The world today presents a picture of uncommon chaos. The complexities of modern society require a class of specially trained persons to manage them, yet public trust in our elites and the institutions they inhabit has plummeted. Every description of reality is now a battleground, including the opinions of scientists. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likens the moment to a new Tower of Babel: an incomprehensible noise. The causes are global and structural, with radical changes in the information environment playing a decisive role. While the pettiness and corruption of incumbent elites are evident, simply replacing them won’t fix things.

Inevitably, chaos has triggered a reaction—an impulse to reimpose some sort of order. Governments, legislatures, bureaucrats, regulators—all have lost the taste for debate or compromise and have fallen in love with mandates. Elites have sought to replace the old-fashioned democratic process, muddled by design, with what they call “our democracy,” which expects, by right of superior virtue, the triumph of “our” moral and political judgments. Those opposed to “our democracy” lie beyond the pale—deemed insurgents, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, climate deniers, vaccine skeptics, Russia lovers—a long and lengthening list of those who don’t deserve a hearing. Accordingly, government censorship and media silence have worked to lock these deplorables inside an information ghetto. The public must, at all costs, be tamed.

A pseudo-ideology of control has taken root in democratic nations from Britain to Brazil, with the support and applause of transnational organizations like the United Nations and the European Union and the widespread backing of the intelligentsia everywhere. A few basic moves characterize the game. Those in charge of the established order declare a mortal crisis: Covid-19, say, or the climate, or white supremacy. They contend that the time to debate is over: immediate government intervention is the only ethical option. In a chorus of approval, prestige media, academics, and obscure experts in nongovernmental organizations provide arguments, statistics, and cross-references, joined by the occasional Hollywood star. Government-aided censors on social media identify and purge hostile views; extreme cases get thrown to the Internet mob to settle. The objective: a culture aligned with the dictates of power.

The cults of identity and ecology now serve as instruments of elite control in the United States. The elites have imposed conformity with astonishing rapidity. A majority of Americans report that they fear contradicting the orthodoxy, with the young—savviest about the information landscape—being most afraid. While the new censorship is often portrayed as the restoration of science and truth, the reality is that a panicked elite class has shredded constitutional norms, trying to cling to its old privileges. “Our democracy” is a closed circle, a cosa nostra, hostile to ordinary people and autocratic to the core. The ideology of control is the expression of a profoundly antidemocratic impulse.

Like the poor, the elites will always be with us; the question is how to shift their orientation. A necessary first step is to map out the principles of change. The only antidote to the ideology of control must be an ideology of freedom, adapted to the digital age. Many approaches are possible, with different points of emphasis—but if, as John F. Kennedy once said, freedom is indivisible, all would share some basic elements. I propose to reflect on what I see as the most significant preconditions to an ideology of freedom—and I do so as an analyst but also as an advocate of an open society.

Abolish group status. To redress a perceived crisis of injustice, progressive elites seek to govern according to group status, an ancient but enduring arrangement that long precedes the notion of individual rights. The oldest extant code of law, that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, for example, decreed that “if a man put out the eye of another, his eye shall be put out”—but only if the original eye belonged to an aristocrat. For the eye of a plebeian or a slave, you got off with a fine. Some 3,700 years later, the segregated South adhered to the “one-drop rule”: persons with “any Negro blood whatever” were considered legally black. At the time, the label meant the nullification of citizen rights and the imposition of crushing legal constraints.

Today, progressive elites take the reality of injustice for granted, which, for them, makes identifying victim groups the central problem of government. Under Joe Biden’s administration, and in states that progressive Democrats control, authorities have implemented something like a reverse version of the Nuremberg Laws, containing many of the same racial and sexual categories as the original but placing them under protection instead of persecuting them. Here is a partial list, from a presidential executive order: “Black and African American, Hispanic and Latino, Native American, Alaskan Native and Indigenous, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and North African persons, . . . lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender non-conforming and non-binary (LBGTQ+) persons.”

Following the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, policies based on group status have proliferated. The federal government prioritized billions of dollars in pandemic relief grants by race. Vermont offered “people of color” early access to the Covid-19 vaccine. California now mandates the proportion of corporate board members who must belong to protected groups. Biden appointees have been, by sex, majority women; and by race, majority minority. One could add many other examples.

