Sometime last month I found myself drawn again into a conversation (conflict?) with the “radical centrists” Adam and Sitch. Most of the exchange was civil, but towards the end my interlocutors on the radical center continuously accused me of being “evasive” and hiding what I really believed as a right-winger.
The accusation was hard to process. At first it seems that I might not have answered some particular question. But after spending more time than I should have replying to queries from this community, I think the misunderstanding is more fundamental. The issue seems less a missing piece of information and more a difficulty grasping the core criticism of liberalism itself.
The centrists seem to understand that the right-wing’s criticism of liberalism is at once radical and at the same time closer to what the original 18th-century liberals believed than what modern liberals think today. Still, our explanations usually aren’t palatable to this audience. The criticisms are too verbose and this isn’t an audience with much patience for reading deeply. For the most part, the fans of Adam and Sitch are interested in ideas but only ideas that might be written on the back of a stamp, easily digestible within the limit of 280 characters.
Is this such an unreasonable request? For most sophisticated and nuanced ideas, the requirement that things be simple is unreasonable. But the request to simplify things is nevertheless an interesting intellectual exercise. After all, if you can’t boil your ideas to the absolute bare-bones minimum, do you really understand them?
Being succinct has always been a challenge for me. But anger seems to bring it out. Frustrated after a long exchange with an obtuse centrist poster, I found myself writing out the general form of right-wing critique in a grug-brained mockery.
1. Liberalism good when work.
2. Liberalism only work in moral society.
3. Society degrades morals means liberalism no work.
4. Liberalism no work is worse than non liberal government that works.
5. Very sad.
Despite the fact that this was simplistic to the purpose of parody, I was somewhat pleased that it hit all the main points. I was even more pleased as this explanation did a few rounds on centrist Twitter with many of Adam and Sitch fans replying with follow-up questions and criticism. Maybe I was actually getting something across?
Of course there was more to the case against liberalism than the initial grug-brained bullet points. Of course many of the follow-up questions were tugging on threads that were hard to answer in brief digestible responses. But could the general case against liberalism be put in a slightly more fleshed out form while still being short enough to be comprehensible to the typical centrist?
Maybe impossible, but in the spirit of an interesting intellectual exercise, I will try nonetheless in this post.
The Right-Wing Critique of Liberalism in Nutshell
The failure mode for liberalism, for all human political systems, can be expressed in one word: chaos. Chaos is nothing mystical (although it does have a delicious religious analogy). It is just the Hobbesian Bellum omnium contra omnes. Simply put, humans love power above almost everything else. As a default behavior, people attempt to grab power whenever possible which leads inevitably to the worst of all possible outcomes, a “war of all against all” and a complete disintegration of civilized order. To guard against this disaster, human governments are formed and sustained.
The role of all government is to monopolize the use of absolute power. This monopoly of hard power, called “sovereignty”, remains a constant element of government. Although governments can rule lightly with little unnecessary interference in the lives of subjects, behind the scenes its sovereignty is always absolute. In the event that its monopoly on absolute power is genuinely lost, a government will crumble and chaos will take hold. This is the natural cycle of all human societies.
Within this framework of understanding authority, we may call “liberalism” (ordered liberty) a method of limited power-sharing designed to not disrupt the ordered sovereignty of a state. Most of the times this liberal power-sharing comes in the form of minor political privileges (speech, association, redress of grievances). Other times this concept extends to selecting certain political representatives (sometimes called “Democracy”). Either way, these arrangements create a type miniature sovereignty, where subjects (dubbed “citizens”) secure a small amount of authority within a set of crucial and well-defined boundaries.
Although it might seem surprising to modern people, most ancient thinkers regarded these types of power-sharing arrangements (liberalism) with a large degree of skepticism. The problem is not hard to see. Once subjects obtain limited power, what is to stop them from reaching for absolute power? How and why will they execute restraint? Is this all supposed to work on the honor system? Once we tell every man that he is a king, what is to stop three of four of those men from fomenting an actual war for the throne itself? Hand out power willy-nilly and soon you just end up back where we started, in chaos, in the war of all against all.
