Thursday, November 26, 2009

Don't Take Freedom For Granted

It's Thanksgiving, the holiday when we count our blessings. And it's the time also to count the second greatest of them all. We are talking about the trio of blessings: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Marriage activist Maggie Gallagher has something to say about this.

Freedom may well be a right, but the most important thing about freedom is that it is a good.

What's the difference? Rights are what you are owed. Goods have to be made. Freedom is a gift. We didn't make it by ourselves for ourselves. We have to be grateful for it.

We owe the simple debt of thankfulness to those who came before -- who suffered, celebrated, fought and died to create the society we now enjoy. That's history. And we owe it to those who created our freedom to pass on the gift.

Then Gallagher gets to the pure Burkean moment.

That is patriotism: the debt that we the living owe to the honored dead, which we can pay only by caring for future generations yet unborn.

I would say rather: "That is conservatism." Modern conservatism is the self-conscious articulation of the unarticulated Way of the ancestors. And the central point is the argument made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Let us run the actual quote:

Society is indeed a contract. But it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible worlds, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

The great gift of Edmund Burke, as the founder of modern conservatism, lies in this articulation of the unspoken wisdom of the ages. The social contract we live under is not just between the living. It is "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." And this is not just an artifice, a trick of social control. It lies at the center of life and its purpose.

For if we humans survive and thrive it will be because we have maintained the gossamer thread that is the contract between the generations. Between us the living, between those already gone before, and those yet to come.

That is why we are thankful, on this day of all days. We are thankful to have received the gift of life and the gift of freedom. From those who have gone before.

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