The Crisis of Western Liberalism

6 May 2010

Two different stories may be told about the origin and destiny of Western liberalism. One goes like this: at the start of the modern era, the liberal State came into being. Later came the democratic or liberal-democratic State. Finally, the welfare State made its appearance. Each step led to increased opportunities and freedom. The other story goes in quite the opposite direction. It reads: at the beginning, the modern State was liberal. It then turned paternalistic. Finally, it became totalitarian. Each step reduced individual responsibility and freedom. 
There is reason to believe the second story is the true one, and to worry about this. I shall attempt in this paper to explain why. 

1. From the liberal to the paternalistic State 

The first phase of the history of the transformations of our modern States is represented by the old liberal State. It was a limited, self-restrained State, designed to perform few public functions and aiming to respect the autonomy of its citizens. To a large extent, its underlying philosophy was the same as Kant’s. “The civil state Kant wrote in 1793 is based on the freedom of every member of society as a human being; the equality of each with all the others as a subject; the independence of each member of a commonwealth as a citizen.” The idea of freedom was conceived in negative terms. As Kant had put it, “no-one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others.” 
Following this principle, the liberal State did not interfere with the lives of its citizens if not for the framing of general laws and political or juridical institutions within which they could freely pursue their activities. The historian A. J. P. Taylor depicted this situation with effective terms when, in his English History 1914-1945, he wrote: “until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policemen.” Things were not too different elsewhere in the West, because the liberal State had for centuries erected a sort of wall of separation between its apparatus and civil society. The State’s role was minimal, and its citizens enjoyed their liberties to the greatest possible extent. 
By the turn of XIX century, and especially after World War II, things changed dramatically, to the point that our Western States now present two different faces. One stands for the old values of individual liberty as they are contained in many international charters, stemming from the UN 1948 Declaration of Human Rights; the other, more recent, stands for democracy and social rights. Using Isaiah Berlin’s well-known terminology, we may assert that our States consciously aim to combine positive liberty (or “freedom to”) with negative liberty or (“freedom from”). In other words, to use the terminology now in vogue, we might say that our states wish to wed freedom to social justice. 
The trouble is that these two aspects of our Western states do not easily agree. The former produces inequality; the latter promotes equality. The former, based on individual liberty, considers freedom a natural condition and exalts personal autonomy to the utmost degree, inevitably favoring people’s inequality, while the latter, based on democracy and social rights, considers instead equality natural and puts restraints on individual freedom, so that all people are made equal. In the conflict between these two tendencies, the original liberal state emerges transformed. Required now to create those material conditions which foster equality and not merely to restrict itself to promoting the conditions in which freedom is best exercised, the state is compelled to change its nature. Since its main function is to protect and care for its citizens, as a good father does for his children, it becomes a welfare state or, more generally, a paternalistic state. This is the second phase of the transformations of the Western State. 
The main characteristic of paternalism is that it blots out a distinction proper to liberalism: the distinction between State and civil society. If the State is supposed to correct social inequalities, then it cannot restrict itself merely to the role of arbiter, ensuring that general rules are respected for the benefit of all. Rather, it must assume an active role, introduce special rules which favor the supposedly disadvantaged citizens, and most of all adopt a specific conception of social justice. From the standpoint of the liberal state, this expansion of the state’s functions is a degeneration. To use Kant’s words again, “a paternal government”, that is “a government established on the principle of benevolence towards the people is the greatest conceivable despotism.” 
Kant was far-seeing. The intended goal [conscious’ o declared’ se lo stato appare inconsciamente, o intenzionalmente, duplice, goals’ se gli obiettivi sono molteplici] of the paternalistic State seems praiseworthy, but its unintended consequences are not, because by its own logic the paternalistic State turns against itself. The reason may be expressed in an intuitive formula: the more the State increases positive liberty, the more its intervention reduces negative liberty; and the more it limits negative liberty the more it brings about inequalities or fake equalities. It’s a well known fact that Marxists tried to escape this conundrum by putting all production and redistribution of wealth into the hands of the State, believing that total liberty and justice would result but, as history has demonstrated, this idea produces nothing but total slavery. 
And yet the threats of paternalism to individual freedom exceed the ceaseless creation of new social inequalities. Once the autonomy of civil society has been invaded, the State is compelled by inherent logic, not by fatal accident or evil intentions, to pursue its involvement in other social issues of civil society. Men do not live by bread alone, and equality can not be created simply by spending generous sums of money. The demands for social justice and protection are manifold and varied. Once citizens have obtained a house, they come to expect a better neighborhood. As soon as they obtain state health coverage, they desire a better quality of life. Those who obtain an education next want better qualifications, followed by a career with a good salary and permanent employment. And so on. This spontaneous burgeoning of needs and the State’s parallel intervention to meet them causes within the paternalistic State an ever increasing demand for new “rights”. 
This expansion of rights is not limited solely to the social needs of life. New kinds of demands begin to emerge. For example, if I have the right to marry whom I please, I consequently have the right to have a family. If I have the right to have a family, then I have the right to have children. And if I have the right to procreate, why shouldn’t I have the right to select healthy children? Thus spontaneously but fatally, under the growing pressure of new demands for “liberty,” “justice,” and “equality,” the paternalistic State expands still further. Different functions once pertaining to families, communities, charities, schools, religious bodies, are now transferred to the public sphere and attributed to public institutions. This is the third phase of the transformation of the Western State, the one that has the most profound and devastating consequences. 

