I’ve had several conversations in the past year in person and online in which I referenced “the liberal order” or “liberalism” as me and some of my buddies understand it, only to find that I have engendered confusion with this term. Thus, I figured it would be worthwhile to write as short a post I can to explain an idea that I think is really important. (I’m not the only one, very different books are dedicating whole chapters to similar explanations!) Or if you’d prefer to skip all that, there’s a meme I made that more or less explains it.
When people use the word “liberal” nowadays, most of the time it refers to leftist or center-left ideas, ideologies, policies, political parties and candidates. There is also “Classical Liberalism”, which refers to the Enlightenment conceptions of individual liberty that animated the American Revolution and similar movements in Europe. Both of these are related to “the liberal order” (this is the last time I’ll use that in quotes), but not entirely.
Modern political liberalism is generally oriented around maximizing the liberty of individual persons, including liberty from the constraints of poverty or sickness. The Life of Julia is a great example of this idea; the state taxes its citizens in order that any citizen can rely on the state to provide for him or her and maintain his or her independence and autonomy. Many left-liberals will argue that their affinity for this kind of state has more to do with empathy and a sense of mutual dependence (or perhaps a “right” to food, shelter, and healthcare), and I don’t doubt that, but their basic ideological framework still presupposes that one’s obligation to others still begins and ends at taxation. Other structures of care, like the family, are merely accidents of nature and can be broken or formed by entering into various kinds of social contracts.
Classical Liberalism similarly conceives of the normative citizen as an independent, autonomous, free-thinking individual who enters into social contracts with others of their own free will, but it is less sanguine on the whole tax-and-welfare-state thing. Its legacy lives on in what we call right-liberals, “conservatives” who hold the same basic idea that liberty, autonomy, and independence are the foundational aspects of living but don’t think the state is necessarily obligated to provide so much for those who aren’t as fortunate or virtuous. The difference between left-liberals and right-liberals is just a small fork in the road of liberalism, with one side believing that they should have a lot of freedom with their own money and the other side believing that everyone’s money should be used to make sure everyone’s freedom is maximized. Liberalism is, one might say, the operating system for the whole world.
The politics here are minor compared to the social and cultural soup we’re all swimming in, which has baked individual autonomy into all of our value systems while forcing us to construct our own identities, all of which happen to be mediated through technology. In Western societies, every person is very explicitly told in a variety of ways that they can and must discover their true self and express that self by whatever means necessary as long as anyone else involved in that self-expression consents to however that expression happens. In this ideology, limits are bad and we ought to use science to break their hold on us wherever possible.
I think many Western Christians, even the very conservative sort, are often stuck in this mode anyway. When one’s lifestyle still basically treats autonomy as one of the highest goods (as expressed by making enough money to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle insulated from the obligations we have to other people), it kind of defeats the point of trying to live a life connected to the body of Christ. Conservative politics don’t help either, since most of the issues they center (besides abortion) involve the freedom to acquire or keep money and weapons, or they privilege an artificial state identity over obligations to fellow Christians. Even the best good-hearted right-liberal paradigms still fundamentally believe that you have to give people the freedom to choose what’s best and hope that enough people choose what’s right.
This — and the accompanying left-liberal paradigm that people will choose what’s best if you provide for their basic needs — is a fundamentally flawed position. People need structures to help them learn wisdom, understand their identity, and choose what’s good. Under conditions of constantly-shifting liberty (what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity”), people get disoriented and having trouble shaping their identities in good ways. Even if people were 50/50 on choosing what’s good for them vs. choosing what’s bad for them, we still see wisdom, prudence, and virtue tending to lose out because the people who profit from violence, corruption, and indulgence in desire use all sorts of dirty tricks.
For example, if there was no pornography on the internet, I think maybe 10%-15% of current internet porn addicts would have found some other outlet for their illicit desires, and the rest would have just kept it in their pants. The existence of a multibillion-dollar industry bent on cultivating the very worst desires in people used the free flow of information to create addicts out of otherwise non-addicted people by hacking the susceptible parts of our brains (and souls). Practically no one truly wants to spend hours of their time looking at soul-destroying trash, but the tidal wave of liquid modernity has exploited their freedom, saying “You’re always free to choose differently!” and laughing all the way to the bank.
This isn’t just a problem for conservatives who think it’s bad that simulated sexual assaults get millions of views; it’s bad for anyone who thinks that the planet is in danger from human consumption. As Paul Kingsnorth says, “Want is the Acid” dissolving us all. Unlimited human freedom to choose how and what they consume inevitably leads to disaster for our neighbors and the planet; I think most liberals would agree that we need strong limits on our consumption. The problem is that every other cultural force is in favor of rejecting limits altogether. Thus, it is astoundingly difficult to get other people to agree to reasonable limits if they are otherwise told to follow their desires wherever they may lead.
Humans don’t thrive in conditions of autonomy; we are born dependent on one another and spend our entire lives in interwoven webs of mutual dependence and service. When our political ideology treats as normative the autonomous, freely-contracting individual (a person who represents at most 2/3 of the population at any given time), it inevitably distorts our ideas about who is worthy and who is not. When our social ideology encourages us to only submit to obligations that we choose (except, perhaps, for taxes that a group of experts then distributes), it inevitably distorts our sense of obligation to others that we deem unworthy or difficult to love. When our cultural ideology urges us to create or find our own identities, we inevitably find ourselves either chasing the identities that are offered for sale or falling into bottomless pits of mental illness and despair. This is what we mean by the liberal order or liberalism — this interwoven overemphasis on liberty and autonomy that dissolves our shared connection with the earth, one another, and our selves.
At this point, two objections arise. The first comes from right-liberals and left-liberals who have no objection with using the state to enforce their preferred limits (on others). Yet their acceptance of or celebration of limitlessness and autonomy in other arenas leads them and others to become slaves to whatever they choose not to limit. If the foundational principle animating cultural, social, and political existence is still autonomy, the result is still ugly. You’re still living in a world where the internet makes a person who they are. Not only that, but the unsteadiness of the liberal order generates reactions, many of which are nasty and authoritarian.
The second objection comes from all sides, who have a way of life (Christianity and liberal humanism are the two biggest suggestions) that, if embraced universally, would lead to peace and flourishing. And that’s fine; there are many, many options that human beings can choose to develop the virtue and self-control necessary to thriving individually and communally. But if the market in which your ideas are competing is one in which autonomy and freedom are the foundation, you’re always competing with the pornographers, the SUV makers, and the warmongerers for attention. In the rising tide of liquid modernity, the best you can hope for is to pull a few people into your lifeboat; everyone else is still living in the acid. And it’s the most vulnerable whose skin gets dissolved first.
Human beings need structures, traditions, and institutions to help us become people who choose what is good and love others, without them, we devolve to being controlled by our baser impulses. We live in an age where the acid is dissolving all of those things, and so we need stronger cultural, social, and political foundations and infra/super-structures to overcome them. The good things that we’ve reaped from liberalism and its freedoms can only be used rightly by virtuous people, but liberalism destroys the institutions that make people virtuous enough to exercise freedoms rightly.
What’s the alternative? That’s a much more complicated question to answer, and I will take my best swing at it in the next post. For now, though, we have to start with the basic understanding that we’ve built our societies around an imaginary subject found only in philosophy books, economics textbooks, and culture-war jeremiads, a person who doesn’t need anyone else and doesn’t need to be nurtured into choosing rightly. In the words of Leah Libresco Sargeant, “a totally independent, autonomous person who never has and never will exist.”
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org