Liberalism, Individualism, and the Debasement of Freedom
Liberalism, Individualism, and the Debasement of Freedom
What happens to mankind when it pursues abstract liberty without the wisdom of tradition and inherited social norms?
The idea that society is a complex phenomenon which depends on the transmission of values, norms, sentiments, and institutions across generations is a contribution of a particular tradition of conservative sociological thought that is often completely rejected by libertarians, the majority of whom have as their primary (or only) social ambition “liberty” in a broad sense.
In this sense, the majority of libertarians, falling in line with the general spirit of the age, have about them a certain approach to the world which emphasizes and praises the freeing of man from what is to be considered various old fashioned ways of thinking and acting that have no place in the glories of the contemporary world.
Instead of finding meaning in the transcendent, stability in institutions traditional and familial, or guidance in norms and patterns that have been handed down over centuries, modern man is characterized instead by an emphasis on the subjective, on the whim of individual man as the absolute sovereign over his own life.
The outlook and practices of elders are rejected as outdated patterns to be overcome; the “ways of our fathers” are dismissed as being stale and lacking emotional fulfillment; religion and objective values are seen as oppressive and without any rational justification and therefore to be rejected without consequence. In all these ways, modern man is as a child who aged without maturing.
Thus, we have come to realize that Hayek was correct in his observation that there are two versions, two traditions of a theory of liberty and with it, a theory of individualism. These traditions are somewhat similar only because we live in the mirage of democratic statism, a quite peculiar and paradoxical socio-political arrangement that is, in the course of human history, the first of its kind.
Under this structure of progressivist administrative statism, there is an illusion that those who oppose state authoritarianism have similar outlooks and understandings of the nature society. In reality, however, the only thing held in common is the want of a smaller and less intrusive government. On this point, Hayek noted: “Though these two groups are now commonly lumped together as the ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty.”
In this 1958 essay Freedom, Reason, and Tradition, Hayek distinguished between English and French liberalism:
“the first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood, the second aiming at the construction of a utopia which has often been tried but never worked.”
That is to say, the English tradition emphasized that man is never found “in a state of nature,” but instead is born into a complex social arrangement among other men who are as complex and multifaceted as the society itself. Thus, liberty, in history and in the real context of actual human affairs, is “not a state of nature but an artifact of civilization.” There are social institutions that not only protect men from chaos and nihilistic loneliness, but also that naturally and organically (often without men even realizing it), restrain him from collapsing back into his barbaric animalistic instincts. Man without social institutions to guide and preserve him is brutish and disastrous; man does not exist for society, but society exists for man.
The French tradition, on the other hand, approaches the world on the assumption that that which is conceived mentally can be achieved over against the complex society as it exists. On this view, man, as the French theorists par excellence Jean Jacque Rousseau stated, “is everywhere in chains.” What must be done to overcome the tragedies of man’s social past is to, with the primacy of reason, reconstruct the foundations of society and law from the ground up; all prior institutions, sentiments, traditions, norms, patterns, religions, habits, commitments, and passed-on lessons must be suspended in preference for the unrestrained passions of each individual to live in accordance with his own dictates: man himself is sovereign above all other social considerations as they have developed since the dawn of civilization.
The French and English traditions were contrasted again as follows:
[The French tradition] found its perfect expression when the leading theorist of the French Revolution, Abbe Sieyes, exhorted the revolutionary assembly ‘to act like men just emerging from the state of nature and coming together for the purpose of signing a social contract.’
The ancients understood the conditions of liberty better than that.
Cicero quotes Cato as saying that the Roman Constitution was superior to that of other states because it "was based upon the genius not of one but of many: it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men. For, said he, there never has lived a man possessed of so great a genius that nothing could escape him, nor could the combined powers of all the men living at one time possibly make all necessary provisions for the future without the aid of actual experience and the test of time."
And as Hayek notes:
“it has been the rationalist, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition, with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, which has progressively gained influence; while the less articulate and less explicit tradition on which English freedom was based has been on the decline. As a result, the political conceptions of the French Age of Reason are today erroneously regarded as representative of the eighteenth century in general.”
