If you were to ask a liberal what liberalism is all about, she would most likely say something along the lines of “Human rights” or “Liberty, equality, and fairness”. Liberals pride themselves on the self-evident rightness of their cause and the nobility of their agenda; in that self-assurance, of course, they are simply being human, all too human.
Critics of liberalism, however, have a very different view of it; in fact, they have at least two very different views. For instance, some critics of liberalism accuse liberals of seeking power and control not to advance their “noble” agenda but to satisfy their own personal ambitions. Those critics frequently warn that liberals want to control us, intruding on every facet of our lives—even telling us what light bulbs we can use!
But Daniel Mahoney (at City Journal) articulates a different (but equally common) critique of the liberal project. According to him, “Modern liberalism is, at heart, a philosophy of comfortable self-preservation that estranges men and women from the moral contents of life.” Citing the French philosopher Pierre Manent, Mahoney explains that “modern political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke replaced action with a deterministic “flight from evil”—there is not only no summum bonum, or highest good, but also the full range of goods is replaced by evils (i.e., hunger, pain, and even death) to be avoided. 2
Comfort rather than character being its goal, liberalism (according to Mahoney and Manent) has devolved over time into an undemanding rights- and entitlements-based creed:
Authority, in every aspect of state and society, came under assault, and society began to undo its bonds. The rights of man were increasingly understood in contradistinction to the rights of the citizen. Individualism went hand in hand with a theoretical and practical antinomianism. Public institutions found themselves redefined as “docile instruments” at the service of a conception of rights that made no serious moral or civic demands.
For someone like Mahoney, who holds to an Aristotelian notion (modified by his Christianity) of human telos and virtue, the question is: If adversity builds character, what kind of character is promoted in a society that prioritizes making life easier—through technology, on the one hand, and through an absence of “moral or civic demands” on the other? 3
Mahoney summarizes his case (and, to repeat, the case made by Pierre Manent) against liberalism:
The antinomian cultural and political enterprise [of modernity] has played itself out. [Citizens] of every stripe and religious affiliation need a “common life.” Bonds cannot be endlessly undone. The human associations—nations and churches—in which human beings actually live must receive their due…a West that forgets classical wisdom and Christian hope, the Roman virtues and the Christian confidence in Providence that jointly animated the Western soul, is destined to succumb to lethargy or worse when confronting the challenges of the late modern world.
Say what you will about Mahoney’s argument, but it represents a serious-minded critique of the liberal order.
Theoretical attacks against liberalism, then, come from two competing directions: from those who claim liberals are totalitarians in reformers’ clothing who want to control every aspect of our lives, and from those (like Mahoney and Manent) who claim that liberalism fosters a “practical antinomianism” and an apathetic citizenry. Whether those seemingly contradictory attacks can be reconciled is not important; what is important for liberals is to understand them both and to take them seriously.
To delude ourselves (full disclosure: I consider myself a liberal) that critics of liberalism are simply benighted or greedy or irrationally resistant to change is—in addition to being ad hominem—to miss the opportunity to clarify our own purposes and the means by which we seek to achieve them.
Liberals have every right to be confident that we are on “the right side of history” (a much disputed phrase of late); but “confident” is not the same as “smug” or “complacent”. It is an error to believe that liberalism, either in its premises or in its enactment of those premises, is beyond criticism. A truly confident liberalism should not dismiss critics; it should engage respectfully with them and learn from that engagement.
1 Less well known are these stirring lines from the same poem:
2 Other conservatives who have made similar charges against liberal modernity include T.S. Eliot (“We are the hollow men”) and C.S. Lewis (“Men without chests”).
3 By sheer coincidence, I have just come across a relevant quote from one Samuel Smiles, an unabashed 19th-century liberal who believed strongly in “self-improvement” (he wrote a book in 1859 titled SELF-HELP); the quote is “True liberty rests on character”. It may be that the charge that liberals are unconcerned with character is misplaced, or at least exaggerated; according to Edmund Fawcett (LIBERALISM), “Reforming character was a burning preoccupation” for liberals (in the 19th century, at least). In fact, it was the liberal zeal for reform that led so many anti-liberals to denounce them for their intrusive efforts at social control.