Stuck With Freedom, Stuck With Virtue

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Stuck With Freedom, Stuck With Virtue

Jun 22, 2023 21 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Conservatism faces an aggressive progressive left, but seems lost, divided, unsure of what to favor and build, but very assured of what it must oppose. Helen King / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Frank Meyer understood well the problems America faced as the New Deal and Great Society programs began to reshape...the mores of the citizenry.

A good political order establishes the conditions of freedom, Meyer argues, enabling man to achieve in the intellectual, moral, and spiritual order his true end.

Frank Meyer’s conservative ideal does not provide a policy template, but it remains, in essence, the model conservatives will return to for...effective action.

From one vantage point, the challenges facing conservatives today seem very new and very daunting. The so-called “Deep State” exists and is clearly an opponent of competitive electoral politics and unfiltered public debate over pressing issues. The recent release of special prosecutor John Durham’s report detailing the fervent desire of the FBI’s leadership to investigate the Trump Campaign over supposed Russian collusion adds further confirmation to what many had long suspected about the agency. Durham’s report comes on top of the information we have received about layers of cooperation between the federal government and social media companies in the service of a progressive agenda that silenced opposing voices, especially during the Covid fiasco, but also in other crucial moments like federal elections and debates over gender and racial identity.

Identity politics seeks control over the way we think and act in numerous institutions in American life. Corporations, large and small, publicly mouth their platitudes. They frog march their employees through “anti-racism, inclusion, and diversity trainings” requiring them to mouth the right words and thoughts to avoid sanction or termination. Higher education and now public schools have been effectively colonized by the progressive left. Public school officials across the country utilize a prime tactic of every totalitarian movement: separate parents from their children in the service of an ideological agenda, in this case, transgenderism. The green economy complex is ostensibly about reducing climate change, but the primary beneficiaries are the well-connected who profit from the market created by clean energy regulation and the bureaucrats who now gain increased control over the economic decisions of Americans.

In another sense, we face an array of perennial problems: limitless public spending, inflation, stagnant economic growth, racial strife, chaotic bureaucracies, and hostile foreign powers, among other problems. Many conservatives today seem inclined to believe that our civilization is at risk. Time is running out on the American experiment, in this view. And these conservatives would seem to have a point.

Those with longer memories recall that such thinking has infused conservatism at various points, and for reasons that resemble our own contemporary challenges. Certainly, the close of the 1970s was one such inflection point with stagflation, crime, spending, foreign policy failures, and a sense that America was locked in apathy. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter floundered in addressing the inflation and underperforming economy of that decade. Political corruption in the highest reaches of government soured Americans on leadership in Washington. It all confirmed what had been voiced somewhat earlier in 1964, by the conservative political theorist Frank Meyer who argued that the constitutional order in America was undergoing profound deformation at the hands of a collectivist liberalism that degrades the human person in the service of rationalist planning aiming at a universalist egalitarianism.

As a former Communist Party organizer at Oxford and in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest, Meyer understood well the problems America faced as the New Deal and Great Society programs began to reshape not only the size and scope of government, but the mores of the citizenry. Meyer broke with the Party in 1945 for many reasons, but most prominent among them was his deeper awareness of the sacredness of the person.

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He stated that the “Hellenic and Hebraic traditions of the dignity of the individual man, fused by Christianity in the self-sacrifice of a divine person, imbue the deep consciousness of the West with that view of the human person as ultimately sacred.” The exact opposite conclusion regarding the person was voiced by communists, Meyer held. He informed an ex-radical named Eliseo Vivas that he now knew “the true value of the world [the communists] had been trying to destroy, and from now on [he] would try to save.” Part of that world that needed saving was America, besieged by Progressive ideology whose goal was nothing less than the jettisoning of constitutional order.

Conscious Conservatism

Does this observation from Meyer, delivered nearly sixty years ago, resonate today?

We are today historically in a situation created by thirty years of slow and insidious revolution at home and a half century of violent open revolution abroad. To conserve the true and the good under these circumstances is to restore an understanding (and a social structure reflecting that understanding) which has been all but buried; it is not to preserve the transient customs and prescriptions of the present.

