Monday, April 06, 2009

The realm of freedom?

I have time now to get back to Liberalism & Community, a defence of classical liberalism by Steven Kautz.

Kautz supports the classical liberal view of human nature, namely that humans are by nature solitary, selfish and acquisitive. The natural condition of man is thought to be a war of all against all.

This dire understanding of human nature led to a radical world view: the human passions were held to be a dangerous source of division, peace was the only public good to be recognised, and men were to limit themselves to a private pursuit of happiness.

This is the "neutrality strand" of liberalism. To give you some idea of just how unreasonable and artificial it is, I'll comment on some passages from Kautz's book.

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, and the liberation of the passions from the constraints of reason cannot bring peace to existing political communities ... (p.34)

What does this mean? Human motivation is divided here simplistically into "passions" and "reason". Because human nature is thought to be solitary, the passions can only bring about community in a coercive way: one group of individuals might get together to force their sectarian interests on others. Therefore, "reason" has to be used to promote a higher goal of peace for the benefit of all individuals.

This is a one-sided and limited understanding of reality. Humans are considerably social in their natures. Therefore, there are "non-rational" (non-intellectual) instincts, loyalties and identities through which communities are formed and held together. The "passions", therefore, do play a positive role in building stable forms of community.

It is wrong, therefore, to believe that humans are so much pushing toward sectarian self-interest, and so devoid of sociable instinct, that the only public good that can possibly be permitted to be expressed is that of peace.

Kautz goes on to discuss goods of the body versus goods of the soul. He criticises a communitarian writer, Michael Sandel, for asserting that a community might choose to pursue goods of the soul:

[Sandel's] book is more or less silent regarding the possibility of war, not only because Sandel denies that the body is the principle of individuation ... but also because of a remarkably optimistic view of the goods (or passions) of the soul. For Sandel, as for many recent advocates of community, it appears that the goods of the body are trivial and (besides) are easily satisfied, and that the goods of the soul are principally common goods, not private goods. (p.34)

So for the classical liberal Kautz, it is right that communities should focus on meeting bodily wants rather than goods of the soul. Kautz is surprised that Sandel doesn't treat the goods or passions of the soul in an entirely negative way as assertions of sectarian self-interest - Kautz believes that Sandel has a remarkably optimistic view of human nature, just as I believe that Kautz has a remarkably pessimistic view.

Note too that Kautz rejects the idea that the goods of the soul are common goods. Kautz believes that they are rightly private goods. This is a tremendously significant disagreement. If love of a nation is a good of the soul, can it really be limited to a private good? Isn't it a good which is formed, experienced and defended at a public, rather than a private, level? If you think, as Kautz does, that goods of the soul are private rather than common goods, then you change and limit what these goods can conceivably be.

Here is another snippet from Kautz:

Reason understands, says the classical liberal, what the (more warlike than sociable passions) do not feel, that there is a common good (p.35).

Again, here is the assumption that the passions are anti-social, so that community is formed through reason - through an intellectual rejection of warlike passion in favour of peace.

Creating this peace requires us to give up our naturally solitary condition - it requires common action and deliberation (i.e. setting up a police force, establishing forms of civility). Community, therefore, has shallow roots for classical liberals; it has little to do with significant forms of identity, of kinship, or of a shared history, culture or tradition. It only exists for a single pragmatic purpose: to secure the peace.

Furthermore, whatever virtue exists derives from this aim of maintaining the peace. So virtue too has shallow roots in the classical liberal world view:

Peace is a good, to repeat, because it is the necessary condition of all private pursuits of happiness; and peace is a common good, even requiring common deliberation and common action, because it cannot be made secure in the absence of various forms of civility and self-mastery. Here is the origin of the liberal virtues. (p.35)

Which leads on to this:

And then, where peace is secure because rights are respected and habits of moderation observed, human beings are liberated to engage in their various private pursuits of happiness, privately defined.

Or not. What if humans really are social creatures, who live well in relationship to each other, and who therefore must be concerned with the forms and quality of public life, rather than a purely private existence? What if our personal identity is derived from communal forms of existence rather than a solitary life? What if we express ourselves as men and women within social institutions rather than in isolation? What if we recognise communal traditions as significant goods in themselves which we naturally wish to commit ourselves to?

