Liberals vs liberals: How individualism is the prerequisite to statism

23 Aug

I’ve had a book idea for some time with the title Liberals vs Liberals.  It would depict modern politics as basically a fight between modern liberals (adherents of statism, camping in the Democratic Party) and classical liberals (adherents of individualism, camping in the GOP).  Proponents of classical conservatism, on the other hand, are essentially absent from the public discourse.  To be sure, they exist.  But they enjoy no media platform, like MSNBC or Fox-News.  They see American individualism not as the target of the modern welfare state, but the cause of it.  According to classical conservatives, unfettered capitalism, the rise of super corporations, and the exchange of non-coercive social institutions, like church, family, and community, for the licentiousness of individualism, actually leads to statism.  John Medaille has a pretty good article which addresses the impossibility of fusing conservatism with individualism and how modern ‘conservatives’ are such in name only.  Here are some clips:

[There is no conservative movement in American], only a movement in which the concerns of conservatism are subordinated to the needs of economic liberalism. This will never work, or at least, it won’t work for conservatives; they will be forever wondering why they can run but cannot rule. They will always wonder why, after getting their friends into office, bad things happen, the same bad things, more or less, that happen when their friends don’t win. The same things happen because the same ideas rule, merely in left- and right-wing variants, which really aren’t all that variant.

[What about libertarian impulses in the GOP?]  But the greater problem is that libertarians are not opposed to big government; they are opposed to all government, and that is not the same thing. From the libertarian standpoint, if the government acts at all, it acts unjustly. The only just government is an impotent government. But as a practical matter, this does not result in limited government, but in a government that grows to gargantuan size. The libertarians fail to recognize the gargantuan forces in society that result in a demand for gargantuan government. To put it briefly, the higher the piles of capital, the thicker the walls of government necessary to protect them. As a practical matter, when the government tries to limit the influence of these gargantuan entities, the libertarian arguments are summoned forth with all the solemnity of Holy Writ. But when those same entities want a lucrative contract, a bailout, a subsidy, an exemption, or an increase in their power, the libertarians are dispatched to the corner, to stand there like errant schoolboys until they are once again summoned to do their duty. Many libertarians resent playing this assigned role, but if you want to read a defense of monopolistic and oligarchic capitalism, you will have to go to the major libertarian sites.

Here we can see into the conundrum that is at the heart of modern conservatism: we have tried to marry social conservatism with economic liberalism. For what we call “capitalism” is merely the Marxist epithet for what was originally called “liberalism.” Our situation then is that we keep meeting in the social realm arguments we have already conceded in the economic realm, and we wonder why our social arguments seem to carry no weight. And we are constantly surprised that what we win in elections we lose in ruling; that no matter what the regime, the results are the same: a bigger state, a larger burden, and a smaller sphere for local self-government. The state grows larger, and the access to the public purse for large corporations grows greater, while the role of the citizen is diminished. The spaces that were once occupied by small retailers and manufacturers are colonized by a few large firms, and political life becomes, more and more, the domain of powerful pressure groups quarreling over their share of the public booty. The political and economic freedom of the family shrinks until it becomes no more than a mere client of the state and the corporations.

[on the Tea Party]: The ideology of the Tea Party, insofar as I can locate any, is to assert an individualism against the all-powerful state. But individualism is not something opposed to statism, but rather its prerequisite; the state cannot be everything until everything else is nothing. Individualism erodes every other institution, leaving nothing but the state. You end up with a situation where any attempt to assert a common good gets labeled as communism…

Final point: in any argument between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.

Also, from another good article on how individualism leads to statism, see Patrick Keenan’s essay.  He has a fantastic quote from Robert Nisbet which sums up the argument (Nisbet gives us an insight from Alexis de Tocqueville)

“It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth-century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.”

Essentially, the argument that these classical conservatives make is that the rise of the modern welfare state is a direct result of the philosophy of individualism as an organizing ‘social’ principle in the 19th and 20th century.  Make the individual the ultimate and basic unit of thought and social action, detach (or ‘free him’) him from social connections (church, family, local community), maximize his freedom and make freedom his only concern, and in the ensuing social vacuum, he will naturally construct a huge state in order to clean up his own mess without enduring the pain of reorienting his life towards duty, virtue, and social obligation.  This, they write, is what is happening more and more in America and what has happened in Europe.

Good articles on this line of thought from Front Porch Republic:

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