liberty is identified, and the law is expanded to cover it.
But liberty may also be distinguished from license, decadence and complicity in evil in another way: by a responsible public treating certain behaviors with disdain, contempt and mockery. It is not always necessary to pass a law in order to diminish the public scope of certain behaviors; raised eyebrows, ridicule or a touch of satire are often sufficient.
The central point is that any mature society -- including a mature liberal society -- must choose against some behaviors. To act as a free society is always to choose; and human choice is, necessarily, for some things and against others. Adulthood means learning to choose -- learning to say No. Liberalism has slowly been learning this lesson -- as it must.
In the political order, liberalism is not for laissez-faire, but for checks and balances. In the economic order, liberalism is not for laissez-faire, but for political economy that assigns many crucial economic roles to the state. Similarly, in the moral-cultural order, liberalism is not -- and cannot be -- for laissez-faire. Just as liberals now oppose air and water pollution, concern will increase in the near future about our moral environment.
A liberal society already makes moral choices. It chooses against racism, sexism and other such habits. And these choices are appropriate, for a liberal society values liberty (insight to see and will to choose) for each person. To demean what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the content of their character" is to treat people as empty of their humanity.
Thus, the danger of free speech is that it can be extremely costly to the freedom of others. Speech that is racist, antisemitic, antifundamentalist, antiwoman, or in other way demeaning, injures others and undercuts the speaker's own humanity.
Choosing against such abuses need not always mean imposing new laws. In this society -- as in all societies -- there are some things that the public does not (often for quite good reasons) permit one to say. A liberal society has long lists of things enlightened persons ought never to say. We impose these quite effectively -- even apart from law.
In coming years, our liberal society will think more and more about the virtues that free persons ought to have, about the moral environment that we choose to create, and about the type of people that a free liberal society chooses to encourage. A mature society chooses its own moral models -- models of liberty, not license.
Liberty and mind are linked. Liberty depends on vigilance of mind. That is why the statue carries a light and a book.
Michael Novak will be missed.