Lib­er­al­ism loses its way when it loses faith in moral or­der

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - DAVID BROOKS David Brooks writes for The New York Times.

Ev­ery­body agrees so­ci­ety is in a bad way, but what ex­actly is the main cause of the bad­ness? Some peo­ple em­pha­size eco­nomic is­sues: The si­mul­ta­ne­ous con­cen­tra­tion of wealth at the top and the stag­na­tion in the mid­dle has dele­git­imized the sys­tem. Peo­ple like me em­pha­size cul­tural is­sues: If you have 60 years of rad­i­cal in­di­vid­u­al­ism and ruth­less mer­i­toc­racy, you’re go­ing to end up with a so­ci­ety that is at­om­ized, dis­trust­ful and di­vided.

But some em­pha­size the in­tel­lec­tual. The peo­ple who de­signed our lib­eral demo­cratic sys­tem made fun­da­men­tal er­rors, which are now com­ing home to roost. Notre Dame po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Pa­trick De­neen falls into this camp. His new book, “Why Lib­er­al­ism Failed,” is a chal­lenge to those of us who want to re­vive the lib­eral demo­cratic or­der. It will at­tract a cult fol­low­ing among those who are los­ing faith in the whole project.

De­neen ar­gues that lib­eral democ­racy has be­trayed its prom­ises. It was sup­posed to fos­ter equal­ity, but it has led to great in­equal­ity and a new aris­toc­racy. It was sup­posed to give av­er­age peo­ple con­trol over gov­ern­ment, but av­er­age peo­ple feel alien­ated from gov­ern­ment. It was sup­posed to fos­ter lib­erty, but it cre­ates a de­graded pop­u­lar cul­ture in which con­sumers be­come slave to their ap­petites.

Many young peo­ple feel trapped in a sys­tem they have no faith in. De­neen quotes one of his stu­dents: “Be­cause we view hu­man­ity — and thus its in­sti­tu­tions — as cor­rupt and self­ish, the only per­son we can rely upon is our self. The only way we can avoid fail­ure, be­ing let down, and ul­ti­mately suc­cumb­ing to the chaotic world around us, there­fore, is to have the means (fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity) to rely only upon our­selves.”

The prob­lem, De­neen ar­gues, started at the be­gin­ning. Greek and me­dieval philoso­phies val­ued lib­erty, but they un­der­stood that be­fore a per­son could help govern so­ci­ety, he had to be able to govern him­self. Peo­ple had to be ha­bit­u­ated in virtue by in­sti­tu­tions they didn’t choose — fam­ily, re­li­gion, com­mu­nity, so­cial norms.

But un­der the in­flu­ence of Machi­avelli and Locke, the men who founded our sys­tem made two fate­ful er­rors. First, they came to re­ject the clas­si­cal and re­li­gious idea that peo­ple are po­lit­i­cal and re­la­tional crea­tures. In­stead, they placed the au­ton­o­mous, choos­ing in­di­vid­ual at the cen­ter of their view of hu­man nature.

Fur­ther­more, they de­cided you couldn’t base a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment on some­thing as un­re­li­able as virtue. But you could base it on some­thing low and steady like self­ish­ness. You could pit in­ter­est against in­ter­est and cre­ate a sta­ble ma­chine. You didn’t have to worry about cre­at­ing no­ble cit­i­zens; you could get by with ra­tio­nally self-in­ter­ested ones.

When com­mu­nism and fas­cism failed in the 20th cen­tury, this ver­sion of lib­er­al­ism seemed tri­umphant. But it was a Pyrrhic vic­tory, De­neen ar­gues.

Lib­er­al­ism claims to be neu­tral but it’s re­ally an­ti­cul­ture. It de­taches peo­ple from nature, com­mu­nity, tra­di­tion and place. It de­taches peo­ple from time. “Grat­i­tude to the past and obli­ga­tions to the fu­ture are re­placed by a nearly univer­sal pur­suit of im­me­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion,” De­neen writes.

Once fam­ily and lo­cal com­mu­nity erode and so­cial norms dis­solve, in­di­vid­u­als are left naked and un­pro­tected.

They seek so­lace in the state. They tog­gle be­tween im­per­sonal sys­tems: glob­al­ized cap­i­tal­ism and the dis­tant state. As the so­cial or­der de­cays, peo­ple grasp for the se­cu­rity of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. “A sig­nal fea­ture of mod­ern to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism was that it arose and came to power through the dis­con­tents of peo­ple’s iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness,” De­neen ob­serves. He urges peo­ple to ded­i­cate them­selves in­stead to lo­cal com­mu­nity — a sort of Wen­dell Berry agrar­i­an­ism.

DE­NEEN’S BOOK is valu­able be­cause it fo­cuses on to­day’s cen­tral is­sue. The im­por­tant de­bates now are not about pol­icy. They are about the ba­sic val­ues and struc­tures of our so­cial or­der. Nonethe­less, he is wrong. Lib­eral democ­racy has had a pretty good run for 300 years. If the prob­lem were re­ally in the roots, wouldn’t it have shown up be­fore now?

The dif­fi­cul­ties stem not from any­thing in­her­ent in lib­er­al­ism but from the fact that we have ne­glected the moral or­der and the vi­sion of hu­man dig­nity em­bed­ded within lib­er­al­ism it­self.

The lib­eral demo­cratic moral or­der stands for the idea that souls are formed in free­dom and not in ser­vil­ity, in ex­pan­sive­ness, not in stag­na­tion. It stands for the idea that our covenan­tal in­sti­tu­tions — like fam­ily, faith, tra­di­tion and com­mu­nity — ori­ent us to­ward higher loves and com­mon dreams that we then pur­sue in the great gym­na­sium of lib­erty.

Yes, lib­er­al­ism some­times sits in ten­sion with faith, tra­di­tion, fam­ily and com­mu­nity, which De­neen rightly cher­ishes. But lib­er­al­ism is not their mur­derer. Right now, there are com­mu­nity heal­ers in towns and cities con­cretely liv­ing out the lib­eral demo­cratic vi­sion of the good life — deeply em­bed­ded in their com­mu­ni­ties, sur­ren­dered to their ideals, reach­ing out to other com­mu­ni­ties, grow­ing in their free­dom.

We don’t have to set­tle for small­ness.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.