A number of conservative thinkers are coming to the conclusion that liberalism, in the classical sense (the way it will be used hereafter), ought to be jettisoned. Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen published Why Liberalism Failed in 2018 where he argued that liberalism is an ideology in the same sense that fascism or communism are. It is not the natural order of things of which human history has been blundering about for millennia in its quest to achieve. What is happening in the world today is not in spite of liberalism, but a result of it.
Classical liberalism holds personal freedom as its highest value. The sorts of restrictions put on the state by the U.S. Constitution, for instance, is in order to protect the personal freedom of the citizens. People can choose their own religion. People are free to speak their mind without fear of government reprisal. People have a right to privacy, with the government needing to show probable cause for invading that privacy. Every person is to be considered equal in the eyes of the law, neither receiving undue deference nor severity for breaking the law. Democracy, considered the political partner to liberalism (indeed, some people even say liberal democracy to stress that democracy is a package deal with liberalism), tells us that every person, whether a billionaire or a street urchin, a movie star or a hermit, is worth one vote.
Capitalism is the economic theory that often complements liberalism. The idea, in principle if not always in practice, is that an individual ought to be able to spend their own money. A person is free to use their money as they see fit. If everyone decides to spend their money at Amazon, so be it; if people decide they don’t like what Amazon is doing, they can take their money elsewhere. Nobody, least of all the government, ought to be allowed to tell an individual how they can spend their money.
These things – civil liberties and economic freedom – have a lot of wiggle room within liberalism. Libertarianism takes these ideas to the extreme, but some countries considered liberal would have many more restrictions on one or the other. The idea, though, is that the individual determines morality, not the state or the clergy.
People like Deneen believe that liberalism is a victim of its own success. Without something like the church (and for Deneen, it is specifically the Catholic church) to direct us to the highest Good, it was inevitable that society would descend into decadence and strife. A phenomenon like cancel culture is simply liberalism in action. It is mostly not being enforced by the state, but by free actors practicing their freedom in the form of Twitter mobs, campus protests, and media think pieces.
Deneen, along with Sohrab Ahmari and others think we ought to give up on liberalism, replacing our liberal government with a Catholic one (this is known as Integralism – integrating Catholic doctrine, or even the Church, with the state). Sohrab Ahmari was asked by another conservative, David French (who is a classical liberal) how he would get rid of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) from libraries. Under our liberal system, DQSH is perfectly allowed; Ahmari did not have a satisfactory answer to the question. Ahmari and Deneen would like to live in a political system where such a thing is not allowed.
I am against Catholic Integralism. It is lucky for me, then, that it is extremely unlikely ever to be a real threat. What it has me thinking about, though, is what the benefits and detriments of liberalism are, and whether there is some other illiberal (or, perhaps, non-liberal) system that would be better. I am of a mind that liberalism is the least bad among all our choices. I recognize, however, that this is likely because of when and where I grew up – in 1990’s working-class United States.
The exercise, then, is to try thinking about liberalism objectively and evaluate its merits from “outside” the system. Let’s think about some of the basic assumptions made by liberalism and determine whether they correspond to reality.
The highest two mutually complementary assumptions made by classical liberalism are 1) that every person has intrinsic moral value and dignity and 2) that the intrinsic moral value and dignity of any one individual is exactly equal to that of any other individual. This is a deontological principle, since it does not take any other contingent facts about a person into consideration. This principle is imperfectly applied, to say the least, but it is at least a (rhetorically) highest ideal. If a billionaire murders a drunk homeless person, the billionaire has equal moral culpability to any homeless person who might murder another homeless person, or a homeless person who murders a billionaire. Even criminals still have human rights; this is enshrined, for instance, in the U.S. constitution by the eighth amendment. The United Nations also (impotently and inconsistently) decries human rights abuses.
As I said, these principles are imperfectly employed. This stems, I think, from the fact that people know it is not one hundred percent true. Some individuals are more valuable in a utilitarian sense. Some people’s deaths are mere numbers while others are national tragedies. Still others are deemed well-deserved. As much as people like to pay lip service to the idea of equality, the fact of the matter is that there are some individuals who bring objectively more happiness or utility to more people.
The question though is whether the law should reflect this fact. Would it be better for society if people gained more legal favor based on their societal value? One argument for this would be that it would incentivize people to be more valuable to society, not just themselves. In a liberal society, where the individual is the focus, we are concerned with self-improvement and self-help. We want to increase our value to ourselves. But it could perhaps be better for everyone if people were incentivized to be more valuable to others instead.
