Why does liberal society function as well as it does? Ordinary people and theoreticians complain about it, its proponents have trouble defending it coherently, and its imminent demise has been announced since long before any of us were born. Nonetheless, it is more widespread and firmly rooted than ever and its development goes from victory to victory. Most people aren’t willing to say so explicitly, but it is generally viewed as the final form of human society, a permanent achievement that has definitively triumphed and can never be superseded.
What is going on? Is liberalism strong in spite of seeming weakness or weak in spite of seeming strength? It is difficult to view something so pervasive and dominant from a perspective that is independent enough to allow assessment of its true strength. Several lines of thought seem relevant, however:
- Liberalism is associated with other things that counteract its effects and make possible non-traditional ways of doing things. For example modern natural science and technology multiply both wealth and power over nature and society, and thus make up for weaker social connections.
- It is farthest advanced in the societies that can afford it, those with steady and lawful habits, and it finds methods—public education, bureaucratic careerism, development and centralization of the media of communication, weakening of independent forms of social organization—to keep the habits of the people in line with its requirements.
- It is a tendency rather than a system, and on the whole has moved slowly and cautiously. It has generally avoided pushing its principles to the limit and destroying completely the things it opposes but depends upon, such as traditional family and similar relationships. Also, it develops partial substitutes for what it destroys. Even though liberalism can’t base family relations on anything but contract or arbitrary sentimental attachment, and therefore has no way to understand sexual differences, it took hundreds of years for it to draw the obvious conclusions with regard to sex roles and homosexuality, and then only when it seemed possible to fill the gap created by family disorder with bureaucratized social services and daycare, including a greatly expanded system of public “education,” and to some extent to substitute immigration for childbearing.
As time has passed and antiliberal institutions and views fallen into disarray liberal restraint has weakened greatly. The ’60s were decisive in that process. It seems therefore that post-60s liberationist liberalism can’t appeal to the long historical success of preceding forms of liberalism as reason to think it will be similarly successful doing what comes naturally for it. Its survival requires conscious self-restraint. That is the element of truth in neoconservatism.
So what now? The liberal democracies continue to prosper economically and grow in power relative to the rest of the world. No real alternative to liberalism has appeared. Nonetheless failures are appearing that seem likely to be decisive in the coming decades because in principle they make it impossible for liberal society to continue and it’s quite unclear what resources there are in liberal society that will make it possible to deal with them. The most notable of these is the inability of liberal society to reproduce itself, culturally—the corruption of education, intellectual life and even science is a serious matter—or even physically. Another is the increasing inability of liberal elites to think or engage in self-limitation or self-criticism. Still another is growing corruption and self-seeking in public life. Again, the problem is not so much that these things are problems as that it appears that as liberalism develops it becomes less and less able to deal with them.
Still, a system that is dead in principle can stumble on a surprisingly long time if nothing is available to replace it. So the key question for the next few decades is likely to be whether ways of life at odds with liberalism—radical Islam or traditionalist Christianity, for example—will be attractive enough to gain and hold enough adherents to give liberalism genuine competition. Things liberalism now emphasizes, like multicultural “tolerance” and the reduction of family to formal legal relations, can be understood as ways of depriving alternatives of any social setting in which they can develop.