The Triumph of the Liberal State


First published in Dutch as De triomf van de liberale staat in the anthology Essays Over Het Midden (Groningen, The Netherlands: Uitgeverij de Blauwe Tijger, 2013)

It was sometime back in the Dark Ages—by which I mean the 1960’s—that I watched a television program in which two English comedians (I think it was Flanders and Swann of the “Hippopotamus Song” fame) explained British politics to an American audience.  As I remember it, one of them said, “We have two major parties in Great Britain. One of them is the Liberal Party, which you Americans call ‘the Socialists,’ and the other is the Tory Party, which you Americans call ‘the Socialists.’”  F&S certainly captured the American view of Europe at that time. But in fact, the differences between “us and them” in those days were not as great as we imagined.

Western Europe was (and to a great extent still is) a collection of Social Democracies, with high levels of government services, a commensurate level of taxation, and a high degree of social equity and mobility. But the same was true of the United States. Indeed, in between the Second World War and the late 1970’s, American had built, in its way, a social democracy that resembled the vision of the good society outlined in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed “one of the greatest documents of modern times.”[1] America seemed to have fulfilled the Pope’s vision of a third-way between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. This was the time of the “great compression,” when differences in income between rich and poor shrank to their lowest level. The portion of national income going to the top 10% fell from its pre-war high of nearly 50% in 1928 to a low of about 33%, and stayed there from 1947 to 1982.[2] America had created, arguably, the most egalitarian society on the face of the Earth and quite possibly in the history of mankind. And this is even more true if you exclude the condition of the States of the Old South and the condition of the African-Americans in those states. The two conditions, by the way, are related to each other; economically, it is just not a good idea to spend so much energy suppressing 40% of your population. But race and history weighed more heavily on the South than did economic loss.

During this period, the CEO of a great company might make 20 times what his line workers made. That is enough to make one comfortable, but it falls far short of the 300-500 multiple that a CEO makes today. And the CEO and his workers shared a common life; the CEO just shared a bit more of it. They may not have been equals, but they were certainly neighbors.  The worker might drive a Ford while the boss drove a Cadillac, but they drove them to similar places. The wife of a CEO would shop at the same stores, even if she purchased higher quality goods. They had similar houses, even if one were larger.  The rich and the middle class were tied together in a common life by a common experience of war, depression, and the great struggle against communism.

Even on health care, the issue that currently proves so fractious in American politics, the difference was less than meets the eye. The European social democracies had socialized the costs and often the delivery of health care. But America had also socialized these costs, through employment rather than through the government. Almost every worker had insurance paid for, in whole or part, by their employer. And as this system began to break down for the elderly and the very poor, we established Medicare and Medicaid in the early 1960’s to address the problem, and it was generally assumed that these systems would expand to include the whole population.  Even Ayn Rand, who despised anyone who took government aid, ended up taking Medicare. Add to this the extensive network of veterans’ hospitals, at a time when a large portion of the population was composed of veterans, and the differences between Europe and the United States were diminishingly small. My parents were poor, but they never worried about medical costs; they had a “Blue Cross” card, which admitted them to any hospital, and a “Blue Shield” card which took care of the doctors.

The system was amazingly successful on the economic level. It was a period of rapid economic growth with the benefits spread equally from the highest to the lowest. America was prosperous, powerful, and united. Granted that a good deal of that “unity” came from a precarious world situation, which forced the parties to put aside their differences to join in the Great Anti-Communist Crusade. It is easy to forget now that throughout most of the Cold War, the Communists seemed to be winning. Communism spread from the Soviet Union, to Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and  Cuba. Marxist ideas were growing in popularity in South Asia, South America, and Africa. The very real threat led to a very real unity, even when the methods and tactics that we used were morally dubious at best; nevertheless, they allowed Europe and the Far East to develop their own systems while under protection of the American “nuclear umbrella.”

This post war period of unity was actually a combination of two strains of thought, strains which displayed a relative similarity within an absolute difference. These strains are liberal collectivism rooted in individualism and Christian communalism rooted in personalism. That is to say, they are two very different views of what it is to be a human being.

