Yuval Levin has a truly remarkable article, celebrating the accomplishment of Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died on December 31 at age 97. In his essay, significantly entitled “The Historian as a Moralist” (contrary to common understanding, this is meant to be a compliment: read it and you’ll understand why), Levin provides a thorough assessment of Himmelfarb’s astounding scholarship.

In particular, Levin stresses how Himmelfarb saw the history of ideas as involving the study not only of political ideas themselves, but of how they percolated in society, and so understandably she was “fascinated by the role that writers, scholars, journalists, critics, and academics played in politics and culture, and nearly all of her work takes up that subject in one way or another.”

In his piece, Levin rightly emphasizes what Himmerlfarb came to call “the paradox of liberalism”: “that in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength.”

Drawing on Acton, Himmelfarb saw that “the elimination of mediating, moderating layers of both authority and liberty endangered them both.” Such elimination is seen as consistent with a liberalism that, preaching the highest possible degree of liberty for the individual, wanted to emancipate her not only from the dominion of government, but also from the sway of other social ties. We know, some of us from firsthand experience, how oppressive your family or the group of peers or your little village or your professional community can be.

Himmelfarb on the other hand took an “Actonian” position. She considered vital for a free society the existence of a complex fabric of institutions between the single individual and sovereign power. This she contrasted with the highly dangerous view of “absolute” liberty, which calls for no intermediary between the self-determining individual and the sovereign.

Levin pays the supreme tribute to Himmelfarb by providing a snapshot of how her ideas percolated in society. In particular, he notes that her arguments on “the paradox of liberalism” were more influential than we might now quite perceive. Under their guidance, that portion of the…

American Right inclined to insist on the moral character of political debates made compassion its watchword and emphasized moral culture — and especially marriage, childbearing, religion, and community. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was only the most explicit and obvious example, but the influence of this mode of thought is apparent over three decades in every form of the conservative recoil from the (often-caricatured) libertarian framework of the Right’s economic thinking. Such recoil had been a repeating pattern in the development of the modern American Right, but the various forms it took after the mid-1970s were all in various ways influenced by Himmelfarb’s insights. And that recoil is very much a part of what we see on the Right today, even if today’s anti-libertarians are unusually unfamiliar with the history of the pattern they are re-enacting.

Levin is correct in identifying this as a central theme in Himmelfarb’s work, but he assumes such a point is not lost on the “anti-libertarian right” and rejected by the libertarian one. I am not sure about that. Indeed, a healthy skepticism towards a world with no intermediary between the single individual and the state is also part of a (non-caricatured) libertarian position.

Let’s put it in these terms. The opposite of liberty is coercion. A libertarian is concerned both with coercion per se, with the mere curtailment of individual liberty, and with the existence of an authority endowed with the monopoly of coercion. Monopolizing coercion creates a much stronger coercive power than there would otherwise exist. It does so because such coercive power has no rival, no competitor, and therefore can more easily extend its own tentacles.

On paper, the idea of giving coercive power to one social actor (the state) and then work to limit it sounds nice and strong. The problem is that political institutions are not “designed” on paper: they emerge over time and history. We can see free institutions in a sense as the unintended consequences of other historical phenomena. This was the Actonian view:

It was late in the thirteenth century that the psychology of Conscience was closely studied for the first time, and men began to speak of it as the audible voice of God, that never misleads or fails, and that ought to be obeyed always, whether enlightened or darkened, right or wrong. The notion was restrained, on its appearance, by the practice of regarding opposition to Church power as equivalent to specific heresy, which depressed the secret monitor below the public and visible authority. With the decline of coercion the claim of Conscience rose, and the ground abandoned by the inquisitor was gained by the individual. There was less reason then for men to be cast of the same type; there was a more vigorous growth of independent character, and a conscious control over its formation. The knowledge of good and evil was not an exclusive and sublime prerogative assigned to states, or nations, or majorities. When it had been defined and recognised as something divine in human nature, its action was to limit power by causing the sovereign voice within to be heard above the expressed will and settled custom of surrounding men. By that hypothesis, the soul became more sacred than the state, because it receives light from above, as well as because its concerns are eternal, and out of all proportion with the common interests of government. That is the root from which liberty of Conscience was developed, and all other liberty needed to confine the sphere of power, in order that it may not challenge the supremacy of that which is highest and best in man.

Later in time, in the Anglo-Saxon world, the understanding “that governments and institutions are made to pass away, like things of earth, whilst souls are immortal” developed out of religious struggles in England, with some fleeing to the new world.

Not by chance, Acton thought that the most certain test of freedom was the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. And not by chance was he opposed modern nationalism, which made the state and the nation commensurate with each other in theory (justifying practice aiming at that goal), and favored supranational states, with a plurality of nationalities living within their borders. Their mutual rivalry would help avoid consolidation of a single sovereign power, which is instead much helped by assuming that one state should a homogeneous cultural community. Acton considered “power concentrated” highly dangerous, and that liberty could flourish only in conditions in which power was “balanced and cancelled and dispersed.” This is why libertarians are concerned with the very existence of a monopolist of coercion, and would like other forces in society to check and limit it.

Were sometimes these forces themselves far from libertarian? Yes, indeed. Think about the Victorians. Leaving aside their hypocrisy (show me a society that could live without some degree of hypocrisy, by the way), one of their core ideas was that individuals should self-govern themselves a great deal, and for the government not to step in. Not by chance the most enthusiastic book on the Victorian age I’ve read in years is Bagehot’s biography by James Grant, quite a libertarian fellow himself.

Culture changes with time, and it is in itself the product of the exercise of liberty. Freedom of conscience had the consequence of producing other kinds of liberties, commerce acquainted us with different ways of living, et cetera.

I suspect that libertarians have gone above the illusion of using sovereign power as a liberating factor, without paying a price for it. I would be interested in seeing how the anti-libertarian right can square the circle between its appreciation of “traditional” institution, and its love affair with a strong nation state.