Monday, July 09, 2012

Julia vs. Ayn: Why neither of the two sides in American politics is conservative

James Kalb, whose wisdom on political matters, I'm beginning to think, is unsurpassed, has a new column in the Catholic World Report on the two kinds of liberalism, one of which calls itself conservatism.

Kalb, the author of the Tyranny of Liberalism, points out that both liberals and "conservatives" have the same false view of freedom: they just apply it differently. For liberal liberals and for liberal "conservatives," freedom means "freedom to choose freely." "Freedom is freedom to go after whatever it is you happen to want." In his book, Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart describes this modern view of freedom as "the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will—is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth."

It is higher, says Hart, even than reason:
Freedom for us today is something transcendent even of reason, and we no longer really feel that we must justify our liberties by recourse to some prior standard of responsible rationality.
Kalb points out that this view of freedom is accepted by both sides in our political culture:
Even the battle between liberals and conservatives is mostly a dispute between two groups of liberals. The two sides may differ in their interpretation of freedom, but they agree that it comes first, and that in essence it’s freedom to do whatever you want.
But there are differences between the two kinds of liberals in American politics today. For the progressive conservatives (the ones we commonly call "liberals") the idea of freedom is "a sort of Burger King 'Have It Your Way' vision of freedom":
... [I]t’s freedom to choose from a menu that’s as long as possible and available equally to everyone. For that kind of freedom to exist, the choices must be independent of the choices other people make. The menu therefore emphasizes choices that can be made individually and separately, like consumer goods and private lifestyle options. Freedom turns out to mean “access” and “tolerance”—a state of affairs in which people are given what they choose from a set list, and they have a right to have other people go along with their choices.
The Obama campaign has personified this in "Julia":
[Julia's] goals are completely private—even when she has a child it’s an entirely personal choice that has nothing to do with anyone else—and her concern as a voter is to have the government give her what she needs to attain her personal goals reliably and comfortably. The campaign makes her an Internet entrepreneur who creates jobs, and so gives her something of a public role, but the description is unpersuasive. 
A successful entrepreneur" Kalb slyly observes, "is not likely to be someone whose big political concern is whether other people pay for her birth control pills and provide her with a comfortable retirement."

For "conservative" liberals (those we still persist in calling conservatives, but who are really libertarians), freedom is "freedom of action rather than freedom to choose among private satisfactions":
They therefore favor a setting in which the rules of property and contract, along with public services like roads, schools, and national defense, allow people to form whatever goals they want and pursue them with whatever means they can put together. Everything’s open-ended, and the sky’s the limit, but it’s up to the individual to figure out where he wants to go and how to get there. The conservative version of Julia would therefore be more like an Ayn Rand heroine. Where Julia wants secure enjoyment of daily satisfactions, an Ayn Rand heroine wants adventure, struggle, and creativity. She is as single-mindedly interested in doing whatever it is she wants to do as Julia, but in a very different style.
The personification of this "conservative" libertarian Kalb designates "Ayn." Both Julian and Ayn, says Kalb, "are remarkably bad models to follow":
Both ignore the transcendent dimension of human life. Ayn Rand’s romantic capitalism is a fake transcendent if ever there was one, and the faith, hope, and (government-administered) charity the Obama campaign offers Julia have very little to do with the Christian virtues. Also, both are essentially unsocial. Progressive concern for those at the bottom doesn’t include taking them seriously as actors, and the conservative appeal to traditional morality is shaky because it’s not grounded in a serious understanding of the good life. Hence the depressing effects of the progressive welfare state on how people live, and hence the routine abandonment by conservative politicians of issues such as abortion when they become mildly inconvenient.
Read Kalb's article here.

12 comments:

Lee said...

Don't get me wrong, I like Kalb. But if Kalb puts forth *his* idea of freedom, I must have missed it.

When *this* conservative talks about freedom in the context of politics, it has little to do being an entrepreneur or getting rich. (Maybe I should have been more focused along those lines, as I see a dwindling pension and mutual fund looming just behind retirement.)