The Christian view of man, like the Aristotelian version which preceded it, saw man as basically a political animal, whose development and self-realization was tied to communities of family, neighborhood, city, Church, profession, and, ultimately, one’s nation, which was not ordinarily a nation-state. The human person only reaches his full potential within this dense network of relationships. These relationships were further characterized by a mutuality of rights and duties; one had rights only in and through these communities, and hence one had serious obligations to these communities.  “Rights” arose from one’s membership in communities, and were dependent on fulfilling one’s duties to the communities.

Liberalism takes the opposite view: the whole point of “liberation” is to free the individual from this network of obligations so that he might truly attain his liberty. This is not the “positive liberty” of traditional Christianity, directed towards the good of the person, but a purely “negative liberty” which merely means freedom from any external coercion. “Liberty” is this view means simply that a person may do whatever he chooses to do without hindrance from any other person, and most particularly without hindrance from any public authority. In this view, a negative “liberty” is the greatest good; hence “coercion” is the greatest evil.

At this point an aggrieved liberal might object that I should not connect individualism and collectivism, since they are opposites. But they are not opposites; rather, individualism is the prerequisite of collectivism. It is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to collectivize a person whose loyalties are tied up with a dense network of communities. As Patrick Deneen puts it,

It is only when the variety of institutions and organizations of humankind’s social life have been eviscerated – when the individual experiences himself as an individual – that collectivism as a theory becomes plausible as a politics in fact. Liberalism’s successful liberation of individuals from what had historically been “their own” and the increasing realization of the “individual” made it possible for the theory of cosmopolitanism, “globalism” and One State to arise as an actionable political program in the modern era. [3]

That is to say, stripped of all natural associations, the individual lies naked before the state. Moreover, this “state” is the only entity which, according to John Locke, we must join. Every other institution is voluntary and temporary; the state alone is compulsory and permanent. True, Lockean social contract posits that government comes from consent of the governed, but, Locke insists, we give this “consent” merely be residing within the borders of a country; this “passive consent” makes the whole question of “consent” nugatory. Thus, we have the individual, stripped of all necessary associations save one: the State.[4]

In any case, it should be clear that while the interests of the collectivists and the communitarians coincided for a time, there were bound to be tensions in this marriage leading, sooner or later, to a complete divorce. But what is less obvious is why the collectivists should have gotten such a total victory, why liberalism should have triumphed over conservatism. For make no mistake: America is a liberal country, indeed, America is the very triumph of liberalism.

This might seem like a strange claim, since many would maintain that the conservatives are a viable political force and actually in the ascendency. This is true enough, but when we examine the content of this “conservatism,” we find that it consists almost entirely of economic and political liberalism, and only maintains its ties to traditional conservatism on a few social issues, such as abortion and homosexual marriage. Aside from these restricted issues, what American conservatism actually conserves is the values of the Enlightenment, that is to say, the Liberalism of Locke. Moreover, given the history of the United States, and especially the history of its founding, it is not surprising that this liberalism should have triumphed. Indeed, it may well be the case that an American conservatism is a practical impossibility.

One can examine the history to find many occasions for the collectivist/communitarian breakup: the war in Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the fall of Communism, etc. But one issue, I think, had more effect than any of the others, and that was the legalization of abortion by judicial fiat in 1973. This issue, more than any other, changed the political landscape and, paradoxically, changed it in the direction of individualism. Two things distinguished this issue from any other that had confronted conservatives: its serious and final nature, and the tactics used to combat it.

Concerning the first, it is impossible, even for supporters of abortion, to see it as anything but the taking of an innocent life. Its supporters might give the riposte that while the embryo is certainly alive and human, it is not a human “person” under the law. They then offer various criteria that the child must meet before being considered, in their eyes, as a person, and not as mere disposable tissue. The problem with such arguments is not that they prove too little, but that they prove too much; whatever arbitrary standard one adopts to deny personhood to the infant, they will end up denying personhood to large classes of people: children with mental or physical handicaps, adults with mental disease, people in comas, your grandfather suffering from dementia, and so on.

