Autonomy means “self-rule,” and liberalism makes it the supreme political goal. The coherence of classical liberalism depends on its ability to find a meaning of autonomy that promotes discipline and small government. On the face of it, that should be easy. After all, ruling yourself is a discipline, and external government is its negation. The problem is that there is no such thing as self-rule in general. Men rule themselves in different ways depending on what they are trying to do. Napoleon and St. Francis both ruled themselves, but to very different effect. There are some who rule themselves by voluntarily submitting to the rule of a superior. Others try hard to “loosen up”—discipline themselves to be less disciplined. One could even choose drift and thereby turn idle impulse into a mode of self-rule.
Autonomy can thus be made into anything at all. To make autonomy simply as such the ultimate standard implies nondiscrimination among the various shapes it might take, because ultimate autonomy cannot be subjected to a goal or standard other than the one each chooses for himself. It follows that consistent with its basic commitments liberal government can favor no goal or system of discipline over any other. To the extent such things conflict peace must be made on neutral principles that do not favor one possibility over another. However, goals conflict in enormously complex and comprehensive ways. Maintaining peace among them without favoritism requires an extraordinarily active and wide-ranging public authority. Big government is therefore not a perversion but the natural outcome of putting autonomy first, and therefore of liberal first principles.
Libertarians—updated classical liberals who want to reverse what liberalism has become—try to avoid the conclusion by demanding that autonomy be self-supporting. You can do what you please, but must pay your own way. The problem with that response is that it requires a system of property rights that is independent of any system of values someone might choose. It’s hard to know what that might be. Any system of property rights requires a law of nuisance—you can’t use your property in ways that are unreasonably burdensome to others. What can that mean though? I suppose it would include making a stink or racket, or paving my land so every time it rains you get flooded. But how about making something ugly or saying something annoying that can be seen or heard off my property? Planting trees on my land that ruin the view from yours? Failing to plant trees when that ruins the local feng shui? Depending on what people find an unreasonable burden, nuisance can mean anything at all.
Tort law, another necessary feature of any system of property, is still more open-ended. It requires that I compensate those I injure, but what constitutes a compensable injury—slander, alienation of affections, intentional infliction of emotional distress—can’t be defined apart from the way of life within which it arises. The definition necessarily expresses moral favoritism because it must take the side of some particular way of doing things.
What follows is that realization of the things that make people choose classical over contemporary liberalism—the combination of freedom, minimal government, self-rule and self-discipline—requires abandonment of a defining feature of liberalism, the refusal to recognize particular substantive goods as socially authoritative. Classical liberalism can preserve what’s good in it only by in effect accepting established religion or the equivalent. But if liberalism accepts established religion as fundamental to social order, is it still liberalism?