Monday, April 26, 2010

Is there a Future for Liberalism?

What a confusing word this is. It has one meaning in theology, another in politics and another in economics. Once one has separated the theological from the political/economic meaning, one would think one is on the way to clarity. Not so.

First, the political meaning has changed between the late 19th century and today so that one must speak of the difference between "classical liberalism" and what Michael Knox Beran terms "social liberalism." Classical liberalism has its roots in Christianity and its teaching that all human beings are equal before God, and specifically in the 17th century, nonconformist, Protestant dissenters who argued that they should be treated equally before the law and permitted the greatest possible liberty consistent with "public tranquility and the safety of the state." (Beren, The Descent of Liberalism, p. 1)

Another strand of liberalism, which has become the dominant meaning of the term today, stems from the 19th century social philosophers, who defined the freedom sought in liberalism in terms of economic equality. Whereas classical liberalism seeks only equality of opportunity and accepts the inevitability of inequality of accomplishment (since people are unequal in talent and character), social liberalism drives forward toward equality of outcome because it refuses to accept that natural inequality of talent and character should be allowed to result in inequality of economic opportunity.

The history of liberalism in the West is the story of how social liberalism gradually overcame classical liberalism and displaced it. This has resulted in the rise of the conservative movement in the US since 1945 in which traditional conservatives (Old Tories), anti-communists and libertarians (classical liberals) found that they had more in common with each other than any of them had with the social liberalism that they found increasingly indistinguishable from socialism.

While it is true that social liberals look to the Bismarkian social welfare state and to milder, English forms of Fabian socialism, rather than to pure Marxist philosophy, the differences, viewed from a classical liberal or conservative viewpoint, are mainly ones of degree not ones of substance. As much as social liberals hate to be accused of the crimes of Stalin and as much as they rightly insist that they do not intend to replicate Stalinist totalitarianism, nevertheless the cogent response is "Yes, but that is just what a crypto-Stalinist or a deceived fellow-traveler or a useful idiot would say in your situation." In other words, the crucial issue is whether or not, in fact, the loss of individual freedom contemplated in social liberalism is a step toward totalitarian socialism; it is not whether or not the intentions of individual social liberals are honorable.

One of the reasons social liberals resist the classical liberal and conservative critique is that they cannot believe in a kind of freedom that does not involve economic equality. I propose to ask why this is so and to suggest an answer.

I suggest that we cannot understand the evolution of the meaning of the word "liberal" from the 19th century to today unless we consider what has been going on in Western religion as well as politics and economics during that period. What was going on religiously was the decline of the hold of Christianity on the minds of the intellectual elite of society (from the late 19th to the mid 20th century with the Great War being the central fact in this narrative) and on the minds of the middles classes from the 1960s on (with the sexual revolution being the central fact in this narrative).

Why is the loss of Christian faith in the West important? Because the ideas of the 19th century social philosophers about equality increasingly filled the gap left by the evaporation of Christian faith and did so in two main ways.

First, the decline in belief in the afterlife meant that whatever justice you believed in had to be achieved in this life or not at all. This meant a drastic revision of the importance of social equality. After all, if what really matters is whether we are saved on the Day of Judgment and experience eternal life with God, then we can be somewhat caviler with respect to the inequalities of this life that arise out of unequal talent and character. You can be saved from any station in life and you can be lost from any station. So economic inequality can never be a question of ultimate significance.

Secondly, when Christianity has a hold on the collective mind of a people it produces incentives for the civilizing morality that makes a free society possible. When basic honesty and truthfulness can be taken as widespread, if not universal, it is feasible to have small government, fewer laws and regulations and ways of restraining anti-social behavior other than coercion. When the family functions, the government does not need to take over its functions. But as Christianity declines and secularism takes hold, government coercion becomes more and more necessary to ensure social cohesion and law and order.

Social liberalism rushes in to fill the void left by the decline of Christianity. The philosophy of Marx becomes the basis for the critique of classical liberalism and thus classical liberalism is derided as oppressive and unjust because it does not provide economic equality, which of course it never tried to do or ever thought was crucial. The rise of the bureaucratic, administered State is seen as messianic deliverance to social liberals and paves the way for their increasing acceptance of state socialism. Having accepted the Marxist critique of classical liberalism, their goal is to implement the nanny state without embracing totalitarianism. The result is the "soft totalitarianism" spoken of by de Tocqueville, which is defended at the last hour as being not quite as bad as hard totalitarianism.

My conclusion then, which is as surprising to me as it will surely be to many of you, is that Liberalism without Christianity equals totalitarianism, whether the soft kind associated with the social democratic welfare state or the hard kind associated with the socialist state. The choice is either Greece or Cuba and the best possible defense of say the Obama agenda is to argue that he intends to turn the US into Greece, not Cuba, which seems to me to be very small comfort.

Classical liberalism is deeply rooted in the West. To view it as arising de novo from 17th century English Dissent is a thesis that raises more questions than it answers. In actuality, the belief in the equality of all people and their equality before the law could as easily be said to originate from the king/prophet distinction as illustrated dramatically in the story of Nathan confronting King David. It can also be seen as rooted in the Magna Carta and the Medieval doctrine of the Two Swords, where power is divided, the power of government limited and the supremacy of law over rulers is affirmed.

But the emphasis on liberty in classical liberalism cannot work apart from a Christian context in which it is limited and kept from metastasizing into a cancer. Freedom must be understood as a limited political and economic goal, but not as the first principle of philosophy. Freedom must be understood as a means to a greater good, (the service of God), rather than as an end in itself. Freedom becomes a demonic mockery of its true self if it is permitted to function apart from a teleological ethics that rests on a Christian theological anthropology in which the telos for man is clearly articulated as the basis of social relationships.

The struggle between social liberalism and conservatism that is heating up in the US today is a struggle between a Marxist and a Christian philosophy of history, anthropology, ethics and metaphysics. It is a struggle for the soul of Western civilization. Europe is on her knees with socialism triumphant and the culture of death pervasive. If the US falls, then the great experiment called Western civilization will be over. God will still be God and He will raise up a people to witness to Him elsewhere. But for us who are the lesser sons of greater sires the loss is devastating and the responsibility great.

If the West is to end, it will end in the soft totalitarianism of liberal fascism. It is either that or a revival of Christian faith.

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