The other tactic is to assert that whether the child is a person or not, he is at the least a person invading the mother’s “property” (her womb) putting her at great discomfort, pain, inconvenience, and even threatening her life. Surely, one should be as free to evict such an invader from one’s body as one would be empowered to evict an invader in one’s living room, and to evict that intruder with violence, even if such violence results in their death. Again, this argument proves too much; the child at the breast is no less an intruder than a child in the womb, and is just as inconvenient; indeed, given that children are prone to disease, they are also a threat to one’s health.

One of the great frustrations for those who uphold the dignity and sanctity of human life is the way the opponents of life refuse to follow their own reasoning to its logical conclusion. But if the arguments of the proponents of abortion were problematic, the response of the opponents was perplexing. Previously, the proponents of communitarianism had emphasized a holistic view that united economic, political, and social themes; the philosophic, logical, and religious coherence of communitarian thought was important. But because of the gravity of the abortion issue, it was felt that all these other concerns had to be subordinated to this one concern.  It was no longer important to maintain a unity of thought, so long as people cooperated on this one issue (and later, on homosexual marriage); political resistance now was the only thing that mattered, given the gravity of the matter at hand. Further, the grounds chosen to mount the defense where not those of the sanctity of life and the obligation to sustain and nurture a new generation, but on the grounds of life as an abstract Lockean “right,” one of Locke’s triad of the rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

This abandonment of a holistic approach is crucial in understanding what happened. By confining themselves to the so-called “social issues,” the resisters lacked a coherent Christian response to economic and regulatory issues. Into this void stepped varieties of “capitalist” orthodoxy, running the gambit from Austrian Libertarianism to crony or state capitalism, that is to say, to all the things that used to be called “liberalism.” This meant that the content of the new “conservatism” was nothing less than the old liberalism.

The result was a strict traditionalism on marriage and sexual issues, and an aggressive liberalism on everything else.  Thus, these new conservatives were demanding that people adopt on Sunday principles which they insisted they abandon on Monday. They demanded the government compel people on certain issues, even as they denied that the government had any powers of compulsion on any issues. Hence, the right has managed to match the incoherence of the Left with an incoherence of its own.  And while the social issues may have led to short-term political victories, without a more complete approach they have tended towards long-term cultural irrelevance.

Previously, the Right had been more or less “capitalist,” but mainly within the context of being anti-communist. Even so, there was wide recognition that capitalist greed and self-interest needed to be tempered with government regulation and a concern for the common good, including the taxation and redistribution of excessively high incomes; marginal income tax rates reached 91%. In this environment, Austrian Libertarianism was a fringe element. But things have changed, and now it has become central to the conservative movement. The leader of the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party, Senator Rand Paul, is a serious contender for the Party’s presidential nomination. His very name is a metaphor for the problem. It has always been the custom in Christian lands to give children the name of a Christian saint, but Senator Paul was named after a saint of a different sort: the atheist and anti-Christian Ayn Rand.

“Conservative” candidates now vie with each other over who has the deepest hatred of government, and which one will do more to destroy it. They worship the accumulation of wealth and proclaim that taxation is theft; they enumerate the functions of government they will “privatize” and compete with each other in denouncing the poor. Even the constitutionally-mandated post office has been laden by a conservative congress with accounting regulations that apply to no other business in America, indeed to no other business on the planet, regulations that are specifically designed to show that a very profitable business is actually unprofitable, and therefore needs to be privatized.

The joke that these erstwhile conservatives do not get is that the old name for capitalism is “liberalism”; the term “capitalism” itself was the Marxist epithet for the liberalism which Marx despised. But as liberalism came into ill-repute during decades of economic turbulence at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, “liberalism” rebranded itself as “capitalism” and was sold as the content of a new “conservatism.” This may have been the greatest marketing trick since Tetzel’s sale of indulgences; certainly liberalism obtained an indulgence along with a new lease on life and a new home in politics.

The nominally “conservative” Republican Party has therefore internalized the individualist-communitarian dichotomy; in this ideological schizophrenia, collectivism must always win. Capitalism, despite the disingenuous defense given by its supporters, is neither pro-market nor anti-state. It always seeks to replace free completion in the market with the rule of monopolies and oligopolies. And it is always in the self-interest of the monopolists to have a large and pliant government that can serve their interests. The higher the piles of capital, the thicker the walls of law and government necessary to protect them.

