The trouble with labels—whether adopted voluntarily or applied by others—is that they are inherently limiting. Robert Nisbet is often described as a sociologist or a libertarian, and sometimes as a libertarian sociologist, depending on what the person labeling Nisbet desires to emphasize. It is true that Nisbet was a sociologist by training and profession, but the term sociologist today usually calls to mind a professor in an ivory tower who regards free will as a delusion, at least in a practical sense, because the constraints of political, social, and economic institutions keep men and women (and men who want to become women) trapped in the particular circumstances into which they were born. Historically, Auguste Comte is regarded as the father of sociology; in practical terms, sociology as practiced in the academy today finds its roots in the opening sentence of Rousseau’s Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
The average libertarian may not care much for the practice of sociology, but he, too (no need for diversity of pronouns here, because libertarians are predominantly male), is a Rousseauian at heart. A glorious future would await us if only we could throw off the social and political chains of the past, and allow man to embrace fully his nature as Homo economicus.
Nisbet certainly believed that political and economic power have become far too centralized in the modern world, to the detriment of culture and society and personal freedom. He also believed that such centralization—embraced by nearly all as a sign of progress—has led to social restrictions on acceptable thought: “The greatest intellectual and moral offense the modern intellectual can be found guilty of is that of seeming to think or act outside what is commonly held to be the linear progress of civilization.”
But like Comte, and even more like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Nisbet did not believe (as both sociologists and libertarians do) that man is too bound by all social and cultural structures. Rather, he held that increasing alienation from those structures closest to him—his family, his parish, his neighborhood, his community—is both a result and a cause of political and economic centralization. That centralization has restricted personal freedom in the name of an amorphous hope for a better future. The best guarantee of personal freedom lies in a return to the social and cultural structures of the past, which kept power diffused, set limits on destructive human desires, and forced men and women to work together for the sake of the good of their families and communities.
Nisbet was no premodern reactionary; he saw value in the modern emphasis on personal freedom, but he understood that such freedom required the preservation of social structures and cultural institutions that recognize the needs and limitations of human nature rather than ignoring or attempting to rise above them:
The liberal values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society, but we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive—diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.
Ah, but there’s the rub: To what extent are “diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority” even possible in a world in which politics has subverted culture, most of our “friends” may be people we’ve never met in real life, the word community is almost always preceded by either the word virtual or another label (e.g., “gay”; “black”), and the 24/7 cable news cycle keeps our eyes—and even more importantly, our imaginations—focused on Washington, D.C., and Hollywood?
The answer may seem surprising to the sociologist or the libertarian, but the possibilities remain because the social and cultural structures of the past, however attenuated, continue to exist. No one is keeping us from eating dinner with our families, and getting to know our neighbors, and taking an active role in our parishes, and treating Facebook or Twitter and FOX News or MSNBC as sources of information rather than necessary parts of our identities. No one forces us to obsess about Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi, Harvey Weinstein or Jennifer Lawrence; we freely choose to do so.
And in doing so, we freely choose to give up our freedoms, to cut our ties to the past that still exists in the people and places nearest to us, to place ourselves in the role of the voter and consumer who stands in relation to centralized political and economic power as a slave stands to his master. We choose the illusions that feed our desires rather than the concrete realities that can be maintained only through effort but which provide the restraints on our impulses that allow us to rise above our fallen human nature.
The quest for community is, at heart, an attempt to return to the Garden, to recover what we lost when our first parents fell. But so, in its own way, is the desire for political and economic utopia. The difference is that the former embraces the past and the limitations of our fallen nature, and recognizes that true freedom requires restraint; while the only thing the latter finds desirable in the past is the Tempter’s lie, echoing down through the ages: Ye shall be as gods . . .
First published in the April 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.