Indeed, what self-described libertarians still exist that find meaning, beauty, and promise, in the traditions, reflections, and outlooks of their forefathers? Ours is the age of a revolt against the past rather than a recognition of the twentieth century’s degradation and an impulse to restore what has been lost, to find insight in the wisdom of those that preceded the age of enlightenment.
Now, Hayek himself did not originate the distinction between the English (empirical) and French (rationalistic) approach to sociology; he relied on several sources, the most fascinating of which is J.L. Talmon’s 1952 The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. One of the observations that Hayek makes about Talmon’s elaboration as to why French-style liberalism led to totalitarianism is that man without the institutions that he depends upon for civilized development collapses into his barbaric past. That is, civilized man loses his civility to the extent that he tries to separate out pure rationality from his sentiments and rooted commitments to heritage, posterity, and transcendent values.
The contemporary revolt of hatred against our human roots in favor of the sovereign individual who finds no value in restraint of his passions is a result first of the enlightenment project of disassociating man from the aspects of his social life that are distinctly non-rational. This was precisely the theme of Daniel Ajamian’s well-received presentation on the "Costs of the Enlightenment" at the Mises Institute’s 2019 AERC.
On this specific topic of the attempt to separate the individual from values and sentiments that transcend his own mind, there’s an interesting lesson in an unlikely place. In 1943, as a response to a particular textbook that was kept anonymous at the time of his response (later identified as The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing by Alexander King and Martin Ketley), C.S. Lewis offered three lectures, later published as The Abolition of Man. Lewis’ criticism of the book was that, in arguing that it was not possible to argue for objectively good sentiments toward objects based on the object’s characteristics themselves, radical moral subjectivism would result. There was no such thing as an objectively good response or a bad response to a given object; all things are to be seen as subjectively valued and outside of that one must take a stance of pure apathy toward other people’s values.
Lewis contrasted this approach to the classical one wherein children and students are to be trained to have the proper emotions and sentiments and instincts toward things that would help build their foundation before they approached the age of a developed reason. Lewis refers to St. Augustine and Aristotle:
St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.
What happens if this approach is rejected and there arises a generation of “corrupt men” who have not been trained to accord sentiments appropriately? What happens if a new era of man arises in which the individuals treat values with complete subjectivity, in which the individual is the final arbitrator of what is good, true, and beautiful. This gives rise, Lewis argues, to a educational predicament in which either all sentiments must be removed by the educators as unreasonable chains on what would otherwise be a free and neutral mind; or otherwise some sentiments are specially encouraged for reasons unrelated to “old fashioned” ideas. In either case, the new man has been primed for a dystopian totalitarianism controlled by the new society’s “Conditioners.”
“For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
Men that are not ground in something beyond their own minds, something that transcends the current culture, are not on the path toward freedom but rather on the path to a new form of social manipulation. The new class of Conditioners who have succeeded in preventing the transmission of transcendent values from some men to their posterity, will take the place as the educators of the new man.
The conditioners have been emancipated from all [the transcendent sentiments of old]. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered—like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. For we are assuming the last stage of Man’s struggle with Nature. The final victory has been won. Human nature has been conquered—and, of course, has conquered, in whatever sense those words may now bear.
The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives.
And thus, the abolition of man himself in the rise of the a new form of social manipulation. The primacy of the individual as separated from his roots, from things transcendent, is the path not to freedom, but to tyranny. Without the organic institutions and centers of protection that guide, pass on knowledge, and instruct men in virtue, civilized humanity itself collapses in on itself.
If libertarianism has a use, it is strictly relegated to its particular understanding of the nature and implications of private property ownership; it is not, as is the common understanding and representation of libertarianism, an attempt to release man from tradition yesterday’s norms. Liberty is socially beneficial if it is used virtuously; a liberty without virtue and an appreciation for transcendent things (things outside the individual’s whims) will collapse in on itself. If this is the operative nature of the libertarian movement, and I believe it is, let the lover of liberty and a sound society flee from it.
For it is the abolition of liberty rather than its hope and foundation.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.