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Individualism, The Right Kind
Not just a illiberal Leftism, but also illiberal conservatism, if successful, will lead to the destruction of the United States as we have known them.
Dear friends and supporters:
Brian G. Mattson and I have been tag-teaming in defending and championing classical liberalism. Last week he wrote “Seized By A Temporary Insanity,” and I drafted “Post-Liberal is Post-Christian.” More is on the way.
I’d intended to write today “Classical Liberalism, Simply Explained”; but that topic was too ambitious for a single weekly CultureChange, and since Sharon and I are (like Willie Nelson and friends) “on the road again” with less writing time for me, I’ve decided to address the description of classical liberalism incrementally.
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Leftist Opposition to Classical Liberalism
When we champion classical liberalism (CL) against the illiberalisms of both Left and Right (see “Liberals and Conservatives Against the Free World”) we might assume everybody knows what CL is. Americans my age and a few years older and younger could take the CL of the United States for granted while still feeling a deep sense of gratitude for it.
But for decades public education and other central cultural fulcrums have systematically undermined the CL society, attempting to replace it with Leftism, whose tenets include enforced egalitarianism, moral relativism, and grievance culture. The goal of politics is to re-engineer the CL society. This society that the U.S. Founders planted hasn’t flowered into egalitarian utopia, so it must be uprooted and replaced. This massive Leftist uprooting project means many folks probably don’t even know what CL is anymore.
For their part, a number of younger conservatives, justifiably alarmed by the Leftist cultural gains, are hungry for a right-wing agenda that vanquishes the dominant Leftism by surrendering the priority of liberty and instead imposing, if necessary, a more conservative (even Christian) vision on society. They want a cultural fix, and the quicker, the better.
The chief instrument of that fix is the coercive national state.
The recent “Statement of Principles” by National Conservatism includes a number of features of CL but also diverges at critical points:
The independent nation-state is instituted to establish a more perfect union among the diverse communities, parties, and regions of a given nation, to provide for their common defense and justice among them, and to secure the general welfare and the blessings of liberty for this time and for future generations. We believe in a strong but limited state, subject to constitutional restraints and a division of powers. We recommend a drastic reduction in the scope of the administrative state and the policy-making judiciary that displace legislatures representing the full range of a nation’s interests and values. We recommend the federalist principle, which prescribes a delegation of power to the respective states or subdivisions of the nation so as to allow greater variation, experimentation, and freedom. However, in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.
What does this last section mean? What is a nation’s “subdivision”? If the federal government “must intervene energetically” to “restore [godly] order” and suppress “lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution” in (say) states like California and New York and Hawaii that (say) vote to permit abortion, same-sex “marriage,” pornography, and prostitution, will the National Conservatives support the National Progressives’ right to “intervene energetically” to overturn votes in Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama that criminalize abortion, define marriage as between one man and one woman (in other words, as marriage), and suppress pornography and prostitution when the progressives hold the reins of national political power?
And if they would support their own coercive imposition by the federal government, on what principled grounds would they forbid progressives’ imposition? It won’t suffice to say, “Because we are right and they are wrong.” Every dictatorship in history justified its suppression of political liberty on these grounds.
Moreover, while the National Conservatives wish to hang onto the “constitutional restraints and … division of powers” of the federal government, they apparently don’t see the states and municipalities (and individuals) as restraints on the federal government. Apparently, the federal government needs no restraint as it relates to the states and municipalities. What the federal government defines as “lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution” by states and smaller jurisdictions, it may forcibly restrain.
What makes CL so unique is that it provides a framework for social change (that framework is the chief political “common good”) that involves a minimum of political imposition and a maximum of political liberty.
But, when push comes to shove, the National Conservatives are willing to push and shove, not persuade.
The same is true of religious liberty. In its section on “God and Public Religion” the “Statement of Principles” reads:
Where a Christian majority [in a nation] exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private. At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children. Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.
I assume this means that synagogues and mosques and other non-Christian, non-private religious expressions would be permitted; but if necessary, their religion would be subject to ideological coercion in its public practice. In other words, National Conservatives deny religious liberty, a cornerstone of the U. S. Founding.
But why not trust what the Founders trusted, the power of religious persuasion, and what (more importantly) biblical Protestants trusted, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17) to guarantee godly religion in society?
This does not mean the state is neutral. There can be no such thing. It means that a state shaped by Christianity finds it unnecessary to coerce Christianity, a non-coercive religion if there ever was one. This was precisely the kind of nation the Founders envisioned. Society was to consist of virtuous individuals and, ergo, the state rarely needed to coerce virtue.
So, it seems today we really have two forms of illiberal statism staring at each other from both edges of the political spectrum, with CL and liberty left out of their sight.
In this potentially coercive sociopolitical environment, it might be helpful to enumerate the basics of CL. After all, if we’re going to throw CL overboard, at least we need to know what we’re abandoning.
Today I’ll deal with the first mark of CL, virtuous individualism.
Christianity’s greatness has diminished, that is, Christianity historically and culturally considered in the West. By contrast, the greatness of the Christian Faith objectively understood has not lessened: the Lord Jesus Christ and his word and the Cross and resurrection, for example, are just as great today as they ever were. But the Faith at is practiced in the West and particularly as it influences what we nowadays call “public” life is at a low ebb. This diminution has occurred before historically both in the West as well as in the rest of the world, and it has been recovered. A contribution toward that recovery in our own time is the chief objective of the small book.
