Sometimes we cherish things that we would not wish upon our own children. Those who came of age in the depression often came to value the lessons in work and gratitude that they learned, but then they did everything in their power to prevent their families from coming to such straits again. Elements of that life linger in their memory as indescribably precious gifts: scrubbing laundry by hand on a washboard alongside mother, the kindness of strangers bound together only by common need, coming to appreciate the taste of simple foods. Yet the very conditions that make these experiences possible are ones that they worked hard, sacrificing much, to overcome. In the decades that followed the depression, many of those who lived through it worked long hours, carefully saved pennies, and made wise investments in order to ensure that their descendants would be protected from the kind of circumstances that they had to endure.

Isn’t this a puzzle? If such things are so good, why would we strive to eliminate the conditions that make them possible? I propose a basic distinction between constrained goods and liberal goods that will help to solve the puzzle.

Constrained Goods
Goods that are truly good, but that only occur under circumstances that are not good, conditions of constraint that one would rightly refuse if given the choice.
Liberal Goods
Goods that are available under good circumstances, conditions free from constraint that we would rightly choose if given the option.

A familiar example of constrained goods goes back to Plato and Aristotle’s distinction between means and ends. Some goods we choose not because they are intrinsically choice-worthy for their own sake but because they are practically necessary to achieve something else. For example, if I am sick, the medicine that makes me better is good. But the medicine would not be good if I were not sick. The medicine is not good in itself, but only good because as a means to the end of health. By contrast, health is desirable for its own sake, something that I would rightly choose even under conditions of total freedom.

Not all constrained goods are mere means, however, and this is something that I think is generally overlooked. I have heard from cancer patients that the experience of their illness gave them a perspective on life that they would never have gained without it. That perspective is not simply a means to some further good. It is a deep good in itself, but one that is only made possible by grave suffering. Suppose that we had a machine that, at the push of a button, gave people cancer. Would you point that machine at your children so that they might have the opportunity to learn from suffering? Sometimes theologians speak as though God makes such choices. Perhaps He does; we must not.

It is common in conservative circles for people to use a similar logic when it comes to the value of hard work, but I think there is often an important confusion here. Some forms of hard work are liberal goods but many forms of work are constrained goods. The word “work” itself is ambiguous between the activities we take up in our freedom and the toil we are forced to endure under practical necessity. As with goods, we should distinguish between liberal work and constrained work.

Liberal work can be ennobling, humanizing, and grounding. The farmer in touch with the soil, the artist laboring over his canvas, the stone mason building something that will last, are all forms of life that could be chosen for their own sake independent of any practical necessity. Most forms of toil, however, are not like this. The worker going like an ant to his seat at the Foxconn assembly line does not choose to do so because fitting little iPhone pieces together is a beautiful thing to do. He goes because he must. He goes to provide for his family a better life than the one he has.

I must say clearly in unambiguous terms that this distinction is not meant to dishonor those who are forced to labor under such conditions or take away the genuine goods that could not be had otherwise. Those who grow up under the harsh constraints of poverty learn a whole array of virtues: the discipline of grit, the appreciation of what things cost, or the asceticism of luxuries forgone. I should have said that impoverished people “sometimes” learn these virtues. Often they do not. But even if they did reliably learn them, the question remains: Should we impoverish our children to teach them a lesson?

A cliché of political conversation runs: Hard times create strong men; strong men create good times; good times create weak men; weak men create hard times. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but if good times consistently have such deleterious effects, strong men would have little reason to labor toward them and it would remain unclear what makes them “good” to begin with.

When human beings gain the freedom from constraints provided by their own efforts or those of their forebears, they often abuse that freedom. They often fall prey to the very passions that originally created the constraints. Nevertheless, that freedom is worth striving for because it opens up a range of goods, the liberal goods, that give a reason for all the striving.

This is not an all-or-nothing game. We experience daily a mixture of liberal and constrained goods, and we are doing well if we can inch just a little toward a greater proportion of liberty. This builds up over generations, and the accumulated result is culture. Culture is what free men build when they are able to choose that which is worth pursuing for its own sake. Culture is a kind of capital painstakingly acquired and easily spent. Culture is what I want to give to my children, and Heaven help those who would squander it.