Liberalism, in all its guises, is a vision of the final form of political association. All history is viewed as a slow and painful struggle toward the realization of the liberal state. Other forms of political association are not denied value, but only because they can be seen as approximations to liberalism. The universalism of liberalism is of a peculiar kind; it is not a universalism rooted in and inseparable from a tradition ordered by a vision of the good. Liberalism rejects the idea of an overarching good in favor of a plurality of heterogeneous goods. And what makes these goods good is that they are the preferences of someone. The goodness of a thing is its being chosen. Hence, the central moral idea in liberalism is rights. Rights are devices that enable us to make the choices of a life plan. And rights are thought to be neutral in respect to the good. As Ronald Dworkin says, “rights are trumps.”
In a truly liberal society, the good is seen as a private matter. The public realm is the realm of rights and choice making, as in a market where preferences are traded. It is this distinction that enables liberals to insist on the separation of religion and state. Why this obsession to keep the public space unstained by religious culture? One reason is the liberal’s understanding of good. If the essence of the good is its being chosen, then it is impossible that there should be an overarching good to human life around which diverse goods could be ordered. Goods are radically heterogeneous and are incapable of hierarchical ordering. This means that the liberal soul itself lacks any overall unity but must compartmentalize the goods it pursues. And so, in liberal society, we are always confronting unbridgeable divisions: the individual and society; morality and law; liberty and authority; the public and the private; state and society. This compartmentalization of the self is celebrated not as a weakness but an achievement. Liberal philosopher John Rawls makes this very clear: “Human good is heterogeneous because the aims of the self are heterogeneous. Although to subordinate all our aims to one end does not strictly speaking violate the principles of rational choice . . . it still strikes us as irrational or more likely as mad . . . ” What Rawls sees as madness, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, and Christian civilization see as the essential core of the good: its power to give unity and wholeness to a life and to a society.
Liberalism, then, is an ideology of radical individual autonomy. And the goal of liberal political order is to maximize the sphere within which one can make choices. As the libertarian theorist Robert Nozick neatly put it, “from each as he chooses to each as he is chosen.” This is not a maxim peculiar to libertarianism; it undergirds Marxism as well. Marx, in his vision of the classless society, presents an order in which one can do as he pleases. As he famously put it, one could fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and do literary criticism in the evening, without having to be a hunter, fisherman, or critic. In the early 70’s, Jean Paul Sartre asked Castro the meaning of his revolution. Castro replied that a man should have what he wants. Sartre asked, What if he wants the moon? Castro reflected and then answered that he should have it. Rather than recognize this remark as the absurdity it is, Sartre found a deep truth in it.
At bottom, the ideology of liberalism and Marxism is to maximize autonomy, or choice making. The difference is that liberalism is willing to allow an inequality of wealth, privileges, and status as long as that outcome was arrived at by a fair procedure; the Marxist cannot tolerate this unequal outcome. Poverty, ignorance, and disease, he insists, are restraints on individual autonomy. So there must be massive concentrations of power in the state to rectify unequal outcomes for the sake of maximizing autonomy. This “dictatorship of the proletariat” turned out to be a pathetic absurdity. In their obsessive quest to maximize individual autonomy, Marxists, socialists, and communists not only minimized autonomy but centralized power on an unprecedented scale, giving rise to totalitarianism.
Few are prepared to defend these regimes today, not because they have been refuted (they were refuted on their first appearance) but because they have collapsed and are now unfashionable. But we should never forget that progressive liberal elites once had great respect for Marxist regimes. Franklin Roosevelt affectionately referred to Stalin as “Uncle Joe”; Eleanor Roosevelt refused to judge Stalin because she did not know his heart; Leonard Bernstein threw cocktail parties on behalf of Chairman Mao. (If we had the chutzpah of a Daniel Goldhagen, we might call these liberal fellow travelers Stalin’s and Mao’s “willing executioners.”) And later, when liberals criticized Marxist regimes, they did so respectfully, unlike their unrestrained criticism of the much-milder regimes of Italian and Spanish fascism. Even today, when we know that communist regimes were worse than had been imagined, it is still impolite to use “communism” as a symbol of something evil. The preferred symbol of evil for the liberal is something called “fascism” or “racism.” For, again, Marxist totalitarianism contains the principle (if not the practice) of maximizing choices; and so it is cut from the same cloth as liberalism. A hundred million perished under communist regimes; yet, ideologically, they all held high the flag of human freedom. It is characteristic of liberalism to believe in the efficacy of words and abstract principles, and to think that society can be transformed by passing a law.
During the Cold War, it was often said that the difference between Marxism and the liberal West is that the former is collectivist while the latter is individualist. This hides more than it reveals. It is certainly true that Marxist regimes were state-imposed forms of collectivism; the Soviet Union was the most centralized regime in history. Yet it was liberalism that created the first state-imposed collectivist regime. The first collectivism was not socialism but nationalism. And the first regime to rule explicitly in the name of individual autonomy (“the rights of man”) was that created by the French Revolution. It was also the first nationalist regime, and the first to institute a modern reign of terror.