Two questions arise: “Why did the anti-abortion movement choose to fight the question on Lockean grounds?” and “Why were the conservatives so easily seduced by such obvious liberalism?” The answer to both of these questions, I believe, goes to the very history and founding of America, a state that was founded not on Christian principles, but on Locke’s ideology, the founding ideology of liberalism. Therefore, there is an in-built bias towards liberalism in any conflict within American politics.

The American Revolution, and the resulting Constitution, was the most radically liberal event in history up until that moment. The Declaration of Independence was a veritable transcript of Locke’s Whig political theory.[5] The Founders looked not to the Christian religion, but to the sages of the Enlightenment for their inspiration. As Christopher Ferrara notes, The Federalist Papers, the propaganda of the Founders urging passage of the new constitution, was made up of the thought of Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and Montesquieu. It reflects the socio-political program of the Enlightenment and the movement away from Christianity to modernity.

Americans, and particularly American conservatives, feel compelled naturally,  to defend their nation’s founding, but there is no defense that does not prejudice the political conversation towards liberalism. Thus any real conservatism is fragile at best. In response to this problem, many conservatives have adopted a “Golden Legend” by which the founders were all Christian conservatives making minor changes to the existing political arrangements rather than engaging in a radical revolution. Alas, no reasonable reading of the history will support this golden legend. The founders were, practically to a man, deists. Deism has all the advantages of atheism, and none of the drawbacks. One can claim to be a theist, even as one denies that God has any active participation in the world. Washington occasionally attended church, but refused to stand with the congregation. Jefferson produced his own version of the gospels, one shorn of any reference to the divinity of Christ, and any sayings that would be an embarrassment to the political agenda of the founders. Jefferson’s attitude was typical; the founders had particular contempt for the idea of a Trinitarian god and a divine Son. Jesus was reduced to the role of a “moral teacher,” which means he had nothing in particular to teach, at least nothing that could challenge a deist. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Constitution makes no reference to God, while the Declaration of Independence mentions only “nature and nature’s God” (that is, the deist “god”).

In view of our history, It seemed natural for the anti-abortion movement to adopt the Lockean notion of absolute “rights”; indeed, the Lockean “right to life” seemed tailor-made for the situation and accorded well with our political traditions. However, there was a great flaw in this choice. The “right to life” is part of the Lockean triad of “life, liberty, and property.” The problem is that there is no way to arbitrate between these rights when they come into conflict with each other, as they clearly do in this case. Lockean rights are not tied to duties, but are freestanding and arbitrary. So how are such conflicts in rights to be resolved?

Here we come to the key point of the Enlightenment political agenda: there should be no law higher than the Will of the People, and this will is always known to the people’s representatives chosen in periodic plebiscites. Hence, any conflict between rights can only be resolved as a matter of politics, not as a matter of natural law. Thus if you wish to know whether the right to life is superior to the rights of property and liberty, you must consult the supreme authority, the legislature.

This was a radical departure from medieval legal theory. Human law, in the middle ages, was understood as an attempt to discern and apply the natural law to particular cases, and this “natural law” was itself understood as a participation in the divine law. Hence natural law bound even the king, and there was no sovereign power that could overturn it. Medieval government was not unitary, but resided in a plentitude of overlapping and often competing authorities: the prince, the Church, the nobles, the free cities, the guilds. Each of these powers was more than willing to serve as a check on the others when a case could be made that they had violated natural law and established custom. Contrary to the view we often have of medieval kingship, it was not in any sense “absolutism,” at least not before the 16th or 17th centuries, when all the competing powers were more or less subdued. Prior to this, the king’s writ might run as law, but there was very little he could actually write in his writ, so hemmed in was he by other powers and authorities. [6]

But with all the other authorities stripped of their power, and all the competing powers stripped of their authority, only the legislature remained, and any disputes about “rights” can only be resolved by the legislature, a body bound by no natural law. This very point has been asserted by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the strongest foe of the Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion. Justice Scalia says,

