May 28, 2012

Political Visions and Illusions – Why we’re all liberals (but shouldn’t be)

In David Koyzis’ book Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, he spends a chapter giving an insightful analysis of the ideology of Liberalism. He points out the oddity which exists in North America, where Liberal and Conservative are spoken of as polar opposites, when in fact the representatives at both extremes still fall comfortably under the label of “liberal.” He writes,

“What both self-proclaimed liberals and their opponents do not realize, however, is that in the larger historic sense they are all liberals of some stripe and actually share the same fundamental assumptions concerning the nature of man and of political community…Liberal ideal have been so influential on American political culture that even self-styled conservatives there are actually old-fashioned liberals…” (45-46)

All forms of liberalism (from progressive to conservative) share the same philosophical foundations, beginning with a fundamental belief in human autonomy. The basic principle is,

“Everyone possesses property in their own person and must therefore be free to govern themselves in accordance with their own choices, provided that these choices do not infringe on the equal right of others to do the same. If my proposed actions effectively violate the property another enjoys in her own person, then I have transgressed the primary liberal precept and must thereby be held accountable for what I have done…According to liberalism, humanity has certain rights that inhere in each person as an individual. The individual is autonomous: that is, she pursues a rational self-interest as she thinks best. This is not to say that the community and its claims lack importance for the liberal. The more thoughtful and nuanced liberal acknowledges that healthy communities are necessary for the well-being of individuals. Nevertheless, the communities claims are subsidiary to the rights of the individual.” (47-49)

According to liberalism, individuals as sovereigns precede the community and these communities come into existence by means of the social contract. Under this view, the state exists for the sole purpose of serving the needs of the individual. However, safeguards needed to be put in place to prevent the state from assuming to much authority and becoming oppressive.

In perhaps the most insightful portion of the discussion, Koyzis explains the development of widely divergent views of the role of government by means of an expansion that has taken place over the centuries in five stages:

  1. The first stage, which he calls the Hobbesian Commonwealth, the state is actually the sovereign (such  as an absolute monarch) and provides the subjects protections from the “vicissitudes of life in the state of nature.” Even though the rule may be oppressive, it is better the the alternative lawlessness and serves to meet the individuals right of self-preservation.
  2. The second stage, the Night Watchman State, expands the idea of self-preservation to include the right to property, which is necessary for well-being. It is in this emphasis on property that we “encounter classical liberalism’s pronounced preference for the free market and a concomitant aversion to government intervention in economic transactions” (54). It is here that we see the rise of Capitalism, a la Adam Smith, et al, the American Revolution (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), and the Industrial Revolution. The right to equality, previously understood as an equal right to preserve ones own life is expanded to include the equal right to amass property for oneself. The result was a great economic expansion in Europe and the United States. However, the increased economic activity left people far from equal, and the successes of capitalism did not put an end to poverty but may have increased it or perhaps changed its distribution. This tension demonstrates the  “paradoxical quality to freedom, given a society of fallen human beings. All people are in theory equally in possession of freedom, yet by virtue of this very freedom, people make themselves unequal, as we have noted. Freedom further makes it possible for some to take freedom away from others and to accumulate for themselves the capacities that accompany it. All this can occur quite legally and without violating the received mores of the community” (57).
  3. The third stage, the Regulatory State, arose out of the tensions created by the second stage. Recognizing the limitations to freedom that could arise from private interests, these liberals saw the opportunity for government to be “brought into the service of freedom.” Rather than seeing government as the principal threat to freedom, a larger state could serve to actually protect freedom from infringement by non-state powers. This could be seen in Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive movement in the early 20th century.
  4. The fourth stage, the Equal Opportunity State, developed out of the recognition that some individuals were not only limited by infringements of their freedom by other powers, but were also limited by a lack of economic resources, whatever the source. At this stage, the governments role includes ensuring not only equal treatment, but also taking positive action to ensure that all people have the opportunity to start at the same position. A difficulty arises here in trying to provide equal opportunity (while not fixing the game to provide equal result), which as Koyzis points out is caused by a central weakness of liberalism, namely that “it is not only unable to account for the ontological status of community; it also ignores the connectedness of individuals to previous and succeeding generations. It pretends that the individual is an isolated runner in the race, whose success or failure depends wholly on herself. When it becomes apparent that this is not the case – that is, when liberals bump up against reality – they are often driven to pursue policies quite at variance with classical liberalism’s initial antistatist orientation…It is perhaps one of history’s ironies that liberals came to be identified with such programs so thoroughly that in North America the “liberal” label is almost always used to describe someone favoring an expansion of the welfare state to ensure greater economic equality” (60).
  5. The fifth stage, the Choice Enhancement State, is the most recent expansion of liberal freedom. Rooted in the idea that there is no common good or greater good, other than those which individuals hold to be good for themselves, the task of liberalism is to accommodate each individual’s desires as much as is reasonably possible, while in no case prejudging the choices they face. “Such accommodation requires to as great an extent as possible what might be called a metaphysically neutral state, or what might better be called a spiritually vacant state. Because the individual citizens are sovereign and because, further, individual preferences differ from one person to the next, the state must refrain from favoring one person’s preferences over another’s. It must simply establish the broad procedural framework within which individuals are enabled to pursue their chosen goals…This means that what is conventionally called “legislating morality” is not to be admitted in the liberal state…But at this point fifth-stage liberalism encounters a dilemma. While the liberal state is supposed to refrain from judging the goodness of people’s choices and while it claims benign neutrality toward the various options lying before its citizens, it cannot overlook the unequal consequences following from the exercise of these choices” (61-62).

