Liberalism and its enemies

Ross Douthat pointed to a long piece by Abram Shulsky on the tendency of liberalism to provoke “counter-ideologies,” from positivism to various types of socialism to Islamism:

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

His conclusion makes sense:

So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.

The “incidental” weaknesses (the “not invented here” syndrome and the stresses of transition) can perhaps be expected to fade over time, in some places more slowly than in others, no doubt. But the inherent ones [the lack of consensus on liberalism’s tenets and its exclusion of the “seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul”] are another matter. Our only defense against them, in the long run, is the inculcation in the body politic of a sense of moderation that understands the inherent limits of politics in the search for human happiness.

Of course, this is easier said that done because it requires those involved in politics to accept limits. The more I understand about the modern state (ca. 1648-present) and modern politics, the more evident it seems to me that political figures and theorists promote the state as the universal solver of all problems that truly matter, making it difficult for modern political leaders of whatever stripe to stay out of the happiness-promotion business.

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3 comments

  1. I agree entirely with your conclusion. Well said.

    But I don’t understand what Shulsky means that “there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that [liberalism] ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.”

    Does he give any examples? Is the longing of the human soul to control others? Are these “ineradicable longings” immoral?

    His subsequent note that there’s a lack of consensus on what liberalism entails is a fair point, but surely that must be formalized before concluding that it ignores longings of the human soul.

  2. I think that the key is in the first quote from Shulsky: liberalism’s individualist framework and separation of church and state means that it leaves ultimate meaning up to the individual, whereas as illiberal regimes often promise great things to their populations (the “social justice” of left-leaning Third World regimes after WWII, the approval of God in avowedly Christian regimes or Allah in Muslim ones, the building of the “new Soviet man” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Soviet_man) in the USSR).

    • But yes, I like your point that if liberalism is something of a vague concept, not all of the different types might be indifferent to the said ineradicable longings.

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