The point of the American ideal of freedom is that, to the greatest extent possible, we should be free to pursue our desires. But nobody, not even Ayn Rand, thought that we should all be free at all times to run roughshod over the rights of others. To some conservatives, such rights exist because they are God-given. To this conservative, they exist because the alternative is bleak: asking the government, "Mother may I?" every time I want to play trombone or water my lawn doesn't seem like a fulfilling life.

I should not trust myself with all the freedom the Constitution provides -- the role of faith is to instruct me in freedom's proper care and handling. But I certainly don't trust others.

Thomas said...

"The point of the American ideal of freedom is that, to the greatest extent possible, we should be free to pursue our desires."

This is just plain old liberalism. Classical freedom means the achievement of one's purpose, that is, living an objectively good life. It doesn't take someone as brilliant as Augustine or Kant to point out that if you simply pursue desire, you are enslaved.

Martin Cothran said...

Lee,

As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, "... modern conservatives are for the most part engaged in conserving only older rather than later versions of liberal individualism. Their own core doctrine is as liberal and as individualist as that of self-avowed liberals."

MacIntyre's After Virtue is a good place to go for a description of the classical (and Christian) idea of freedom. So is David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It's Fashionable Enemies:

"It should not be forgotten that the concept of freedom that most of us take for granted, and that is arguable modernity's central 'idea,' has a history. In the more classical understanding of the matter, whether pagan or Christian, true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one's nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one's proper "essence" and so flourish as the kind of being one was."

I'll elaborate more on this in a separate post.

Lee said...

> This is just plain old liberalism. Classical freedom means the achievement of one's purpose, that is, living an objectively good life. It doesn't take someone as brilliant as Augustine or Kant to point out that if you simply pursue desire, you are enslaved.

I tried to be clear from the beginning that I was talking about freedom "within the context of politics". It does not preclude living an objectively good life, and in fact is quite congruent and even supportive of it. In fact, my church has quite a few other stipulations it places on the life I should live... without which, one could argue, I would be less free in the sense you seem to mean it.

But with regard to the government, sorry, I don't want Uncle Sam telling me what I must do to live an objectively good life. Frankly, it's none of Mr. Sam's business as long as I behave myself and pay my taxes.

Speaking of desire, my greatest desire is to get right with the Lord and to stay there. Not everyone's desires run along the same lines. But to give people like me the freedom to fulfill my desires necessarily entails giving others the freedom to fulfull theirs. Maybe their desires are less noble. Still better than having some commissar dictate them.

Thomas said...

Lee,

The Christian claim is that one is not free when one follows ones desires unless these desires are properly ordered, and that if one pursues improperly ordered desires one is enslaved. Doing what one wants without external compulsion is, on the Christian view of freedom, at best a parody of true freedom.

The reason you have to say that you believe in a different sort of freedom "within the context of politics" is because the liberal notion of freedom you advance is directly contradicted by Christian doctrine.

One might just as well say that, as a married man, one believe in fidelity, but then there's "fidelity within the context of a drunken night at the bar." But of course this is absurd.

There aren't two human freedoms, one for the purpose of politics and the other for the purpose of religion, ethics, or whatever. There's freedom as conceptualized by Christian theology and freedom as conceptualized by political liberals, and the two are incompatible. To put it another way, a political system that permits people to pursue their desires and as a result produces people who pursue improper desires (greed, lust, whatever) can only be, from a theological perspective, a society of slaves.

Lee said...

> The Christian claim is that one is not free when one follows ones desires unless these desires are properly ordered, and that if one pursues improperly ordered desires one is enslaved.

I don't disagree with that. But my Christian life is surrounded by a political entity called the United States, and that's a different context entirely.

The idea of "properly ordering" one's desires requires an authority to tell us what these are. Christianity and the U.S. government have different authorities. The Lord doesn't care what the First Amendment says, and the President and Congress don't care what the Book of Romans says. Each carry authority within their own context and very little outside of it.

Now, if you want to argue that view of freedom means you and Martin can place the Pope in charge of the U.S. government and dictate to us how we are to enjoy freedom, go ahead. But I don't think you want to do that.

> Doing what one wants without external compulsion is, on the Christian view of freedom, at best a parody of true freedom.

