When Virtue Destroys Virtue by HERBERT LONDON –


In his classic work, The Critique of Pure Reason, Emmanuel Kant indicated that antinomy, or the apparent contradiction between valid principles and conclusions which seem necessary and reasonable, can be transmogrified from liberal texts to tyranny. As I see it, the threat to the values we cherish very often comes from the values we cherish. It is not the philosophical opposition that challenges the virtues of our system, but the extension of the virtue itself.

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The right to assembly is one of those cherished virtues. However, when the Michigan legislature passed a right to work law allowing workers to decide whether they join or financially support labor unions that represent them, union members descended on the state capital shouting epithets, threatening violence and illegal occupation and vandalism. These were anti-democratic acts in response to the provisions of democracy.

The First Amendment argues unequivocally that free speech translates into the acceptance of many points of view. Yet this same position without restrictions could destroy free speech. It is logical to assume that under the banner of free speech an argument could be made to undermine that freedom. Tolerance, in this instance, is freedom’s hangman. This logical contradiction explains why George Santayana maintained that the first duty of the tolerant man is to be intolerant to intolerance. But how do you square that circle?

The Constitution’s establishment clause contends that the United States will allow for the expression of religious sentiment without creating an established religion. Presumably religious observance of all faiths will be treated equally. However, this reasonable position becomes unreasonable when Muslims applying their view of sharia contend Islam must be the only accepted religion since all others are infidels. Their goal is the very antithesis of the establishment clause, yet it is this clause that allows for Islam’s imperial goals to be realized.

The First Amendment not only permits free speech, religious freedom and freedom of assembly, it also legitimates a free press. But suppose, in applying the free exercise of the press, the press uses that freedom to limit the freedom of others whose views are not consistent with prevailing opinions. Here again freedom without limits invariably leads to its opposite: tyranny or intolerance.

Threats to social order come in various forms. But direct assaults are generally obvious. What is not obvious is the extension of virtue itself. Reason is hoist by its own petard yielding unreason. Yet it is embraced by a public that insists on defending virtue.

Albert Camus, in The Stranger, maintained that there isn’t freedom, only limits. Although it may seem contradictory, freedom unchecked invariably results in totalitarianism. Utopians who accept the idea of unlimited freedom become the tyrants they initially opposed. Stalin, Hitler, Castro, Mussolini among others were utopians. Alas, freedom is not free; it is circumscribed by institutional structures.

Some may sing “the best things in life are free,” in reality that freedom can yield extraordinary results only when the freedom is limited. The question that civic society must address is when are restrictions to be applied. When there is a lack of confidence in establishing boundaries, the virtues of freedom are turned topsy-turvy reducing liberalism to tyranny. This is the legacy our time. From a Wittgensteinian point of view, reason has its irrationality and freedom its slavery.

As Blaise Pascal noted: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.”


Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).


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