Why Liberalism Leads to a Big State
This week’s Upstream is with Joe Lonsdale.
This week’s Moment of Zen is with Michelle Tandler.
This week’s Cognitive Revolution is with Riley Goodside.
This is the second part on our series on liberalism.
Liberalism is supposed to be about individualism and freedom from the state, but in this piece I want to discuss how liberalism has actually expanded the state.
We’ll do that by first analyzing one of the founders of liberalism, John Locke, and his main two principles of liberalism:
First, liberalism is focused on freedom and equality of the individual person.
Second, the individual Will takes upon himself or herself political obligations by consent in general.
Liberalism made the autonomy of the individual its greatest good and highest goal. To achieve this autonomy, man had to be freed from all external limits of inherited culture, religion, custom, tradition, hierarchy, place, behavioral norms, associations, and relationships — all of which came to be seen as obstacles of oppression standing in the way of the full realization of individual desire and liberty.
But there is a profound irony at the heart of Liberalism: as Patrick Deneen writes, “the more completely the sphere of autonomy is secured, the more comprehensive the state must become.”
The more individuals are “liberated” from associations and traditions, the more there is a “need to regulate behavior through the imposition of positive law”, because the rights of individuals must be attained and enforced by something — and the state is the only possible enforcer.
Thus the state therefore found itself obliged to exercise its power to help progressively liberate the individual from all limits and constraints, including from tradition, religion, geography, community, family, and nature itself.
As we covered in our last piece, this definition of freedom as lack of constraint is almost the polar opposite of the classical and traditional Christian conceptions of liberty, which did not mean being free to do whatever one wished in the pursuit of pleasure, but being free from enslavement to one’s base appetites — a condition predicated on the cultivation of a self-discipline, through which one could, through the fulfillment of duties and obligations, achieve over the course of one’s life a lasting sense of meaning and happiness.
This is how you start out with individualism and end up at statism.
Indeed: Freedom does not mean freedom from government coercion. It means freedom from nearly any constraint, and in particular from the constraints that constitute “the shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society,” from any authority outside the individual himself.
This approach to liberty is characterized, famously, by Ryszard Legutko as “coercion to freedom.
Equality and Universalism
In liberalism, no qualitative differences can be recognized among people that suggest one person is more fit to govern or direct society than another.
Of course, equality is impossible, because people have different genes, different parents, different effort levels, and different starting lines. So the more equality one wants to introduce, the more power one must exercise. This applies even if you’re only focused on *equality of opportunity*, which is just equality of outcome with a time delay. After all, how are you going to actualize true equality of opportunity without equalizing wealth? Most people mean sufficient opportunity, not actual equality of opportunity, but for some reason keep saying equality of opportunity.
Similarly, national differences are dangerous and thus patriotism is likewise dangerous, for it undercuts the aspiration to a universal good society. Government, on the other hand, is good and should be expanded into every area of human life in order to guarantee more and more rights and equality
Paradoxically, liberalism expanded the power of the state, in a few ways.
Going from the divine right of kings to one of poplar sovereignty allowed for the expansion of the state because you could justify almost anything because it’s not just one person, or a small ruling class who wants it, but it’s everyone.
The king was powerful, to be sure, but he had other nobles, he had guilds, churches, local civic organizations. There were more spheres of power and social capital and influence and loyalties. The family of course being the ultimate one.
In the era of the state, the state swallows all those other spheres—the church, the community, the family. You don’t have to educate your kids, the state will do that. You don’t have to feed your relatives, the state will do that. You don’t have to take care of your neighbor, the state will do that. As each one of those institutions receded in power, the state assumed those burdens, and therefore the bonds of loyalty that generate the power that the state has today. And so the only entity these rootless people became loyal to was the state.
In other words, we've replaced The Church with The State. Which also explains another phenomenon: For many modern secular humanists, the State is God. When Christians wanted to change something, they prayed. When humanists want to change something, they pass a law. "Votes and policies is the new thoughts and prayers”, as Balaji says.
There are two responses to this idea that liberalism is leading to too much state power. One is that it’s a misapplication of liberalism. Individual autonomy is, for them, an unfettered good and a defense against the encroaching state. Their historical focus was on individualism as the best defense against the State, and their high point was resistance to 20th Century aggressive collectivism, but once the cold war ended those commitments to individualism waned as well. Freedom is most worth fighting for when there’s an enemy that doesn’t believe in it.
A second, rising, group sees the modern State as a problem, but unfettered individualism not as the solution. Instead, this group sees individualism as a cause of a cultural breakdown which has left us anatomized and isolated. This group is trying to engender a cultural resurgence outside of the state, with an idea of rebuilding institutions like the church or other communal organizations. This group includes Rod Dreher who wrote The Benedict Option as well as Robert Putnam who wrote Bowling Alone. We’ll unpack this more in future writings.