Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So we are friendless by nature?

I've now read the second chapter of Professor Steven Kautz's Liberalism & Community. If you remember, the book is intended to be a defence of classical liberalism.

Once again, I found it an extraordinary read. Kautz sets out the foundations of classical liberalism so openly that the flaws in the theory are strikingly clear.

Kautz begins the chapter by reminding the reader that liberalism has become an orthodoxy:

Classical and contemporary liberal teachings ... dominate our political discourse. America is still now, or perhaps now more than ever, somehow a liberal regime ... (p.23)

Why is "community" such a problem for us, here and now? The short answer is liberalism. The political philosophy of liberalism, its critics and friends agree, is in some sense our political philosophy: we are somehow all liberals. (p.28)

Why has a liberal orthodoxy brought about a lost sense of community? Kautz argues first that liberalism overwhelmed other traditions which once upheld a positive sense of virtue:

Liberalism ... has prevailed in this century in America, overwhelming those elements of the American political tradition that once tamed our individualism and materialism. If liberal America once found needed moral sustenance in various religious and republican traditions of virtue that have long since been abandoned, as many argue, then it must now find a way to reconstitute those indispensable moral supplements to the material comforts that liberal politics provides. (p.28)

It's Kautz's second argument which is really striking. Kautz explains that the "moral pyschology" on which liberalism is based is inevitably hostile to community:

It should not be surprising, even to partisans of liberalism, that a world dominated by liberal individualism has given rise to longings for lost community. Classical liberalism is a doctrine of acquisitive individualism, and teaches that man is by nature solitary and selfish, not political or even social: the most powerful natural passions and needs of human beings are private. Human beings are not friends by nature.

This harsh moral psychology is, at any rate, the fundamental teaching of classical liberalism. As a result, the idea of community is always somewhat suspect for thoughtful liberals. Liberals are inclined to view partisans of community as either romantic utopians or dangerous authoritarians.

If there is no natural common good, beyond peace and security, then invocations of the spirit of community are either foolish or fraudulent, impossible dreams or wicked ideologies. (p.28)

Kautz goes on to write in a similar vein:

Classical liberals ... seem to believe that we could be content to live alone, because there are no natural bonds between human beings, and so there is no natural community. Indeed, the family is not simply natural, according to some of the founders of liberalism. And even if there were certain natural passions or sentiments that might, in favourable circumstances, bring human beings together in a natural community, these passions are overwhelmed, in most circumstances, by the strongest human passion, the desire to preserve oneself and to live in tolerable comfort in a world of human enemies ...

In short, the most urgent human good ... is the security of our bodies ... I repeat: our classical liberal teachers have taught us that human beings are in the decisive respect friendless by nature, and we have constructed a world on the basis of this understanding. It is not surprising that we feel lonely, now and then. (p.29)

Liberal politics is, as a result, a politics of fearful accommodation among natural foes who somehow reconstitute themselves as civil friends ... (p.29)

This "moral psychology" ought to have been challenged, and marginalised, long ago. It is way too pessimistic an account of human nature. We are asked to believe the following:

i) humans are by nature solitary and selfish
ii) other humans are to be regarded primarily as a threat to my life
iii) the primary good is to be left alone, in physical security, to pursue acquisitive wants, in other words, to accumulate material goods
iv) any invocation of community is either utopian or authoritarian

I think back to my childhood and early adulthood in Melbourne, a city of several million souls. I remember a whole set of naturally occurring communities: those of family, suburb, parish, city, state and nation. I remember people acting supportively toward each other, on the basis that you should "help your mates", or that men should act courteously toward women, or that you should help out a fellow Australian, or that you should help the less fortuntate and so on. I remember too a range of goods that were held to be more important than acquisitive wants: loyalty to friends, love for women, a culture of family life, masculine character and achievement, an appreciation of the arts, and a love of nature to name a few.

Melbourne was, at that time, a settled community and the primary experience of life was not fear of those you lived amongst. If anything, the opposite was true: people were generally honest and helpful in their dealings with each other.

So there is no compelling reason, in my own life experience, to retreat into a private world of acquisitive individualism - a world in which community is feared as a danger to my liberty of person or property.

We lose too much in this retreat, including a freedom to participate in the more significant aspects of life.


  1. The corporate culture is a very close bed-fellow to liberalism. It fosters individualism. It teaches you that money is the only carrot, and that isolated/greed (at all costs) is the reward that we all need. So, people (with a fear of being on ‘the streets without money, revert to their animal/war like nature of dog-eat-dog). Even governments (all of them) promote it because it fills their pockets & power fantasies.

    There’s a cruel machiavelian game being played out at the expense of community & family today.


  2. Bobby, I Actually disagree.

    All big companies I have worked for really focus on promoting team spirit, and organise social events and activities for staff. The paradigm seems to be that employees are people with non-financial needs as well, and that firms have a better chance of retaining them if they can fulfill some of those needs.

    In relation to Mark's post, I would have to say that there are very few liberals in real life who advocate against friendship, although there may be some suspicison of community.

