Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

23 January 2010

Bradley on liberalism

Anthony Bradley pays me the compliment of appealing to my Political Visions and Illusions in this post on the WORLDMag blog: Conservative vs. liberal. Here's Bradley:
Koyzis rightly points out that we all tend to waffle between idolatry and gnosticism in our political alignment. We are idolatrous when we believe that our political preference is the remedy for the world’s problems, and we are gnostic when we believe that competing ideologies are inherently evil. In an honest moment, I would confess that I do believe that my political ideology is right and all others are wrong because, at the end of the day, I think I’m always right. This is why I struggle with whether I am liberal or conservative. . . .

Liberalism starts with the fundamental belief in human autonomy, which means being self-directed and free to govern oneself in accordance with rules in which one willingly submits. The most basic principles of liberalism, according to Koyzis, is that everyone possesses property in their own person and must therefore be free to govern themselves in accordance with their own choices provided that those choices do not infringe on the equal right of others to pursue the same. Human persons should be free from coercion that favors one person or group’s preferences for another. As such, true liberals have a consistent aversion to government coercion in ways that conservatives do not.

I am pleased, of course, that Bradley appreciates my book. In response I would indicate that I am less concerned with what separates liberals and conservatives than I am with probing the spiritual roots of a number of ideologies, of which these are only two. In reality, liberalism and conservatism are not the opponents people generally think them to be. Liberalism is predicated on the assumption that all communities, including such basic institutions as state, church, marriage and family, are reducible to voluntary associations. Because conservatism is merely a tendency and, unlike liberalism, lacks a distinctive account of state and society, there is much overlap between the two. One can easily claim the conservative label and at the same time accept the contractarian account of the state. American conservatives, with their affection for their own founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, are practically obligated to do so.

And, no, true liberals do not "have a consistent aversion to government coercion in ways that conservatives do not." At least not all of them do. This is the upshot of my tracing the development of liberalism through five stages beginning with the Hobbesian commonwealth, followed by the night-watchman state, the regulatory state, the equal-opportunity state and, finally, the choice-enhancement state. Because it is up to the parties to the contract to decide exactly what government should do, they are within their right to demand a full-blown welfare state, if they so desire. Yet they remain "true liberals," who simply take the logic of this position further than many professed liberals are willing to.

Bradley might wish to consider dropping altogether both conservative and liberal labels. If he admits that "there are some American conservative cultural traditions that America has benefited by extinguishing," then he may not be a conservative at all — at least not in the sense in which it is used on this side of the pond. Yet if he is willing to recognize, as I hope he is, that not all communities can be reduced to voluntary associations, he is almost certainly not a liberal either. At this point I refer him to the last three chapters of my book where I attempt to point to a way beyond the distortions of ideological thinking.

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2 Comments:

  • David, I read the whole book, trust me (which is why I was recommending it). I have a word limit on Worldmag blog and couldn't comment on everything in the book. The point of the short blog post was to introduce people to some of the content in the book not to offer a discussion of the nuances.

    By Blogger Anthony, at 11:00 AM  

  • Thanks, Anthony, for plugging my book. Of course, I expect a big increase in royalty cheques next time around! :-)

    By Blogger David Koyzis, at 12:30 PM  

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