February 23, 2009


Liberalism, Civil Society, and the Promsie of Compassionate Conservatism (Kenneth L. Grasso, 02/17/09, First Principles)

Over the past several decades American culture has been transformed by an intellectual system that may be called Enlightenment or philosophical liberalism. By Enlightenment liberalism, I do not mean liberalism as opposed to conservatism as these terms are used in our popular political discourse. Nor do I mean the broad political tradition supportive of the idea of constitutional government, limited in scope, subject to the rule of law, and responsible to the governed. Rather, by Enlightenment liberalism I mean a model of man and society that originated in the seventeenth century and which has come to dominate both modern political theory and contemporary American public argument.

To appreciate why Enlightenment liberalism has played so important a role in the erosion of civil society, it is necessary to understand its nature, to grasp the core commitments that make it a distinctive intellectual tradition. Perhaps liberalism’s most striking feature is its individualism. It insists, as R. Bruce Douglas and Gerald Mara have observed, that “politics is justifiable only by appeal to the well-being, rights or claims of individuals.” But this individualism must be seen within the context of liberalism’s further nominalistic and rationalistic metaphysical commitments; liberalism in the end is, as Roberto Unger has shown, not so much a theory of politics as “a metaphysical system.” And liberal metaphysics necessarily entails “the rejection of teleology,” the rejection of “the claim that there is a discoverable excellence or optimal condition . . . which characterizes human beings” as such—here, quoting Douglass and Mara again.

This vision of man has far-reaching implications for liberalism’s understanding of social and political life. To begin with, it causes liberalism to move inexorably in the direction of a progressively deeper, a progressively more radical, individualism. Liberalism, as Michael Walzer notes, is “a self-subverting doctrine” which “seems continually to undercut itself . . . and to produce in each generation renewed hopes for a more absolute freedom from history and society alike. Much of liberal political theory, from Locke to Rawls, is an effort to fix and stabilize the doctrine in order to end the endlessness of liberal liberation.” Indeed, the history of liberal thought is largely the story of the triumph of the will—the triumph of the subjective will of the individual over those elements in the political theories of earlier generations of liberal thinkers that had acted to restrain it. What results is a “sovereign self” unencumbered by any ends not of its own choosing and thus unable “to entertain the notion of relations as natural.” For liberalism, as Francis Canavan writes, “relations are external, accidental and adventitious, not the consequences of the natures of things.” All relations are essentially external, voluntary, and contractual. In other words, as Carl Schneider argues, all relations are market relations and human communities are only collections of “individuals united temporarily for their mutual convenience and armed with rights against each other.” [...]

Seen against this backdrop, it becomes clear that mere celebrations of the value of freedom and self-reliance, and arguments regarding deleterious consequences of particular state interventions, will not suffice to check the growth of the state. It is no accident that the night-watchman state of classical liberalism was succeeded by the welfare state of modern egalitarian individualism. As Tocqueville suggests and subsequent events have confirmed, individualism and statism are mutually reinforcing.

To halt the growth of the omnicompetent state—and to address the broader array of social disorders, and the deeper process of social decline of which it is a part—it will be necessary to repair the fabric of civil society. This, in turn, presupposes our escape from the constricted intellectual horizon in which Enlightenment liberalism has imprisoned our thinking. Both by installing an impoverished vision of social life at the heart of our political culture, and restricting our basic policy options to a choice between a libertarian and a statist individualism, the liberal model of man and society has been one of the major causes of the contemporary decline of civil society.

The revitalization of civil society will require the rejection of the corrosive individualism that informs both classical and egalitarian liberalism, and the truncated ontology of social life to which it leads, in favor of a richer vision of man and society. It will require the rejection of the false alternatives of libertarianism and statism in favor of a better understanding of the state’s role in the overall economy of social life and of its proper relation to the vast array of other social institutions which issue from man’s nature as a social being.

It thus requires the articulation of the type of authentically pluralist public philosophy sketched in broad outline here—a public philosophy that would enable our political thinking to escape the individual-state-market grid in which liberalism has imprisoned it. By helping to foster both a cultural environment more conducive to the flourishing of these groups and public policies designed to safeguard and nurture them, such a public philosophy would lay essential groundwork for the revitalization of the institutions and groups of civil society. Against this backdrop, it becomes possible to appreciate the promise of compassionate conservatism.

For at the heart of compassionate conservatism is an appreciation for the indispensable contribution of the institutions of civil society to human flourishing and of the ways in which the well-being of society as a whole depends upon their ongoing vitality. This appreciation has been accompanied by the recognition that the roots of many of our contemporary problems are found in the unraveling of the fabric of civil society over the course of the past several decades. Seeking to forge an alternative to both the night-watchman state of classical liberalism and the welfare state of egalitarian liberalism, compassionate conservatism has sought to articulate an understanding of the state’s role which neither ignores or absorbs the institutions of civil society, but instead looks with favor on them, respects their structure and rightful autonomy, and assists them in the fulfillment of their responsibilities. The promise of compassionate conservatism, in short, consists in its capacity to move our thinking beyond the narrow world of the individual-state-market grid, to project on to the American public scene the insights and concerns of the pluralist tradition. By doing so, it can help lay the groundwork for the type of authentically pluralist public philosophy we so badly need.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2009 9:32 AM
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