10 November 2004

The development of liberalism

Joe Carter, the Texas überblogger, has quite adequately recounted the five stages in the development of liberalism as described in my book. The stages are, once again:
1. The Hobbesian commonwealth
2. The night watchman state
3. The regulatory state
4. The equal opportunity state
5. The choice-enhancement state

Each stage beyond the second sees a progressive expansion in the reach of the state, as sovereign individuals, desiring to pursue their own ends, continually alter the terms of the social contract when these ends demand it. At the second stage, the parties to the contract wish to keep government as small as possible, but as the combined effects of their self-seeking lead to inevitable abuses, government is called on to rectify these. Because liberalism recasts political community as a voluntary association, there is no fundamental reason to oppose the state's expansion as long as the citizens wish it. Thus at its third stage, liberals come to expect government to curb the large corporate concerns. At its fourth stage, they call on government further to secure equal opportunity. And finally, in its fifth stage, corresponding to the last four decades, liberals call on government to cushion the impact of a wide variety of personal choices whose consequences would otherwise be destructive.

Is this our future?

But is this really the final stage? I didn't mention it in my book, but I do follow liberalism's logic even further in the classroom. So what lies beyond the fifth stage? I don't know for certain, of course, but I strongly suspect that it's the first stage again. In other words, the development of liberalism may prove to be circular. How so? At the risk of oversimplification, let's examine the most famous sentence in the United States Supreme Court's notorious decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992):

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

This is heady stuff, to be sure. Just imagine. Defining my own concept of the universe, or of existence itself. I didn't know I got to do that. Now imagine everyone doing the same thing. It seems to me that little word chaos was coined some time ago to describe the likely result. Thomas Hobbes had his own expression for it: Bellum omnium contra omnes. "War of all against all." For which, of course, he prescribed the Leviathan, an omnicompetent ruler knowing no legal or ethical bounds, only practical ones. Is this where we are heading? Are we destined to repeat the whole process again? Stay tuned.

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