How free societies think about the common good is the great question of our time. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, while most thinkers on the left and right have descended into simplistic cheerleading or paranoid denial, a few brave souls are seriously reassessing the role of politics in an age where nations are back on centre stage. It’s vital that at least some on the classical liberal/libertarian side of the argument take up that challenge as well.
In an effort to sharpen my own thinking, I’ve been reading Michael Novak’s excellent Free Persons and the Common Good this week. Published in 1989, it’s out of print but extremely worthwhile. There can be few books that move so smoothly from quoting Ludwig von Mises to adjudicating disputes between Catholic theologians. At one point, Novak laments the want of a book studying Friedrich von Hayek’s work “in the light of the political and social thought of Aristotle and Aquinas”.
This is not a perfect book. It repeats itself and descends too deeply into minor doctrinal controversies of the time. But it is a thoughtful, provocative reminder of the liberal project’s longstanding, deep interest not just in individual freedom but in creating self-sustaining political communities built on liberty.
Today, elite power is in full and open flight from politics, resisting democratic results for higher reasons of its own. At least some libertarians are running in the same direction. And yet even as they do so, it seems that suspicion of both the common mind and the legitimacy of politics is an idea whose time has gone.
So it’s refreshing to read Novak’s analysis of de Tocqueville, who looked at the early American republic and saw a commitment to maximise political participation at the local level as one of its great strengths, a source of durability.
In local affairs, citizens quickly see the connection between their private interests and the general interest… the federal principle at the root of the American experiment draws as many citizens as possible into the exercise of local responsibilities.… Thus, local freedom “perpetually brings men together and forces them to help one another in spite of the propensities that sever them.”
There is much to think on in our new times. But among it all, remembering that liberty is hard-won and hard-kept may be the most important of all.
If you want some practical advice on communicating persuasively in a new age of celebrity politics, you should probably read my book.