PatrickDeneen has written a new book,Why Liberalism Failed. I haven’t read it yet, but did read its review in the April 25 issue of “The Christian Century.” I’ll look forward to the book itself as soon as I can get it through my local independent book store. In the meantime, the review highlighted Deneen’s critique of liberalism as having created “radically autonomous individuals,” and in the process diminishing the value of community as a principle measure of the quality of life. What follows are my own thoughts, but the review of the book stimulated them because it resonated with several of my recent columns. Take a look when you can. Just scroll down.
Lest liberal friends take offense, liberalism, in its most classic sense, tends toward what today we call libertarianism, with its emphasis on society as a collection of individuals, each persuing the maximization of their personal freedom. Government, as little as possible, is needed to protect rights associated with personal freedom, and from foreign enemies. If government can contribute to maximization of personal freedom, so much the better. Otherwise, it should stay out of peoples’ lives. That’s a seriously inadequate summary, but it’s sufficient for the purpose of this column.
Classical liberalism is the foundational myth of the rugged individualism of the West, but versions of it are powerful icons in every region because it was a foundational theme in the crafting of our Constitution, and it wasn’t a bad thing. It emerged out of the long struggle from feudalism, to monarchy, to crude forms of representative democracy, each asserting that political authority moved from the top down. Until a few hundred years ago, political authority was said to descend from God to monarchs and other lords who exercised their divine right to rule the lives of the people under them. The people having no inherent rights of their own, but only such revocable privileges as rulers deigned to give. Luther and the Reformation upended that by asserting that individuals, created in the image of God, had rights of their own, delivered directly to them by God Almighty, and did not need a pope to tell them what to believe or how to behave. It was a religious statement about worship and church governance, but it opened the door to the birth of a new way of understanding civil politics. It was slow in coming, but it came. Political authority, it was held, did not come from the top down, but resided in the people themselves. They had the right, and authority, to create social contracts through which political powers were delegated up to governments of their choosing. English parliamentarianism, the American war of independence, and the French revolution became earth shattering examples of how that might work. Nothing was more revolutionary than asserting that political authority belongs to the people who then create governments to exercise only such power over the people as the people are willing and think best to surrender. In our mythology of rugged individualism, it’s not the people acting collectively who do this, but the people acting individually, negotiating with each other, eventually coming to agreement on what and how much power they are willing to surrender to the government. Doing it through assemblies of elected representatives became expedient only when issues became too complex for individuals to handle on their own, remembering that representatives were never to be fully trusted.
The American myth is that each adult person is (by God’s decree?) the supreme ruler of his or her life. All authority resides with the individual. In part or in whole it can be voluntarily delegated, negotiated in trade, or coercively taken by a more powerful person, but it is rooted in the individual. To be more truthful, throughout most of our history it was that each adult white male was the supreme ruler of his life, and had rightful authority over the lives of others in his household or under his control. If others could be manipulated to surrender rights to them, or if conditions could be manipulated to seize rights from others, it was simply an expression of natural competition. If not God, then natural law had proclaimed it to be so.
Taken to its extreme, everyone becomes (borrowing Deneen’s phrase) a “radically autonomous individual,” living reluctantly in a society where his or her rightful freedom is constrained by the rule of law, or the greater power of others. Survival means defending one’s freedoms as well as one can, while compelling others to surrender theirs to the benefit of one’s self. It creates conditions under which no one can fully trust anyone else, even when they share mutual interests. Trusting elected representatives is even more problematic. It’s only natural to assume that they are intent on manipulating the electorate to create the illusion of protecting individual rights while making the most for themselves of whatever opportunities that power and wealth present. It’s not the liberalism of the founding fathers, but it is the right wing libertarianism that has infected 21st century American politics.
Combined with blatant and latent racism, it has divided the nation into us vs. them, liberals vs. conservatives, red states vs. blue states. On the far right are those who want to maximize individual freedom from governmental oversight, regardless of the effect it would have on the community because community is an abstraction of marginal value. From their point of view, there can be no one on the left but socialists who believe political power rests with the state as the agency of the collective which does not recognize the rights of individuals.
Modern liberals don’t understand that. They can’t. They don’t even know where to begin the argument. To speak of government as a tool for the well being of the community, or even of individuals, is antithetical to extreme libertarians. For them, if doing something for the least of these is an imperative, let it be done voluntarily by individuals to individuals, or maybe by small voluntary associations, but not by rights usurping governments. Using government to facilitate commerce can be acceptable, as long as it doesn’t regulate the commerce it facilitates.
Contemporary liberalism is certainly no less concerned with individual rights, but it recognizes that they have not been equitably realized across the length and breadth of society. It understands government as the appropriate tool for redressing the injustice. It recognizes that we are not “radically autonomous individuals,” but individuals who are called to live in community, with the community itself having rights. Community is an essential ingredient of societal well being, civilized life is not possible without it. Contemporary liberals are willing to use government as a tool for building up community.
Hobbes, and Golding may have been right about how we would exist in a barbaric state of radical autonomy, but we don’t live in that state. Human civilization has for thousands of years striven to go away from it. Even the worst totalitarian regimes have not been able to extinguish the human desire to live into the fullness of their personal freedom, peacefully, in community, with government delivering essential services.
Let me suggest that we have allowed right wing libertarians to have far more influence than their numbers merit. The majority of us are liberally minded, in the contemporary sense of the word, including most who identify as conservative. Trying to change the minds of right wing libertarians is probably pointless. Letting them have sway over public policy is sinfully unforgivable. What to do? To use a military metaphor, a frontal attack is probably a waste of resources. Better to outflank them, leaving them isolated, squabbling among themselves, and complaining that no one is listening to them, because no one is.