Liberalism’s Great Unravelling

Can Liberalism be Saved? Part I


Modern liberalism, that bold experiment in human freedom and popular self-government, has faced some difficult challenges, but none like it is facing today. It fended off fascists and communists throughout the twentieth century, but it appears now to be unravelling according to its own principles – the primacy of individual autonomy within the most minimal constraints of a social contract. When the noble cause of liberty is viewed as exemplified in the right of pregnant mothers to kill their babies and the right of men to be accepted as women and vice versa, there is clearly something fundamentally wrong. Patrick Deneen explains in Why Liberalism Failed how this crisis of modern liberalism came to be and how it cannot be remedied by a politically penitent return to liberal principles such as they are. “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded” (p. 179).

The Declaration of Independence announced the triumphant final phase of the modern liberal political project. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In The Federalist Papers No. 1, Alexander Hamilton expressed what was at stake in the ratification of the constitution crafted in the spirit of that declaration: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” This project in popular self-government was to be good news for modern man. Its success would finally secure people—all people—in civil liberty and release their enormous but largely untapped potential for wealth creation. It re-established the Anglo-Saxon tradition of popular liberty on what was projected to be a more stable, reliable foundation, what Leo Strauss called “low but solid ground” — a remarkably reduced understanding of God, man, and the moral universe based on a nature-conquering science of human nature. It is “mind your own business” developed into a philosophically grounded political arrangement.

Though the project of modern liberalism—philosophical, political, and economic—has brought the world tremendous mercies, it has not been humanity’s happy ending. The philosophic conversation from which it emerged continued. Based on the project’s premises, we have settled into the commonly accepted belief that, as Allan Bloom expressed it in The Closing of the American Mind, “the relativity of truth is… the condition of a free society…” in which “[t]he true believer is the real danger” (pp. 25-26). Acceptance of this nihilistic conclusion is, of course, the death of liberalism. If there is no truth, then there are no truths to hold as self-evident. If our moral and intellectual free-fall is the logical outworking of the modern turn toward earth in political philosophy, then we have a lot of rethinking to do.

The Conversation from Machiavelli to Locke

Machiavelli broke decisively from the Christian and classical traditions in chapter 15 of The Prince: “And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.” His political teaching, even regarding republics, is anything but liberal, but he inspired centuries of liberal geniuses to develop his thesis of low-minded individualism. The prince, or any successful human being, should not “lift” his thoughts from matters of war because all of life is warfare, there being nothing that binds us together in moral obligation (Chap. 14). We are individually isolated in a world of competitive goods. Virtue—human excellence—is the ability to get, whether by force or by fraud, what everyone wants but only a few can have: security and glory. Yet a prudent prince should leave his people with their property and their women so as not to incur their hatred and thus endanger himself.

Thomas Hobbes did not appear to be a great defender of liberal politics, advocating as he did an all-powerful, unchecked sovereign (whether a monarch or a parliament) to overshadow selfish subjects and forge their conflicting wills into a peaceful society. But his goal was peace and, from it, a real, precious liberty. The frontispiece for his original publication of Leviathan shows a great figure, sworded and crowned, towering over a verdant land and a peaceful city. But this sovereign is a uniquely modern king as he is constituted by consenting and contracting individual subjects. Acting as fundamentally and radically individual people, they calculate their selfish advantage, abandon their natural condition in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” contract with one another to form civil society, and erect government. Even the family, in Hobbes’s moral universe, is a human construct.

John Locke essentially agrees but proposes a more limited, more reliably safe government. He finds that if one calculates one’s advantage most wisely, i.e., if one correctly discerns the law of nature in the state of nature, one sees that this law of reason counsels each person not to harm another in his “life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Second Treatise, sec. 6). He then restates this teaching of natural reason as the injunction to preserve others, but only after having secured oneself. Because so few consult the teachings of reason, but instead are carried away by passions for acquisition and revenge, people would quickly flee the state of nature for a civil state through a social contract, consenting to civil government that more perfectly enforces this law of nature. In this way, government that is, strictly speaking, “civil” allows us the liberty we would have enjoyed in the state of nature had people behaved themselves according to these narrow calculations of reason. Such government is “liberal” because it restricts itself to securing people in their natural liberty. Thus, it is “limited government”—limited under law by the consent of the governed as well as by its proper end: the protection of life, liberty, and property. The people’s moral and spiritual well-being is emphatically not the business of government. In Locke’s presentation of political community, the foundation of our life together remains what it was for Hobbes, each person’s calculation of how best to secure his or her self-interest. There is still no natural family and no role for love, no call for sacrifice, no basis for either private friendship or civic spirit.

Liberalism’s Unravelling

This liberty under limited government is no small accomplishment. Most governments for most people have been what Augustine called “great robberies,” at times even butcheries. People would be generally glad to trade government support for piety and morality in exchange for sustainable security in their persons and property. The liberal tradition has provided remarkably well for this, and the accomplishment has been breathtaking.