If the people, for example, want abortion, the state should permit abortion in a democracy. . . . To say, “Ah, but it is contrary to the natural law,” is simply to say that you set yourself above the democratic state and presume to decide what is good and bad in place of the majority of the people. I do not accept that as a proper function. . . .[7]

And if further proof were needed of the folly of adopting a Lockean approach, we can note that Locke himself refused to concede the humanity of the child in the womb, or indeed of any “natural” definition of humanity at all:

it having been more than once doubted, whether the foetus born of a woman were a man . . . which could not be, if the abstract idea or essence to which the name man belonged were of nature’s making; and were not the uncertain and various collection of simple ideas, which the understanding put together, and then, abstracting it, affixed a name to it.[8]

It is not an alleged “right to life” which protects the unborn, but rather the sacred and gratuitous character of life. We all received life as a free gift which we did nothing to earn. We are therefore under the obligation to pass this gift along to others, and to care for and nurture a new generation. And the sacred, or at least mysterious, character of life is evident even to an atheist, since it is not something reducible to a mere chemical and physical base, at least not at present. What protects the child—and indeed, all of us—is not a “right,” but the absence of a right, namely the absence of any right to kill an innocent human being.

Had the battle been joined over the sanctity of life rather than as life as part of the Lockean triad of alleged rights, the fracturing of economic, social, and political issues, would have been impossible, or at least less likely. If you are going to assert the obligation to create and nurture life, then of necessity you assert an institution in which this can take place (the family) supported by economic, social, and political institutions whose function must be, in greater or lesser part, to support the family and whose success or failure is judged by how well they perform this function.

But as it is, American politics has become an argument between collectivists. On the one hand, there are those who argue for corporate collectives controlling the state, and on the other you have those who argue for state collectives controlling the corporation. To be sure, there are some real differences between these positions, but in the end the differences are minor and uninteresting. In either case, you have a politics which represents the triumph of the liberal state, and the debate is one of about the accent and nuances of that state.

Real conservatism, that is, non-liberal or non-libertarian conservatism, simply does not exist in America as an organized force. This is not to say that there are no real conservatives; on the contrary, I suspect that most Americans are instinctively conservative, in the sense of trusting neither state nor corporate collectives. But in a democracy the votes of this majority are not counted for the simple reason they are not funded. “To be” in the political life of a democracy means “to be funded,” and there simply is no significant source of funds for real conservatism. Hence, it exits mainly on the margins of political life, and exits on fringes of both the Left and the Right: in poorly subscribed blogs, in scattered cooperative businesses, in home schools, little magazines, in the odd micro-bank here and there or alternative money and credit schemes, in neighborhood networks, etc. Even taken together, these do not rise to the level of a serious challenge to the modern state, but they cannot be taken together, since the very social issues which created them still divide them, and they are unwilling to cooperate on other issues.

The political reality for most of our citizens is one of perpetual disappointment. Conservatives wonder why the government grows fatter under Reagan and both Bushes then it did under Carter and Clinton, while liberals are perplexed to see corporate power grow under Clinton and Obama at least as fast as it did under Reagan and the Bushes. Both sides find themselves in a “democracy” that pays them no mind, because they cannot pay to play the democratic game, and they can find no one to pay the entrance fees for them.

So we end where we began, with a reverse version of Flanders and Swann explaining American politics to Europeans, and perhaps even to Americans. “In America, we have two major political parties. One of them is the Democratic Party, which is properly called ‘the liberals’ and the other is the Republican Party, which is properly called ‘the liberals.’”


[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion; How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 38.

[2] E.N. Wolff, “Changes in Household Wealth in the 1980s and 1990s in the U. S.” (The Levy Institute, September 4, 2006),

[3] Patrick Deneen, “Inescapable Liberalism? Rescuing Liberty from Individualism and the State,” ABC Religion & Ethics, May 13, 2013,

[4] Christopher Ferrara, Liberty: The God That Failed (Tacoma, Washington: Angelico Press, 2012), 73.

[5] Ibid., 128.

[6] For a discussion of the evolution of power see Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 1993).

[7] Quoted in Ferrara, Liberty: The God That Failed, 586.

[8] John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, n.d., II, 3.14,

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