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David Brooks and the Limits of Liberalism

July 3rd, 2023 | 12 min read

By Bob Thune

Freedom. Liberty. Rights. Democracy.

These are the stock terms of our American political lexicon, and they come to us from the tradition known as liberalism. Whether right, center, or left, we’re all liberals in our political philosophy.

At least until recently. These days, the limits of liberalism are becoming more and more apparent. Canada’s new program known as Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID, takes the logic of individual freedom to its ineluctable conclusion. After all, if I belong to myself, I should be free to choose how I want to die. Why shouldn’t we offer state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded euthanasia?

In a recent article for The Atlantic, David Brooks uses MAID to illustrate a tension in modern liberalism. “I am a piece of property that I own,” he writes, tracing the line of thinking that leads to assisted suicide. “Because I possess property rights to myself, I can dispose of my property as I see fit. My life is a project that I am creating, and nobody else has the right to tell me how to build or dispose of my one and only life.”

Yet Brooks wishes to argue that this is actually NOT the logic of liberalism. Rather, programs like MAID result from an extreme version of liberalism he calls “autonomy-based liberalism” – an aberrant strain of the liberal tradition. “If you start with autonomy-based liberalism, MAID is where you wind up,” he writes.

But, he continues:

there is another version of liberalism. Let’s call this gifts-based liberalism. It starts with a different core conviction: I am a receiver of gifts… our individual choices take place within the framework of gifts we have received, and the responsibilities to others that those gifts entail… In our lives, we are citizens and family members, not just individuals and property owners. We have obligations to our neighbors as well as to those who will come after us. Many of these obligations turn out to be the sources of our greatest joy. A healthy society builds arrangements and passes laws that make it easier to fulfill the obligations that come with our gifts.

We should be thankful for what Brooks is attempting to do. He’s attempting to reclaim classical liberalism: the political philosophy espoused by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill. Liberalism is America’s political heritage, and we should not take lightly its demise. There’s a movement afoot to recover and recast classical liberalism in a more communitarian and less individualistic frame, and Brooks situates himself within that movement. “Liberalism is now threatened by an extreme version of itself,” he asserts.

So according to Brooks, there are two versions of liberalism: an extreme version that leads us down the path of radical autonomy toward assisted suicide, and a humane version that leads us to embrace gift, responsibility, and obligation. If this story is true, we should all want the humane version of liberalism.

But it’s not at all clear that this story is true. I wish to show that what Brooks calls “autonomy-based liberalism” is just liberalism, and what Brooks calls “gifts-based liberalism” is actually conservatism.

Let me begin with the second assertion, because it’s the easiest to demonstrate. Consider how Brooks describes the basic commitments of “gifts-based liberalism:”

Gifts-based liberalism… gives you membership in a procession that stretches back to your ancestors. It connects you to those who migrated to this place or that, married this person or that, raised their children in this way or that. What you are is an expression of history… We have been bequeathed sets of values, institutions, cultural traditions that embody the accumulated wisdom of our kind. The purpose of life, in a gifts-based world, is to participate in this procession, to keep the march of progress going along its fitful course… The good of humanity… is grounded in the succession of intimates and institutions that we inherit, and that we reform, improve, and pass on.

Now compare Yoram Hazony’s definition of conservatism:

A conservative is a traditionalist, a person who works to recover, restore, and build up the traditions of his forefathers and to pass them on to future generations. Political conservatism is a political standpoint that regards the recovery, restoration, elaboration, and repair of national and religious traditions as they key to maintaining a nation and strengthening it over time.[1]

The similarity is striking and self-evident. Perhaps David Brooks is avoiding the word “conservative” in order to escape its political connotations in the American context. Or perhaps he’d argue that classical liberalism (as he understands it) is the very thing conservatives are trying to conserve. But on any straightforward reading, what he calls “gifts-based liberalism” is what many would call conservatism.

The difference is more than semantic. Brooks is describing something – “sets of values, institutions, cultural traditions that embody the accumulated wisdom of our kind” – that he wants to see conserved. He seems to envision a sort of “common good liberalism” that’s capable of preserving the key bonds, values, institutions, and traditions that unite us. But it’s not at all clear that modern liberalism can sustain any such vision of the common good. Political scientist David Koyzis explains:

…Liberalism denies that there is a substantive good that human beings or their political leaders are obliged by their nature to follow. Beginning with Thomas Hobbes and leading up to John Rawls and Robert Nozick, liberalism assumes that if there are goods, these are sovereignly determined by the individual will and not by anyone claiming to speak for an entire community of citizens. There is, in short, no common good.[2]

The older classical and Christian tradition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, had a thick account of the common good. It understood human beings to be teleological creatures, oriented toward a specific end. Hobbes and his followers did away with this idea of teleology – and with it, the notion of a universal good. “There is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim), nor summum bonum (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers,” wrote Thomas Hobbes in 1651.

