Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tim Farron: the cure for liberal tyranny is liberalism?

Tim Farron was, until recently, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats. He is a serious Christian as well as a serious liberal. But he is starting to think that things are going wrong. Seriously wrong.

He gave a speech last month in which he acknowledged that liberalism has become an orthodoxy:
Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the right wing press are in truth liberals.

Despite my best efforts, the Liberal Democrats have not won. But irrespective of my efforts, Liberalism has.

The problem for Tim Farron is that the dominance of liberalism has led it to impose itself on society to the point that it is becoming difficult to be a serious Christian:
My observation is that for many years now our culture has considered that the absence of faith is the neutral position, and that the holding of a religious faith is eccentric. In other words, an absence of faith is the standard assumption around which we build our social structures, and if you have a faith we will consider you to be eccentric in the whacky and harmless sense… so we will tolerate you, as long as you remain on the edges.

What appears now to be happening is that while the absence of faith is still thought to be the neutral position, holding a faith is only considered to be tolerably eccentric if it is merely cultural. But if your faith actually affects your world view in any way that puts it at odds with the mainstream, then your faith is considered to be malign and intolerable.

Tim Farron believes that modern liberalism is becoming a "respectable tyranny" and that,
my hypothesis today is that in this country and across the world, Liberalism will eat itself. Is eating itself. May already have eaten itself.

He notes too that liberal secularism leads to a narrow concept of human life, that it "reduces everyone down to either consumer or regulatory units...We’ve been atomised."

What is his solution? He argues that liberals should go back in time, to the liberalism of J.S. Mill, in which there would be a pluralistic society in which different world views would be tolerated. He also argues that Christianity in particular should be tolerated as liberalism rests on certain philosophical beliefs drawn from Christianity (i.e. that liberalism puts itself at risk if it discards Christianity).

I don't think he grasps the problem adequately in making these arguments. There is a logic to the core beliefs of liberalism which sets it at odds with Christianity.

The liberal starting point sounds OK for establishing pluralism. One of the core liberal beliefs, after all, is that individuals should be free to pursue their own goods as long as in doing so there is no interference with the right of others to do the same.

But to make this work it helps if liberals look on their preferences as being subjective or private. That way their preferences don't infringe on the validity of what others might choose. Let's say, for instance, that I choose as a man to marry a woman. If I am a liberal, it would be awkward if I asserted that this represents an objective good, i.e. a preference that is rightly ordered. If I were to do so it would suggest that marrying someone of the same sex is not a valid choice. I would be invalidating someone else's preferences and identity, a violation that would draw down on me the liberal moral reproach that I was being "bigoted" or "intolerant" or "prejudiced".

Similarly, it suits a liberal culture if there is thought to be nothing in the nature of reality itself to limit what I might choose to do or to be. That then means that these is less to limit my autonomous choice, which is a marker of human status and dignity for liberals. It is better from the liberal point of view if I am a blank slate so that I can be wholly the author of my own life. Better if there are 1000 sexes rather than just two. Better if race is just a social construct. Better if there is no natural law to constrain or to guide my moral choices.

Remember too that for liberals a progress toward a society where there is "equal freedom" to pursue our subjective goods is a matter of social justice, of equal dignity, of human flourishing, and of realising the ultimate ends of humanity. It is the source of hope, of liberation and of meaning. Many liberals will therefore think it offensive, or demoralising or deeply unjust if anyone violates liberal precepts. In particular, liberals will want to push forward with the liberal agenda, so that they can see "progress" being manifested in society. And "progress" will eventually catch up with those who are holding out.

So those initial core beliefs, which sound as if they might allow for pluralism, have an inner logic which drives toward an intolerance of whatever violates liberalism itself. The end result is that you can choose long as you choose liberalism.

And Christianity can't be made to fit easily into an acceptable liberal framework. After all, Christians do not see morality as merely a subjective preference. The Christian attitude is not that anything you choose is equally good, as long as it is not coerced. A Christian will assert instead that there is a moral order, external to the individual ("prior" to the individual) which provides the framework for our moral choices. We become free to the extent that we are not subject to moral evil.

Imagine if a Christian agreed to the liberal standard, and assented to the idea that moral choices are just subjective preferences, in which no matter what we choose we could just as morally have chosen something else. Surely that would be demoralising, in the sense that it would undermine Christianity as a serious belief about the nature of existence.

This does not mean that the only acceptable social framework for a Christian is a theocracy. Christianity existed for a long time with a distinct role allotted for church and state. But the concept of politics that would best fit with Christianity would be one in which a community recognised that men have a given biological, social and spiritual nature and that the aim is to best understand each of these and then attempt to integrate them into a way of life.

How to decide how to do this? Well, through the life of a community at different levels, including the political, over time. What would happen in practice is that a generation would inherit a particular tradition, i.e. an understanding of a way of life, and would then seek to influence it for the better, through a debate about philosophy and religion, through culture and education, through the care of parents for their children, and to some extent through reforms to governance and law.

Every community will make mistakes along the way. None will harmonise the different aspects of the nature of existence perfectly. It will always be a work in progress, with real improvement taking place over generations. The more a community gets it right, the more likely it is to establish solid foundations.

Liberalism doesn't allow the process to work well. How, for instance, can you try to encourage the better masculine qualities of men, and then integrate these into family and social life, if you start with the assumption that men are blank slates and that masculinity itself is a false and oppressive social construct? You never get out of the starting blocks, but are forced instead into low level debates about whether sex distinctions even exist and whether they should be tolerated if they do.

