I’ve given Phillip Blond another chance at convincing me of his vision but alas I find his final product rather incoherent at the end of the day. Writing in The American Conservative, Nicholas Capaldi touches on a number of the reasons why Blond’s vision is less than compelling. Blond, writes Capaldi, describes “what a new economy should accomplish but not how.” This is exactly right, I think.
Capaldi’s critique of Blond’s Red Toryism – and the vision of anti-liberalism in general – is mostly on target:
The distinctive institutions of a liberal order are the technological project (transforming nature to serve human needs and interests), a more or less free- market economy, limitation of government to protect individual rights, the rule of law, and an emphasis on personal autonomy. This culture is the greatest force in the modern world; it has vastly improved the material conditions of life and institutionalized individual freedom.
Curiously, this culture is hardly understood even by those surrounded by it. There are two reasons for that. First, defenders of the liberal order have often unwittingly adopted the framework of their enemies, who in turn have defined liberalism by the silliest things that Jeremy Bentham, Ayn Rand, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick have said. Second, and even worse, the use of “social science” to explain human relations has blinded scholars to the true sources of this philosophy. Having abandoned Weber for Marx, Durkheim, Freud, and deconstruction, social scientists totally miss the spiritual roots of the liberal order. They presume a secular outlook in which religious belief is just another misguided epiphenomenon, and who wants to base a liberal order on that?
Tocqueville, the real defenders of the liberal order have acknowledged that a civil association functions best when it rests upon a larger culture within which individuals voluntarily choose to join subsidiary enterprise associations such as a family, church, or local organizations. These sub-enterprise associations provide the spiritual capital—especially but not exclusively drawn from the Judeo-Christian heritage—that allows a liberal order to work. It is this spiritual capital that nourishes the free and responsible, inner-directed, autonomous individual. It is the smorgasbord of faiths in America, as opposed to state-sponsored religion in Islamic countries or the virulent secularism in Europe, that allows liberalism to flourish.
Where Capaldi starts to lose his edge, however, is in his critique of collectivism (though that last broadside at Europe is silly for the same reasons as these next passages):
The drive to turn all of society into an enterprise association comes from people who have not made the transition to individuality. There is a whole complicated history behind this, but what is important is to recognize that the most serious problem within modern liberal societies is the presence of failed or incomplete individuals. Either unaware of or lacking faith in their ability to exercise self-discipline, incomplete individuals seek escape into the collective identity of communities insulated from the challenge of opportunity. These are people focused on avoiding failure rather than on achieving success. Incomplete individuals identify themselves by feelings of envy, resentment, self-distrust, victimization, and self-pity—in short, an inferiority complex. Anti-Americanism abroad and lack of faith in American Exceptionalism at home are the clearest manifestations.
Having little or no sense of individuality, they are incapable of loving what is best in themselves; unable to love themselves, they are incapable of loving others; incapable of loving others, they cannot sustain life within the family; in fact, they find family life stultifying. What they substitute for love of self, others, and family is loyalty to a mythical community. Instead of an umpire, they want a leader, and they conceive of such leaders as protectors who will relieve them of all responsibility. This is what makes their sense of community pathological. What they end up with are leaders who are themselves incomplete individuals and who seek to control others because they cannot control themselves. They prize equality and not competition, and in place of a market economy and limited government, we get economic and political tyranny.
Sorry for the long excerpts, but I’m in an excerpting mood today.
In any case, it strikes me that Capaldi is critiquing a simplistic political philosophy – Blond’s Red Toryism and critiques of liberalism generally – by using a rather simplistic explanation of his own. I would submit that the people with the littlest “sense of individuality” are generally those who go around talking about how great individualism is or what fine, rugged individuals they themselves are. So-called collectivists are often perfectly fine with individualism but prefer strengthening the social contract with some form of social insurance.
Look at much of Europe, for instance. Have they rejected free trade? Liberal values? Civil rights? In some instance, sure, but for the most part Europeans have found a way to balance liberalism and social security in ways that have preserved the best parts of both, in spite of their “virulent secularism”. Indeed, that is what we’ve done here in our own way. The Democratic Party in America is hardly a socialist enterprise. They generally look for ways to preserve liberalism and capitalism while also providing some sort of social insurance to balance against the more destructive side-effects of market economies. They may not always do this well, but that’s their goal and it’s really the same thing Republicans end up doing when they’re in power as well, for all their bluster to the contrary when they’re in the minority.
Capaldi is also right that more often than not advocates of classical liberalism turn to “the silliest things that Jeremy Bentham, Ayn Rand, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick have said.” But it seems to me that Capaldi himself is doing just that in his assault on so-called “incomplete individuals”.
Many of the critics of individualism are actually critics of the faux individualism spouted by those who fail to understand the very sorts of voluntary associations and communal obligations and reciprocity which empower the autonomous individual – individuals who possess autonomy, I would argue, only insomuch as it is their right to be autonomous. The reality of our existence is always littered with the bias of birth, situation, biology, and innumerable other factors which play or have already played their roles in our psychological and economic composition. No man is an island, and all that jazz.
In the end, society seems to be proceeding toward some sort of fusion between classical liberalism, free market economies and some form of welfare state. Indeed, we are already there with no sign of changing course in any significant manner. We are hopefully moving toward a society which furthers the cause of civil liberties and which also cares to some degree about the social well-being of everyone – including the social well-being which free trade and prosperity contribute to. Crafting and fine-tuning that merger will be the project for generations to come. We will not move toward a purely laissez-faire society nor toward an entirely socialistic one. We will strive toward some semblance of balance.
Capaldi is right to critique Blond, but he would do better to paint with a narrower brush next time.