Monday, October 13, 2008

Liberalism & lost community

I've been gradually working my way through Liberalism & Community by American academic Steven Kautz. The book is an attempt to defend the classical liberalism of writers like John Locke.

In previous posts I've criticised classical liberalism for its overly pessimistic account of human nature. According to Kautz, Lockean liberalism begins with the idea that people are naturally selfish and solitary. The natural condition of man is thought to be a war of all against all. The human passions are negative aspects of existence, being warlike and irrational.

This faulty reading of human nature has some drastic consequences. It means that a "natural" community will be thought of negatively, as a merely civilised war of all against all, in which "partisan" causes will be invented to justify the carrying on of a civil war.

Having set up this framework, classical liberals then propose a solution: reason can be used to establish an unnatural peace, in which moderation is the chief virtue and in which all agree to banish "partisan" public causes and pursue strictly private pursuits instead.

The Lockean view unnecessarily diminishes what is possible within a community. It also fails to recognise, and therefore defend, the natural sources of unity and loyalty within a society.

Kautz draws out a few further consequences of the Lockean framework:

In a liberal world, high-minded moral and political aspirations have their proper place only outside the sphere of common deliberation and common action of citizens.

Liberals must therefore admit that ... politics properly attends above all to the manifestly instrumental questions of security and prosperity, because debates about these matters admit compromise and encourage moderation; and so, the ways of life of citizens and statesmen are soon deprived of their former dignity - statesmen are supplanted by bureaucrats, citizens by entrepreneurs.

Liberal politics, in short, is boring ... we refrain from more exciting or inspiriting political or moral partisanship, because we worry that such quarrels are often merely more or less quiet modes of civil war - cold civil war so to speak. When the political community steps beyond these bounds, it invites civil strife.

Our passions do not by themselves bring us together in political communities, other than by way of war for the sake of partisan or private advantage ... (p.34)

It's strange that classical liberals believe that we are naturally solitary and selfish, but that they think the impulse to high-minded public action so strong, that it is a danger to social peace.

Admittedly, liberals like Kautz argue that the high-minded public action is fraudulent and really masks an effort to pursue selfish, warlike qualities at a higher, social level.

If this is true, though, then why relegate the high-mindedness to a private level? If it's fraudulent, and exists merely as a cover to civil warfare, then it is as redundant at the private level (or more so) than at the public level.

Classical liberals can't have it both ways. Either high-mindedness has some merit, in which case the Lockean account of human nature is wrong, or it is fraudulent, in which case it's senseless to delegate it to a private, rather than a public, realm.

It seems all too convenient that people who believe that we are by nature selfish, anti-social and acquisitive should limit "community" to a technical pursuit of material prosperity, one in which "statesmen are supplanted by bureaucrats, citizens by entrepreneurs".

Anthony Esolen has drawn a distinction between men who are domesticated and men who are civilised. The domesticated man thinks only in terms of his own family; the civilised man has the capacity to think and act for the larger, common good:

Women do not in fact civilize men; they domesticate men, as I've said before. Men civilize men. There's a difference.

What is that difference? A soldier in a cavalry unit who spends most of his time in barracks or under the skies, may well be more civilized, more trained to think of and to act for the common good, to command other men or to obey, than many a high-priced lawyer or even college professor. He's not domesticated, though, and his new bride at first might find him pretty hard to live with.

On the other hand, men who live comfortable lives apart from other men, taking no initiative for the common good, considering only their wives and children and not the welfare of anybody else's children, never to be relied upon in time of public need, may be domesticated but not civilized. You might find plenty of men of the former sort at the inception of a great nation. You will find plenty of men of the latter sort at its decline.

In what way does classical liberalism allow for men to be civilised? It would appear to directly disallow civilised thinking in men: it assumes that the impulse to think or act for the common good is a dangerous, irrational passion, a form of cold civil war in which one party seeks to dominate another. Better just to leave things to the bureaucrats to sort out merely technical aspects of social organisation and financial policy.

We have had a few centuries now for classical liberal ideas to seep into Western culture and consciousness. I wonder if the influence of these ideas helps to explain the passivity of Western men when faced with civilisational decline.


  1. Kautz's notion that liberalism relegates all moral and political aspiration to the private sphere is false. It may act under cover of a supposed neutrality, but it has become a tradition of its own, with very clear ideas of what is or is not to be tolerated in the public sphere. For example, note the intolerance of lifestyle choices, such as indulgence in gourmandism, drinking, or smoking, an intolerance that would have shocked J.S. Mill. What of liberalisms obvious contempt for religious communities? Liberalism is tolerant only of liberalism.

    Also false is the notion of a neutral rule of bureaucratic expertise. Its neutrality would depend upon the existence of lawlike general principles of governance. But all such bureaucratic decisions necessarily involve value choices, no matter how covered by the pose of neutrality. Kautz is really arguing for all other comprehensive points of view to abandon the field to liberalism.

  2. Esolen's distinction between civilized and domesticated is fascinating. For those of us in the Americas, a good example might be the emphatically domestic nature of Hispanic, Catholic culture versus the more abstract, civilized Protestant culture. I have long puzzled over the striking corruption, crime and malaise endemic in the former, whose populations seem ever unable to rise to any higher level of human organization and purpose. At the same time it can be said they are admirably dedicated to family and tradition and that this is the choice they have made as a larger group.

    What happens when these two social mores collide, with large numbers in both groups cohabiting the same turf? From my experience we get the worst of both worlds-- a decline in visionary civilized values and a retreat into languid domestic isolationism. One of these pathways must assert dominance in order for such a mixed culture to prosper and advance. For this to occur a culturally meaningless yet prosperous economic relationship between the two groups must be upset.

  3. The limitations of right liberalism can be seen in its lack of success in party politics.

    Despite being strongly supported by young middle class males libertarians parties rarely attract more than a few percent of the popular vote.

    The New Zealand Act Party and the US libertarian party are good examples.

    This is because only a certain kind of person is attracted to libertarian politics - educated males with a logical and introverted disposition.

    Right liberal theory doesn't take into account that the majority of the population are extroverts whose behaviour is heavily influenced by those around.

    Note also that libertarianism has even less appeal among non-European ethnicities.

  4. Thucydides, your point is also ably made by Ryszard Legutko here (see his second argument).

  5. I take issue wih the idea that Lockean liberalism is identical with "classical liberalism".

    A great many liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries rejected Locke's premises. Burke and Hume, to name just two.

    The commonality of all "classical liberals" was a rejection of the divine right of kings. But they differed greatly about what was to replace it. What is being played out in the West ever since is the competition between all the different potental replacements, all of which, even Marxism, have some claim to the "classical liberal" label.