Tim Farron knows where things are heading. He can see that Christianity will be increasingly marginalised within liberal modernity. That it will be tolerated only if it becomes "cultural". He is wrong, though, to think that things can be put right by rewinding liberalism so that it becomes tolerant again. Liberalism will just spring back according to the logic of its first principles. If you repair it, it will set to work in a predictable way, just as it did before. It needs replacing.


  1. One of the core liberal beliefs, after all, is that individuals should be free to pursue their own goods as long as in doing so there is no interference with the right of others to do the same.

    Liberals never really examine this assumption. To a liberal it is obvious that this is a principle which will lead to universal human happiness. Liberty is a good thing because, well just because.

    Unfortunately human nature doesn't work that way. By and large people do not like freedom. It scares them. It makes them anxious. When confronted by choices they are not always confident that they have the knowledge and the wisdom to make the correct choice.

    People want to belong to a group. They want this more than anything else. It is much more important to people than liberty. Belonging to a group means learning to obey the rules. Because groups cannot function without rules. Try joining a golf club in which no two members agree on the rules. Whether the group is a family, or a church, or a local community, or a nation, there are rules.

    Liberals see rules as being at best a necessary evil but in fact people like rules. Rules make people feel secure and confident. People generally speaking want to be told how to behave. If the rules are too strict they be be unhappy, but they will be just as unhappy if the rules are too lax. And mostly people want the rules to be consistent. Everybody should obey the same rules.

    Women in particular love rules. They absolutely love them. Women cannot be happy unless there are rules. This is hardly surprising. Without rules women would not survive for 24 hours.

    Liberalism is just not compatible with the way people actually are. Liberty is a meaningless abstract principle that no-one has ever actually cared about. People want security. They want stability. They want a degree of prosperity. They want some purpose to their lives. They want to be told what the rules are and they want to be confident that the rules will be enforced fairly.

    1. Some folks, however, talk convincingly as though any suggestion of rules, order or structure is anathema to them. They speak of no limits and no boundaries on a regular basis. That stupid "Imagine" song by Lennon (a corruption of Lenin?) comes to mind. Like everyone else they are subject to and comply with rules of all kinds but mentally it must be a constant exercise for them to imagine smashing the existing order and moving humanity (not just themselves) to stratospheric levels of freedom and creativity. It is the impulse of the French Revolution gone mainstream.

      Most may want the rules but most do not want to think about the rules. Most of us would also like to believe that we have some say in the process by which we are bound by rules and by which ones, and perhaps even a say in choosing rules and their definitions. This rebellious spirit is what Christianity is up against. The only way it can be an alternative to modern secularism is to stand firm and remind the world that submission to God, to Christ, is the only realistic alternative to the perils of subjective morality.

  2. "It needs replacing."

    Liberal Totalitarianism definitely needs replacing. If we had a Theocracy I would say it needs replacing too.

    All extremes are pathological, as my mother says (quoting I think Weber). There is an Aristotlean Golden Mean which rejects any 'Heaven on Earth' understands that both liberty/liberalism and tradition/conservatism are necessary and complementary in a good, functional, just society. From a liberal perspective, recognising the value of tradition is necessary to achieve liberty. Rejecting all tradition results in totalitarian tyranny.

    1. The Aristotelian doctrine of the golden mean is much abused nowadays. The principle is that any good act or order is a mean between two vicious (evil) ones. However, once having determined what is good, there is no such thing as being too virtuous, no such thing as an "extreme" of goodness.

      To apply this to your comment, liberalism is not an "extreme" to be moderated, but a false political philosophy to be rejected. I'm not sure what you mean by theocracy, but the understanding that God is the Author of nature (and that He has revealed His will through Scripture and the traditions of the Catholic Church!) is likewise not an "extreme" to be moderated, but the truth of the matter, to which we ought to conform our lives.

  3. "Without rules women would not survive for 24 hours."

    Almost no one would survive. Few of us are a Charlton Heston character in a Hollywood movie - and even he usually died at the end. Really no one is a lone man sufficient unto himself. The Hobbesian 'State of Nature' is a thought construct of a rules-free world, where indeed all lives would be nasty brutish & short.

  4. "He is a serious Christian as well as a serious liberal."

    An impossibility! A true Christian can never be liberal. Liberalism is a secular, atheist ideology and surrogate religion which is why it becomes an orthodoxy as it gains mass conversion or acceptance. Farron is therefore a liberal and his subsequent comments confirm that. His profession of Christianity is almost certainly false and his faith very weak. Christian Europe has never been pluralistic and "tolerant".

    1. Yes, he professes Christianity, but seems to have compromised on everything, his only mistake being to do so too hesitantly. He gives precedence to Science over God on abortion and agrees that homosexual sex is not sinful. Such a person isn't Christian.

    2. understands that both liberty/liberalism and tradition/conservatism are necessary and complementary in a good, functional, just society.

      The trouble with liberalism is that there's no such thing as moderate liberalism. Liberalism just naturally becomes more and more extreme. It's baked into the cake of liberalism. The idea that a compromise is possible with liberalism is a dangerous illusion.

      Some substances are so toxic that even the tiniest amount can kill. Liberalism is like that.

  5. When you actually think about, the epic Christian theocracies throughout the middles ages were awesome in their achievements.
    Its amazing how modern western man has been so easily subverted into hating his ancestors.