The union of nationalism and liberalism seems an unlikely combination: Liberalism is a universalist ideology, whereas nationalism is a parochial notion favoring a certain people. What is absurd in concept, however, can be cobbled together by history. In order to protect the individual’s right to make choices, massive centralization of power was required. The major threat to autonomy, it was thought, came from independent social authorities such as the Church, nobility, provincial governments, the crown, and a hundred other restrictions rooted in the traditions of the ancien régime. Finally, with the elimination of these independent social authorities, the individual would be truly free to pursue his own life plans under the protection of a government now more centralized and more powerful than that of any 18th-century monarch. But with tradition eliminated, what was to justify this massive augmentation of central power?
The answer was found in shifting allegiance from the person of the king to that of a fictitious nation-person called France. The massive centralization of power by the government would be legitimate because it would represent the French people. The problem was that the French people did not exist. The notion of “the people” or “the nation” put forth in the French Revolution was inspired by the classical republican tradition. But in that tradition, the republic is small—no larger than around 50,000 to 200,000 people, and usually much smaller. Rousseau’s Geneva, on which the republic described in the Social Contract is modeled, had a population of around 25,000. In a republic of this scale, where citizens have face-to-face knowledge of one another, it makes some sense to speak of “equality” and “fraternity.” The mistake the French revolutionaries made (and which has been repeated since by most modern “republics”) was to stretch the republican notions of “people” and “nation” onto countries the size of France or larger. A parallel would be building to scale a charming English cottage the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The result would be a monstrosity.
And so it was in building the fiction called the French nation. What had existed previously was not a nation but a “realm” of independent and quasi-independent social authorities having allegiance to the king. As Van Creveld has observed, only between 1 and 13 percent of people in France in the 1790’s could speak “French” correctly; and it was not spoken in the south at all. In 1789, the realm of France contained 80 provincial governments, each having its own laws, customs, and traditions. France resembled a federation more than a modern unified state. To destroy these independent social authorities would require the full force of state violence, and it would take time. Even in the late 19th century, studies in France showed that most schoolchildren, when asked to name their country, mentioned their province. So the revolutionary regime was the first to engage in the state-imposed project of “nation-building”—a project imitated by every would-be nation-state since. It is just this project that the United States is pursuing in Iraq, and with the same ideological justification: A vast-scale unitary state is necessary to maximize an ethic of choice making in the territory known as Iraq.
Thus, liberalism as an ideology came down from the transcendent realm of philosophy and became incarnate in the new state-created nationalisms. Rawls and other liberals, who deem the traditional idea of an overarching good in moral and political life a form of madness, have no difficulty swallowing whole the overarching collectivist fiction of the nation as a condition for liberalism. Lord Acton observed in the middle of the 19th century that three ideologies dominated: nationalism, liberalism, and socialism. Of these, he thought that nationalism would have the longest life—and he was right. All liberalisms have been nationalist liberalisms; and all socialisms have been national socialisms.
What Acton did not explain is how socialism is a natural development of liberalism.
We have seen that the telos of liberalism and socialism is individual autonomy and that both presuppose the framework of a unitary nation-state; they differ only in the means—namely, in their use of the state. This is, of course, not a trivial difference. Liberalism in its purest form would be an approximation to what libertarians such as Nozick call the “minimal state” or the “night-watchman state.” This sort of state is limited to protecting life, liberty, and property rights and enforcing contracts. Here, we seem to have choice making maximized to the highest degree. But if we look more closely, a different picture emerges. Liberalism, as it actually exists in the world, is embedded in the framework of the nation-state. This state will typically be very large because the maximization of individual autonomy is a human right and consequently demands a global solution (or, failing that, the most extensive regime possible). And it will be a unitary state with a central authority having a monopoly on coercion within its territory. It must have an extensive police force, criminal-justice system, and revenue to bring to trial and punish every claim that valid choice making has been violated.
Since no night-watchman state has ever existed in abstract purity, the most we can suppose is one in close approximation to it, which means that those traditional independent social authorities whose destruction was required to establish the nationalist framework necessary for liberalism will still survive. And so there will be radical disagreement as to what can count as a violation of the individual’s autonomy, even if everyone is committed to the ideal of the night-watchman state. Many will find prohibitions against women’s suffrage, public nudity, child pornography, shopping on Sunday, women in combat, public prayers, etc. to be violations of the individual’s autonomy. Others will find these prohibitions compatible with exercises of one’s autonomy properly conceived. Nor are there any “neutral” principles that can decide among these conflicts. “Do what you like as long as you don’t harm anyone” merely pushes the question back to a more fundamental moral disagreement.