That depends on what "doing what one wants" means. Even Christians have to fight ungodly desires. Part of me wants to behave like a hedonist. Another part of me knows that that path leads to thorough debauchery and perhaps even Hell. But whether I give in to those desires or successful stave them off, you can characterize either outcome as "I'm doing what I want."

> The reason you have to say that you believe in a different sort of freedom "within the context of politics" is because the liberal notion of freedom you advance is directly contradicted by Christian doctrine.

I don't think so. Like it or not, we have a pluralistic society that is not going to accept a Christian theocracy. But at least we have the freedom to gather and worship as we see fit. To allow us to follow the Christian idea of a good life, the government must also allow atheists, Satanists, and Wiccans to follow their idea of a good life (so long as they too pay their staxes and behave themselves).

This kind of freedom functions as sort of a least common denominator. It's designed to permit us to live peacefully together in the same society -- to quarrel, to bicker, to proselytize, but ultimately to co-exist.

> One might just as well say that, as a married man, one believe in fidelity, but then there's "fidelity within the context of a drunken night at the bar." But of course this is absurd.

Well, maybe there is a better analogy. As a married man, I can avoid bars. As a Christian in America, I cannot avoid Uncle Sam.

> To put it another way, a political system that permits people to pursue their desires and as a result produces people who pursue improper desires (greed, lust, whatever) can only be, from a theological perspective, a society of slaves.

Name a society, any society, in which people cannot pursue improper desires. Or can even agree on what "improper" means.

Lee said...

Amend the above please, from:

> Each carry authority within their own context and very little outside of it.

to:

> Each carry authority within their own context.

The Lord is authoritative in all things. But not everyone grants it to Him in their own minds.

Lee said...

I just noticed something...

I said, "I tried to be clear from the beginning that I was talking about freedom 'within the context of politics'".

You scoffed, saying: "The reason you have to say that you believe in a different sort of freedom 'within the context of politics' is because the liberal notion of freedom you advance is directly contradicted by Christian doctrine."

But then later you said, "To put it another way, a political system that permits people to pursue their desires and as a result produces people who pursue improper desires (greed, lust, whatever) can only be, from a theological perspective, a society of slaves."

Isn't that pretty much the formulation I was using?

"From a theological perspective" just seems like a different way of saying, NOT "in the context of politics."

Would it have cleared things up if I had written this instead: "I tried to be clear from the beginning that I was talking about freedom from a non-theological perspective"?

Thomas said...

Lee,

It depends on how committed to an extreme form of post-modernism you are. If you wish to say both that a society is free(from a liberal perspective) and is not free (from a Christian perspective), you must commit to the idea that contradictory truth claims can be equally true, i.e., "relative." Even Derrida's relativism wasn't that extreme.

Lee said...

> It depends on how committed to an extreme form of post-modernism you are. If you wish to say both that a society is free(from a liberal perspective) and is not free (from a Christian perspective), you must commit to the idea that contradictory truth claims can be equally true, i.e., "relative." Even Derrida's relativism wasn't that extreme.

You just made me chuckle.

There is no contradiction in saying that society could be free from a liberal perspective and not free from a Christian perspective. Or vice versa.

Not if only one of those perspectives can be true.

Perspective is one thing, reality another.

Thomas said...

Lee,

What I'm arguing is that the Christian perspective is true, and to the extent liberalism is contradictory, it is false. I suppose you could argue that the classically liberal account of freedom you are advancing is true, but then you would have to argue that the Christian account of freedom is false in most of its important respects. But, unless you are willing to take up a post-modern position, you can't advance both simultaneously. There is a very real conflict (as the MacIntyre quote above hints) with the individualism of liberalism, in its left and right wing forms, and Christan theology.

Lee said...

I don't advance the classically liberal account of freedom because it always true in any transcendent sense. It's simply a workaround. It seems to be the best political compromise available to accommodate both Christian and non-Christian alike.

But there does not have to be a contradiction *in* *my* *life* between having the freedom to pursue my desires and being free to live an objectively good life -- if my desire is to live an objectively good life.

But to accommodate me, the Constitution apparently has to allow the heathens to party on.

Unless you know a better way. If you do, by all means, present it.