“[Manifest Destiny was] part of this idea of boundlessness, of no limits. This was a romantic notion that through an act of will, Americans could achieve this greatness for themselves and for their nation.” — historian Robert W. Johannsen.
It is said that the United States were founded on a spirit of freedom and a rejection of limits. America was, after all, a place of boundless land, resources, and possibilities. And few laws to speak of. There was no telling what an individual, society, and the nation might achieve. This “Era of Unlimited Feeling” was a period of tremendous, exciting change and innovation.
Even today if there is one thing many Americans cannot abide it is any notion of self-restraint. Like adolescents who constantly test the boundaries imposed by parents or society, we find limits to be an affront to our sensibilities, and something that must be overcome.
And yet it should be noted that the denial of limits is the quintessence of liberal thought. The promise of Liberalism was that the individual had been liberated from bounds once imposed on him by religion and old-fashioned morality. The theory was that modern man was free to do as he pleased so long as he did not harm anyone else. That one may be harming society, his community, his family, his children was apparently too fine a distinction.
That is not how the Founders saw things. The Founding Fathers were classically trained men who had gleaned from all of the great wisdom traditions that freedom flourishes not with a lack of restraints, but with the proper kind of restraint. They knew that great true liberty required the counter balance of boundaries. If freedom were to endure, religion, morals, and virtue were expected to provide those limits and to temper man’s passions. The alternative was decadence and decline. And these were bound to occur in a secular age, writes Mark T. Mitchell: “A skeptical age would seem incapable of maintaining the delicate, though crucial, balance… for the skeptic denies the very thing that fosters limits, and a society that brooks no limits is one that has jettisoned any coherent and sustainable culture in favor of sating the appetites of individuals at the expense of everything else.”
SADLY, LIBERAL thinking is not contained to liberals. Conservatives often find limits offensive and sometimes downright un-American. We like to think that growth, resources, and American power are unlimited. That, like our pioneer ancestors, a lack of limits equals greatness for ourselves and our nation. So we refuse to be constrained by the limitations of family, community, and place. In our boundless desires we sound like that annoying Sprint television ad: “I need, no, I have the right to be unlimited.” Conservatives may “feel” that boundaries are natural and essential, yet we bristle from anyone imposing limits on us. We are fickle when it comes to self-restraint: we demand limits on government power and the size of government, while we extol unlimited freedom and unlimited American power in the world. “As far as [some conservatives] are concerned, acknowledging and respecting limits are the equivalent of embracing national decline,” writes Daniel Larison. “Unfortunately, it is exactly their rejection of limits that exhausts national strength and natural resources more quickly and hastens the coming of decline in the future.”
According to Larison, conservatives need to understand that in order to preserve anything, it must be kept within certain limits in order to be sustainable. We must recognize that resources are not limitless and can be exhausted by current generations at the expense of posterity. And, finally, that a nation’s “power and influence are things that have to be husbanded and not frittered away in pointless displays of supremacy.”
While scornful of limits, we are quick to bemoan the consequences of the extreme absence of limits on personal behavior and on governmental intrusion into the private realm. Eventually we find that eradicating limits ceases to produce any more real freedom and soon begins to create disorder as in the case of the modern family and our inner-cities. What were the Sixties but a time of a complete disregard of limits on morals, American power, and social engineering? Looking ahead, what is to become of us with science and technology constantly pushing the limits of what it means to be human?
The one great truth of nature is that that everything has its limit. The universe. The stars. The planet. Human life. It is only the child who believes he will live forever.