2. From Paternalism to Totalitarianism 

In this phase, the very concept of “justice” undergoes a change. Initially referring to the fair distribution of the material means of subsistence, and subsequently to the proper allocation of social opportunities, it is now called on to consider also the equal distribution of spiritual and moral goods. For example, nowadays not only social inequalities between citizens are deemed “unjust”, it is also thought of as “unjust” that a couple cannot have babies; that it is “just” that homosexuals should be able to get married and adopt children; that it is “just” that an individual may freely put an end to his life when he can no longer tolerate it; that it is “just” that a mother who does not wish to carry on her pregnancy may suppress her fetus; and so on. 
This change in the meaning of “justice” fosters the demand for such rights as the right to abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, same-sex marriage, the cloning of human embryos, and so forth. The final outcome is that the State, originally liberal and then paternalistic in a social sense, turns paternalistic in a moral sense, that is into an ethical state, because it is left not to citizens but to the State to decide what is morally good and evil for them. This ethical state has two main characteristics. 
In the first place, it is totalitarian. Called upon to take a position on all issues of its citizens’ lives, the ethical state is forced to adopt its own moral vision, to impose and sanction it by laws and devise punishments for those who infringe it. Citizens are deprived of autonomy and responsibility. Kant is illuminating also in this respect: “if I have a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me he wrote I need not make any efforts at all.” 
Secondly, the ethical state is antireligious. This derives from the way it tries to break free of the paradox it finds itself in. On the one hand, the ethical state flies the banner of secularism, because it proclaims itself independent and impartial with respect to all moral doctrines. On the other hand, it needs to lower that flag because, in order to meet its citizens’ demands for new moral rights, it must adopt specific moral views. The only way the ethical state can free itself from this conundrum is by holding all moral options as equally valuable, that is by adopting a relativistic stance. Precisely such an approach drives the ethical state to clash with religion, especially with Christianity, because Christianity, by setting limits to many moral claims and by holding fast to inviolable human rights, opposes relativism. 
Note that in the process of transformation of the old liberal state into an ethical state, no violence occurred. The ethical state is totalitarian as a result of its impositions and concessions, not on account of the procedures it adopts. In this respect, the ethical state is democratic, because it is founded on the consensus of its citizens. It is they who ask the state to satisfy their new needs, who bring new cases of “injustice” to its attention, and who beg it to provide them with new opportunities. 
Furthermore, the ethical state is not only democratic, it is also attractive. As a rule, demands for new rights arise in terms such as these: “My party and I want this particular freedom. What harm will it do if it is granted to us and we do not impose it on anyone else?” Questions like these sow the seeds of doubt and seem to have a set answer: “Why not, after all? Why should something unacceptable to me be denied to another person?” Relativism here builds up to an explosive mixture. Since no single conception of the good can be held to be better than another, and no absolute moral limits can be accepted, the inevitable conclusion is this: “They are right, they have a point, their demands need to be respected. Therefore, let’s vote.” 
This outcome was clearly foreseen by John Paul II in his Encyclical Centesimus annus. In his words, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” In a recent homily to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Benedict XVI stressed the same point: “nowadays said the Pope the consensus of the majority is taken as the last word to which we must obey Such conformism may become a true dictatorship”. 