The motive behind these policies boils down to elite will to power. Government by group status deconstructs citizen rights into a demand for statistical “equity.” Since social units lack any categorical logic, a privileged class must define the groups and assign people to them. Self-interest, reinforced by old prejudices, helps fill in the blanks. For Hammurabi, what mattered was class, while for the Jim Crow racist, it was purity of blood—but whoever names the groups shapes society to his advantage.

The group-centric conception of society has presented common traits across history. For one group to be up, others must be brought down. As of this writing, for example, President Biden has appointed 22 black women to the judiciary but only five white men. While the obsessive focus on differences generates intergroup quarrels, the objective is to keep all groups fixated on those dispensing recognition and largesse. To the extent that the objective is met, groups will police themselves to please their masters.

Stereotyping is mandatory. The people at the top must be able to recognize members of a group from crude markers. Blacks in old Hollywood productions were expected to smile, shuffle-walk, and act comically ignorant. Progressives today expect blacks to scowl, protest, and vote Democratic. Either way, blacks find themselves locked into a stereotype prison, stripped of agency. Those who break the mold—think Clarence Thomas—become apostates. Because the system requires a supply of permanent victims, it proves most harmful to those whom it claims to protect.

Group status imposes a double tyranny. By trampling on individual rights, the ruling group takes on an aspect of destiny: it can stick you into a box and keep you there forever. But the group, too, has its identity police, enforcing conformity in private beliefs and public behavior. Freedom of action is the prerogative of elites; everyone else must follow the rules.

Individual rights emerged during a centuries-long struggle against this kind of categorical tyranny: against the one-sided laws of aristocrats and bigots, against confusing power or wealth or even science with privilege, against the fiction that every human life is fated. We should expect today’s elites to fight back against threats to their rule—to pursue censorship schemes and claim ownership of “our democracy.” The struggle never ends. But an ideology of freedom makes sense only if it protects the claims of the individual over those of the group and the state and remains implacably hostile to the empire of labels and castes.

George Washington held that virtue was “a necessary spring of popular government.” (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Reconquer American history. If political freedom is a function of individual rights, where do these rights originate? The American Founders’ generation harbored few doubts on this score: behind our rights stood the mighty hand of God—specifically, the Enlightenment version of the Christian deity, the benevolent “Creator” of the Declaration of Independence, who had embedded justice and equality into the laws of nature. Rights were inalienable because they were literally sacred, resting on the divine order.

But the argument from divinity loses force in a skeptical age. How, then, to renovate the foundation of citizen rights to include, and be understood by, a buzzing variety of belief systems? Much of the uneasiness of contemporary political life follows from our inability to agree on such principles. Marxism, once a contender, has landed in history’s dustbin. Old anchors of political philosophy like nature and reason, stripped of Christian content, aren’t very helpful. There’s nothing self-evidently natural about laws that prevent the strong from devouring the weak; and in politics reason, like beauty, depends on the eye of the beholder.

Thus, sacred rights today hang as if suspended in midair over an unbelieving world, seeming both arbitrary and insufficient. Such rights represent a series of protections against government abuse. But why not use rights to demand that government provide benefits? Why not, say, a “right to a job”? Or a “right to social security”? Or even a “right to periodic holidays with pay,” as promised in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Rights in such an inflated sense become mere rhetorical devices in policy disputes. And by singling out the group as the locus of protection, we have inverted the whole idea of individual rights.

I propose instead that we look at the question of rights existentially—as a consequence of time and memory. From an empirical perspective, our rights aren’t universal. Much of the world’s population is innocent of them. Nor do our rights truly depend on some abstract principle. Instead, they reflect a specific historical process—for us, part of the foundational experience of being American, giving us a peculiar form and character. We can never be Russian or Chinese; our memories diverge from theirs.

An ideology of freedom must reflect American memory and seek to fulfill the promise of American history. On the plane of that history, Christianity and pluralism are reconciled; justice and injustice descend from the clouds to flesh-and-blood cases; and the words of Thomas Jefferson are forever on the lips of Martin Luther King, Jr. before the temple to Abraham Lincoln. One can find shame here, yes, but also much greatness of spirit and, most powerfully, as the North Star of our national adventure, a sense that the world is an open system—that Americans have always lived, and always will live, on the edge of an endless frontier.

George Orwell spelled out the alternative. “Who controls the past controls the future,” he warned in 1984. “Who controls the present controls the past.” The high priests of identity, who control the present, have declared war on American history. Our past, they contend, consists of one vile crime after another. To purify our souls, therefore, we must obliterate memory. The Orwellian endpoint won’t be ignorance, however, but servility—a lobotomized public, drifting in an eternal present, happy to obey the latest government mandates.

