One of the public services performed by New York Times columnist David Brooks is his yearly Sidney Awards, named for the 20th century American philosopher Sidney Hook and which goes to the authors of the best magazine essays in a calendar year. Brooks, in his most recent list of recipients, mentioned my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s essay “Taking the Long Way” in First Things.

Levin argues that both liberals and conservatives have (for different reasons) deficient visions of liberty and the life of a liberal society. His core insight is that we presuppose the existence of a human being and citizen capable of handling a remarkably high degree of freedom and responsibility. The problem is that, “We do not often enough reflect on how extraordinary it is that our society actually contains such people.” According to Levin:

The liberation of the individual from outside coercion is the short way to liberty—and the way that most progressives and conservatives today seem to have in mind. The formation of the individual for freedom is the long way to liberty—and the way that our liberal society plainly requires. The long way is a prerequisite for what the short way promises; it is a necessary preparation. But our political instincts now incline us to seek shortcuts. We’re tempted to pursue individual liberation without preparation.

This leads to an increasingly dangerous failure of self-knowledge. A liberal society depends on the long way of moral formation, yet it does not understand itself as engaged in such formation.

The “long way to liberty” has been the bulk of what our society actually does, and he goes on to discuss an approach to nurture soul-forming institutions, including families, work, faith, education and community, most of which are within reach of many of us.

What is striking to me is how these are themes conservatives once spoke about but rarely do these days. The focus, and in some cases the obsession, is on the liberation of the individual from coercion and constraint; on allowing people to pursue their wants and desires so long as they don’t injure or trample rights of others in the process. The inhibition of freedom, particularly by government, is seen as a great and rising threat to our political and social order.

There is of course a very great deal to be said about liberty understood in this way. Conservatism has grown in part as a response to the movement toward collectivism and centralized power. But it seems to me that in our time a failure of conservatives (with some impressive exceptions like Levin, Brooks, Michael Gerson, William Bennett, Leon Kass, George Weigel, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and a few others) is that not enough of them speak about the formation of character, the inculcation of virtue, and the shaping of the habits of the heart that are essential to making a free society a goodsociety.

To be sure, the relationship between politics and statecraft is complicated. Government has the capacity to influence some character-forming institutions (like education) more than others (like the family and churches). What government can do is, first, abide by the dictum primum non nocere (“do no harm”), to keep from undermining these institutions–from bending them or attempting to break them–in their massively important functions. It needs to give these institutions the room and space to grow–and, when possible, support them, even if only on the margins.

I rather doubt most parents who have raised children believe that government has the capacity to significantly shape the souls of the young; sometimes even the best parents can’t do that with children facing certain emotional and neurological challenges. But there is also this: “Just as all education is moral education because learning conditions conduct,” George Will wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983), “much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres of life.” That is true on issues ranging from civil rights to marriage to crime and drug use to welfare to much else.

In the end, the way we help shape one another’s souls is an intricate combination of things. The state plays a role here and there, now and then. More than that, institutions do. And more than that, individuals do–moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends, colleagues, teachers, ministers, role models, heroes. The way we do it is as we have always done it: by what we say, and mostly by the lives we lead. By the example we set. By being present in times of joy and personal milestones and grief and heartache. By the grace and integrity and tenderness and courage we imperfectly represent. I’m reminded of the words of Wordsworth in The Prelude: “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”

Teaching others to love what is worth loving, to have the human heart drawn to what is good and beautiful and true, is the great task for us and the great task of civilization. If we fail to do it, then even liberty can turn to ashes. That is, I think, what my friend Yuval Levin was saying in his beautiful and important essay.

— Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.