Examining Liberalism: Exaggerated Originality, False Anthropology

By Craig Michael White
September 6, 2018

We critics do not always honor liberalism enough (though our lack of respect is often exaggerated). Not only does it hold a maternal place for us, but it contains and has achieved much that is truly great. I honor it, sincerely, for its powerful values and achievements.

But we often exaggerate liberalism’s originality. Markets, for example, have existed since the dawn of human history, and their freedom and order were nourished in the high middle ages. Liberalism’s core commitment to human dignity comes directly from ancient Judaism via Christianity. The idea of human rights as possessions of individuals was a novelty when liberalism was born, but it really is derivative of the notion that killing or harming an innocent person, or taking her goods without justification, is always wrong, an ancient idea universalized by Christianity and preached in every church in Europe (and beyond) for 1,500 years before liberalism.

The beliefs in the need for the consent of the governed and the need for limits on government are far older than liberalism. Even having representatives in government chosen through voting was an English notion that long predated liberalism. A passage from Deneen’s introduction to Why Liberalism Failed is in order:
Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great and enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice.
Deneen in no way rejects what is great in liberalism. He wants to preserve it. He goes on in the same passage to state what he does reject, namely the innovations of liberalism, “especially…a redefinition of the ideal of liberty and a reconception of human nature.” What we need to reject, he says, is “the false turn [liberalism] made in its imposition of an ideological remaking of the world in the image of a false anthropology.”

Where does liberalism go wrong, and how badly? Against its defenders’ typical claims, our problem is not with markets, human rights, limited government, or democracy, bequests that liberalism developed. Our problem, most fundamentally, is with its view of the nature of morality, of man, and of freedom, and its flaws in these areas are deadly.

Classical liberalism discovers the claims of morality through a version of the natural law, as Muñoz notes. But be wary of the name: “natural law” in the hands of John Locke and his successors is very different in substance from what it was for Thomas Aquinas. Muñoz acknowledges the difference, but not its depth. Richard Tuck and Charles Taylor describe a radical truncation of the idea of natural law by Hugo Grotius, a reduction of the precepts to two: an individual right to defend life and the necessities behind it (namely property) and a right not to be wantonly injured. Hobbes adopts this scheme. By contrast, in the Summa Theologica, this is merely the lowest level of what can be found in the natural law, which also carries precepts concerning our sexual and family lives and, at the highest level, our rationality and sociability. The “natural law” of Hobbes and Locke has room for none of this: such rules have to be constructed as positive law after the social contract and our entry into society. The break is radical.

Locke, in a sense, baptizes Hobbes’ scheme by liberally sprinkling God over it, but as Leo Strauss points out in Natural Right and History, we should not be fooled: the structure of Locke’s Second Treatiseis thoroughly Hobbesian, and when belief in God fades, that structure is unaffected. The Pantheon has been sprinkled with Christian statues and symbols: stripped of these, it would make a nice pagan temple again. That is the liberal story: as Christian belief faded, liberalism was left with the startlingly thin morality inherent in its structure. That structure leads inevitably to positivism: morality is just what we decide together.

Liberalism’s foundational view of man is just as startlingly different from its predecessors as its morality. The defenders miss the incredible power of the foundation myth of liberalism: the State of Nature, with its individuals, quite independent of each other, wandering about in the woods gathering fruit and hunting, who finally see the need to make a deal among themselves and form a government. These independent humans have no duties to one another, beyond the bare duty to accept each other’s minimal rights. The equality of human beings is, in Hobbes ludicrous claim, an empirical observation—and when Lockean “God-given” rights disappear, Hobbesian equality is all that is left. Secular liberals can give no clear reason for the equal dignity of human beings, and in fact have discarded it for the beginning of life.

This view of the natural independence of humans departs sharply from reality—humans die without constant help from others—yet from John Rawls’ theory of justice, to the average university student today who thinks Mill’s “harm principle” and Locke’s consent define sexual morality, to the defender of capitalism who is content with consumer consent (no matter how ugly or dehumanizing the product) as justification of what he is doing, to the political scientists who treat democracy as an end in itself, to the neo-Kantian philosophers who start relentlessly with individuals and try desperately and awkwardly to build up to rules for society as a whole, to the defense of abortion that human fetuses are not “viable” (it is the viable adults in the State of Nature who make contracts), our culture is suffused from top to bottom with “state of nature” anthropology.

The defenders of liberalism ignore the stupendous archetypal power of this false morality and anthropology. It molds all our thinking. Murphy speaks sarcastically of the “viruses” carried by liberal modernity, but if there is no virus, what explains the remarkable resemblance of the pathologies? The remedies offered by both Murphy and Muñoz involve an invitation to rediscover the Christian roots of liberalism, but surely that task is at least as overwhelming as correcting its errors instead.

In conclusion, we must defend the value of the individual, but liberalism has no principled defense of that value to offer. The emphasis on individual rights in the liberal anthropology overwhelms duties to families and communities. Markets offer not only material abundance, but an arena of freedom that is a bulwark of liberty in the rest of life, yet liberalism has no principled way to keep markets from becoming autonomous, trading in our flesh (consider porn and the sex trade), and destroying all beauty (as every strip mall testifies). To some extent the Christianity of the Founders filled in the gaps liberalism left, and with borrowed Christian ideals liberalism itself did much good. Even so, the unique and contradictory blend of Christianity and liberalism in the thought of the Founders is gone. An explicit appeal to the Bible will be read as theocracy by many, maybe most, Americans today. We need a way to think of morality and humanity that leads to care for the common good while preserving a robust individual freedom—but liberalism, of the left or the right, seems unable to provide it. The errors built into the foundation are showing up more and more. Christian patches cannot fix them.

This is a second part of a two-part essay on the subject.