However in the 18th century, following a thousand years of Christianity and a history of loose sovereignty across the European continent, a set of Northern European protestants made the ancient problem of power-sharing work relatively well. The results would have impressed Pericles himself. Not only were they able to secure general guarantees to political speech, assembly, and property (typically only reserved for aristocratic classes), they also were able to enforce the equality of law to an extent hitherto thought impossible. Even some limited forms of democracy (once thought disastrous) proved successful in North America and England.
This is “liberalism” as we know it today. It is our default assumption of how politics operates. However, there is nothing that should be default about it. Historically it has only been with us for the briefest amount of time. It doesn’t work in many (most?) non-western countries beyond the immediate influence of Western world order. And its own values seem to be fading, even in its historic homelands of Europe and North America. Perhaps the centrists reading this cannot even see the problems staring the Western liberal order in the face? If so they will probably be a minority in the very near-future.
But before we get to why liberalism failed, maybe we should ask why it ever worked to begin with? Why, for a time, did the relatively wide distribution of power in the Western world create an autonomous society of independent families and industrious individuals working towards a common good, and not a pandemonium of power hungry pretenders and vicious feuds between rival families and rival religions? Why did the 19th and 20th centuries seem to prove ancient political wisdom wrong?
Returning to the original enlightenment authors, we can find a consistent answer. Liberalism works properly only under certain conditions. These conditions include two pillars, the first being a common understanding of “the good”, the second being the existence of a religious population who desire to keep faith with liberalism’s moral requirements.
The basis of liberalism is the promise of rights and the rule of law over power. But what ultimately guarantees this? Behind every right there is an implied responsibility. Behind every responsibility there an implied obligation whose final enforcement is essentially moral. Similarly, when we examine law’s ability to constrain power, it rests ultimately on a conviction that there is some authority higher than the earthly sovereign himself, a moral system that needs to be obeyed above and beyond what the strong might demand.
Here is where the right-wing part ways with “liberal” centrists. We take the ideas of the early enlightenment philosophers seriously. Liberalism comes with moral requirements. And given the developments of the last 60 years (leaving aside what we have seen in the last 6), it’s hard to really make the case that modern Americans are the moral paragons imagined by people like John Locke and John Adams.
Nevertheless, any right-winger pointing this reality out can expect to meet a type of bemused dismissal from the centrist crowd. To the modern moderate there is nothing that can shake their conviction in a universal, indestructible, and ever-expanding liberal Democratic order. Are there strong liberal arguments against the classical understanding of power and government? Not from what I have heard. But there are a bunch of rhetorical tactics and cliches typically trotted out to dismiss our concerns.
One common rhetorical tact is to simply confuse a criticism about liberalism’s sustainability with criticism about liberalism’s desirability. This is a common tactic in political debates which I first encountered arguing over “just-war-theory” with pacifists. The tactical mistake is clever but only persists in a complete misunderstanding of the position in question. Just as pacifists are incorrect to assume their opponents are “Pro-War” in principle, almost none of liberalism’s modern critics are “anti-liberty” in principle. Most of the times, it’s quite the opposite. Still, express concerns that society’s declining morals will impact ordered liberty, and the centrists will read it as a call to establish tyranny.
Another, more understandable response to the right-wing critique is to push on the definition of liberalism’s so-called “requirements”. Does liberalism really require a moral and religious people unified with a common understanding of “the good”? Of course many centrists concede that society does need some vague sense of moral unity. But the precondition for a “moral and religious people” is harder for the centrist crowd to swallow. What does it even mean to be “moral”? Could the morality be defined arbitrarily (e.g. belief in a flying spaghetti monster)? Could it be defined recursively (e.g. belief in liberalism itself)? After all, everyone has some kind of morality, and since everyone is moral by their own standards this condition would amount to no condition at all.
