Order and the American Culture of Liberty (JOHN C. PINHEIRO, JUNE 27, 2024, Religion & Liberty)


There is an insightful exchange in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World between Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Aubrey is all about discipline and order, while the doctor’s inclination is toward mercy and liberty. In a heated debate over the proper balance between liberty and order aboard a wartime naval ship, Captain Aubrey finally yells in exasperation: “Men must be governed! Often not wisely, I will grant you, but governed nonetheless.” The doctor dismissively responds that this is “the excuse of every tyrant in history, from Nero to Bonaparte.”

Royal Navy frigates no doubt require a greater degree of order and illiberality than diverse, commercial republics. But the debate between these fictional characters touches on a point of real dispute, particularly right now on the American right: What is the proper balance between liberty and order most consistent with human dignity and the pursuit of the common good?

During my two decades as a history professor, I found that the most effective way to help students manage the complexity of the grand sweep of American history was to cast it as what Russell Kirk calls, in The Roots of American Order, “that healthful tension between order and freedom.” This tension over how to balance individual freedom with the common good has proved an enduring feature of the American project. This American order requires a subsidiary role for a limited central government and is predicated on a vibrant civil society where the primacy of a culture of liberty demands that prudence be applied to human affairs.

To talk about liberty does not negate the need for order nor does it imply that one is unconcerned about it. Order is the precondition for liberty, but liberty is the aim.

Consider a different frame: the eternal political conflict is between the contradictory impulses for freedom and for security. Republican liberty seeks to resolve it by requiring that orderly limits be adopted in participatory fashion and apply universally.