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The American Right Is in Serious Trouble

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Two weekends ago, I attended an ISI conference in Baltimore, which largely dealt with questions of political administration. We paid particular attention to American progressive political figures such as Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Herbert Croly. Many of those present were critical of the hubris expressed by these planners, who tried to order people’s lives through a manipulation of social and political conditions. What the progressives desired was man's liberation from material concerns and anything else that held him back from complete self-fashioning. In his German Ideology, Marx sums up these aspirations quite nicely:

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

But while I was reading John Dewey, a question occurred to me: Aren't these aspirations shared by classical liberals? Dewey notes that early liberal thinkers like Locke and Smith (and others who developed their thought like Bentham and J.S. Mill) did hope to improve people’s material circumstances. Liberal thought in the eighteenth century helped further the economic prospects of the burgeoning middle class, eroding aristocratic privileges and envisioning markets for free exchange in which men would be able to determine their own destinies. Those of the nineteenth century went on to attack the privileged elites, campaigning against rotten boroughs and arguing for the end to the Corn Laws. An avowed progressive and supporter of the administrative state, Dewey speaks highly of their accomplishments: “It finally succeeded in sweeping away, especially in its home, Great Britain, an innumerable number of abuses and restrictions. The history of social reforms in the nineteenth century is almost one with the history of liberal social thought.”

Despite this praise, he critiques these liberals’ inability to adapt to the times. Social conditions changed in a devastating way with the combination of technological development and free markets. The conditions of urban poverty became unbearable; private citizens achieved wealth greater than that of former aristocrats; children operated dangerous machinery in urban squalor rather than working on family farms. Dewey labels those who hold to classically liberal doctrines “pseudo-liberals” because they have forgotten that liberalism evolved to free man from despotism.

If the market is the new despot, then the liberal must devote himself to freeing people from its tyranny—hence Marx’s vision.

I bring up Dewey and Marx because they raise an important question for our contemporary political environment: What is the relationship between conservatism (especially of the Christian variety in the U.S.) and “liberalism” as an ideology? Dewey notes that liberalism in all its forms is about freedom (hence the name), (although freedom from what varies from time to time, as do the freedom “from” and the freedom “to”). In the Christian tradition, people are reasonable, but ultimately subject to concupiscence, or the desire to sin. We all make mistakes, acting wrongly even when we understand it to be wrong, hurting ourselves and those around us. The desire to sin means that people are not wholly rational all the time; their actions often lead them to place short-term interests over long-term ones.

The classical liberal desires to create free people. As one student said at the conference, paraphrasing Milton Friedman, “free men may not make free markets, but free markets make free men.” But is this freedom not problematic for the Christian, whose ultimate goal is to find freedom in slavery? As a friend at the conference noted, St. Paul declares:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted. Freed from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:16-18).

Left to his own devices, man is more likely to become a slave to sin than a slave to Christ. Righteousness is hard to achieve, and in an entirely free society, which predicates everything on choice, that is, on liberty, people are more likely to turn away from virtue in a Christian sense. Churches might help, but they cannot save an entire society whose fundamental principle is individual freedom. In fact, people who have lost their Christian heritage in the West are unlikely to turn back to it when society offers them an almost absolute vision of freedom in birth (abortion), life (sex, drugs, etc.), and death (euthanasia, PAS, etc.).

So there's a difficulty here. Christianity demands a kind of slavery to duties and obligations, and the god of Abraham does not see freedom to choose as anything more than slavery to sin. On the other hand, the liberal—classical, progressive, or otherwise—emphasizes liberty above everything else. Freedom from aristocracy, hierarchy, planned economic markets, and so on, must be the primary concern.

This means big trouble for American conservatism. Many on the Right have combined these principles. Christ would oppose government control. Churches must campaign for more liberty on all fronts. But the center cannot hold, and we must be conscious of this growing problem at the heart of American conservatism in order to have any hope of addressing it. There is certainly room for agreement; there will be places in which religious people do desire more liberty, smaller government, etc., but only insofar as such principles lead to a more virtuous society. The Christian does not see life as defined by a strict dichotomy between the individual and the state or between freedom and slavery.

Libertarians and others may look to religion as a grand way to support moral fiber in the face of radical freedom. But temporary and fleeting agreements do not easy alliances or good bedfellows make. As Jacques Ellul writes: “Jesus finds the same mistake in both the Sadducees and the Pharisees, both those who collaborate with the Romans and those who oppose them. In the eyes of Jesus they are both wrong. He will not play any part in the political drama.”

This problem needs to be talked about, sooner than later.

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