This is a nice trick because the misunderstanding obscures the very problem modern right-wingers are trying to elucidate. If all people are defined as “moral” by definition, the first requirement of minimal ideological unity is easy to achieve. Just make sure that there are no strong beliefs that people might fight over, guard against intolerant ideologies, and then ipso-facto you have transformed a society of bored individualist narcissists into the perfect seedbed for ordered liberty!
This argument follows a certain logic, but it’s the exact opposite of what is manifest political reality in the early 21st century.
As it turns out a society of indolent individualist narcissists is no more “moral” than a ball thrown straight up is “at rest” at the apex of its flight. What we have achieved is the exact opposite of the conditions described by Locke and Adams. We have created a civilization stable in the moment, but poised to fall rapidly into chaos, disorder, and tyranny. You would think people might have learned something like this in the last 5 years? Apparently not.
That being said, I should not ignore the fundamental implicit question contained here. If, to sustain liberalism, certain moral systems are indeed required, what are the actual requirements? How could we distinguish a proper moral system from an improper one? What are the minimal requirements? And why are these requirements logically necessary to produce ordered liberty?
This is a good general question usually lost in the weeds for thinkers who are already in possession of a particular moral system. But for those very curious centrists out there, maybe I can try my hand at putting forward the broad requirements necessary for any moral system to support liberty, self-governance, or “liberalism”.
Requirements for a Moral System to Support Ordered Liberty
The moral system has to be a proper human religion (or symbiotic with an existing human religion)
An acceptable moral system must be religious or coexist in tandem with a strong religion. Humans are religious creatures. They will have religious faith. They will have a way of finding meaning, and this system of meaning will be their strongest conviction. No rhetorical tool will shatter religious belief and no principle of rationality will overcome it. There cannot be any reasonable conversation concerning the primacy of the religious mode in the human imagination. As such, any moral system not religious itself will be, by definition, weaker than the religious system that rules its society. Therefore if said moral system proposes a principle necessary for liberty that violates the greater religious morality that principle will be (predictably) discarded.
While I understand that this is the last thing that secular liberals want to hear, it is, at this stage, painfully obvious. This is the fatal flaw of secularism, ironic as it is. By trying to remove messy questions of morality and meaning from the political sphere, the secularists created an irrational political cult which is now in the process of dismantling the very concept of free inquiry they were trying to protect in the first place.
Really there was no other way this could have gone. Man will be governed by faith. Those who love liberty must simply work to ensure that it is a good faith. You don’t have to like this constraint on human political organization and thought, but woe to the leader who doesn’t respect its existence.
The religion has to support collective human thriving (no death cults)
Alright, so now that we know that we are talking about religion (or something close to a religion) we might ask: are all human religions equally conductive to liberty, order, and human thriving? The answer is an obvious “No”. Religions do frequently harm their practitioners and bring forward societal ruin. And these corrupted creeds need to be excluded from consideration if we want to create and sustain order.
Good religions should not be death cults. No encouraging mass suicide, no large-scale child sacrifice, no society-destroying behaviors promoted in the name of faith. A good religion cannot cause the death of its host society and this includes (of course!) encouraging little or no human procreation. Just as a perpetually sub-replacement population is dying in slow motion, an antinatalist religion is just a death cult with more steps involved.
Does this requirement need further explanation? Just as one can’t get paid if they are dead, no society can sustain ordered liberty if it doesn’t sustain itself. Pretty basic.
The morality must prioritize dignity over power (no power cults)
Another failure mode of religion, less commonly discussed, is an overt obsession with political power, the corrupt state where the faith becomes the pretense to empower of some in-group (priesthood) and dis-empower some out-group (untouchables). While devolving into a cult of power is less deadly than devolving into a cult of death, power cults usually lead to societal ruination if un-repaired for long enough. Moreover, cults of power are absolutely deadly for the prospect of establishing ordered liberty.