Nevertheless, the night-watchman state must make a decision about these prohibitions. And whatever the decision, it will appear to the losing side as an imposition of the state on the individual’s freedom. Such conflicts over what counts as a legitimate exercise of autonomy are an intractable zero-sum game. Consequently, the night-watchman state will separate into distinct parties, each pursuing its own vision of individual autonomy. To gain votes, party leaders will be tempted to be more than night watchmen: They will use tax revenue—only moderately, at first—to foster their clients and what they consider valid exercises of autonomy. And we must not forget that the night-watchman state—as its approximations have appeared to us in history—is a nationalist regime. To defend the national honor and interest, a defense force will be needed, as well as ambassadors, census takers, tax collectors, and so forth. There will no doubt be an attempt to satisfy these needs by private contractors, and one can expect the revenue of the minimal state to be small, at first. But experience shows that, once a state bureaucracy appears, it tends to grow at the expense of society. Libertarians are as prone to temptation as the rest of mankind and have been known to steal, lie, commit adultery, and fall into self-deception. With the steady growth of a state bureaucracy within the framework of a centralized nation-state, and a population engaged in intractable and irresolvable conflict over what autonomy means, we are on the road to socialism.
What completes the connection is the mass of people coughed up by the hollowing out of those independent social authorities rooted in tradition that proved troublesome for maximizing choice making: the family, the Church, the nobility, the crown, free cities and leagues of cities, etc. Cut loose from these moorings, many found a life of choice making to be a burden, even frightful. The loss of a moral tradition means that people no longer know how to behave. In this condition, the deracinated look for an authority to replace tradition or seek to exercise their own will to power; in either case, they are naturally inclined to the state. The night watchman was loath at first to compromise his strict standard of “negative liberty” (the state merely leaves you alone) in favor of “positive liberty” (the state subsidizes the individual to maximize choice making, by providing an education, food stamps, healthcare). But eventually, the night watchman (who has ambitions like everyone else) could be bought off or even be persuaded to change his mind. Since everyone in the minimum state thinks he belongs to a collective thing called the “nation,” it will be easy, in times of crisis, to justify forays against negative liberty. And given the intractable quarrels in the night-watchman state over what is to count as valid choice making, these forays will grow, if not checked, into a full-blown socialist state.
The only check possible is the existence of those surviving independent social authorities rooted in traditions that have more or less survived the process of nationalist-cleansing carried out by post-French-revolutionary liberal regimes. Where those institutions are strong, the move from the liberal to the socialist state is restrained. Few liberals understand this process and so do not understand the role liberalism played in the horrors of the 20th century.
Liberal ideology created nationalism—the first mass collectivism—as an instrument for legitimating a unitary state in pursuit of an ideology of individual autonomy. This nation-state gradually turned into a socialist state; finally, in those cases where independent social authorities were severely weakened, it turned into totalitarian communist states. Hitler did not create the massive centralization of power in the German nation-state; he inherited it as a legacy of German liberalism. Hitler simply tightened the controls and put the state to illiberal ends.
Libertarians are constantly shocked at the progressive deterioration of individual liberty and the monstrous growth of the state. No matter what party is in power, there are more taxes, more regulations, more bureaucracy, and (even after the collapse of the Soviet Union) more international conflicts.
Their remedy is to hold high the ethic of individual autonomy and to return as close as possible to an approximation of the night-watchman state. They do not understand that the genetic code of the modern socialist state was contained in the night-watchman state from the beginning. The former is the fulfillment of the latter. The error of liberalism and socialism is the same: the ideology of individual autonomy. Choice making is not an ethic that can stand on its own; it always occurs in the context of a cultural inheritance. What we desire are not abstract choices but meaningful choices, and it is against this cultural background (usually unrecognized) that choices become meaningful. To maximize my choices by eliminating that cultural background is to render choice meaningless. But the cultural background is inherited, not chosen; so there is an absolute limit to choice making. No theory of individual liberty can be coherent that does not recognize this limit.
In rejecting the liberal (and socialist) ideology of autonomy, we must also reject nationalism (without which liberalism and socialism, in their historic forms, are impossible). The point of nationalism was to legitimate a unitary state that could clear the ground of inherited moral traditions for the sake of individual autonomy. But individual liberty, properly understood, has its source in precisely those inherited traditions and practices that liberalism sees as a threat. Liberty requires legal protection for individual autonomy and for the corporate liberty of a people to live out a valuable way of life, binding generations. Living in the wreckage of the liberal and/or socialist nation-state, it is a nice question as to what form this protection can now take. We can get a glimpse of an outline perhaps from the Middle Ages, when thousands of independent and quasi-independent social and political units flourished without the protection of the modern unitary state. Such protection was not always the most desirable, but can we honestly say that the modern state, from the French Revolution, through two world wars, and the wars within the Cold War, has adequately protected the life, liberty, property, and culture of its citizens?
Perhaps, in the future, liberty can best be preserved in polities of large scale that contain a great number of small states, each able to provide legal protection for a valuable way of life—and where the essential principle of this sort of federation would be not that of indivisible unity but of secession for states and individuals. This would be quite a different kind of political order from what we are used to. But it bears more than a superficial resemblance to the Founding Fathers’ federative polity—before it was overwhelmed by the fateful 19th-century union of nationalism and an ideology of autonomy. Instead of seeing this union as the disaster that it was, we are taught to celebrate it as a great achievement in liberty—while, at the same time, we wonder how it happens that we are constantly losing our liberties and our cultural inheritance.