Meaning and The Liberal State

Patrick Daneen is posting overviews of a class he is teaching on modern political philosophy. This week, he deals with classical liberalism, and in particular the thought of Paul Starr and Francis Fukuyama.

In his discussion of Starr’s take on Machiavelli, Daneen writes:

The frequent emphasis upon liberalism as a form of “limited government” often blinds many observers to the fact that liberalism seeks the growth, increase, and expansion of power—political, economic, scientific, and military. Liberalism is “limited” inasmuch as it (claims) to be indifference to any particular way of life: it does not presume a human telos or shared conception of the Good that ought to be the aim of all human beings. Rather, by assuming the incommensurability of our wants and desires, it seeks to organize both government and society in such a way that those wants and desires can be variously pursued in a generally peaceful and stable manner.

Thus, power needs to be “disciplined,” particularly by devices in liberal constitutionalism such as separation of powers, checks and balances, representation, and multiplying interests to create political stalemate. But in successfully disciplining power, power becomes a reliable servant of individual pursuits, and can thereby be expanded. Indeed, liberal citizens will come to demand the increase of political, economic, scientific, and military power, inasmuch as the wants and desires of liberal citizens are actually multiplied and new ones are constantly created. All of the energies of liberal societies become oriented toward “growth.” Limits that restrict our ability to pursue individual ends become the one insupportable commitment of a liberal society.

What Daneen doesn’t address here, either because he misses it completely or simply wishes to address it later, is that this approach by liberalism — the organization of society and government so that the wants and needs of many different individuals can be managed and pursues peacefully — is a telos. It imposes a meaning and a purpose on a society, and that purpose IS the liberal state.

At the edges, liberalism is willing to accept non-liberal enclaves so long as they are small and powerless. And even then, the liberal state lives in a great deal of tension with these enclaves, since their subjugation is incomplete; it is functional but not ideological. Liberalism not only demands all things surrender to and subjugate themselves to liberalism, but that all things believe in liberalism. (This is one reason liberalism has serious problems with pluralism.) Because of this, there can be no alternatives to the liberal society, to the liberal state, no other way of organizing human beings. In this, liberalism is fundamentally, even murderously, intolerant. There can be no telos, no overarching meaning to human existence, no story, that isn’t liberalism, that isn’t the narrative of liberal progress and accomplishment. Or that doesn’t serve liberalism.

Liberalism is incredibly adaptable, and most things can be bent to serve liberal means and liberal ends. (The liberal church’s surrender to modernity, and confusion of liberal progress with the gospel, is one very concrete example of this.) But we should be under no illusions — there are liberal ends. And that end is the liberal state itself, which brokers no dissent and tolerates no alternatives.

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