Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ch.7 Trivial Pursuits

Note to readers: this is a chapter of the e-booklet that I am gradually writing (see the sidebar for earlier chapters) which is why it's a little longer than a normal blog post.

Liberalism is supposed to liberate the individual, but the liberal approach to freedom doesn't work. It ends up imposing worse limitations on the individual than the ones it removes.

A major mistake made by liberalism is to define freedom as individual autonomy. We are held to be free if we live self-determining or self-creating lives.

But if the aim is to be self-determining, then whatever is predetermined will be looked on negatively as an impediment to be overcome.

As we saw in previous chapters, this means that liberals have set out to make sex distinctions not matter; it has led to attacks on the traditional family, including the roles of fatherhood and motherhood; and it has undermined traditional national identities.

And yet these are amongst the most significant aspects of life when it comes to choosing what to be or to do. It is important to us that we are able to fulfil our masculine or feminine identities; to become husbands and wives, fathers and mothers; and to belong to long-standing communal traditions.

What kind of freedom is it when basic forms of identity and relationships are denied to us?

The kind of freedom we do get in a liberal society is a freedom to pursue relatively trivial aims. For a liberal system to work, we have to limit our choices to those things that we can self-determine as individuals; which don’t impact on the choices of others; and which can be supervised and regulated by the liberal managerial state.

What kind of choices does that leave us with? We can choose for ourselves a career, entertainments, travel destinations, restaurants and dining, and various lifestyle and consumer options. Of these, career is the weightiest and so a creative, professional career is often thought of by liberals to be the ultimate aim of life.

To work and to consume make up much of the permissible way of life in a liberal society.

The American writer Jim Kalb has described this feature of liberalism. He writes that the liberal principle of social organisation,
claims to maximize effective freedom, but it narrowly limits what is permissible lest we interfere with the equal freedom of others or the efficient operation of the system. Private hobbies and indulgences are acceptable, since they leave other people alone. So are career, consumption, and expressions of support for the liberal order. What is not acceptable is any ideal of how people should understand their lives together that is at odds with the liberal one…The result is that the contemporary liberal state cannot allow people to take seriously the things they have always taken most seriously.

Similarly, Kalb writes that the purpose of government and of morality in a liberal system is to regulate individuals so that,
career, consumption, and the free choice of hobbies, lifestyles, and indulgences are secured for everyone.

... The goal is to give people what they want, and it can only be achieved if what people want fits into the liberal scheme: that is, if it respects the needs of the system and the equal validity of the desires of other individuals.

That means that what people want has to be controlled. Left-liberalism requires us all to become virtuous, where virtue consists in pursuing only legitimate desires — in other words, supporting the system and otherwise minding our own business by concerning ourselves only with tolerant and private goals. Hence PC, and hence the constant re-education initiatives to which we are now subjected.

All history, all nature, all culture, and all religion threaten the basis and functioning of a liberal social order. They tell us that human beings cannot be reduced to orderly productive consumers who do what they’re told and only want a life of measured private self-indulgence.

Another American writer, Lawrence Auster, puts the issue tersely as follows:
What is liberalism? The reduction of all values to the radically autonomous self and the equality of all such selves, and thus the emptying from life of every substantive good that is larger than or outside of the autonomous self. But the problem is, once all larger substantive goods have been gotten rid of, and the only thing left is the autonomous self and its free choices, what goods are left for the freely choosing autonomous self to choose?

What does this mean in practice for those living in liberal societies? Virginia Haussegger is an Australian journalist who pursued the aims allowed her in a liberal society more successfully than most. Even so, she couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t enough to anchor her life:
here we are, supposedly “having it all” as we edge 40; excellent education; good qualifications; great jobs; fast-moving careers; good incomes ... It’s a nice caffe-latte kind of life, really.

But the truth is – for me at least – the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless ... and the point of it all seems, well, pointless.

It’s interesting as well to listen to the testimony of Rev. Alan Taylor, a minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church. The Unitarians describe themselves as “a living example of, and a powerful voice for, liberal religion in America.”

After reading a book called Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks about an elite group in America called “bourgeois bohemians” or more simply “Bobos,” Rev. Taylor recognised that he and his flock were being described by this term:
Rarely do I read a book like Bobos in Paradise and say, they're talking about me, about so many religious liberals, and about most of the folks with whom I graduated from college in 1990.

According to Rev.Taylor, Bobos like himself try to have endless choices, but this does not maximise their freedom but instead draws them into a superficial way of life:
Here in Oak Park it is challenging. We live in a community that caters to the upper middle-class. The value of maximizing freedom reigns supreme, but there are forces that undermine sustained connections...

I have lived a quintessentially Bobo life ... If these trends continue ... my life will be a series of light, ultimately inconsequential and therefore meaningless connections. But I will have a lot of them! And that's just it, when we Bobos maximize our freedom, depth and meaning elude us.

