Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Unsustainable Liberalism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Unsustainable Liberalism

Article excerpt

For most people of the West, the idea of a time and way of life after liberalism is as plausible as the idea of living on Mars. Yet liberalism is a bold political and social experiment that is far from certain to succeed. Its very apparent strengths rest upon a large number of pré-, non-, and even antiliberal institutions and resources that it has not replenished, and in recent years has actively sought to undermine. This "drawing down" on its preliberai inheritance is not contingent or accidental but in fact an inherent feature of liberalism.

Thus the liberal experiment contradicts itself, and a liberal society will inevitably become "postliberal." The postliberal condition can retain many aspects that are regarded as liberalism's triumphs - equal dignity of persons, in particular - while envisioning an alternative understanding of the human person, human community, politics, and the relationship of the cities of Man to the city of God. Envisioning a condition after liberalism calls us not to restore something that once was but to consider something that might yet be; it is a project not of nostalgia but of vision, imagination, and construction.

Many of what are considered liberalism's signal features - particularly political arrangements such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism - are to be found in medieval thought. Inviolable human dignity, constitutional limits upon central power, and equality under law are part of a preliberai legacy.

The strictly political arrangements of modern constitutionalism do not per se constitute a liberal regime. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. These two revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society constitute "liberalism" inasmuch as they introduce a radically new definition of "liberty."

Liberalism introduces a particular cast to its preliberai inheritance mainly by ceasing to account for the implications of choices made by individuals upon community, society, and future generations. Liberalism did not introduce the idea of choice. It dismissed the idea that there are wrong or bad choices, and thereby rejected the accompanying social structures and institutions that were ordered to restrain the temptation toward self-centered calculation.

The first revolution, and the most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism, is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism - the free, unfettered, and autonomous choice of individuals. This argument was first articulated in the proto-liberal defense of monarchy by Thomas Hobbes. According to Hobbes, human beings exist by nature in a state of radical independence and autonomy. Recognizing the fragility of a condition in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short," they employ their rational self-interest to sacrifice most of their natural rights in order to secure the protection and security of a sovereign. Legitimacy is conferred by consent.

The state is created to restrain the external actions of individuals and legally restricts the potentially destructive activity of radically separate human beings. Law is a set of practical restraints upon self-interested individuals; there is no assumption of the existence of self-restraint born of mutual concern. As Hobbes writes in Leviathan, law is comparable to hedges that are set "not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way"; that is, law restrains people's natural tendency to act on "impetuous desires, rashness or indiscretion," and so are always "rules authorized" as external constraints upon what is otherwise our natural liberty. "Where the law is silent," people are free, obligated only insofar as the "authorized" rules of the state are explicit. …

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