06 May 2013

The tyranny of the choice-enhancement state

In chapter 2 of my own Political Visions and Illusions, I trace the development of liberalism in five stages: (1) the Hobbesian commonwealth, (2) the night watchman state, (3) the regulatory state, (4) the equal-opportunity state, and (5) the choice-enhancement state. The movement from each stage to the next requires an expansion of the state beyond its normative sphere of competence into the minutest corners of life—all in the name of expanding personal freedom. I have summarized this development here: Tracing the Logic of Liberalism.

Not everyone will agree with my analysis, especially those who persist in thinking early liberalism to have been solidly grounded and its later decadent manifestation a betrayal of the original vision. Yet I am by no means alone in noting the spiritual continuities among the stages of liberalism. To take just two of many recent articles on the subject: Douglas Farrow's The Audacity of the State is one of the more trenchant analyses, and this past Friday Wesley J. Smith's The Coercive Freedom of Choice probed what I call the choice-enhancement state, roughly encompassing the period since 1960. According to Smith, "We have now reached the point that others are expected to pay for individuals’ 'choices' and maximizing others’ self-identity—even when it violates the payer’s own beliefs. . . . Not too long ago, Americans mostly believed in 'live and let live.' The ironic motto for the current day: 'You do it my way.'"

Is this paradoxical quality in the unending expansion of individual autonomy implicit in the logic of liberalism? I don't know what Smith would say, but I would say: Yes, most definitely. If liberalism is based on the tendency to reduce all manner of communities to mere voluntary associations, as we see in the contractarian approach of Hobbes and Locke, then we should not be surprised if the effort to mitigate this tendency by, say, an appeal to natural law in the more conservative English-speaking liberals is unsuccessful over the long term, and in the name of freedom tyranny ends up extinguishing freedom.

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