Arimathea | Philosophy | A Diagnosis of Modern Political Disease | Comments
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Friday, November 7, A.D. 2008
A Diagnosis of Modern Political Disease

A recurring theme here in the politics category will be why modern political principles are so ill founded. Quite simply, modern political philosophy is largely diseased, and I plan to deal with its component afflictions in future posts. I have already addressed some of these points in earlier posts, but here, I merely wish to sketch out the contours of the problem.

First, however, I would like to recommend Shelby Steele’s article in the Los Angeles Times, “Obama’s Post-racial Promise.” As always, Steele is one of the few insightful and honest commentators about race in the public square. Given the cowardice of white Americans today, only a black man could speak truth openly in a prominent way. Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele—they follow in the honorable traditions of Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington of being prudent, liberty-loving men of sub-Saharan descent who turn their minds at times to the complexities of racial issues in the United States.

So, what is wrong with modern politics? As politics deals with human beings’ living together in communities, the problem of modern politics qua modern—rather than the problem of politics simply, which would have to address the deficiencies and limitations of human nature—is likely rooted in the specific difference of modernity.

The French liberal Benjamin Constant distinguished between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns. The liberty of the ancients is about the freedom of the city from other cities; men are free because no alien force wields power over them. The moral, political, and cultural supports necessary for that liberty demand an active citizenry whose patriotism dictates that all must live, and possibly die, for the city. Otherwise, men would lose their liberty—in death or in slavery—to hostile foreign powers. Regimes like Sparta typify Greek liberty—each citizen develops himself accordingly so that he can ensure the survival of the city, and hence the survival of his own family and kind. Martial valor, self-sacrifice for the good of the whole, and a sense of civic brotherhood and unity are central characteristics in the liberty of the ancients.

By contrast, the liberty of the moderns occurs in large commercial nation states and consists of private freedom from the interference of society into matters that do not heavily influence the survival of the society. In America today, we would call such liberty our civil liberties—our freedom from intrusive governmental power. An element of this liberty is to have the choice to be uninvolved. In the liberty of the ancients, each citizen directly helps govern himself and everyone else in the city, just as he keeps the city safe from foreign aggressors by being a soldier. Internally, each citizen is the police force, and externally, the army, all the while as simultaneously king and subject. In the modern commercial republic, these civic responsibilities are largely transferred to specialists—elected or appointed politicians, temporary or permanent professional soldiers in a standing army, and policemen. Of course, we still harbor ancient republican views—the ideal of the citizen legislator and the esteem granted to serving in the military remain basic American values. On the whole, however, the liberty of the moderns is liberty from internal powers with a focus on the individual, while the liberty of the ancients is liberty from external powers, with a focus on the regime.

Constant and his liberal allies were mainly concerned about Rousseau, his radical republicanism, and the politics of the French revolution. For Rousseau in writing and the French revolution in application sought the liberty of the ancients—an engaged civic brotherhood that together struggles for political freedom from foreign powers. Yet, other factors played upon the frightful stage of the Terror, namely an egalitarian utopianism that cannot be traced to the liberty of the ancients. Certainly, there were egalitarian regimes in the ancient world; democratic Athens was on that path in the classical age. Yet, the horrors of the revolution that were so repulsive to Constant were not due to the centrality of civic matters in the liberty of the ancients but to egalitarianism. The liberty of the ancients is not necessarily egalitarian, but it does give the regime significant claims upon its citizens. If such a regime were based upon radical egalitarian principles, then that regime would transgress the liberal principles of individual liberty and private property, as in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Perhaps, in trying to defend the status quo, Constant and friends found it easier to argue for liberalism in general rather than attack the distorted principles of egalitarianism.

On the one hand, Rousseau and his radical allies and intellectual progeny have legitimate points when they argue that the regime has claims upon its citizens, that members of a community should strive for the common good, and that a robust civic unity is necessary for a society’s health. On the other hand, liberals rightly are concerned about individual freedom—we cannot reduce an individual human being to merely being a cog in a complex human machine. Yet, when it comes to politics, the claims of the city are usually stronger than the claims of the individual, and when the two conflict, the survival of the whole trumps the chosen preferences of the part.

Therefore, I find the liberal strategy for the past two centuries rather unfortunate. Instead of attacking directly the flawed understanding of human nature of Rousseau and friends—chiefly their radical egalitarianism—liberals have sought to deny the collective claims of the city upon its citizens. Their principles have thus forsaken political life altogether. Instead of a city, they propose a marketplace—a meeting place where individuals have dealings with one another based only on consensual agreement. In a marketplace, there is no common view of the good, there is no religion, there is no culture, there is no duty—all that matters is common adherence to some basic rules of exchange. There is nothing wrong about the market as such, but there is something gravely diseased about reducing the city to a bazaar. The city, then, becomes the individual himself and perhaps a collection of voluntary associations in which he immerses himself. What we call the state, in this liberal sense, is rather a collection of polities in agreement about the terms of trade—the World Trade Organization rather than a commonwealth.

