Saturday, September 09, 2006

When liberalism fails

Liberalism is especially unworkable in the sphere of personal relationships.

According to liberal philosophy, we are supposed to aim at a kind of individual autonomy, in which we are left free to pursue our own individual desires. The kind of desires we can logically pursue on our own are things like career status, wealth, travel, and physical pleasures like sex or food.

In the mid-80s a whole generation of women was launched to pursue such individualistic aims. In particular they were told to remain independent of men and to focus on career success.

When these women were in their 20s, they quite logically rejected the stable, committed family type of man. Such men represented a potential loss of their independence. So they either avoided romantic entanglements, or else dated "the wrong sort of guy".

Many men responded by turning away from the family man ethos, and pursuing an individualism of their own. They focused their efforts either on their own career, or on such things as travel or study. They learnt to be more emotionally self-sufficient.

If things could be kept at this level, in which women and men have short-term casual relationships with each other, whilst pursuing their own individualistic aims, then liberalism might have a chance of working.

But we are not made to be satisfied with this. When the mid-1980s generation of women reached their 30s many began to be dissatisfied with their single girl lifestyle. They began to think of marriage and family.

The transition between a purely liberal single girl ethos and something more traditional was caught in a series of profiles on women run in the UK Mail a few years ago. For instance, Christina Samuel, a 31 year old investment banker had the following to say on her changing attitude to relationships:

Until now, I've concentrated on material possessions to make me happy. My career has had all my attention since I got my first job when I was 18. I was promoted rapidly and now earn a substantial wage. So I have a new car every year and take several holidays in exotic places such as the Caribbean, as well as owning a fashionable riverside flat. I regarded men as a similarly luxurious accessory until recently.

My 20s were spent partying with a string of handsome, wealthy, fun men on my arm, but I only had one serious relationship. That fell apart because he was resentful of the hours I put into my job and he wanted a family immediately. I just wasn't ready for a settled life and certainly wasn't going to sacrifice my career for him.

But now I want a lifelong commitment. I'm looking for a man who is kind, generous and understanding, with a nice smile. I don't care whether he's wealthy or even if he's not a great looker. I'm looking for a husband, not a boyfriend, and the requirements are different.

Jackie James, a 31 year old fund manager, is another woman who did the "liberal thing" in her 20s, but changed her attitude in her 30s. According to Ms James:

I don't want to waste my 30s dating men I know won't be marriage material. I was happy enough to do that in my 20s. Back then I preferred dating fun men ... I didn't want commitment because I was far too focused on my career. Now I'm on the lookout for someone I can settle down with.

Strangely, after all these years of independence, I'm longing to meet a man who will look after me and take control ... I now think getting married and having children will add another dimension to my life and I'm looking forward to it. I was never interested in having children in my 20s ... I was too wrapped up in my career to make time for a baby.

When I joined an investment management company as an office junior at 18, I had little time for romance. I realised quite early on that I didn't want to get tied down while I pursued my career. I was earning a good salary, so I was able to afford designer clothes. I also made a point of getting a new car each year and booking exotic holidays.

My only serious relationship during that time floundered because my boyfriend resented the amount of time I devoted to work. We broke up when he started pushing for marriage and children. I was in my mid-20s by then and didn't want to settle down.

You can see the pattern here. Both women, when in their 20s, pursued individualistic aims of career status, money, holidays and material possessions. They both rejected family oriented men during this time. On reaching their 30s, though, single girl independence was no longer enough, and they now sought a family-oriented kind of man they previously rejected.

But here is the rub. There were no longer so many family-oriented men to choose from. The previous behaviour of women had rewarded individualistic men and demoralised more traditional men. A lot of women were therefore left single, childless and frustrated.

Male individualism

Sushi Das is one such woman who has been unable to find "a suitable boy" to settle down with. She is a 39 year old staff writer for the Melbourne Age newspaper.

In a recent article, Ms Das responded to a fellow Age columnist, Pamela Bone, who had suggested that women should choose to have children at an earlier age.

Ms Das' argument on this issue is quite significant. She reminded Pamela Bone that "Some aspects of our lives we can control - for example, which career we want" but that having babies is "one of those aspects of our lives over which we do not have complete control".

The reason for this lack of complete control is that marrying and having a baby requires that a woman is able to meet a man who is willing to take on family commitments.

For earlier generations this might not have been so difficult as,

In the culture of the 1950s, many men understood themselves to be providers, taking on a mortgage that could be serviced on one income, and accepting children as the natural consequence of marriage.

But "it's a different world now" and "These days there is a greater value put on individual fulfilment. Men often want to achieve things in life, travel and build assets before they think they can make a serious commitment to having children."

For Ms Das this male individualism makes men less likely to be good husband material as,

Some young men are too self-absorbed, too career-oriented, or stuck in a sort of ill-groomed, selfish immaturity, for a woman to feel they would be able to provide a stable and loving environment in which to bring up children. Put bluntly, they don't measure up.

Ms Das draws one important conclusion from all this. She reminds Ms Bone that it's no use talking of the "choice" of women to have babies earlier, as having babies is not one of those choices which fits in easily with liberal individualism.

It's not like choosing which career to pursue, or what car to buy, or where to holiday. These are all individual choices. But having a baby is dependent on other people, in this case men, choosing to behave in a certain way. It's outside the direct control of women.

Liberals are left helpless in this situation. Their philosophy, that we should be left free to pursue our individual desires, is no longer sufficient, as the individual desires of men and women are no longer in harmony.

All that Ms Das can suggest we do is to subordinate the desires of men to those of women. She doesn't explain why women should be preferred in this way. She just asserts that women should go on being independent career girls and that men should adjust their mindset accordingly and "shoulder some of the responsibility for having children at a time that is safe and sensible for women."

This won't work. You can't promote individualism as a general life philosophy and then expect men to revert to a more traditional family ethos at a time suitable to women.


Conservatives are not caught in the same kind of bind as liberals. That's because conservatives don't limit themselves to "desires which we can logically pursue at an individual level".

Conservatives can orient themselves openly to the more important things in life, which are most easily achieved when supported by the institutions and culture of the community we live in.

We need to have the courage to recognise openly what is important to us, and then assert its value to society generally. Otherwise we will be left, like Sushi Das, with our smaller individualistic aims, and no logical or convincing way of seeking anything more.

(First published at Conservative Central, 08/03/2004)

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