If these revolutionary forces were to be turned back, Meyer argues, then a “militant” and “conscious conservatism” is required. That conservatism will operate in a “revolutionary world.” As Meyer notes, the traditions we have known are “rapidly becoming—thanks to the prevailing intellectual climate, thanks to the schools, thanks to the outpourings of all the agencies that mold opinion and belief—the tradition of a positivism scornful of truth and virtue.” Perhaps the conflict, then and now, remains fundamentally one between statism enlisted on behalf of collectivist ideology which sees no limits to power versus the dignity of the human person which requires for its protection, the division of power, the limitation of government, and the freedom of the economy. In short, “What is at stake are fundamental concepts of the relationship of individual men to a society and the institutions of a society.”

If we are in a revolutionary moment, can we afford the luxury of a free economy? Meyer asked the following question: “What is the decisive virtue of a free economy?” The answer, Meyer declares, is its limitation on the power of the state. From this we can build other reasons: the individual person—the consumer—possesses fundamental power as to what should or should not be produced. From this has resulted the conditions for the incredible growth in productivity and ingenuity in the last two centuries. However, the freedom of the consumer, investor, and worker is primarily built on the limitation of state power from controlling human life.

The free economy itself cannot guarantee a good and virtuous life, Meyer states. But it is necessary for the preservation of freedom, which is the condition of a virtuous society. After all, there are many systems that might “work.” A system like Keynesian economics might work in some sense, replete with an omnicompetent welfare state, large amounts of public spending, labor union protections, industrial policy, etc. Our principle must be the defense of freedom that enables individuals to grow in virtue. To defend such freedom, the “decisive criterion” is whether the economic system gives power to the state or withholds from it control of the economy.

The state-private nexus we are currently in continues to drift ineluctably to the “euthanasia” of personal freedom, a condition that also existed in Meyer’s day. And it does so under a steady program of knowing what is best for us, of indicting a free economy as the preserve of corporate predators, of arguments that it betrays the true interests of workers. Progressive economics brings us under the power of the state for our own good.

A free market order cannot make us virtuous, nor can it primarily inculcate virtue, but stopping state control of the economy supports not only economic freedom, but freedom for the person as a whole. That is, the free economy can indirectly conduce to virtue by helping to make men free. We should, though, reconsider something that Wilhelm Roepke once said. We come to the market with virtue, or we don’t. The economy will become what we value and don’t value. If we lack virtue or are distracted for various reasons from pursuing it, then our economy and our politics will reflect that. What we require is a moral and political philosophical argument in defense of a society of freedom that supports the human person in pursuing virtue and does not take upon itself the mission to shape us into egalitarian, globalist humanitarians, erasing faith, family, and nations.

In reaction to the growing influence of the progressive left, what had reared its head in Meyer’s day has also recurred now in the theorizing by mostly Catholic thinkers of political-religious integration. And the reasons why remain similar across several decades. In the face of a certain moral and spiritual torpor, Catholic integralists in Meyer’s period and our own loudly shout that liberalism made us do it. As in, the very foundations of America are rotten because they are built on liberalism, an ideology that separates the state and the person from his true end, which is eternal lodging with God. In doing so, they predispose us to go down a long road of secularism, individualism, autonomism, and, ultimately, nihilism.

As Adrian Vermeule recently informs:

The only intellectual movement on the American scene that is genuinely political is so-called integralism or, as I think a more accurate term, political Catholicism. This political Catholicism is frequently accused by critics of a will to power (or, more pompously, a libido dominandi). In a certain sense, the accusation is true. Indeed, it is far more true than the critics, whose horizons are truncated by the basic compromise with liberalism, can begin to understand.

Suffering from no such truncated horizons, Vermeule proclaims “What is at stake is … the full authority of … political order, composed of both temporal and spiritual powers in right relation to the natural and divine law, that would put a mere Rome to shame.”

Brent Bozell, Jr., argued that the source of Western decline was in the fact that “the free society has come to take priority over the good society.” In Bozell’s integralism, “Christian politics is free to regard family and school, play and work, art and communication, the order of social relationships and the civil order, as integral parts of a whole: as integral and therefore mutually dependent aspects of civilization.” That is, these all come under the combined sword of public and religious power and should be shaped according to its needs.