Embrace a morality of restraint. To limit government control, we must practice self-control. After all, freedom is an indeterminate condition; it needs behavior fostering trust and cooperation to endure. Citizens in a free society, brought into being by individual rights, must recognize other citizens’ identical rights. In this sense, citizenship resembles life in a large, rambunctious family, where support and competition coexist uneasily. Selfishness will destroy the balance and topple human relations into the abyss.

For the behaviors that sustain freedom, I will use the traditional term: morality. The concept, I am aware, is out of fashion. The partisans of identity see group membership, not personal conduct, as the measure of human worth. For Marxists and postmodernists, conventional notions of behavior are manifestations of white oppressor power. Liberation, on this view, demands asserting one’s identity against the strictures of morality—true freedom lies beyond good and evil. But this is romantic nonsense. How many people consider a cheating spouse superior to a loyal one? Has anyone ever admired a compulsive liar for being more liberated than an honest soul? Most of the old judgments remain in force, though secretively, with much embarrassment.

The men who built our political system tended to mildness in religion but sounded like evangelists on morality. Jefferson believed the pursuit of happiness inseparable from “the practice of virtue.” Madison placed “national policy” on the shoulders of “private morality.” Washington affirmed that “virtue or morality” was “a necessary spring of popular government.” The reconquest of the past must return to us the Founders’ clarity of vision. An ideology of freedom can work only if wedded to a morality of restraint.

It may be objected that a fractured society will explode into conflict over incompatible moral ideals. In fact, pluralism is impossible without some kind of shared morality. The ideals particular to this country borrow heavily from Christianity, as refracted through Enlightenment values—but they are transparent and stand on their own merit. In their most basic form, they are a call to act with integrity and to deal straight, with friend and stranger alike. At a higher level, they uphold the claims of the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, and the individual against the might of the state. This is a language that every American can speak.

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a limit to how many personal relationships each of us can sustain: about 150. Morality is about behavior inside the Dunbar number. Before trying to save the earth or overthrow the patriarchy, we should examine our conduct among those who live and work with us. We should judge ourselves first—and more strictly than we do others because that is the privilege of freedom: the capacity to hold sovereignty over our actions and direct our lives to a higher plane. Self-judgment, far from being self-punishment, is the lone viable path to liberation.

“The aim must be to master the digital, not to smash or shackle it. If the past is any indication, the process will consume decades of trial and error.”

How do we get there? Principles and precepts are nice—we have lots of them. But if we wish to escape, as a people, the tumult of the Tower of Babel and the deceit of “our democracy,” we must identify models of behavior so admirable that the urge to imitate them is irresistible. The models can be real or artistic, but they must embody the humility, honesty, and courage needed to traverse the storms of the age. Granted, it will be hard to discover such strength of character among our stunted elites. But the models are there.

Civilize the web. An ideology of freedom must make sense of the digital or it will lack relevance in our era. It must defend the frontier-like conditions of the new information environment equally against nihilism and government control.

The elites detest the digital, the openness of which they seek to correct with mandates, regulation, and censorship. They dream of recapturing the control they wielded within the information cocoons of the twentieth century. But the antidemocratic offensive can take place only in the digital theater, before a disgusted public. At that point, the Tower of Babel dissolves into a House of Mirrors, where every step in any direction bumps into an infinitely receding barrier. You can’t beat the Internet from inside the Internet. You can’t control what you don’t really understand.

Revolutionary technologies proceed in a single direction: forward. The aim must be to master the digital, not to smash or shackle it. If the past is any indication, the process will consume decades of trial and error, with many false dawns. The ideology of freedom will serve as guide by making the old ideals of democracy legible in the strange new landscape. This is an immense task. Here I intend to touch only lightly on what I believe to be three major milestones along the way.

The first would be the reconfiguration of government. At first, this looks to be a problem in complexity. Government today is a monstrous hierarchical construct—how can we make it “flatter,” like a digital network? But the relative flatness of a government has no connection to the freedom of its citizens: tyrants arose in an ancient Athens governed by part-timers. The structure at the back end of the system is irrelevant if the goods get delivered to the front end. What matters is the point of contact: the interface. Most of us, when using Amazon, have no idea how bloated or hierarchical the company is internally. We deal with the Amazon interface as a mask over complexity—and experience simplicity.

