The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


April 26, 2023

The True Test

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Imagine a see-saw with two children on either end. If equally matched everything goes smoothly. However, if one is bigger than the other it is hard work to keep the rhythm of back and forth. There is always an imbalance between them.

In a 1924 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Lord Moulton wrote about the see-saw effect in the norms of a society. He titled it “Obedience to the Unenforceable.”

Just like our see-saw there are two opposite forces acting on a society. One is complete Law where our every action is prescribed by binding rules which must be obeyed. On the opposite end is the force of total Free Choice by which we claim complete freedom from restraint. But between these two poles is a point of balance or the fulcrum of the see-saw where neither extreme holds sway. There is equilibrium. There is no reign of Law dictating what we are to do in every situation because we accept we are not free to do whatever we please. There is liberty but not license. This middle place we might call duty or sense of responsibility is where we give up a certain amount of freedom without being bound by rules and regulations. Moulton called this the “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” It is the place in a society where people have shared values and expectations. In other words, they are the enforcers of the law upon themselves and do not need another demanding their obedience. We might call it a norm. It is not a strict law. It is just what we do without being told or threatened if we do not. It is the perfect combination of freedom and restraint.

However, whenever a society drifts toward one extreme or the other away from adherence to these norms there is a problem. If what might have been considered unacceptable behavior in the past becomes common then a society responds with a necessary increase in rules and regulations for everything. People cannot be trusted to choose on their own what is proper so they must be controlled with restrictions. If a society moves in the other direction toward intrusive regulation and reduced freedom then the opposite happens. People counter with outbursts of challenges to laws and restrictions. 

“Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.” 

Even the best among us can veer to one or the other.

William Wilberforce is well known for his long commitment to the successful abolition of the slave trade in England. But he was also intent on the reformation of manners (behavior) as he was shocked by the abuses of freedom he witnessed in England. Hoping to reform the harsh criminal justice system, he believed if people were punished for smaller offenses they would then be less likely to drift into more serious crimes for which the judgment was often hanging. He convinced King George III to issue a Royal Proclamation urging people of “honor and authority” to set good examples and to “punish all manner of vice, profaneness, and immorality, in all persons, of whatsoever degree or quality, within this our realm,”declaring that all people should attend church and that “all persons who drank in excess, blasphemed, swore, were lewd or profaned the Lord’s Day should be prosecuted” while ordering that public gambling, disorderly houses, unlicensed places of entertainment, and publishers and vendors of loose and licentious books should be suppressed.” He even wrote a book calling for everyone to embrace the Christian faith. An irony, isn’t it? The champion of freedom for slaves turns to coercion for enforcing national morality.

Lord Moulton was right. Look around and you will see the same struggle for balance today. The challenge is not ensuring absolute individual freedom or imposing our own “reformation of manners” for controlling every area of our lives. The answer is not a national Christian faith or mandatory posting of the Ten Commandments in schools. No, the challenge is always finding that fragile balance allowing us to achieve genuine greatness as a nation and society. It is neither license or law. It is trust. It is self-imposed obedience to the unenforceable.

Art by Francisco de Goya

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