Liberalism Run Amok

An incoherent and self-defeating liberalism undermines the democracy it professes

“Thought blockers,” I call them. Right, left, conservative, reactionary, and progressive, they get in the way of the real discussion of real issues. They are elastic terms that could mean just about anything or almost nothing. Still, my caveat is prudential rather than absolute.

So, I’m going into the deep grass, as they say, to castigate the liberalism of a liberal. At least this liberal declares his agenda. Without specification, there are as many liberalisms as Heinz has pickles. (As many as 57!)

In this week’s The Tablet, Kevin Vallier, a philosopher at Bowling Green State University, charts the twists and turns of integralism. Broadly speaking, integralism is the thesis that there ought to be a formal alliance of Church and State. My view is that integralists are singing a siren song. Unless there is an epic conversion of both Church and State, such an alliance would put us in peril.

But it’s Vallier’s liberalism that I want to address. Liberal democracies, he contends, must be alert to a resurgent integralism if they are to preserve “freedom of speech and expression.” And how are they to manage this? Liberals and their leaders, Vallier contends, “should ensure that the state strive to remain neutral between belief systems and moral doctrines, and allow social and political space for communities who do not share their values to experiment with their own forms of life.”

His agenda is incoherent and self-defeating for at least the following three reasons.

Let’s first consider the voting process. If the state is to remain morally neutral, then voters themselves must be morally neutral in how they vote. They must put their own values aside. Perhaps, then, they should only consider questions bearing on the technique and efficiency requisite for a smoothly running regime. But even this focus presupposes that the regime is worth sustaining, and that supposition itself violates neutrality.

State neutrality also requires that voters “allow political space for communities who do not share [the state’s] values.” So, what are they to do about, say, anarchists and Maoists? Ought voters see to it that such groups have proportional representation? And what if such groups expand “their space” and vote themselves into power?

It’s not just that Vallier’s liberalism makes a hash of voting. Let’s next consider its implications for the authority of the state. Unlike the Mafia or even a large voluntary organization, the state has a right to be obeyed in a given domain. That right stems from the state’s necessary role in administering justice. But safeguarding justice is impossible if the state is morally neutral. Justice is a great good, and if we suppose otherwise we invite nihilism.

A third reason for dismissing Vallier’s liberalism is that it ignores the very purpose of government. That purpose is intertwined with the state’s task of maintaining justice. There can be no justice without the other and allied cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, and temperance. That is, without right reason in acting and in facing danger and in ordering the passions, justice falls by the wayside. With it comes the fall of any government that professes to be democratic.

Given the incoherence and self-defeating character of Vallier’s position, we’d best dismiss it as liberalism run amok. It’s the sort of liberalism that undermines the democracy it professes. As Jacques Maritain observed, “the tragedy of modern democracies is that they have not yet succeeded in realizing democracy” and many of them have been “delusive.” But it need not be that way. The cumulative insights of Catholic Social Thought point us in a different direction.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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