The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism
Pierre Manent (from MA 52 03) - 02/02/11

Take freedom of opinion. Everyone understands what the struggle for freedom of opinion means when there is censorship. As long as there is a censor, everyone knows that “free opinion” is an opinion that has escaped from censorship. But what does “free opinion” mean when censorship no longer exists?

Or take “the right to the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone understands what this right means in a situation where a religion or government claims to impose a certain conception of “the good life.” But when churches as well as governments have renounced this claim, what does the exercise of this right mean?

To defend freedom of opinion is certainly noble and necessary, but it does not tell us what a judicious opinion is or how to form one. To defend the right to the pursuit of happiness is certainly noble and necessary, but it does not tell us how to pursue happiness. Liberalism is a doctrine so powerful that it has defeated all other political, philosophical, and religious doctrines. And yet, among them all, it is the only one that does not provide a positive rule for the conduct of life. Those who oppose some religiously inspired rule or law to liberalism are rarely the friends of human liberty, but they point out a real weakness in the liberal order. Not that we have any desire to receive orders, but how can we orient ourselves in the world when

The only thing we hear is, “You’re free!”? It is this inherent and troubling indetermination of liberal liberty that feeds much of the protest against liberal “corruption,” which we unfortunately, if understandably, have a tendency to dismiss too quickly.

How can liberalism overcome this difficulty? We cannot be content to say, “You’re free; do what you will and don’t ask questions!” To this real difficulty liberalism responds with faith (either implicit or explicit) in the future convergence and coincidence of external liberty and internal dispositions. Freedom of opinion will lead necessarily to an increasingly true opinion. That, at least, is the hope. In the same way, the right to pursue happiness will lead necessarily to a growing happiness for individuals. At least, that is the hope. If one didn’t believe this, the desire for liberty would be in vain. The same Benjamin Constant who declared, “Let the government content itself with being just, we will assume the task of being happy,” was led to recognize that the goal of humanity was not so much free happiness as “improving [itself ],” indicating that it was impossible to consider human life seriously without desiring for it a goal beyond that of liberty. Liberty is perhaps the best condition for human action, but it cannot by itself give any finality or purpose to it. It was not a coincidence that faith in progress accompanied the development of liberal civilization: the intrinsic difficulty of liberal doctrine, its anthropological indeterminism, can only be overcome by faith in the future.

What happens, then, when faith in the future disappears or is seriously weakened— when one no longer believes that freedom of opinion will always lead to significantly truer opinions, when one no longer believes that the free pursuit of happiness will produce significantly happier individuals? It seems to me that even before the crisis occurred this faith had already become considerably weakened. One could already see signs of our loss of confidence in the capacity of human nature to attain the natural objects of its desire, even to get within hailing distance of such an end. We are subject to a deep internal weakness that merits at least as much attention as the more visible economic crises.

To be sure, one could say: we must find our way out of liberal indetermination and find the truth or true happiness. But how can we avoid falling back into the political and religious dogmatism and despotism from which liberalism has happily delivered us? Are we therefore condemned to vacillate between an increasingly empty freedom and “truths” arbitrarily decreed?

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