Finally, look at how reductive the classical liberal view is:

The liberal view of the political community implies a radical diminution of the dignity of political life: liberalism has turned "the political order into an administrative agency" that seeks to provide a plentiful and secure world ... As Walzer says, in the liberal welfare state, "the policeman and the welfare administrator will be the only public persons" ...

In part this situation obtains because the very questions of politics have been greatly transformed: we quarrel endlessly about how to provide, efficiently and justly, the instruments that are necessary ... for every private pursuit of happiness ...

Thus, the manifestly instrumental questions of economic policy now dominate our political life: politics today is concerned primarily with the largely technical problem of how to ensure prosperity ... Indeed it is possible that liberalism implicitly favours commercial ways of life, and associated conceptions of the good, over other private ways of life, as well as over public life.

... politics is best understood as an arena in which individuals, or groups of individuals, pursue their (primarily economic) interests: liberal politics is interest-group politics.

So it is perhaps not surprising that we have turned many of these questions over to bureaucrats and experts, for these technical and instrumental problems are just the sort of necessary burdens that a free human being will ... leave to his public "servants". (pp.35-37)

What are we left with under the terms of classical liberalism? The bias is toward a pursuit of economic self-interest, with public life being left mostly to technocrats and economic administrators. This is the realm of the "free human being" as conceived by classical liberals.

Would we really be surprised if classical liberalism were to hollow out human culture rather than deliver individual freedom?


  1. Kautz's clinical language does little to disguise his fear and perhaps loathing of liberty in individuals or groups united in their "passion". His mistrust of others who may not suffer managerialism so easily is also evident.

    Kautz seems to see only a static solution to these problems. Reason in this overarching sense cannot be maintained indefinitely, nor can passion. They are synergistic and complementary.

  2. Leadpb, excellent comment. You put it well when you write of Kautz's fear,

    "of liberty in individuals or groups united in their 'passion'".

    Kautz does not trust a situation of true freedom in which a community may organise itself to uphold important goods, both individual and communal.

    Why not? The reason given by classical liberals is that this freedom will unleash a natural condition of war of all against all (i.e. civil war).

    I suspect the real reason is that the classical liberals fear the very opposite: that such a free community will prove too often to be successful.

    What the classical liberals want is the repression of this "freedom in community" model - the natural and deeper model of freedom - in favour of a model based on the freedom of a self-interested, self-defining, individual actor.

    Why were the classical liberals successful historically in pushing their theory?

    Perhaps they garnered support from the newer, rising social classes of the time. Their theory would have seemed suitable for breaking apart existing forms of society and their theory fitted to some degree the early stages of commerce (individual profit seeking).

    Or perhaps it came to be thought reasonable to limit men to privately defined goods when the intellectual class lost its belief in external goods which can be known to human reason.

    If there are no such goods, or if they cannot be known, then the classical liberal idea that any assertion of communal goods is a mere ploy in which one group seeks to impose its partisan advantage over everyone else makes theoretical sense.

    However, it is a strikingly anti-civilisational view to take. How can you hope to hold a civilisation in place if you aren't able to confidently assert the existence of real goods in society?

    And if you hold to a theory which must inevitably run down a civilisation, then how can you possibly hope to maintain the conditions for human freedom?

  3. Thank you, Mark. I think a key aspect here is what mechanisms classical liberalism proposes to develop and enact, via reasoning, that will result in the society they believe to be ideal. These would be a consequence of the principal theory and are of equal concern.

    Unfortunately, the only way to achieve the idealized liberal state is by a largely unaccountable bureaucratic agency such as the EU. At some point "democracy" becomes obsolete as natural political organizations of men are marginalized or extirpated.

    What better way for an elite corps to secure control than to inculcate in the people a belief that societal atomization (individual interests) is the best course, and that collective private interests are inherently evil?

    Re: civilization, someone writes recently "When was the last time you heard any politician even say the word?"

  4. Why not? The reason given by classical liberals is that this freedom will unleash a natural condition of war of all against all (i.e. civil war).

    Hasn't it done so before?

    I suspect the real reason is that the classical liberals fear the very opposite: that such a free community will prove too often to be successful.

    What prevents such "successful" communities warring that makes this the "very opposite"?