Meyer’s response to such thinking is that the denial of political, economic, religious, and personal freedom in the name of coerced virtue makes virtue and religious devotion impossible. It’s a judgment regarding religion that the Catholic Church also endorsed in the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, which proclaimed the Church’s belief in religious freedom and condemned the state imposition of religion. Our integralists would do well to understand what their Church teaches. Moreover, if virtue is the aim, Meyer reasons, the power of “the state to bring evil to the individual … is directly proportional to the pretenses the state makes to control men’s lives for the good.”

In working from the heart of the Western tradition, Meyer stresses that “Virtue, which is only virtue when freely chosen, is made inaccessible to the coerced citizen, wherever and to the degree that the state compels his action.” Where we are “unfree to reject virtue,” we are “unfree to choose it.” But those who would enforce virtue also assume that those who do it will enforce “the simulacrum of virtue.” They refuse to admit that enforcing an absolute vision of how men should live necessarily invites “the corruption that power brings in its train.”

The idea of freedom is so debased in our current usage and practice that its defense seems superfluous to many, and most definitely to the integralists who mock the defense of liberty. Freedom and virtue, though, rise and fall together, Meyer observes. These are two fundamental aspects of human personhood, and they are achieved in two separate realms. Meyer argues that liberty is the supreme political good. That is, “The decisive criterion of any political order is the degree to which it establishes conditions of freedom.”

The purpose of that freedom is to choose the cardinal and theological virtues. Meyer placed man’s need to act virtuously as man’s most important problem. But, virtue, Meyer says, “is not a political problem, it is not the concern of the state.” Freedom is not the end of man’s existence, “only a condition of that end, which is virtue.” Virtue is man’s highest good, according to Meyer. If we want authentic freedom, then we need to propose the full amplitude of the constitution of being, of who man is. If we want virtue, then we must also ensure that men are free to hear it and not coerced endlessly by the state for their own good.

Meyer’s response to Bozell was that “men imbued with the certainty of their vision of reality” may easily wish to deprive others “of the right to choose the good.” To which Vermeule surely responds, “And your point is?” But, Meyer notes, the Christian understanding is precisely that of managing the tension between freedom and virtue, insisting on both. However, “the doggedly rational mind” finds “the paradox of virtue in freedom is as much ‘a folly to the Greeks and a scandal to the Jews’ as the Incarnation itself, which is the ground from which the strength to hold this paradoxical belief proceeds.” What part of the relationship between God and man don’t you understand, Meyer asks?

Meyer also underscores that power does not have the last word and is ultimately exercised by human persons, controlled by persons, divided by persons, “as they are guided and inspired by their intellectual and spiritual understanding.” The contest for freedom and self-government is first and foremost a contest of ideas and the first and necessary step to putting things right is to ensure “the reemergence of truth in the consciousness of those who are concerned with matters of the intellect, with matters of the spirit …though they may have little control over material power at the moment.” They will, ultimately, “determine the foundations of the future.”

Athens, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem

The dignity of the human person as uncovered by reason and revelation in the Western tradition is primary in Meyer’s case for a thoroughgoing freedom. Western Civilization, Meyer argued, had forged this dignity with philosophical thinking in Athens, in the revelation and witness provided by the Jewish prophets in Jerusalem, and in the singular Incarnational moment that occurred in Bethlehem. The West achieved a breakthrough, Meyer reasons, in the Hellenic philosophers who raised the question of the person’s subjectivity before the absolute. The effect of which was that the human person’s awareness of their individuality now had a foundation in reason and logic.

This established a ground of human existence, Meyer observes, that broke free of cosmological civilization, i.e., ancient Egyptian civilization which was unable to separate the person from the whole of a collectivity that joined the person to the state and its divinized status. As Meyer describes it, “What they created out of their struggles was the first systematic intellectual projection of an independent relationship between free men and transcendent value.” However, the polis and its tightly bound embrace of citizens, who occupied little space of meaning and freedom apart from its strictures, remained. Nevertheless, the polis was subjected to human questioning and didn’t exert the same lockstep grip on people as cosmological civilization.

