From classical liberalism to the anti-national mega-state

Is modern ultra-liberalism, with its attack on our nation and culture, a different and opposite thing from classical liberalism, or a natural outgrowth of classical liberalism? I tend to believe the latter. Writing in The New Pantagruel (“Christianity and Liberalism: Two Alternative Religious Approaches”), David T. Koyzis agrees. In a key passage he writes:

Although the followers of the earlier form of liberalism, including Friedman and Hayek, dislike the expansive state of late liberalism, there is little if anything in their ideological commitments to prevent it. After all, if the state is a mere voluntary association, then its members are well within their rights to alter the terms of the social contract, effectively abandoning the strictly limited state in favour of what has come to be known as the welfare state—one undertaking to provide a wide variety of services to the public. Moreover, if Hobbes, Locke and Jefferson are to be believed, the parties to the contract even have the right to abolish it altogether in a revolutionary act, if it fails to do their bidding.

Koyzis has made a parallel argument to my national argument that hadn’t occurred to me before.

My argument is: classical liberalism, by reducing society to individuals and their rights, progressively erases all larger social traditions and institutions including ultimately culture, peoplehood, and nationhood, and so leaves the society helpless to stop invasion by foreign peoples and cultures.

His argument is: classical liberalism, by reducing society to the social contract made by individuals, erases all larger traditional institutions, as well as traditional restraints on institutions (since the social contract based on what we feel like doing rules everything); and so leaves the society open to the mega-state of modern liberalism. The liberal process that starts with the small state of classical liberalism, eliminates the very social factors that would contain the state, and so leads inevitably to the large state of modern liberalism.

So: On the national question, liberalism began with a belief in peoplehood and nationhood (“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people … to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them”), but, because its primary focus was on the individual and his freedoms, it progressively turned against our own people and nation (which restrict individual freedom) and delivered us to the Third-World invasion. On the constitutionalism and size-of-government question, liberalism began with the belief in strictly limited government, but, because its primary focus was on the individual and his freedoms, it progressively eliminated any principle of restraint, which in turn led to unlimited government.

The culmination of these two parallel and mutually reinforcing trends is the modern multicultural state, the anti-national mega-state, the welfare state to the world, opening its borders to all people from all cultures and providing them with all kinds of goodies and solicitous protections the moment they arrive. I just found out yesterday from an article by Juan Mann at vdare that the Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the Department of Homeland Security has a vast range of programs to promote appreciation of diversity and overcome Americans’ “negative perceptions of immigrants,” such as arranging “diverse” panels of speakers at public events. Instead of just screening and naturalizing immigrants (a proper function of the older, limited state), CIS is a propaganda wing of the ultra-liberal, anti-national mega-state aimed at changing attitudes of natives in favor of immigrants.

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Mark D. writes:

I have two thoughts, immediately:

1. Voegelin didn’t consider the “social contract” theory of government to even be a theory, because it excluded and bracketed so much of reality (just as you say). He called it “doxa,” by which he meant mere opinion.

2. The Kantian notion of the human self (which is the modern notion): an autonomous self, operating in self-conscious freedom, and in full possession of an independent human reason that can discern and choose between competing interests, values, and inclinations, both internally and externally.

If one accepts the Kantian notion of the human self, then the contract theory of government at least becomes thinkable. Without it, it is unthinkable.

LA replies:

It is true that the social contract theory of government is false, because it excludes and brackets so much of reality , but then how was the American political experience so successful? The answer is that the American founding was not based on pure social contract theory; it mixed social contract theory with Christian and Republican traditions. So it’s incorrect to call the American Founding purely Lockean.

But, the Lockean aspect of the Founding was the most explicit and formal aspect, and gradually over time eliminated the other aspects that had held its false view of reality in check.

Mark D.’s reply provides a fuller account of how classical liberalism morphed into modern liberalism:

I agree. But, as the notion of the modern self evolved through the 19th and 20th Centuries, the Christian and Republican traditions had to be sloughed off in favor of the Lockean, not because the Lockean was more “correct,” but because it was most amenable to the modern self-understanding of the individual.

Kant laid out the paradigm of the modern self, but it later morphed. Kant assumed that the autonomous self was self-regulating by the operation of human reason. However, in the 19th Century, human reason was jettisoned as the self-regulating principle, replaced by the individual human will (this tension was already evident in the dynamic of the French Revolution). This was the explicit introduction of nihilism into modern society. Its apostle is Nietzsche. In this thinking, values are not determined by human reason (or by God, or revelation, or tradition), but rather by the individual human will. The individual human will becomes definitional for value, and the individual human will is the highest and best value.

This signaled the end of philosophy, or as is often said, “the end of metaphysics.” Philosophy has traditionally been grounded in human reason, but if human reason becomes suspect and the individual human will is the arbiter of all value, there isn’t much for traditional philosophy to do or to talk about. Philosophy then quickly degenerated into existentialism, or the study and glorification of the individual human “existence.”

A Lockean theory of government fits nicely with this philosophy and the primacy of the individual human will as the final arbiter of value. Society then becomes a battle of individual wills (“preferences”), and politics is the business of securing priority and protection for one’s own preferences within a government that is considered a voluntary association.