Free market theory attempts, or at least claims to attempt, to do this through a sort of Judo, where individual greed is redirected into social good: a person comes up with some idea (innovation) and then sells it to the public for money, thereby benefiting the public. One could argue about whether this works in practice or whether it is desirable in principle, but there is at least an argument to be made that this is an attempt at making people work towards being socially valuable rather than just personally valuable.
Another way that has been explored in both entertainment (e.g. Community, Black Mirror) and now is being experimented with in China, is the idea of a social credit system. If people are rewarded for pro-social behavior, whether simply with “points” or with certain real-world privileges, this would certainly incentivize people toward those behaviors that make them valuable to society instead of just themselves. How this would actually turn out in practice depends on both implementation and to which behaviors the rewards would be awarded. My own liberal sensibilities shudders at the idea of such a draconian social engineering project, but I’m trying to be objective in this.
If we are to be fair to liberalism, however, it did allow for a person’s value to be judged by the content of their character, not who they were born to. Prior to liberalism, a structured hierarchy, where upward mobilization was nearly impossible (even relative to today), was the order of the day. It didn’t matter how incompetent or cruel a person was, if they were born to the right family, they were automatically considered better.
This brings us to the next underlying assumption of liberalism: meritocracy. In the eyes of the law all people are equal, but when it comes to success and achievement (i.e. a person’s utility for others), a person is as good as what they have done and what they are capable (and willing) of doing. This is the idea that comes with equality of opportunity as its guiding principle. A position in society (i.e. in a business or a government bureaucracy) opens up and several people apply. Which one should get the job? Meritocracy says the person who is most qualified, because this is a predictor of how competent the applicant will be. This, in theory, makes both business and government run at peak efficiency when the people filling positions are the most qualified, competent individuals available. It also incentivizes people to reach their full potential in their effort to become as qualified and competent as possible.
This ethos of reaching a person’s highest potential is likely the cause of the self-improvement and hustle culture phenomena. It’s human nature to evaluate our achievements and value in relative rather than absolute terms. We see other people becoming more successful than ourselves and this causes either distress (which then prompts people to seek self-improvement) or ambition (which results in hustle culture) or some combination of the two.
Is there a better alternative to meritocracy? As I mentioned above, in pre-enlightenment times, prior to meritocracy, there was strict hierarchy. And it wasn’t just a hierarchy of nobility, merchants, and peasants, but also of men and women. People were slotted into positions in society due to what we in liberal society consider accidental traits – sex, race, parentage, and so on.
This sort of thinking is making a comeback in leftist circles. The intersectionality ideology, along with what Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning call victimhood culture, makes certain of these accidental traits confer differential moral value on a person. This is similar to the pre-enlightenment way of thinking in how it makes traits that a person has no control over matter, but different in that it makes (perceived) weakness into a strength. Rather than cultivating a reputation of strength (as in honor culture) or of civility and reasonableness (dignity culture), a person must nurture a reputation for being oppressed and helpless.
Thus, a person with three intersecting claims to victimhood (say, a black lesbian female) is higher up the hierarchy than a person with two intersecting claims to victimhood (a black heterosexual female) who is higher up than a person with only one (a white heterosexual female) who is higher up than a person with none (a white heterosexual male). The logic (if we are to call it that) is to lift up those who begin lower down in order to reach “equity” where everyone has equality of outcome. How it works in practice, as was the case in communism, is that it tends to tear down rather than build up. Fostering one’s position as oppressed is incentivized, whereas trying to improve one’s station is disincentivized. Thus, in order to equalize outcomes, those perceived as less oppressed, and especially those perceived as the oppressors, have to be torn down.
But let’s get back to evaluating the assumptions of liberalism as objectively as possible. Should meritocracy be jettisoned? And if so, is there a better way to organize society than through this sort of grievance-based feudalism? Once again, the social credit system comes to mind. The social credit system is a sort of meritocracy, where instead of competence being determined by some metric (whether the metric is optimal or not), we have social value as determined by aligning one’s behavior to a certain standard of conduct. This already happens to some extent: people lose some freedoms after committing crimes (e.g. losing a driver’s license after too many infractions, or having to disclose a person’s status as a felon on a job application); we have social media followers, likes (and dislikes), star ratings on Uber drivers, Yelp reviews, Rate My Professor, and so on. But would a nationwide social credit system A) achieve the stated goals (whatever those may be) and B) improve upon the sort of qualifications-based meritocracy implicit in liberalism?
