The Uses of Illiberalism

Will Wilkinson has a pair of provocative posts on the Haidt thesis, one responding to Yuval Levin, one responding to me. Here are some excerpts from the latter:

Whatever else you might say about them, family, community, and religion are the chief preserves of illiberal sentiment in our society. Of course, family, community and religion don’t have to be illiberal. For example, most strands of Christianity have been successfully “civilized” — by which I mean radically liberalized — by the liberalizing pressures of modernity. One of the problems with conservatives is that, over and over again, they confuse an attack on the illiberal elements of family, community, and religion as attacks on family, community, and religion itself. For example, arguments for gay marriage are not arguments against the family, despite what most conservatives insist. They are liberal argument for equal-opportunity families. Arguments for racial integration aren’t arguments against community. They are liberal arguments for non-racist communities. Etc. If family, community, and religion (and other civil society institutions) are stabilizing, which I don’t doubt, they can be stabilizing without being unjust and harmful.

I would agree that you can liberalize family, community, and religion, and that this process has sometimes been a good thing for everyone involved. But I think that each of these aspects of human affairs must by definition retain an illiberal core, or else cease to exist in any meaningful sense. So for instance, one can reduce the duties that children owe their parents, and the power of parents over children, without eliminating the family entirely. But you cannot treat parents and children, or husbands and wives, as free agents with no obligations to one another save those they deliberately choose, without vitiating the very concept of family. Similarly, nation-states can reduce the distinctions they make among their citizens, and between their citizens and the foreign-born, without ceasing to exist as meaningful communities. But if they eliminate the latter set of distinctions entirely, as libertarians sometimes seem to suggest they should, so that everyone is effectively a citizen of everywhere else, then the very concept of community, or at least political community, ceases to have any practical meaning.

Will goes on:

Ross’s case for fusionism makes me think he may be a little confused about Haidt’s theory. The idea is that the calibration of the five dimensions of the moral sense is highly culturally variable. Our society — like other liberal societies — is already one in which concern for ingroup, hierarchy, and purity is relatively low. But both the liberal U.S. and the liberal Sweden are libertarian paradises — in terms of the individual’s protection from the authority of the state — when compared to much more conservative societies such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even democratic India. (Japan might be a good and rare example of fairly liberal institutions combined with strongly conservative social norms.) It is very difficult to look at the pattern of the actual world and think that further liberalization of our sentiments will create a vacuum for the state to seep into. It seems to me that Ross holds fixed a relatively conservative calibration of the moral sentiments — one in which concern for hierarchy, ingroup, and purity are high — and then imagines what would happen if you diminished the influence of the family, community, and church. What’s going to pick up the slack? The state! But the point is to imagine a calibration of the moral sentiments in which concern for hierarchy, ingroup, and purity are lower. Because the places where these sentiments play the least role in the common morality are in fact the most libertarian, we so ought to expect a further reduction in their role to deliver yet greater liberty.

Well, that's the question, isn't it? I direct your attention to Will's comments in his other post on this subject:

My sense is that there has been a huge shift in the cultural consensus in the West about, say, the autonomy parents owe their grown and even adolescent children, and, conversely, the obedience and material assistance grown children owe their parents. You probably wouldn’t be a conservative if you witnessed such a change in norms and failed to diagnose it as a failure of people to meet the “inescapable obligations” that arise from their unchosen social relations. If you were to accept the mutability of these obligations, it would be pretty hard to characterized them as inescapable. Once we no longer feel an obligation’s normative gravity, we stop believing that it has any. And an obligation whose normative pull no one feels stop being considered an obligation. When it stops being considered an obligation, the pattern of individual behavior changes, and, ipso facto, the society is changed. For conservatives, this kind of social change comes as one moral crisis after another. When we in fact arrive at a better place after the change, as we generally do, the conservative mostly just makes peace with it while insisting that we all panic about the next moral shift, which will surely bring down all of society along with it.

But look here - the example Will gives is an example of precisely the phenomenon I was describing, where illiberal obligations are weakened and the state rushes in to fill the breach. Yes, there has been a huge shift in the cultural consensus in the West about the obedience and material assistance grown children owe their parents. And no, society hasn't collapsed as a result. Why? Well, in part because the state has taken over the role that used to be filled by grown children, through enormous tax-and-transfer programs like Social Security and Medicare in the United States, and still-more-enormous programs in Western Europe. Or take another example: Over the last forty years, there has been a huge shift in the cultural consensus in the African-American community about the obligations that men owe the women they impregnate, and the children that result. Again, society hasn't collapsed - because the government, through the welfare office and (in a sense) the prison system, has stepped in to play a much larger role in African-American life than it did before.

Now clearly this is a complicated subject, and Will's right that states like Saudi Arabia and Iran have, from his perspective, the worst of both worlds: They've grafted a modern centralized state onto a pre-modern society defined by hierarchy, ingroup, and purity, which is a recipe, unsurprisingly, for theocratic tyranny. But in the modern West, where liberalization has been more of an organic (or at least slow-moving) process than in the developing world, the pattern I'm describing seems to hold reasonably well: The weakening of illiberal bonds has been accompanied by increased political centralization and expanding state power, and the societies where the illiberal sentiments are weakest are also the societies with the largest and most intrusive administrative states.