And so what we get in Bobo life, Brooks says, is "a world of many options, but not a life of solid commitments, and maybe not a life that ever offers access to the profoundest truths, deepest emotions, or highest aspirations. Maybe in the end the problem with this attempt to reconcile freedom with commitment, virtue with affluence, autonomy with community is not that it leads to some catastrophic crack-up or some picturesque slide into immorality and decadence, but rather that it leads to too many compromises and spiritual fudges.

Maybe people who try to have endless choices end up with semi-commitments and semi-freedoms. Maybe we will end up leading a life that is moderate but flat, our souls being colored with shades of gray, as we find nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing that brings our lives to a point. Some days I look around and I think we have been able to achieve these reconciliations only by making ourselves more superficial, by simply ignoring the deeper thoughts and highest ideals that would torture us if we actually stopped to measure ourselves according to them.

...Bobos pay lip-service to the virtues of tradition, roots, community. However, when push comes to shove, they tend to choose personal choice over other commitments...And this is self-defeating, because at the end of all this movement and freedom and self-exploration, they find that they have nothing deep and lasting to hold on to.


If the logic of liberalism is to dissolve the traditions we belong to and to rule out some of the most significant aspects of life then we need to break with it decisively. But what does this require? What changes would we need to make to successfully leave liberalism behind us?

First, the role of the state would change. Liberals aim at “equal preference satisfaction” and so they look to the state to create a centralised system in which social life is managed along formal principles.

But this makes the more informal patterns of social life - those which predate the state, which connect people to each other, and which give people important social functions - suspect, as they do not fit within a formal and centralised regulation of society.

A liberal society gradually gives increasing weight to the relationship between the state and the stand-alone individual. One challenge for a post-liberal society would be to unwind this process, so that there is less formal regulation of social life by the state, and a greater role for the connections that grow between people within families and communities.

A post-liberal society would also have a different view of the nature of man. It is typical of liberals to see people as abstract and atomised individuals. This fits in well with liberalism, because if you start with this idea of the individual as a blank slate, then it really is up to the individual to subjectively self-define who they are and what their own good is.

The American philosopher James Schall has put the issue clearly in these terms:
The initial choice that each of us has to make in life is whether we think the world and ourselves already exist with some intelligible content to define what we are or whether there is nothing there but what we put there.

Schall concedes that the liberal position – that there is nothing there – sounds freer:
The former position, it would seem, is rather demanding on us. It suggests that we are not our own self-creators, that what we are is something for us to discover, not make out of our own imaginary resources. But we are seemingly freer if there is nothing there in the first place, if we are solely responsible for our world and our own being.

Nonetheless, he rejects the liberal view as failing to connect the self to anything significant:
the trouble with being so absolutely free that nothing is presupposed, however, is that what is finally put there is also only ourselves ... on this premise, no reason can be found not to be something else tomorrow.

To decisively reject liberalism means accepting that, as Schall puts it, “the world and ourselves already exist with some intelligible content to define what we are.” We are not to be thought of as mere blanks to be filled in arbitrarily by our own selves.

If we really were to fill in our own selves in any direction this would not be an impressive creative act. There is little challenge in making things up randomly. It is more creative to discern what is most significant within the given nature of things and to orient ourselves to it. This sets before us a challenge of character, of intelligence and of feeling and intuition.

There is one last thing we need to do to break decisively with liberalism. Liberalism is reductionist in the sense that it makes autonomy a single, overriding good. The good of autonomy is thought to trump other goods. That makes politics in a liberal society peculiarly ideological.

It isn’t necessary, in rejecting liberalism, to dismiss the value of autonomy. It is important, though, to avoid the reductionism which makes autonomy the starting point from which all else is supposed to follow and which then leads to the loss of other significant goods.

Politics is supposed to be an art by which a variety of goods are balanced together or ordered into a framework in which the various parts fit together. This is the concept of politics to which a post-liberal society should aim to return.


  1. Yes, I was wrong in an earlier post when I argued that Liberals make a moral claim for the superiority of Liberalism. In reality they are claiming that Liberalism - individual autonomy - is the highest GOOD, and just because they really, really, value it. So it can be contested by pointing out it will lead to a society in which many people are unsatisfied.

  2. What the motive for demanding equality in all things??

    Its envy. That;s the basis of liberalism. People need to understand that, envy animates so much of liberal thinking from victimhood to 'unfair advantages' to 'everyone's special'.

  3. A Bonobo Life indeed. An interesting book I read many years ago "What Happy People Know" by Dan Baker called the pursuit of an empty hedonistic life "freedom unhinged" - that is unhinged from any meaning. It was not a religious tract but the things it identified as "anchors" to live by were for the most part the same moral benchmarks identified in the Catholic Faith - but perhaps worded in a more modern and relateable manner.