15 December 2016

Liberalism or Pluralism? Part 2

You can read my initial thoughts on this topic here. Even more so than my previous post, this one stands as a work in progress.

Liberalism, which began with faith that Reason apart from a reasoning tradition could supply the foundation for a society free from overpowering internal conflict, has managed to maintain its hegemony in the West by truncating affairs of state to the twin goals of maximal individual autonomy and efficiency. By limiting public debate to means rather than ends, Liberalism has proved unable to deal--at least forthrightly--with contested notions of human nature. Liberalism's unofficial creed is that of the well-known American jurist Richard Posner: man is [nothing more than] a wealth-maximizing animal. Thus the only debates are whether we want to maximize the wealth of individuals or of the whole society. This debate, however, can never be resolved on Liberalism's terms. If there is no human nature, there is no end or purpose for individuals or society. The debate over contractual boilerplate will continue to roil contracts scholars interminably.

Abraham Kuyper recognized Liberalism's gains vis-a-vis the ancien regime as well as its threat to members of living traditions where belief in human nature and human ends remained viable. Perhaps, he thought, he could preserve the best of both worlds by having a tiny liberal state over a "pillarized" Dutch society. Verzuiling would permit the members of the leading traditions extant in the Netherlands of the early 20th century to continue their traditional inquires over the Good with separate schools, political parties, labor union, private societies, publishing houses, newspapers, etc.

The balance of the 20th century saw several factors eviscerate two of the three most significant pillars, Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Issues of overreach within the denomination founded by Kuyper weakened the Reformed from within and years of brutal Nazi occupation wearied both Christian traditions from without. But more significant than either of these factors was the relentless homogenization wrought by economic Liberalism. Notwithstanding social pillarization, economic unification proved irresistible. (For some background take a look at my post titled "Markets and Capitalismshere.)*

I thus continue to be unable to see a viable way out. As legitimate an alternative as pillarization was to a unitary political Liberalism, it proved inadequate to fend off the effects of an atomizing economic Liberalism. I'm neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. My darkening view of the immediate future is more of the same: ever-limited space (public or private) for valorization of the Good but ever-more toys to divert us.

*James Bratt's biography of Kuyper hints at this:
The logic Kuyper saw at work is endorsed by the neo-Marxian Eric Hobsbawm's observation that by 1870, under the convergence of two Revolutions--French and Industrial--a Liberal capitalist system was beginning to standardize the world so that, for all the era's movements of national unification, there wre diminishing prospects of genuine national distinctiveness.

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