A related development emerged in the “Judaic experience” where the “Hebrew prophets … expressed, at the highest level, the consciousness of a people broken loose from cosmological civilization to confront transcendence.” The content here is the “belief in a unique, personal, revealed God.” With Judaism, while the freedom of the person before God emerges with the prophets, that freedom is expressed as a collectivity of the people, Meyer stresses. All of this is to say that seeds of freedom were planted here but much work remained to be done.

Beyond the experiences of Hellenic and Judaic peoples, Meyer turns toward Bethlehem to underline how Western civilization “is distinguished by a preeminent regard for the person.” That is, the West would “drive to fruition the insights glimpsed in Greece and Israel. Its consciousness founded upon the symbol of the Incarnation [that] placed the person at the center of being.” Men now stand radically aware of their freedom, their imperfection, and of perfection itself. The great gulf between God and the transcendent realm and man’s limited state now finds a bridge in God becoming man, wanting man to become like God, and receive the Divinity’s perfection.

The Incarnation of Christ also resulted, paradoxically, in the deepening of the “Utopian temptation,” Meyer notes. We can attempt to escape from this tension between God’s perfection and our imperfection and “seek refuge” by imposing our own “limited vision of perfection upon the world.” Meyer notes that this is the Utopian temptation that “degrades transcendence” by establishing perfection with human hands while it simultaneously destroys individual freedom by enforcing a comprehensive vision on the person. The person is thus prevented from making his own choice to move “towards perfection in the tension of his imperfection.”

But this temptation to utopia under the awareness of transcendent perfection and man’s imperfection also receives a resolution in the Incarnation. Accordingly, persons become aware that there exists “transcendent perfection” and that human beings can move towards perfection in their freedom. Because it’s transcendent, such perfection is open to persons proceeding voluntarily toward what they regard as the good, and it cannot be replicated in the temporal realm by statist commandments. This frees human persons from working “as Utopians, to impose a limited human design of perfection upon a world by its nature imperfect.” This is the tension that when embraced by the West makes it a civilization like no other, Meyer observes. A tension that is willing to permit “both transcendence” and the human person as a being that is both free and imperfect.

The West’s spiritual vision imposes great and salutary consequences on its politics. In dividing the transcendent and earthly realms, the meeting place for both becomes not the state, but “the souls of individual men.” And this makes the person, “under God, the ultimate repository of meaning and value.” Politics must become “one in which the person would be primary and all institutions—in particular the state—secondary and derivative.” As Meyer put it, the human person is “a free being who lives between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and error, and fulfills his destiny in the choices he makes.” Man can no longer be defined or subsumed by state power. Meyer concludes that Europe has never seriously achieved this measure, choosing empire, monarchy, and the feudal system with great powers of conformity granted to the hierarchical church and the secular power.

Freedom, Virtue, and the Constitution

Meyer believed that it fell to the Americans to realize this political structure. As he puts it, “In the open lands of this continent … they established a constitution that for the first time in human history was constructed to guarantee the sanctity of the person and his freedom.” Meyer’s synthesis of freedom and virtue as the foundational principle upon which this “conscious conservatism” was built has been frequently dismissed, if not derided. Many see it merely as a mashup of libertarian and traditionalist assumptions for the purpose of political coalition building.

Meyer did engage in practical politics, but he also insisted that he was articulating a theory that elucidated a practice of American conservatism that lauded instinctively freedom and virtue. American conservatism stood devoted, Meyer said, to “the men who made Western Civilization and the American republic.” The struggle for the preservation of this freedom goes on, “tempted always by the false visions of Utopianism.”

Conservatives and libertarians, Meyer outlines, should look to the Constitution and the dialectic among the Founders to understand that while truth and virtue are “metaphysical and moral ends, the freedom to seek them is the political condition of those ends—and that a social structure which keeps power divided is the indispensable means to this political end.” Meyer further adds that the Constitution is “the most effective effort ever made to articulate in political terms the Western understanding of the interrelation of the freedom of the person and the authority of an objective moral order.”

This was the consensus that had resulted in conservatives’ acceptance of both “an objective moral and spiritual order, which places as man’s end the pursuit of virtue, and the freedom of the individual person as a decisive necessity for a good political order.” Because man’s end is virtue, the conservative necessarily opposes “positivism, relativism, materialism.” Freedom demands the “principled limitation of the power of the state” with the crucial exceptions of preventing force and fraud used in the coercion of others.

