In the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, it is clear that a progressive version of political liberalism is of one of several behemoth political visions shaping and expressing the will of many Americans. But, as I’ve argued recently about socialism and will argue soon about nationalism, modern political ideologies tend to be idolatrous and should be exposed for what they are–flawed human systems of political salvation that cannot deliver on their promises.
But what is meant by “liberalism”?
The word “liberal” is used in significantly different ways in the United States today. Some Americans might use the word positively, signifying that a particular person or policy is open-minded or tolerant. Other Americans use the word negatively, signifying a person who doesn’t value America’s cultural heritage. For yet others, the word conjures up sometimes vague but always grand notions of equality and freedom.
But for today’s purposes, we’ll use the word in a broader and more historic sense. In this sense, liberalism refers to a constitutional and representative political arrangement that emphasizes liberty and personal freedom. In this sense, both of America’s major political parties and many of their elected representatives have been shaped in profound ways by liberalism.
The Rise and Development of Liberalism in the West
In Political Visions and Illusions, political scientist David Koyzis gives a brief history of the rise and development of Western liberalism, revealing the ways in which individual autonomy (freedom from external authorities and norms) is the core belief of the liberal creed. Liberals believe that humans should be free to direct their own lives. From this belief stems a corollary belief: individuals have the right to own property and to make their own choices. There is only one inherent limit on these choices—the rights of other individuals. But provided a person’s choices do not directly interfere with the rights of another, the liberal ideology gives carte blanche.
Thus, liberalism emphasizes the individual over the socio-political community. Indeed, liberals tend to reduce the community to little more than an aggregate of autonomous individuals. In a hypothetical “state of nature” (an imaginary state of affairs in which there are only individuals, and not governments), liberals argue, individuals are free. The downside of this freedom, however, is that individuals do not have sufficient protection from various dangers, and so they enter into a contract with one another, voluntarily, to form a governed society. Thus, even the best government is a sort of necessary evil, in that it plays the minimal but necessary role of protecting individuals from threats to their personhood and property.
Koyzis goes on to note the way this creed has taken shape in the West. At first, the state existed to protect people and their property. Before long, however, Western liberals were asking to be protected not only from powerful threats to their personhood and property, but also to other less obvious “threats,” such as a lack of sufficient resources. Instead of wanting the government to clear the space so they could pursue life, liberty, and happiness, people wanted the government to step into that space in order to provide those interests. And why not? When “I want” lies at the center of the ideology, it becomes natural to look to a power as large as the state to make up for what I cannot provide for myself.
Finally, in its present state, liberals expect the government to accommodate their personal desires, and to accommodate them in a religiously and morally neutral manner. More to the point, it expects the government never to cast moral judgments on their desires. Thus, when their poor judgment or immoral choices cause negative consequences, the liberal populace expects the government to ameliorate those consequences (e.g. “Have you had five babies out of wedlock? The government will take care of those babies. But even better, it will encourage you to kill them in the womb beforehand.”)
The Idolatry in Ideological Liberalism
Political liberalism finds itself in a real dilemma: on one hand, it has deified individual autonomy and free choice; on the other hand, it naturally inclines to pull the levers of government to assist when that autonomy doesn’t work out well. Thus, under liberalism, government intervention increases, even though this runs contrary to liberalism’s original aim.
How should we evaluate liberalism?
The problem is that liberalism misidentifies society’s “root evil” as heteronomous authority (any type of authority that does not issue from within the autonomous individual). Errantly, it places its hopes in ideologically-liberal political parties that promise to maximize the individual’s autonomy and minimize any external authorities. Because of its overweening allegiance to individual autonomy, it cannot in the end make sense of the individual’s need for community. In its worst forms, it forthrightly wishes to abolish God so that individuals can finally create themselves and belong to themselves.
The negative consequences of political liberalism are many, but foremost among them are the ironic loss of freedom because of government expansion and the loss of human flourishing because of the sidelining of moral law. Ideological liberalism buys the lie that state-sponsored undermining of moral law will lead to greater fulfillment for society. But it learns, as did Adam and Eve, that what seems pleasing to the eye only leads to disappointment and death. If we saw it for what it truly was, none of us would desire independence from God.
In Western nations, political liberalism has led to swollen governments that suffocate society. Western liberal governments have evolved to become, in Koyzis’ words, “choice enhancement” and “desire fulfillment” providers. But this is a pricey venture. In this situation, the state constantly raises taxes so it can redistribute according to its own preferences, fulfilling desires and enhancing choices (e.g. government-funded abortion). It must become involved in image management, helping various actors or sectors of society achieve the social or institutional status they desire (e.g. judicial legislation of same-sex marriage). It oversteps its bounds by extending federal oversight into cultural spheres where it has no jurisdiction, such as family and church (e.g. government intrusion into the family’s right to raise and educate their own children).
The latest iteration of liberalism—provider of choice enhancement and desire fulfillment—is especially opposed a transcendent moral framework. Thus, it is willing to overthrow any moral underpinning that threatens the god of individual autonomy. It encourages its citizens to suspend moral judgment and dispense with religious and moral convictions—except, of course, those judgments and convictions that are currently favored by the liberals of that era.
Such an emphasis on individual desires and choices degrades civic life in ways too myriad to mention. This culture of rampant individualism influences American public life to the point that it becomes institutionalized in the political realm. Thus institutionalized, it reinforces autonomous individualism in every realm of society and culture. Social philosopher Elaine Storkey puts it well when she writes:
The culture of individualism is vast…and goes far beyond the political realm. It is bolstered, for example, by a daily reinforcement of themes such as success, happiness, reward, personality, choice, independence, and self-discovery. The result is a philosophy of life that sees relationships as externally constructed, and centered around fulfillment, happiness, or some self-constructed goal or ideal to which the dynamics of relationships become subject. Personal achievement, psychic rewards, self-esteem, popularity, and self-presentation are highly valued, while humility, vulnerability, modesty, and patience score less well…. The overall impact on relational living has been that relationships, formerly characterized by truth, increasingly are assumed to be impermanent. The normative structures of trust, mutuality, love, and faithfulness have been replaced by ones where negotiation, reward, litigation, and power dealing are seen as normal.
Ideological liberalism, we have argued, enthrones the self, demonizes external authority, and therefore functions as a false religion that cannot deliver the salvation it promises. As J. Budziszewski so aptly put it, political liberalism is “a bundle of acute moral [and, it should be added, religious] errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions.”
Therefore, even while we can and should affirm the good intentions and insights found in the liberal project, we should reject its tendency to deify the self and demonize external authority. And (as Koyzis does in the last several chapters of Political Visions and Illusions and as I have tried to do in One Nation under God and Letters to an American Christian) we should work together to construct a non-ideological alternative that that values liberty but recognizes that true freedom is found within a transcendent moral framework.