Ironically, Hobbes could only reject the common good by assuming its existence. Hobbes’s appeal works precisely because Christianity transformed how the west thinks about individual liberties. Apart from that, Hobbes’s critique of the notion of an “utmost aim” falls apart. The early liberals critiqued existing political arrangements by showing how they violated a more foundational good: the freedom of the individual conscience. And where did they get the idea of freedom of conscience? From the Bible. Christianity gave Western culture the notion of “the rights of the individual” in the first place.

The original liberal thinkers, then, assumed the common good of Christianity in order to assert the rights of the individual. But over time, Hobbes’s statement has come to fruition: the common good is no more. Liberalism has set us on a course of unfettered individualism where, in Justice Kennedy’s famous words, each person is free “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe.” Because of this, modern liberalism has no way of creating or preserving shared values, institutions, and traditions over time. And that makes “gifts-based liberalism” an ideal that doesn’t – can’t – exist in reality. It’s an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. And that leads to my second critique of Brooks’s argument.

Brooks would have us believe that “autonomy-based liberalism” is an aberration, a departure from liberalism’s truest ideals. Yet John Stuart Mill, in his classic work On Liberty (1859), states plainly: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”[3] So is MAID the twisted result of an extreme version of liberalism? Or is it the logical destination of liberalism’s own trajectory?

As a non-specialist, I’m not qualified to settle long-running debates about the true nature of liberalism. Alasdair MacIntyre quips that modern political discourse is an argument between “conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.”[4] David Koyzis, too, admits that “In the English-speaking world… all of us can be said to be liberals in some sense.”[5] Yet Koyzis points to one common thread that unites all strands of liberalism:

Liberalism stands or falls on its foundational belief in the sovereignty of the individual… The liberal story begins with human autonomy, which goes well beyond a mere attachment to personal freedom. Autonomy means to be self-directed, to govern oneself in accordance with a law one has chosen for oneself.[6]

It may be true, as Brooks claims, that “modern liberalism comes in different flavors.” But those flavors all share a commitment to individual liberty. Liberalism sees the rights-bearing individual, existing in the “state of nature,” as prior to any societal bonds or obligations. As a rights-bearing individual, I have no obligations other than those I freely choose; I have no bonds apart from those I willingly enter into. “I possess myself,” to quote Brooks’s three-word summary. Canada’s euthanasia regime is not a bug in the system; it’s the inevitable destination once we accept this starting point.

But let us assume, for a moment, that David Brooks is playing chess with us. He’s a wise, measured, thoughtful writer, after all. Perhaps he’s implementing a shrewd strategy. Suppose he knows the average reader is neither a nationalist nor a Marxist, but an ordinary American citizen hopeful for the renewal of our common life. Might he be making a grand play to cleave liberalism from the individualism that has long accompanied it? What if he could convince a majority of Americans that real liberalism begins from the conviction that “I am a receiver of gifts” rather than “I possess myself?” Couldn’t this rescue America from the excesses of both right and left and set us on a course for civic renewal? Shouldn’t we all root for the success of such a project?

Well, yes – if such an outcome were possible. But it’s not. And the reason is quite simple: liberalism can only liberate; it cannot build. Liberalism is a naturally progressive ideology. As soon as it liberates individuals from one set of constraints, it immediately begins searching for the next. And as a society, we have long moved beyond the sort of common-sense liberalism that would make Brooks’s prescription viable. We’re now liberating ourselves from our physical bodies. There’s no turning back the clock to an earlier, less corrosive version of liberalism. As Hazony observes: “Enlightenment liberalism, as a political ideology, is bereft of any interest in conserving anything. It is devoted entirely to freedom, and in particular to freedom from the past.”[7] Freedom is what we wanted, and the freedom to die by lethal injection is what we’ve got. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.  

The classical and Christian tradition created the conditions for liberalism to arise in the first place. Now the child has grown up and killed its mother. It is the classical and Christian tradition, not its liberal offshoot, which believes in the givenness of things. When David Brooks uses the language of “gifts-based liberalism,” he’s borrowing from the lexicon of Christianity. It is true, in fact, that life is a gift; that each individual human being has inherent dignity; and that freedom is a wonderful thing that should be used in the service of others. But by severing these insights from the Christian tradition on which they are built, liberalism has liberated us from the very constraints necessary to a healthy, stable, and thriving society.

We won’t achieve a healthier society by recycling liberal first principles. We’ll only achieve a healthier society by retrieving and renewing some vision of the common good. That’s one thing liberalism can’t give us. And that’s why David Brooks, and the rest of us, should stop trying to reboot liberalism.

Footnotes

[1] Yoram Hazony, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2022), p.1.

[2] David Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 49.

[3] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Garden City, NY: Dover Publications: 2002), 8.

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 392.

[5] Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions, 30.

[6] Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions, 28 & 34.

[7] Hazony, Conservatism, xviii.

Bob Thune

Bob Thune (MA, Reformed Theological Seminary) is founding and lead pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of Gospel Eldership, coauthor of The Gospel-Centered Life and The Gospel-Centered Community, and creator of the Daily Liturgy podcast. In addition to his work as a pastor and writer, he coaches and trains church leaders and helps to lead a classical Christian school.