Get the book here.
CL recognizes a zone of privacy around every individual. This basically means there are significant areas of every individual’s life that should not be dominated by a community of which he is, or may be, a part, and particularly not by the state, since it’s the only earthly coercive institution. Let’s call this individualism, though it’s to be sharply distinguished from today’s radical individualist autonomy (RIA), on which I’ll elaborate below.
The individualism of CL basically means that the state is limited in that it’s forbidden to dictate your station in life, your decisions, your work, your religion, your habits. In other words, in CL we’re not so submerged in communities (which of course are inescapable) that we can’t act as free individuals.
Luther and Classical Liberalism
It’s just here that a number of historians detect CL’s roots in Protestantism. Martin Luther wasn’t opposed to the church, but he didn’t believe the church could mediate salvation and eternal life. There was a zone of spiritual privacy around the individual. Every individual could act according to the dictates of his own conscience, even against the church, if necessary (which is just what Luther did).
It’s hard not to believe that CL is the political component of this theological postulate, which is why a number historians believe it. Just as the church may not dictate your eternal destiny, so the state may not dictate your earthly destiny.
In fact, many interpreters of CL hold this to be its fundamental distinctive: the limitation of state power. Ronald Reagan was a classic CL: “Man is not free unless government is limited.” Since there’s no more coercive power within history than the state, if you believe in liberty and freedom, he had better keep the state severely limited.
The Individual Within, and Above, the Community
To CL, individuals, not just communities, are important. In almost all societies historically, the individual gained significance only within the community: the family or tribe in the most ancient world; later, the great world empires, in which society and state were virtually synonymous; and in the medieval era, the church.
CL shifted the priority to the individual. In fact, the Declaration of Independence turned historic political wisdom on its head. Far from asserting that the individual gains meaning only within the state, it declared that governments are instituted to secure individual liberty. This is precisely the opposite of what most societies in history believed and practiced.
This limitation on communal authority doesn’t pertain only to the state. CL recognizes important social authorities like the family and the church, which, in any case, are inevitable. CL doesn’t want to abolish those communities. In fact, in most cases, it wants them strengthened, because they tend to be bulwarks against the state. This is sometimes called “civil society,” or aspects of it.
But CL wants to say that even the family and church could be wrong, and the individual must be free to oppose them, if necessary. In the end, individual liberty under law may not be curbed, certainly not coercively curbed, even to conform to such vital communities as family and church.
But when conservatives use “individualism” today, this isn’t the individualism they’re generally denoting. They almost always use the term pejoratively, and they have in mind radical individual autonomy (RIA), which is an objective of the Left, but certainly not of CL.
And what is RIA? It’s essentially the notion that I should be free to do whatever I want as long as I don’t physically harm anybody else. No communities or transcendent ethics of any kind should have any authoritative claim on me — except, ironically, the state.
According to RIA, the great value of the state is to guarantee my autonomy. The state crushes or marginalizes competitive institutions like the family, the church, and businesses that might crimp my autonomy. While CL argues that the individual should be free to dissent from even such important communities as the family and church, RIA declares that he is not free unless he is liberated from the claims of those non-coercive communities.
Today this means that if I’m a 14-year-old who wants to mutilate my sexual organs and to take long-term-injurious hormones; or if I want to marry somebody of my same sex, despite the fact that this act completely undermines marriage itself; or if I demand that everybody use the pronoun for me that I’ve selected, nobody and nothing should be permitted to stand in my way, under pain of state coercion.
In sharp contrast, CL advocates virtuous, ordered liberty. I’m free from most state interference, but this freedom demands self-government. If I’m not to be coerced by the state, I must govern my own choices, impulses, and objectives.
The Founders assumed this form of self-government when they established our form of political government. In the U.S., our political government is possible only if a large part of the population practices self-government.
Our present sociopolitical breakdown is not due to the failure of our system of civil government (as some of today’s conservative illiberals suggest), but, rather, to the failure of self-government and our civil institutions, which are actually their own governments, like the family and church.
You obviously won’t solve this problem by changing politics. You must restore the right kind of individualism and the right kind of communities.
CL says that I may be captain of my own fate; RIA declares that I may be creator of my own reality. These are two very different forms of individualism.
It’s a mistake of too many new illiberal conservatives to equate individualism with RIA, and jettison CL, since individualism is at its heart. But CL individualism is not RIA. There’s a way of being individualistic that’s virtuous, and CL espouses that way.
A loss of just this virtuous, ordered individualism means a loss of the free society produced by CL, which was the society the U.S. was established to be.
This leads to a very unsettling conclusion: not just an illiberal Leftism, but also an illiberal conservatism, if successful, will lead to the destruction of the United States as we have known it.
Sharon and I will be traveling the next three weeks. She’s taking her turn to care for her faithful, aged father, and for my own medical reasons, I need to accompany her. Please hold us before the Lord in prayer.
Next Sunday, October 9 I’ll be preaching for my dear friend David Shay at Living Church International in western Pennsylvania:
Next week I hope to write on “The ‘Common Good’: Right Destination, Wrong Vehicle.” I’ll also give a fuller update on all of the CCL publications coming out soon.
Until then, please consider supporting CCL.
Yours for the right kind of individualism,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
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