Liberalism is based on restraint, specifically restraint of the human desire for absolute power. This restraint must rest ultimately on a religious conviction, but what if said religious system is more concerned with empowering its favored in-group than in restraining their capricious natures? How would liberalism even function? Property and rights only for the priest caste? That just sounds like plain-old aristocracy.
Any religion conducive to liberty must focus on personal dignity, a minimum set of moral standards required for members to be considered of equivalent moral worth (publicly). A lot more has been written on the subject of “dignity culture” and it’s role as a necessary substrate for Western-style government is not unexplored. But we need to remind ourselves again of its fundamentalreligious foundation. Things don’t necessarily work this way in other societies.
For Westerners in the 20th century “dignity culture” felt like the default mode of being. But perhaps it does less so now that our society has been moving away from this perspective? Without a concept of dignity you will not be able to regained a concept of equality under the law or even a concept of basic reciprocity.
The morality has to foster autonomy (moral ownership)
Probably too little has been recently written about the essential relationship between “ownership” and “liberty”. Again this might surprise many moderns, but in the original concept of liberalism “property” was a central right only later replaced by “pursuit of happiness” because it sounded more poetic. Really the fundamental relationship is not hard to see. If liberalism, liberty, and democracy are modes of limited power-sharing then responsibility for the use of that power must be a central moral concept that pervades society. Hence, the concept of moral ownership.
Of course we are tempted to view the concept of ownership crudely, as the legal right to dispose of objects in our possession, but here we must view the concept broadly as a type of autonomous responsibility. We want to “own” our lives in the same sense that we “own” our mistakes and problems. More than just having ownership over things, we want to be able to say “I am responsible for the well being of myself and those around me,” and “I am the ultimate author of my actions, right or wrong, good or bad.” Again this is moral ownership and its foundation must be religious.
Any religion that encourages citizens to view themselves as victims, passive receivers of privilege, and dependents of state beneficence will not long maintain liberty. Dependent citizenry cannot reliably hold liberty because they cannot reliably hold power. Just as there cannot be power without responsibility, there cannot be liberty without the ownership over the consequences of choice. Those unsuited to own consequences will therefore exchange their freedom for some additional comfort or simply forfeit it outright to avoid the moral responsibility for their own state in life. Are we really surprised that young people raised as perennial victims are now eager to give up their autonomy and freedom?
The morality must prioritize universal truth and promise-keeping
What is a human right? What is rule of law? What is government accountability? In the end all of these elements of liberalism are just promises, promises written in human language. Any religious system that de-values the meaning of promises or equivocates over the importance of linguistic truth will never be able to sustain any concept of liberty because no citizen will be able to trust the written guarantees that it makes.
In a sense this is where the classic Abrahamic religions utility to liberalism really comes into focus. Early law and legal ruling once carried with it a quasi-religious significance. These were promises sworn to a very living God. Oaths of office and witness testimony was sworn with one hand on the bible, “the truth, so help me God!”. Can liberalism itself survive without the belief in some such God?
But what about religious worldviews where words don’t really mean anything? What if a promise spoken one day can mean something different the next? What if common terms can be equivocated and redefined by power such that the laws don’t mean the things which were clearly written and do say things which never were recorded? What if the promises we built our society on could “live” and change their meaning in directions desired by the powerful? If these changes did come to pass, liberalism itself would not be long on the scene. Promises can be bent in deceptive ways for a little while, but the pretense doesn’t last and people eventually stop believing that any of these “sacred” liberal concepts hold water.
I suppose this brings me to the end of the requirements for a guiding morality. At once might it be obvious to a centrist reader why each of these components are essential for a properly liberal society. Is it apparent that they are declining in our own society? Either way, this is as succinct as I can make the case.
However, for those readers interested in preserving liberty, either now or in the future, I would encourage you to start here. Start with fostering the necessary moral basis. Any people who devoutly follow a morality such the one listed about will have no problem exercising ordered liberty and self-government. Of course a people in possession of such a morality probably will do pretty well for themselves in the absence of liberty and self-government also.
Makes you think we might be asking the wrong questions.