    My view is that the right of association and the right of non-association are equally important to human happiness. Although nearly all of us want to belong to groups/blubs/associations/ cumminities etc, sometimes these groupings can be oppressive Wherever there's interaction between humans, there are always some dynamics involved. And sometimes the dynsamics can become oppressive.

    I believe this 'middle ground' would be the position of most liberals. Ultimate autonomy means the right and freedom to choose.

  3. Leon, to me it rings false to talk about rights of association and non-association. This presupposes an abstracted individual without natural forms of community who then contracts into an association with others according to some sort of principle of self-interest.

    I just don't believe that this adequately describes the more important forms of human community.

    For example, the dynamic that exists between men and women and which ultimately leads to marriage can't be adequately described in terms of rights of association. It has to do with an impulse toward love; toward an expression of masculinity and femininity; toward fatherhood and motherhood; and toward a love of our tradition and a desire to reproduce it - amongst many other things.

    It is the freedom to participate as fully as possible in the more natural forms of human community which should most concern us - particularly as it is this freedom which is most at risk in modern Western societies.

  4. Mr. Bertrand says that liberals won't advocate against friendship. But no liberal would ever approve of a white preferring other whites as friends over blacks. That would be a horrific thing to liberals.

    Of course there is liberal suspicion of community. Living in community means living under some constraints which you haven't chosen. When those constraints include constraints on sexual behavior then you can be sure the liberals will be squealing.

    Liberalism has a requirement: everything must be freely chosen, otherwise you are not living "authentically". So the things that are not freely chosen--your sex, your community, your race, your ethnicity, human nature--are a problem. They must be softened somehow into something where you can now choose them. In the liberal world that typically means rejection of those things, because when you are living in the community where you were born, among your ethnic group, embracing your masculinity, etc., to liberals all that looks suspicously like you are just mindlessly going along. You couldn't have chosen those things. Choose or die!

  5. I grew up in a dog eat dog liberal 'paradise.' In Palm Beach County, Florida, in the 1980's the population was booming. People were moving there from all over and building houses and tearing down trees. Neighbors barely spoke, some didn't even know each others names. Florida has the highest number of residents that were not born there of all states, and a lot of seasonal jobs, so its population is very transient. Add to that the constant and dramatic changes in the landscape as new development after new development goes up. This fosters a lack of trust and comfort and security about those around you. People generally retreated to ethnic/religious groups for socializing, especially in the very diverse public schools.

    And to be fair, the people willing to make such choices (money over family/community) are not going to be the type to build up a new close community. They are more likely to have other priorities.

    I think Bobby's comment about corporatism may touch on this: when people are willing to move thousands of miles away from friends and relatives in order to make more money, the ties that bind are broken. It isn't the corporations themselves but the individuals that put money ahead of community and family. But the corporations foster the environment where it is acceptable to make life changing decisions based solely on money.

    I would speculate you found community in Melbourne because there were many others of similar background to you and not a lot of social and cultural changes going on around you. There was a structure independent of you that allowed you to thrive there. I don't know how to maintain that structure beyond individual choice. If the government comes in, it becomes authoritarian.

  6. Liesel writes:

    "I don't know how to maintain that structure beyond individual choice. If the government comes in, it becomes authoritarian."

    It seems to me as though you imagine people making choices in a social vacuum. Or to put it another way, either "individual choice" is a tautology, or it is possible for groups to make choices collectively, too.

    The concept of the public good is an important one. Here are some examples in which it is tacitly acknowledged as worthy of protection.

    1) Planning laws. I am not allowed, for example, to demolish a heritage-listed building in order to build a spermarket.

    2) Pornography. Even in this permissive society, I am not allowed to view certain types of offensive material, even if I am willing to pay for it and others are willing to supply it.

    3) Marriage. This is not merely a private arrangement, but a social institution which entitles me and my partner to certain types of legal and social recognition. Therefore I am not permitted to marry someone of the same gender, an underage person, etc.

    4) Employment. This is not regarded by society at large to be merely a freely undertaken contract between employer and employee. As a libertarian you may feel differently, but the fact is that even in the "freest" societies, one may not sign away certain rights (e.g. to workplace safety, to a mandatory minimum wage or the right to negotiate employment conditions).

    The freedom envisaged by the strict libertarian is based on the premise that freedom from "interferece" is separable from and preferable to the freedom to live the good life as defined by the collective assent of one's community. Once we begin to unpack the contents of this interference, though, we realise that it contains the very standards and norms which motivate us to prefer one kind of life to another.

  7. One more point about community - I really believe in the strong link between suicide and loneliness. When people are lacking social capital they develop a host of mental and emotional problems. We need a circle of people that know and care about us. Donald Joy suggested this circle needs to be at least 20 strong for optimum health. That means at least 20 people in your life of the type that would want to know immediately if you were in the hospital.

    Yes, Jal I agree that libertarianism can go to far and ignore community. I see myself personally as more a conservative libertarian I guess.