    The example of sexuality is case in point. Policies that would make divorce difficult, restrict abortion, or give official preference to reproductive sex over nonreproductive sex are viewed as “unfair and discriminatory insofar as they infringe on freedom of choice” (63). However, they have a tendency to ignore the negative consequences to the community that can result from these choices, such as shattered families, increased poverty, proliferation of unwanted pregnancies, and fatherlessness. “When these undesirable consequences do occur, rather than acknowledge that the quest to validate all lifestyle choices equally is a utopian one doomed to failure, fifth-stage liberals increasingly call on government to ameliorate, if not altogether eliminate, such consequences so they can continue to engage in this fruitless quest…Rather than calling on citizens to live up to their communal commitments and to fulfill their responsibilities throughout the range of communal contexts, this final stage of liberalism demands that government effectively subsidize irresponsible behavior for fear that doing otherwise risks making government into a potentially oppressive legislator of the good life” (64).

Often the most vocal and focused criticisms of the later stages of liberalism come from classical liberals, often under the name of conservative. Koyzis makes the valid point that the response is “fundamentally inadequate because it seeks merely to reverse a lengthy – and possibly inevitable, given liberalism’s presuppositions – historical process rather than to question in the first place liberalism’s reduction of the state to a mere voluntary organization charged only with the fulfilling the shifting terms of a social contract” (64).

Koyzis predicts that it will be liberalism’s “spiritually vacant state” that is most likely to spell its end as the primary political theory, though the presuppositions currently remain nearly unchallenged. He explains:

“Liberalism makes a pretense of benign neutrality within the political realm toward such ultimate convictions commonly labeled religious. Because traditional religions are deemed inherently divisive of the body politic, liberals would prefer – no, demand – that they be limited to the realm of private conviction. In contrast to the theocratic pretensions of earlier monarchies, the liberal policy no longer attempts to prescribe an official creed for its citizens. Yet as a price for granting religious freedom, the followers of traditional religious must limit their beliefs to the realms of family, home and church, and must concomitantly keep them out of the public square. Undergirding this approach lies the assumption that traditional religious beliefs are fundamentally subjective and irrational, and thus not subject to thoughtful public discourse….In the midst of a pluralistic society, it is argued, the state is obligated to exclude from the public square all beliefs that might have the effect of tearing apart the body politic…

Yet the spiritually vacant state is, after all, nothing of the sort. As Richard John Neuhaus observes, the “naked public square” cannot remain naked for long: ‘When the value-bearing institutions of religion and culture are excluded, the value-laden concerns of human life flow back into the square under the banner of politics. It is much like trying to sweep a puddle of water on an uneven basement floor; the water immediately flows back into the space you had cleared.’

Neuhaus is surely right as far as he goes. But his argument must be taken a step further: the naked public square is not only quickly filled, but is itself an illusion. The spiritually vacant state is never such in reality. If liberalism is rooted in an idolatrous religion, as I’m arguing here, then even when its followers presume to have banished the spirits from the public square, they have done no more than to infuse it with their own spirit. In other words, they have successfully privatized all religions except their own, which they have in fact privileged above all others.

But perhaps through an ingenious sleight of hand, they have persuaded the followers of these other religions that liberalism is not rooted in any religion and, quite against the testimony of their own traditions, that the privatization of their ultimate beliefs is right and proper and in the public interest. When people finally see through the ruse and decide to accept no longer the terms of this Faustian bargain, liberalism’s ascendancy is likely to end. Until then its assumptions appear incontestable and it continues to set the ground rules” (67-68).

In my view, Koyzis’ analysis is spot on, and he proceeds to end the chapter describing the fundamentally religious nature of liberal ideology, including its own distinct form of sin, salvation, and eschatology. There is a lot of good in liberalism and the world has benefited greatly from much of it, but as an ultimate ideology it fails because it does not cohere with the world in which we live. The individual is not sovereign (though neither is the state). The state cannot be reduced simply to a voluntary social contract, and the idea of “benign metaphysical neutrality” is a myth whose time will soon be up.

This chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and is only one of the several ideologies that Koyzis addresses. The others include Conservatism, Nationalism, Democracy, and Socialism, all of which are full of valuable insights. The final two chapters propose a way forward for Christians to transcend the various ideologies and approach the political world in a more holistic way, drawing on examples from various Christian traditions as providing guidance.

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