My first familiarity with the words of the Book of Exodus, “Let My people go!” came from the African-American spiritual that we sang in the liberal Jewish temple of my childhood. The music was powerful, and the immortal words proved their power in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of slavery in America, as well as in many other times.
It wasn’t until I embarked on a thorough study of Scripture as a young adult seriously interested in developing my relationship with my Maker that I realized that that song only quoted half of a biblical verse. The phrase “Let My people go!” is repeated five times in Exodus, and it is joined in each instance with the purpose for which they must people be let go: “that they may serve Me” (once, “that they may celebrate Me”).
We justly celebrate our Western liberties, that in America the people are sovereign or in Britain that the monarch rules subject to a constitution; the like is found in many other nations. But these established liberties within stable societies are not the result of chance or freedom from any order at all. What we value as a free society is founded on a concept of responsibility to something higher than our own whims, something that gives freedom, coherence, and value to what otherwise would be only caprice or chaos.
This thought occupied the mind of Edmund Burke, that eloquent spokesman of conservative thought in Britain, and at no time more than during the early days of the French Revolution.
Burke had been a thorn in the side of Lord North’s administration as it attempted to quash the revolt of the American colonists. Burke effectively pleaded the cause of the Americans before Parliament and pressured the government to end its war. One might have thought, then, that when the corrupt old regime of France, Britain’s old nemesis, was humbled by a successful revolt, Burke would have been as pleased as the liberal Whigs in Parliament where. Burke, however, had a wait-and-see attitude:
The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.
The central theme of conservatism in democracies is that great ideas by themselves do not automatically lead to great societies. We do not live primarily in abstractions, and the journey from an abstraction to real life is perilous. Our sure guide is the constitution of the free life we have forged over generations, whether conceived of as an unwritten tradition that nonetheless is consented to by the nation and is sovereign, or encoded as a written document ratified by the people and invested with their sovereignty.
Freedom by itself is only half the verse. Again, Burke:
To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.
Never is the need for such sagacity greater than in a time of emergency. Those who use freedom as a mere banner, as an intoxicant, look to emergencies as a time of advantage.
Think of those ubiquitous billboards inquiring stridently, “Injured?” There was a day when, even though that may have been the fervent hope of some who practiced law, professional ethics emphasized that law should be used with the welfare of all in mind, not for the enrichment of a few. Justice makes the entire society stronger, and setting wrongs right is good for us all. Ethics constrained the profession at least to refrain from publicly letting litigation be used rather for private enrichment, free from the restraint of the public welfare.
Let us be alert as we responsibly deal with the urgent public health issues of the coronavirus. We all need Burke’s sagacity as we allow greater intrusion of government in order to win the urgent public health battle of this pandemic. The details of the challenge change constantly, and we must be resilient in our ever-evolving response. No one slogan provides an exemption from balance and sagacity. Our lives and our liberties are once again at stake. They always are; it’s only that now it’s a little more evident. Not only do the Declaration of Independence’s words but also their order prove instructive: let us preserve first our life; then, with that secure, our liberties; so that we may finally pursue our happiness, employing together our variegated gifts and using our freedom to bring more prosperity and happiness than any other way of life has ever been able to do.