A good political order establishes the conditions of freedom, Meyer argues, enabling man to achieve in the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual order his true end. Leaders in religion, culture, and education were essential in any good social and political order; they are the “creative minority” that “maintain the prestige of tradition and reason, and thus to sustain the intellectual and moral order throughout society.” Accordingly, conservatism must also be serious about culture and all the endeavors that it requires. In this, conservatism cannot merely be a political creed, but must seek to teach, shape, and inform students, citizens, and others about what it means to be a human person.

To give sufficient attention to the formation of virtue itself requires building choice through habituation. That is, to be good, and to choose the right things in the right way at the right time and for the right reason, we must have been formed and shaped by agents who have the authority to, in effect, dispose us towards the good. Meyer emphasized the crucial role of the family in this regard. Meyer, though, did not fully incorporate into his analysis how the Constitution reserved police powers to states and local governments for the moral formation of citizens. In statements denying the government any role in the formation of virtue, for fear that it would tread on freedom and the need for people to form their lives by their own choices, Meyer at times seemed to take his position to an extreme.

Certainly, the contemporary critique of Meyer that his “fusionism” was really just libertarianism seems to make some sense. American conservatism, which largely adopted Meyer’s positions, has given credence to various kinds of freedom, while proving unable to stop or reverse the gains of Leftist counterculture that has now become the culture or akin to an orthodoxy. Nevertheless, it remains unclear what program would have reversed the Left’s long march through the institutions, and it is not as if conservatives didn’t attempt it.

Many have argued that the fusionism of freedom and virtue resulted in virtue getting short shrift, and in practical effect, conservatives only insisted upon economic freedom, ignoring the ongoing degradation of religion, family, education, and culture that grew under its nose. As the family has disintegrated, religion has waned, and deformations of the human person are etched into law, we risk losing anything resembling a good country. Matters have just gone too far. Strategically and tactically, whatever fusionism was in theory, it failed under the symbiotic crush of politics and culture as defined by the progressive left. Or so I’ve been told.

In returning to Meyer’s nod to the “creative minority,” his freedom and virtue synthesis articulates that man’s personhood should be formed within an array of institutions apart from government: family, religion, and education, among others. The strength of such associations stems from how they develop the person in community with others, which is inherently voluntary and held together by norms and social legitimacy. What happens when those institutions themselves disintegrate amidst their own confusion, in addition to state interventions undermining them? Meyer’s fusion project would seem to be cleft in two by such a development and to be no longer capable of performing its necessary work of upholding man in his full dignity.

If institutions, like family, intermediate institutions, and educational institutions, have mistakenly accepted or been coopted by egalitarian principles that undermine them, then a collective political solution, however conservative, promises no sure corrective. Unfortunately, putting them back together with state power seems likely to fail, and the attempt to build a religious polity when religion and family themselves have faltered is squaring the circle. Ongoing state-driven attempts to intervene in these spheres likely further their demise. Perhaps what can be done is to ensure educational freedom, religious freedom, family freedom, healthcare freedom, etc., by making the state leave associations and institutions alone to achieve their participants’ virtuous ends. As these institutions do flourish under the conditions of associational freedom, then their example should only proliferate across the states. The work will remain, as always, to protect them from government takeover.

To put it differently, in Meyer’s day and our own, those who want the prescription of virtue insist on many of the same things: school prayer, Sabbath laws, restrictions on blasphemy, etc. We might ask what such reforms, if implemented, would accomplish? Have people chosen against religious observance and practice because of the absence of Sabbath laws?

Fusionism Contra Mundam

Many conservatives in Meyer’s period and our own fault fusionist conservatism for not being willing to use public power even in extreme cases—but this is an unfair or inaccurate reading of Meyer, who understood that government had a role to play in stopping people from harming one another. Parents stand in primary control over their children and cannot have their judgment over so basic a thing as their children’s biology dismissed or punished by the state unless they commit abuse of children. Precisely because children lack judgment, well-formed opinions, and experience, and because parents are the core providers of such judgment for their children, this is a formal and direct attack on the family and its ability to build virtue in children. Prohibiting transgender surgery on children and ceasing its ideological contagion in public schools and on social media outlets that children access would be entirely acceptable and is needed given the harm it imposes on children. Pornography, in my mind, is the more difficult area under Meyer’s formulation, but a case for legal limitations on it can be made precisely because of the real harm that it works in people’s lives, particularly those of young men.

