Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Between private and political

What is the role of an individual in a liberal social order? The philosophy of modern liberalism has in some sense tried to make this a nonsensical question by insisting that roles always come from human authority, and therefore the individual has no role, other than what he chooses for himself. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it in "Preaching as Though We Had Enemies,"
"the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story."
It is essentially in response to Hauerwas' essay, along with another powerful piece by David Hart entitled "Christ and Nothing," that I want to give some reflections on the individual's role in a liberal society. Both Hauerwas and Hart have given devastating critiques of liberalism. My goal, in a word, is to revive liberalism from a Christian point of view.

The essential point of liberalism is to oppose all arbitrary power. This point can only be made coherently if one can somehow account for a transcendent moral order in which human beings do not by their own reason determine what is right and wrong. It was with this in mind that James Madison aimed to construct "a government of laws and not of men." Thus the central aim of liberalism rests on a profoundly Christian belief that the ultimate Judge of the universe "shows no partiality."

Did the project of modern liberalism live up to this belief? Hart and Hauerwas point out the many ways in which it didn't, but I want to complain that they don't give it enough credit. The triumph of the individual will over and against all hierarchy may come with significant problems, but you can't tell me there's no value in the unleashing of private enterprise, the increase in widespread education, the tremendous increase in living standards, and the gradual overthrow of horrifying institutions such as slavery accomplished due to the Enlightenment. Although the "atomistic" individualism which gave this era its driving force has had evil consequences for us, I would suggest that it comes from the fact that this kind of freedom is still so new, relatively speaking. There is still no nation on earth which has actually matured as a free society. It seems to me at least somewhat forgivable if people overindulge in the first fruits of a newly won freedom.

Yet it behooves me to admit that liberalism has, in many ways, failed. The central irony of modern liberalism has been beautifully stated in a 2009 article by Phillip Blond:
"To understand why the legacy of liberalism produces both state authoritarianism and atomised individualism, we must first note that philosophical liberalism was born out of an 18th-century critique of absolute monarchies. It sought to protect the rights of the individual from arbitrary abuse by the king. But so extreme did the defence of individual liberty become that each man was obliged to refuse the dictates of any other—for that would be simply to replace rule by one man’s will (the king) with rule by another. As such, the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape. The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a “self” is a fiction. A society so constituted would be one that required a powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals. So the unanticipated bequest of an unlimited liberalism is that most illiberal of entities: the controlling state. Even the most “communitarian” liberals—from philosophers like Michael Sandel to politicians like Ed Miliband—cannot promote community without big government. They see the state as the answer, when it usually makes the problem worse. The legacy of liberal individualism is the restoration of the very absolutism that it originally sought to overthrow—a philosophical tragedy that can be summed up as: “the king is dead, long live the king.”"
Blond thinks the answer is a more communitarian conservatism, which defines the individual's role substantially in terms of what he calls community. I disagree with that assessment, not because I don't think the community is important, but rather because I disagree with the theory of community that underlies such arguments. The conservative, it would appear from Blond's essay, thinks of community as inherently political. In my view, the community exists between private and political. I do not mean to suggest that the private, public, and political lives and individuals can be ranked in an order that places the public life in second place. On the contrary, the public life an individual in some sense stands above both his private and political lives, providing both a link between the two as well as a sort of regulatory mechanism to keep both in their place.

It is unfortunate that so many liberal thinkers have stressed the role of the individual as one of pursuing "his own interests." There was a time, perhaps, when people understood "his own interests" to simply mean "what he understands to be worth pursuing." The main point here is not so much that authority never comes into the picture, but rather that political authority is kept at bay in favor of the individual choosing whom he will serve. This principle stands at the edge of a precipice, at the bottom of which is the sad notion that each individual must choose from nothing which path in life he prefers. The true liberal must resist falling, and must perhaps seek to rescue his fallen brethren from the abyss.

With this in mind, let me suggest that the role of an individual in a liberal social order is, from a Christian perspective, to obey God rather than men. This can only be accomplished through a common tradition, which in turn can only be transmitted through community. A community, in a proper sense, gains authority over the individual not through coercion or force, but through service, which is just the opposite. In other words, the community gives life to the individual and thereby gains the individual's trust. This is not politics; it is tradition in the best sense. Through a community, then, an individual's beliefs, values, and reason are developed, until that individual is able with his own voice to affirm and critique the broader society around him.

The government, on the other hand, is that institution which society permits to have coercive powers. For this reason the State is not at all a community. It does not form individuals through tradition, but through force. It cannot serve the individual except by exploiting other individuals. It cannot transmit beliefs and values except by mere propaganda. In short, most powers wielded by the State are arbitrary, destructive, and subversive to the proper relationship between individuals and their creator.

The complaint that liberalism is essentially negative is a misunderstanding, albeit probably based on experience. Of course liberalism sounds negative in the context of politics, since its goal is essentially to limit the power of government. (In case you haven't noticed, I mean here "liberalism" in the classical sense.) But on what basis do we limit the power of government? On a belief in nothing? By no means. On the contrary, the role of government must be limited by the same Law from which its authority is originally derived. Since this Law cannot come from any one individual or even any one community, it follows that government must not be allowed to pursue the particular interests of any one individual or community.

I admit that classical liberals do not seem to focus very much on the community and its role in the formation and protection of the individual. In all probability this has to do with the very skeptical tradition within liberalism and its suspicion of all authority, especially the church. But even a secular thinker like F. A. Hayek could state with confidence that
"There can be no doubt, of course, that in the language of the great writers of the eighteenth century it was man's "self-love," or even his "selfish interests," which they represented as the "universal mover," and that by these terms they were referring primarily to a moral attitude, which they thought to be widely prevalent. These terms, however, did not mean egotism in the narrow sense of concern with only the immediate needs of one's proper person. The "self," for which alone people were supposed to care, did as a matter of course include their family and friends; and it would have made no difference to the argument if it had included anything for which people in fact did care.
For a Christian, the community which is of fundamental importance in the formation of individual conscience is the church. The question we must ask ourselves, with respect to society, is whether that community is essentially a political one, or whether it stands between the individual and the State. I suggest the latter, and I reiterate that in this sense the church must be both a link and a buffer between the individual and the State. On the one hand, the church should affirm the role of the State as being the sole institution with properly coercive powers. On the other hand, the church ought basically to oppose all such coercive powers except those needed to prevent individuals and communities from harming one another. In both cases, the primary motivation should be the church's belief that it bears the truth about God, and that it alone can speak with any authority about how the individual ought to live. Yet the church, despite or perhaps because of this belief, should be committed to humility and to nonviolence, which includes refraining from all coercion.

As a final comment, I'm convinced Hauerwas is more liberal than he knows. Anyone who can maintain an absolute position of nonviolence and at the same time believe in the absolute necessity of "going to war" with ideological enemies is a true liberal. That is really the whole point of freedom, after all. We must be free to love one another even as we fight for truth's sake.

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