In America, we have been rather successful in making the liberal system work because we have maintained our little cities effectively over the last centuries. At first, our State and local communities were real cities, but liberalism has eroded their reality and affirmed our rights to solipsism. Yet, Americans have compensated; in Democracy in America, Tocqueville praised Americans for our ability to join together in associations that help to bind society together. In the absence of a real city with a full-fledged system of values and pattern of human life, we have made para-cities for ourselves in our religious communities and civic organizations. However, as our culture continues to decline and as parents fail to initiate their children into these makeshift voluntary cities, Americans are becoming cities of one—each man lives in his own polity and only deals with others in foreign trade at the marketplace. This situation is dangerous; a human being needs more than a marketplace to remain a human being. Liberalism, in trying to salvage human freedom and human excellence from the ravages of socialism and totalitarianism, have robbed society of its humanity. Certain extreme forms of liberalism have even celebrated this rejection of humanity; Ayn Rand, for instance, extols the virtue of selfishness. For liberals such as she, the individual and his will are all that matter. The political animal is extinct in their world.

Hence, I do not find Constant’s distinction very helpful. First, the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns are less age-specific and more about the competing claims of authority between the individual and the society. Moderation is needed in such claims. The common good obviously takes precedence over the individual good in the ultimate way, as the existence of the latter largely depends upon existence of the former. However, we cannot ignore the irreducibility of a human person to component part in a society. I highly recommend Yves Simon’s A General Theory of Authority, especiallly its treatment of the individual’s relationship to the political common good. Second, I think that the danger behind liberalism’s modernist (rather than traditionalist) enemies results from egalitarianism rather than from an awareness of a regime’s claims upon its people.

At the Sorbonne, I took several courses with Claude Polin, son of liberal philosopher Raymond Polin, and he was fond of pointing out that the Enlightenment gave the world two competing political principles—liberty and equality. We children of the Enlightenment casually think that we can have both goals, but they really have an inverse relationship. The more liberty that individuals have, the less equal they will be. In order to impose equality, one must suppress liberty. Hence, the liberals and the socialists have ever battled in modern politics.

What is the political disease of modernity? I think that it results in large part from these two opposing problems—the problem with liberalism and the problem with egalitarianism. Liberalism deifies the individual into a solipsism—as if nothing existed in the world except the individual—and exalts the will of the individual into the highest, noblest reality. Egalitarianism holds that all human beings—if not all things generally—are equal, when they most clearly are unequal in any and every way, regardless of the empirical instrument used to examine them.

Certainly, egalitarianism and its consequences existed in Greek times; Plato wrote some rather humorous and profound insights about egalitarianism in his dialogues. Yet, egalitarian ideas did not conquer the intellectual world until the modern age, and in that sense egalitarianism is a component infection of the modern political disease. I am not aware of truly liberal precedents in antiquity. Before the advent of modern technology and large commercial states, it probably would not occur to human beings to consider individual independent from his community; for the dependence of man upon his fellow man was strikingly apparent.

So, modernity’s peculiar political follies follow from these two sources—liberalism and egalitarianism. Relativism, for example, results from both sources. In liberalism, we see the source of relativism in its worship of the will. If the individual will is the ultimate arbiter, then you can see how truth itself depends on the will. When you hear people say that something might be true for one person but not for another, they could speak sensibly, as when someone says that peanuts are healthy for John but not for Sally, who has an allergy. However, when they say that a certain view of justice or of theology is true for John but not for Sally, then they postulate various universes that cannot contain both John and Sally. Of course, John and Sally might disagree; they might see different propositions as their truth, but that does not make the propositions themselves true unless they are true. If John and Sally inhabit the same reality, the truth is the same for both, whether or not they acknowledge it correctly. In egalitarianism, if each man is equal, then he is equal in his opinions. If we admit that John is correct and that Sally is not, then we risk our commitment to equality; for John would be better than Sally in a certain respect. The democratic element is obvious; why should one person have the same power in governing as another when one is right and another is wrong? The categories of right and wrong with respect to human opinion threaten egalitarianism (and democracy), and so such commitments lead to affirmations of relativism. As laughably ironic as an affirmation of relativism is, it is nonetheless the way that many people think and behave. You may wonder if anyone would hold such ludicrous ideas, but it is common throughout our culture. Relativism is the de facto world view of most modern people most of the time.

In this diagnosis of modern politics, I might also add one of modernity’s chief ideas—its unquestioning faith in progress. From birth, we are suckled on the idea of progress from the twin teats of foolishness and ignorance. The prejudice of progress effectively prevents us from questioning the assumptions of our age. That we have washing machines, satellite television, and the Mars Rover when our ancestors did not invalidates for us all of their values that conflict with our own. We do not allow for a fair trial between the competing world views because we are so enamoured with the technological power of the modern age. Test it for yourself. Engage people to question their modern assumptions, and shortly you will hear things like the past’s mortality rate, the likelihood of being a serf, and how uncomfortable life was—all quite irrelevant to the matter under investigation. Of course, most people’s mental operations do not distinguish between logical arguments and fallacies, but I think that prejudice rather than simple illogic is behind such answers. The idea of progress is very powerful among people today, and it is invoked to justify ideas just because they happen to be in vogue now—an interesting argument from authority, to say the least—the political equivalent of “because I said so.” Nonetheless, it has much influence in current politics, and I do not think that we can reduce it to the two sources mentioned earlier.

What we today call the Right and the Left trace many of their principles from liberalism, egalitarianism, and the idea of progress. As I treat various political issues in future entries, I’ll address how these sources beget troubled children.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, November 7, A.D. 2008
Philosophy | PoliticsPermalink

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