But as American conservatism increasingly refuses to define itself by Meyer’s fusionist formulation, we should evaluate what wants to replace it. The most intellectually hefty candidate is a National Conservatism formulated by Yoram Hazony that looks to the Bible as the fundamental moral compass for the nation, undergirding social obligation and mutual loyalty to uphold the nation. In the Statement of Principles, western constitutional goods are listed like separation of powers and federalism, among others, but emanating from the document is a primary concern with religion, culture, and the nation. We can and should endorse these goods, while remaining fundamentally a constitutional and republican people. 

Fusionism, Don Devine notes, was the response to another problem, the centralization of political rule under experts at the national level. And this problem, rather than waning, is in overdrive. Devine reminds us that “Fusionism evolved to meet this challenge by arguing that governmental centralization is modernity’s major threat to social order.” Accordingly, the solution was to reduce bureaucratic control, liberate markets, encourage intermediate associations by removing government entanglement, and foster decentralization of power. The progressive left’s takeover of many institutions in our country has only advanced since Meyer’s period, but the principles for rebutting this ideological hostility remain very similar.

If we are hyper-governed, then our citizenship will become something other than independent and self-governing people. Instead, we exhibit different traits: solicitous of government benefits, afraid of and thus accepting of politically motivated ideologies, apathetic about public life, secular and materialistic, and driven by envy and conformity.

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But fusionist principles were difficult to uphold and found favor only periodically with popular constituencies. They were, though, an ideal, a measure for constitutional restoration that required conservatives to elevate themselves to an independent level of the political good. What they could not exactly deliver on was punishing left-progressives who increasingly in the past decade have become enemies of Christianity, supporters of abortion without limits, advocates of transgender mutilation of children, and willing to use the administrative state in increasingly unaccountable and imaginative ways to implement policies outside of any representative process.

Refuting this kind of politics surely requires moral argumentation and thumos, but it also must build on the principal themes of American constitutional order and the dignity of the human person. The failure to do that leaves conservatives with no unifying thread that defines victory or defeat in the vast array of political and policy challenges we face.

For now, conservatism faces an aggressive progressive left, but seems lost, divided, unsure of what to favor and build, but very assured of what it must oppose. In the place of fusionism, which was nothing if not principled, conservatives struggle to take institutions seriously—including governing institutions—give lockstep support to various media and political personalities with loose connections to facts and logic, and seem mired in various combinations of anger and conspiracies (sometimes with good measure). Many conservatives now see government power as an ally that they will use to punish enemies and impose virtue. Basic questions seemingly don’t get asked: What happens when the power you’ve authorized today for your friends to wield is held in the future by your opponents?

One practical problem is that the new conservative coalition struggles to win elections and underperforms in the ones they should win easily. This has held true now for three straight election cycles. Whatever it is that American conservatism is becoming, a movement that regularly wins elections is not on the list.

Perhaps the first task for conservatives is to ask what will elevate us above the current moment of expressive individualism, progressive race theory, limitless public spending, and regulatory power that is unable to connect to freedom and virtue as standards of human excellence? How do we articulate that? How can we enlist the Constitution in this quest?

In doing so, we might come to terms with basic questions of American political thought. Why did the Constitution insist on limiting the very powers that it granted? Is this an enabling or a restraining document? Why are political deliberation, political competition, and political decentralization pillars of constitutional order? Were the Founders open-ended liberals or, as Frank Meyer articulates, those who brought into being a political order that embodied the deepest truths of Western Civilization? The answers by conservatives to these questions are paramount. The belief that the only thing needed is religious nationalism, aggressive personalities and tough talk, manipulation of markets for manufacturing and private sector union workers, and political centralization on behalf of the right understanding of virtue will appease short-term angst but ensure progressive dominance.

Frank Meyer’s conservative ideal does not provide a policy template, but it remains, in essence, the model conservatives will return to for clear thinking and effective action.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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