I think that a social credit system would likely not achieve its intended goals, or else that it would achieve them but discover that they were not goals worth pursuing. The social credit system idea runs into the same problem that centrally controlled economies did: we don’t have enough information to know what the outcome will actually be. We could come up with some ethical ideal that most people agree is worth pursuing, and then come up with some theory about how to achieve that ideal using a social credit system, but unintended consequences would be a near inevitability. No individual or committee is intelligent enough to foresee all the ways that human nature would complicate things or how an ever-shifting technological and cultural milieu would thwart any one-size-fits-all solution.
A social credit system would also be unlikely to improve on the qualifications-based meritocracy of liberalism. This latter method is imperfect and often poorly implemented to be sure, but why then would we have any confidence that the social credit system would not also be so? It would be meritocracy but using a different metric. And a metric much more subjective and much more limiting to possible human flourishing. Furthermore, it would be much riper for abuse and misuse by those who want to control people’s behavior.
This brings us to another assumption brought by liberalism: that a person ought to be in control over their own behavior as they see fit. This assumption could be thought of as the principle of self-ownership and is what gives us the idea of civil liberties. I ought to be able to say what I like, associate with who I like, worship how I like, and do what I want with my own body and my own possessions, all without fear of government reprisal. There is obviously a lot of wiggle room here. At the extreme libertarian end would be the dictum that a person can do whatever they want, as long as it does not infringe of the rights of others (i.e. there are no such thing as victimless crimes; causing harm to myself is my own choice). No place currently on earth abides by this extreme. In most places drugs are illegal; in many places prostitution is illegal; and in even others homosexuality and/or transsexualism are outlawed.
The critics of liberalism would likely argue that untrammeled civil liberties end up making things worse for more people than it makes things better. This is of course subjective. The conservative Christian will say that allowing people to engage in homosexual acts, or to undergo sex reassignment, is bad for those people’s souls. Proponents of drug prohibition will say that legalizing all drugs will lead to skyrocketing rates of addiction. Opponents to sex work will say that legalizing prostitution will lead to moral decay and increase sex trafficking. I would tend to disagree with these things (or at least argue that there is much more nuance), but that’s not necessarily the point.
The point is to try to look at these things objectively and wonder whether our post-liberal order should allow for such freedoms, or if it should revoke others. For instance, if the right to privacy was revoked, certainly many more criminals could be caught, thereby reducing crime rates. Of course, it would also foster an atmosphere of fear, where people can never be sure if they’re being surveilled. But, of course, if we’re talking about getting rid of civil liberties, the sorts of things we might do that would lead us to desire privacy may be illegal, and therefore the state would want to catch such perpetrators. For instance, is the social conservatives get their way and pornography becomes illegal, the state would have an interest in arresting anyone involved in producing or consuming pornographic content.
Once again my own biases come into play. Civil liberties are very important to me. It is definitely the one place where my libertarianism has not waned nearly as much as it has on other issues, such as economics. Although I can understand the reasoning behind wanting to outlaw a bunch of things and then to enforce those new bands by revoking people’s right to privacy, the very idea of doing this makes me sick. I am, for instance, a huge proponent of people wearing masks and getting the COVID vaccine, but I am against the government mandating these things (though, true to my civil libertarianism, I think private business ought to be allowed to mandate these things to both employees and customers). Thus, it is difficult for me to think objectively on civil liberties issues.
There are other important assumptions on which liberalism is based. I’ve talked here about what I will call the principle of legal equality, the principle of meritocracy, and the principle of self-ownership. There are also, I’m sure, plenty of other alternatives on offer that I have neglected to consider. This post, however, is already getting quite long. My hope here is to get people thinking about liberalism more objectively. It is not perfect (although perfect is almost certain unachievable). Many of the criticisms offered by both the left and the right have some validity. Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize and reckon with these imperfections because liberalism is what many of us have been raised to believe is both good and natural. It is, however, an ideology. And like all human ideologies, it is almost certainly not eternal. This means we have to consider what will take the place of liberalism, or what liberalism ought to evolve into, once a critical mass of people have concluded that liberalism as it exists now is no longer tenable.