The Challenges of Adulthood for a Liberal Society

by Michael Novak

Mr. Novak held the George Frederick Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. at the time this article was written.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 27-September 3, 1986, pp. 744-745. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Novak identifies the United States as a liberal society in the process of maturing, and proposes that the liberty of this society has and always will be dependent upon vigilance of mind with regard to such concerns as free speech, terrorism, and freedom of the press.

"Confirm thy soul in self-control," the hymn about the blessedness of America instructs

us. 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. Thus the

highest liberal symbol in New York City is the statue, not the sex shows on 42nd Street.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is 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. Gunnar Myrdal observed 40 years ago that nearly

every day Americans say to each other, on the one hand, "This is a free country, no one

can tell me what to do!" and, on the other, "There ought to be a law against that!"

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


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


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


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.

I return to my prediction: 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


Two other issues must be confronted by a maturing liberal society today. The first is

terrorism. A traveler to Europe will note that ancient European cities are walled. They

are walled because, before there were cities (and, hence, civilization), entire

countrysides belonged to brigands, robbers and murderers. Civilization is little but a

constant struggle against terrorism -- an effort to build layer upon layer of protection

against the worst that is in every human breast. In this century, two powerful regimes --

Lenin's and Hitler's -- were explicitly built upon terror, which they regarded as an

ultimate secret of the human heart.

How can we fight against organized, state-supported, international assaults upon

innocent civilians and civil institutions, especially when the terrorists use our free

speech to further their purposes?

Nearly all terrorists today claim to represent a higher ideological cause. This end, they

claim, justifies murder. Then, instead of discussing such people as murderers, many

among us are seduced into talking about the "causes" of terrorism. But the causes lie in

the will of those who choose murder. No further causes should be sought.

The Statue of Liberty has a book in her arms. Those who genuinely seek liberty will

find many other routes to it than the direct, willful, deliberate murder of civilians.

Those who choose murder should be held in the respect that murderers deserve.

The other issue that confronts liberalism today is freedom of the press when that

freedom conflicts with matters of national security. What is an adult liberalism to do?

For those people who are confident in the security of the United States and take its

survival for granted, the main good to be concerned about is the freedom of the press.

But what if liberty does not survive? What if in 100 years none of the currently free

nations -- about 35 of 165 -- has retained its liberty, and tyranny reigns everywhere?

Everyone has always said that the United States is living out an experiment. Lincoln

said at Gettysburg six score and three years ago: "We are testing whether any nation, so

conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Suppose that this experiment -- the

noblest that human beings have ever conducted -- were to end like a comet that blazed

through history for 200 years and then went out? I do not think it is hard to imagine the

oil of the Middle East falling into Soviet hands via the fall of Iran; or to imagine the

Finlandization of Europe; or to imagine the United States being surrounded by hostile

satellites of the Soviet Union.

One weakness of liberal societies is their reluctance to confront evil directly.

Complacence is liberty's besetting danger -- just as vigilance is its hope.

These reflections do not alter the importance of freedom of the press in all aspects of

national security. Rather, my point is that the press may be constrained from discussing

crucial aspects of national security, not only by constraints imposed by government

officials, but also by those imposed by prevailing myths of American omnipotence. This

happened in the 1930s; neither Europe nor America was prepared for Hitler.

When was the last time you read an article describing how the Soviets might defeat us,

and how liberty might perish in this world? We do not think much about that. Why not?

Liberty and mind are linked. Liberty depends on vigilance of mind. That is why the

statue carries a light and a book.