3. Judicial imperialism 

We still have not reached the end of the history of the transformations undergone by the Western state. The latest phase concerns not so much the state’s functions but those who are called on to perform them. 
Consider the present situation. With social paternalism, the state loses its liberal nature. With ethical paternalism, its democratic side prevails. But there comes a point when even democracy gives in and the expropriators find themselves expropriated. More and more often now in the West laws are enacted not by representative legislative bodies that follow the procedures of public debate and popular control, but by bodies whose representatives are either not publicly elected, or have other functions assigned to them. This phenomenon is the final tombstone for the liberal state. Parliaments are actually being replaced today by independent authorities, central banks, labor unions, guilds and associations of categories, bodies empowered to make decisions applicable to everyone, and most of all by judges. The Bench and High Courts have even come up with a theory never before contemplated by the liberal juridical tradition, according to which the judges’ duty is to interpret and apply not specific laws but general principles. 
Many celebrated cases prove the point. Sharia tribunals were authorized in UK territory not by a decision of the British people or of their Parliament, but by an agreement made with Islamic groups. Abortion was first liberalized in America not by a law of the United States Congress, but by a ruling of the Supreme Court. Euthanasia was never authorized by the Italian Parliament, Court rulings have done so. Not by parliamentary vote has eugenics first become a right. And no parliamentary decisions tolerate polygamy to be freely practiced, as often occurs in practice, or acknowledge gender rights. 
Such “judicial imperialism,” or “judicial universalism,” as it has been called, acts exactly like a dictatorship. Like all dictatorships, it makes a show of being inspired by a civil mission, it considers itself enlightened, and it claims to act in the name of individual freedom or universal rights. In reality, like all dictatorships, it is the expression of ideologies or power groups. 

4. The West’s road to Hell 

With the ghost of this dictatorship ends my story. What lesson can we draw from it? 
I believe that liberalism has gone astray because it has deprived itself of its religious foundations. I also believe that if we want to avoid the process of degeneration of the liberal state and to preserve our liberal regimes, we should rethink the teachings of the great classical liberals. 
Let us consider John Locke first. His main political problem was the preservation of a free society. In 1678, in a handwritten note entitled “Law of Nature”, he wrote: “If he finds that God has made him and all other men in a state wherein they cannot subsist without society and has given them judgment to discern what is capable of preserving that society, can he but conclude that he is obliged and that God requires him to follow those rules which conduce to the preserving of society?” 
Locke’s answer to this problem is well known. He elaborated a three-fold doctrine according to which God’s will is the basis of the moral law, such law can be discovered by reason, and reason is consistent with the Scriptures’ Revelation. Thus Locke’s view was that a free society and a liberal regime can be maintained if people are bound with ties that are religious, specifically Christian. Ultimately, it is our respect for God’s will, our awareness that we are “his property,” to use Locke’s words, that is responsible for the preservation of society. 
Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers built up America largely by following in Locke’s steps. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson famously wrote: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?” John Adams was even more explicit. In a letter to Jefferson of June 28, 1823, he wrote: “the general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite And what were these principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united.” 
This solution, put forward by Locke, Jefferson, Adams and many others, including Kant and Tocqueville, is not accepted today by many liberal thinkers such as Rawls, Habermas, Dworkin, Ackerman, and others. Christianity is replaced by secularism, revelation is supplanted by relativism, and “comprehensive” liberalism is substituted with “political” liberalism. 
Why is it so? Two main reasons are adduced. 
The first one is empirical. Founding a liberal political community on pre-political bonds contemporary liberalism maintains is in fact impossible, because our post-modern societies are pluralistic and believe in [affected by’ non mi sembra comprensibile] the incommensurability of values. This is certainly a difficulty, but not an insurmountable obstacle, because our societies also hold on to the idea of fundamental human rights, which can be maintained only as an act of faith, as religious and rational as Locke’s idea of natural law. In any case, the idea of universal human rights plays the role of a common vocabulary thanks to which different cultures can translate their own values. Conceptual incommensurability can be practically overcome. 
The second reason is normative. Contemporary liberals claim that founding a political community or a nation on a specific conception of the good violates two liberal principles: the principle of the separation of the spiritual sphere, which is private, from the temporal sphere, which is and ought to be public and shared, and the principle of the tolerance of all conceptions of the good. But this reasoning is contradictory, because such concepts as spiritual sphere and tolerance as well as human person, human dignity, equality, respect for the people, and so on are religious principles specifically deriving their meaning from Judeo-Christianity. Can we reject the latter and maintain the former? Can we enjoy the fruits of liberalism and cut down the tree of Christianity at the same time? 
No, we cannot. If our fundamental liberties are a gift of God, as Jefferson said, then the gift is lost once God is denied. And without that gift we fall short of a solution to the problem of the preservation of society. Nor are there better alternatives. Take multiculturalism, so popular and widespread in the West, especially in Europe. As it is practiced today, it stands not for tolerance written at large, but as unforbearance practiced on a small scale. It does not produce a greater and better coexistence, but causes the fragmentation of society, with precisely that kind of fight of everybody against everybody else the great liberals wanted to avoid. Nor does multiculturalism offer people more respect: it is on the contrary a denial of that very culture of universal human rights contemporary liberals adhere to. In Europe, it is the gate left wide open for Islam to enter and replace Christian civilization. 
I have expounded elsewhere the reasons why I believe we should call ourselves Christians. By way of conclusion, I can only affirm that the sequence liberal state to welfare state to paternalistic State to ethical State paves the West’s road to Hell. 

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