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A dialogue continues

My liberal lawyer correspondent continues the discussion (previous exchanges here, here and here). Here’s an edited version of the most recent part of the exchange:

Liberal Lawyer: I strongly believe that the comprehensive liberals about which Hitchcock complains are pursuing things that fundamentally conflict with basic political liberalism as proposed by John Stuart Mill: The state is to remove itself from declaring certain answers to ultimate questions established.

Jim Kalb: I just don’t see how a comprehensive system that orders all social life from the cradle to the grave gets by without having a view about what life, man and the world are about. The state educates children, spends much of the national income, establishes things like “family policy,” makes decisions that extend to matters of life and death, and of necessity, simply because it is a state, claims the right to demand loyalty and the most serious sacrifices from its citizens. So I don’t see how Mill’s view makes sense. His kind of liberalism is dead except rhetorically. It’s never going to be an operational system of government.

LL: Hitchcock’s article is useful in describing a real tension among liberal principles. If the Amish have decided that limiting their children’s education is necessary for their way of life, I would favor the Amish. I think the principle of limiting state power over its citizens to what is necessary to achieve an orderly society that protects citizens’ lives and property and their ability to define for themselves who they are (the language from the Casey decision) is more fundamental to liberalism than equality.

JK: The question, as Hitchcock suggests, is whether the Amish decision points toward the future or whether it’s a hangover from the past. The decision is obviously inconsistent with any sort of children’s rights perspective. It takes the authority of the family as a sort of natural given that precedes the state. From a liberal standpoint it reduces the child’s ability to make up his own view of the universe. How can such an attitude toward family authority survive the current tendency (demonstrated by the Massachusetts “gay marriage” decision) to reduce the family to a legal arrangement defined by the state in accordance with the state’s standards and purposes?

LL: You say that there are two separate issues: the assumptions about human nature, the world, the good etc, upon which a state operates, and what the state does to those who don’t share those assumptions. I believe these are not wholly separate. For example, if you have a liberal state that operates on the assumption that human beings are fallible and have not been able to devise answers to ultimate questions the truth of which are so self-evident that no reasonable man could dispute them, and all prior attempts by states to establish certain answers have resulted in tyranny because force, not reason, was the only way for these states to keep their answers established, then it follows that it must tolerate those who disagree. It is legally possible for the Catholic Church to become established in the USA and then to enact Catholic social teachings into secular law. All you need are enough like-minded citizens sufficient to expend the political force to amend our constitution or to call a constitutional convention to write a new one and it is done.

JK: A liberal state is not based on comprehensive skepticism. No state ever is. The claim that liberal states are based on reason expresses the view that they are based on answers to the ultimate questions of politics that are so self-evident that no reasonable man could dispute them. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” etc.

You’re right though that the questions of what the world is like in general and the role of government aren’t wholly separable. If it’s your view that man and the world have no given nature preceeding social convention, so that it’s human decision or social attitudes or whatever that defines the moral nature of things, then it’s not clear where any limits on government come from. Government could remake human nature—abolish the sexes, for example. In fact, that’s one of the projects of contemporary liberal government. But if government redefine human nature it can do anything. It could change the nature of right and wrong.

Any state can change its form and basic principles. All that’s needed is to persuade enough influential people it would be a good idea. Liberalism has a tendency to make that more and more difficult because of its attachment to increasingly-demanding universal principles that are understood to trump any possible political decision. The development of international “human rights” standards, which to the extent effective trump local constitutional arrangements, are an example.

LL: Would a Catholic-controlled state be so accomodating? History says no. It took decades of bloody warfare for Protestants to get the ability to worship freely. What was common to Catholic and Protestant states was their support of illiberal states that didn’t give individuals the right to follow their conscience.

JK: The officially Godless state, the state that in principle recognizes no moral authority that transcends human purposes, is a rather new invention. So far their record overall has been far worse than that of officially religious states. In America we’ve had one only since the early ’60s and it takes a long time in a prosperous and comfortable society to realize the logical implications of basic decisions so we don’t have a lot of historical experience on the point.

As to Catholicism: universities, the modern sciences, representative government with distributed powers, and charters of rights are all inventions of Catholic Christendom. The basic point is that the legitimate goals of liberalism, like limited government, relative autonomy of individuals and social institutions etc., require a general understanding of man and the world so they can be understood, interpreted and applied. I can see how they fit into the Catholic Christian understanding of things within which as a historical matter they developed. After all, that understanding of things has a basis for saying that no human authority is absolute and an institutional basis for opposing some independent but non-political higher authority to the power of the state. I can’t see how they can survive or even make sense in the absence of any authoritative general understanding of man and the world, which is the setting you seem to associate with liberalism.

LL: If the state should operate on the assumption that men are unable to devise answers to ultimate questions on their own because they are sinful by nature but God has given these answers to the one true church which alone has THE right answers, and therefore the state should do all in its power to protect and support that true church and enforce its social doctrines as the law of the land, then those who disagree with this assumption aren’t just wrong but sinful, Satanic even, for they are putting the salvation of mens’s souls at risk and therefore they must be suppressed.

JK: You seem to be saying that non-liberal assumptions as to government lead to absolutely horrible things. You are also saying that if someone believes that the wrong principles lead to absolutely horrible things then he becomes a persecutor. It’s not clear to me how those two views fit together.

Look, people always base what they do, including running governments, on some understanding of what’s good and bad. Since government involves telling people they can’t do things they want to do and imposing whatever sanctions are needed to make the command good, and it also involves the possibility of war and so the need for loyalty that extends to matters of life and death, government always tends to be intolerant on matters of basic principle. You claim that liberal governments are exempt from that rule. I don’t see it. In most liberal countries other than the US you can get sent to jail for saying illiberal things having no immediate connection with action. That doesn’t bother human rights organizations. It seems to me the US situation is a hangover from an earlier stage of liberalism that is unlikely to last. After all, that earlier stage involved among other things an informal establishment of religion that made it possible to view government and human society generally as subordinate to a definite higher authority. It also seems to me that if government overreaching worries you then what you should be looking for, and support if found, is a general understanding of things that relativizes government authority by opposing to it a higher authority that is not political but does have definite institutional embodiment. Something like Catholicism in fact.

All states answer ultimate questions in some way. They have to, because they deal with ultimate situations like birth, marriage, life, sickness and death in a practical way. It seems to me that the basic distinction the current situation presents is between the view that the answers to such questions are set in the nature of things and the view that they are constructed by human choice. The pre-60s American regime was based on the former view, our current regime on the latter. It seems to me that the current regime better effectuates the most basic liberal principle, removal of obstacles to human will, but it has a very different and much worse relation to the possibility of tyranny. That’s why I look at the current regime as a sort of self-refutation of that basic principle.

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