This voluntarism necessarily minimizes, if not outright excludes, more traditional considerations, such as institutions, traditions, religion, communities, etc., just as you say. It also vastly undermines republicanism and particularity, because it seeks to impose its self-understanding of the modern nihilistic individual nationwide—the tool usually used is the 14th Amendment, which has been used to extend the federal Bill of Rights to the individual states and thereby eliminate them as significant political players in social policy. Hence, we now have national social policy, imposed by a national legislature and interpreted by a national Supreme Court, whose basic foundations are its nihilistic presumptions about human nature as described above.

A simple taxonomy would be as follows:

1. The Pauline self—complete dependence on God (St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.). Opposed by Pelagius and the pagans.

2. The Kantian self—dependence on human reason (Jefferson, Kant, Locke, etc.). Opposed by Kierkegaard, Heidegger.

3. The Modern nihilistic self—complete dependence on the individual human will (Nietzsche, Sartre, Rawls, etc.). Opposed by Kantians and Paulinists.

Koyzis was describing a battle between Kantians (such as Roger Kimball, John Paul II, Michael Novak, and Fr. Neuhaus) and the Nihilists/Nietzcheans. As far as I could tell, he left out the Paulinists, except tangentially (I think Hauerwaus would be a Paulinist, and he left the editorial board of First Things).

Koyzis’s thesis is that a Kantian model of the human self cannot help but degenerate into nihilism. And, that’s what has happened. Now that human reason has been jettisoned, it is no longer legitimate to make Kantian arguments to the effect that traditional institutions were recognized by our Founders as essential to a functioning polity. Traditional institutions are now subject, like everything else, to the primacy of the individual human will, and are judged and evaluated by that standard.

The solution lies behind Kant (a place Kierkegaard and Heidegger tried to go), to the Pauline understanding of the human self. Only when individuals have a Pauline self-understanding do the proper functions and benefits of traditional institutions come into view, and in fact become experientially necessary to human flourishing.

A reader writes:

I cannot recall where I got it, but I picked up the same conclusions along the way. My thinking is that as individual rights are emphasized, the State steps in as _the_ defender of individual rights. Other institutions constrain people, so they become the State’s adversary. So as individual rights expand, the State must expand concurrently, to protect more rights for more people. Other institutions are hollowed out and beaten down, because they stand in the way of individual rights; in doing all that, the State grows.

Thus Libertarians witlessly work hard for what they loathe: the monster State.

LA replies:

And the key to that transition was (1) the 14th Amendment, followed by (2) the Incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the 14th Amendment, which effectively gave the federal courts power to eliminate all local laws and institutions that “violated” people’s rights. School prayer—out. Anti-loitering laws—out. Anti-vagrancy laws—out. Anti-sedition laws—out. Anti-sodomy laws—out. School dress codes—out. Via the Fourteenth Amendment and the Incorporation Doctrine as imposed by the federal courts, states and munipalities were effectively destroyed as self-governing societies, leading to the ascendancy of the cult of individual rights as the highest and ruling value in America, and sweeping aside any social or cultural traditions that might stand against it.

Blogger Ilana Mercer, who is of course a classical liberal, writes:

It’s a plain error to say that “classical liberalism [reduces] society to individuals and their rights.” It is to ignore the rich and nuanced writing of classical liberals such as Locke, Mill (who spoke eloquently about the bonds that are required to keep a liberal polity together), Mises (the last opposed unfettered immigration), Old Right greats such as Felix Morley, etc. It’s simply a crass, factual error, Lawrence. David Conway, a modern classical liberal, has written a marvelous book: In Defense of the Realm: The Place of Nations in Classical Liberalism. It’s well worth reading.

Now, if you talk of modern libertarianism, which promotes anarchism, you are on more solid grounds, although even Rothbard opposed “vulgar individualism.”

LA replies:

I’m not familiar with all those writers, but I am familiar with Locke’s most important work, his Second Essay on Government, where he lays out his natural rights theory. All you have to do is look at that book and see how he redefines political society as natural-rights-bearing individuals living in a mythical state of nature who in order to secure their natural rights to life and property, delegate the right to use force to defend their natural rights to a government which will do it for them. Locke is a genius, but his vision of man and society is a reductionist abstraction. The society he describes has no culture, no history, no religion, no civic institutions, and no particular people. There is no notion that only a particular kind of people (namely Anglo-Saxon and closely related people) would have the requisite self-restraint and hardy independence to make the contract theory of government work. The American Founding and political tradition did not take Locke straight, they combined Lockean natural rights ideas with the Anglo-form, Protestant, federal character of the American society; they also went back to medieval sources of law, as Ellis Sandoz shows in his book on the religious and traditional roots of the American Founding. But in modern times, because of the dynamic I described in the original post in this thread, those cultural aspects of the American self-understanding have been cast aside, and the bare-bones individualistic Lockean essence has more and more emerged to the fore and been asserted as the definition of American society. We’ve thus ended up with “conservatives” (not libertarians, but mainstream Reaganite conservatives) who describe America as simply representing “freedom”—as though a human society can exist and preserve itself on such a simplistic basis. And of course the same simplistic reduction of the good to “freedom” is responsible for the Bush/neocon folly of attempting to democratize Muslim countries.

As for Mill’s emphasis on the bonds that are required to keep a liberal polity together, he had to emphasize those things because they are not provided by the pure liberal theory itself. The whole point is that in order to make the liberal idea at all viable, it must be combined with pre-existing, pre-political, non-liberal things, but that liberalism nevertheless contains its own dynamic that steadily eats away at those non-liberal things until only the liberalism is left.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 29, 2006 08:39 AM | Send

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