Liberalism’s humane benefits—like safe, limited, though effective government and a culture of decency and mutual respect, with the attendant explosive innovation and prosperity—came inseparably, however, with liberalism’s socially and morally corrosive individualism. As we worked out the logic of this self-understanding, we came to accept our individuality as prior to our relationality, and thus that it is morally acceptable for me to assert my rights at the expense of the society that protects those rights. In this understanding, all human relationships are acts of individual will as opposed to various inheritances and natural obligations. It has even come to be accepted as a truism that everyone has the right to define reality as he or she sees it. In this widely accepted view, reality itself is an individual choice. Based on the Lockean idea that one’s body is one’s property and thus one’s own to use as one pleases, we have come also to accept sexual libertinism and the rights to abortion and to public respect for one’s chosen “gender identity.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that confidence in liberalism, this humane and liberating political arrangement, is declining. Thus, Deneen explains “why liberalism failed” as though the failure were obvious enough. In each of four areas of life—politics and government, economics, education, and science and technology—he argues that “liberalism has transformed human institutions in the name of expanding liberty and increasing our mastery and control of our fates.” Yet despite enormous success in these spheres, there is a spreading and justified sense that “the vehicles of our liberation have become iron cages of our captivity” (p. 6).

The liberal political experiment in popular self-government has become the unresponsive, bureaucratic state, controlled by a privileged governing class, extending its benevolent provision and regulative control into every corner of life (p. 7f.). What was supposed to be state-protected economic liberty for everyone’s vastly greater prosperity has become a middle class disappearing into an elite of politically connected, socially privileged winners at one end and an underclass of government-dependent, socially fragmenting losers at the other (p. 9f.). In the name of liberal egalitarianism and general liberation from oppression and privilege, liberal education, which is necessary for sustaining a self-governing people, has come under crippling assault from the universities themselves—for both practical economic and principled ideological reasons (pp. 12-13). To serve the needs of an ever-deepening pool of applicants, universities have turned toward vocational training instead of the rigorous training of the mind and investigation of the world. Insofar as academic study is still the focus, it has embraced various forms of Marxism, nihilism, and politically moralistic, yet intellectually unreflective, activism. The conquest of nature for the relief of our estate and for our enthronement in the empire of man over the universe has enslaved us to the technologies that were to be the means of this conquest, leaving our autonomous selves “insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone” (pp. 14-16). Most obviously, the technologies that promised to open us to the world and connect us more closely and widely with each other have left us isolated in our screen-mediated worlds of inward loathing and outward rage. 

But for a post-liberal future, Deneen has nothing more to offer but Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Dreher, addressing Christian communities in particular, argues that to survive the new Dark Ages in which Christianity is viewed as hopelessly intolerant and thus morally intolerable (what Aaron Renn calls “the Negative World”), Christians should withdraw into a periphery of intentional communities of spiritual integrity. Following this, Deneen recommends that dissenting Christians, “people of goodwill,” should form “distinctive countercultural communities” which will become “lighthouses and field hospitals” for “the deracinated and depersonalized form of life that liberalism seems above all to foster” (p. 197). Deneen’s hope is that a new macro-politics that we cannot yet anticipate will emerge naturally out of a plenitude of locally cultivated micro-politics (p. 183). That is an admirable plan if, at the very least, it moves Christians to more robust and Biblical church life, home life, schooling, and local civic involvement in Christian majority towns. But the problems are these. First, the progressive elites think that they, not Christians, are the “people of goodwill,” and that anyone who dissents from their will is deplorable. Second, they know where you are, they will find you, and they will get you, or at least your children. Third, as we have found, these homes and communities are easily penetrable by the invasions of toxic popular culture—music, visual entertainment, social media, celebrity Medusas. Unless you go full Amish, it is not so easy to build a distinctive countercultural community. Fourth and finally, if he means literally withdrawing into geographically isolated, intentional communities where bands of believers can, as it were, fly under the liberal radar, then it is simply not an option for the vast majority of Christian believers, even if they felt inclined to it, which none but a few would be.

This leaves us with the post-liberal task of somehow reconstituting the best of the old liberalism—its institutions and habits—on healthy, sustainable grounds. But the old liberal theorists had to insinuate a new way of thinking into traditionally Christian minds for the new political and economic way of living to take root. In our own time, the shocking, progressive collapse of what is left of the old liberal order under barbarian, illiberal assault may, we hope, with the merciful working of God’s gracious Spirit, open people’s minds and redirect their hearts toward this reconstituting of liberalism for the centuries to come. As these proceed, we must be ready with an understanding of Biblical political principles (some of which are liberal in character) that grow out of and reinforce a renewed Christian understanding of God, man, and the universe and of the limits of politics in a fallen world.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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David C. Innes

David C. Innes was for 18 years professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City and now serves as a minister at Calvin Presbyterian Church (OPC), Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life and Francis Bacon.

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