At the end of the journey to reconfiguration, an easily accessible interface should exist for all government levels, and—as in Estonia today—a single identifier should be available for each citizen, good for all transactions. This technical fix would have enormous political impact. The democratic process would be less representative and more direct, with the online electorate regularly consulted, as the Swiss are today, on questions of major interest, such as immigration or taxes. Government services will run 24/7, and applications for passports, building permits, and business licenses could be handled with greater speed and transparency than at present. The relationship of citizen to government would be transformed from petitioner to paying customer, bringing the usual expectation for clarity, fair treatment, and ease of service.

The second milestone: the devolution of information to the public. The citizen, by default, will become the proprietor of all government data and the judge of truth and falsehood on social media and the open web. Freedom of information must be immediate and near-universal. The public would have access to most government planning and policy documents, at every phase of completion. Information about an individual held, say, by the IRS or the police, would become available to that individual upon request. The new openness should shock the bureaucracy out of the reflexive habit of secrecy.

The digital platforms would no longer act as moral and political arbiters over their users. The public would decide the validity of content; “disinformation” will finally be exposed as a farcical excuse for censorship. New language, reflecting our First Amendment legal tradition, will almost certainly have to be added to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Digital companies can’t have it both ways—avoiding liability because they are neutral carriers, while silencing voices at government insistence. Ownership of our national conversation should be beyond the reach of even the wealthiest tech billionaires.

The final milestone is tough to describe, and tougher still to attain: let’s call it the “reformation of the digital self.” The Tower of Babel often feels like a race to the bottom, rewarding the most distempered actors on the web and the darkest impulses in each of us. The digital self is a shouting shadow: a flat simulation of humanity, reduced to making noise in the hope of recognition. Many see that as a kind of fate, but a strong element of choice is involved. We can humanize the web. We can bring to it what tech theorist Balaji Srinivasan calls “in-person levels of civility.” We can punish the screamers and exhibitionists by denying them attention. Nothing in the current structure of information prevents that.

We must civilize ourselves before we begin the strenuous task of civilizing the web. As in every frontier situation, civility will initially be restricted to small outposts dotting the wilderness—an example today might be Substack. Once we impose the weight of our historical selves on a largely subjective medium, the tide of brutish narcissism—the whole culture of self-destruction—must recede. Barbarians will always be at the gate. Signal will remain a scarcer commodity than noise. But we can model online the discipline that we practice in the flesh, in sufficient numbers to flip the mood and graft the virtues of democracy onto the digital.

An elite project of control and surveillance has taken root in democratic nations, with the widespread backing of the intelligentsia everywhere. (Zoonar GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo)

An ideology of freedom compelling to the twenty-first century, I’ve suggested, must possess certain components: a relentless emphasis on individual rights; an understanding of those rights in light of American history; models of behavior that foster civility and integrity; and a well-adapted engagement with the digital. How would these proposals deal with our current political spectrum? Clearly, structures of control like censorship and group status need to go. We must join battle against progressive enforcers of identity, a reactionary establishment, and the Democratic Party as an institution (though not a majority of the persons who identify as Democrats). But where does this leave us?

Not, I fear, on the other side of the partisan divide. The Republican Party, as a vehicle for ideas, is currently at sea. As an institution—as we saw during the drawn-out melodrama to elect a new Speaker of the House—it seems happiest when fighting itself. The forces of control gained a strong foothold during the presidency of Donald Trump, who was too inattentive or indifferent to notice or care. Much would have to change before Republicans came to see the need for an ideology of freedom.

Freedom is about the public’s capacity to make choices. An ideology of freedom must be a pathway to multiple political outcomes, acceptable to many who may perceive it as intrinsically conservative, liberal, or something else. It cannot be an irreversible destination—a final utopia where choices abruptly end. There is no withering away of the state in the democratic ideal.

We are crossing a perilous landscape. The surface seems frozen solid, but tremendous energies churn below. An angry public’s distrust of, and discontent toward, our system of government feels like a movement seeking a label. Unforeseen events can trigger a shift from repudiation to positive action. Americans, historically sensible, may recover from their temporary derangement and demand an accounting of the politicians and bureaucratic despots who have violated their ancestral rights. The will to freedom, I believe, can overcome the will to power.

Top Photo: The citizen—not shadowy, unaccountable powers—should be the proprietor of government data and the judge of truth and falsehood on the open web. (© Ty Oneil/SOPA Images/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy Stock Photo)


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