Road To Tyranny

It’s a commonplace of sorts in Catholic and conservative circles that democracy without virtue will quickly become tyranny. At the same time, this is one of those phrases which seems to drive secular commentators to distraction. How could liberal democracy lead to tyranny when it’s clearly those authoritarian religious people who want to be tyrants?

Damon Linker (the “the theocons are coming” chicken little whom First Things once made the mistake of briefly employing in his younger days, thus giving him the claim to know the “theocon conspiracy” from the inside) has a post on The New Republic blog which seems to me to throw this point into sharp relief. Linker, it seems, tired of attacking “neocons” and decided to go after the more quixotic paleocons as his newest batch of crypto-authoritarians. The following section is fascinating in its thought process:

By way of response, let’s begin by returning to Bacevich’s first criticism of the United States, which Deneen tacitly endorses. Among their many other sins, Americans affirm the “right to choose” above all other social and moral principles, producing a nation in which individuals freely “fornicate, marry, breed, abort, divorce, and abandon.” To take the first item on this list, Bacevich and Deneen would clearly prefer that their fellow citizens not “fornicate” as much as they currently do. How might this goal be achieved? One possibility is that we pass and enforce laws upholding sexual chastity. That sounds pretty authoritarian to me. But of course, Bacevich and Deneen deny that they’re advocating any such thing. Okay, then, let’s take them at their word: What they want is for Americans to restrain themselves, to resist their sexual appetites, to repress their desires, to rein them in. And that’s not authoritarianism; it’s “self-government.”

Except for one thing: It now appears that Bacevich and Deneen aren’t really opposed to a “culture of choice” at all. Rather, they’re opposed to a culture in which people make the wrong choices — in this case, the choice to fornicate instead of the choice to resist their sexual appetites. But here’s what I don’t understand: Why would a free man or woman choose to resist rather than act on his or her sexual appetites? I mean, we’ve invented birth control. Sex is very pleasurable. It’s a way to enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with another human being. Why not choose for fornication? Why, in other words, is it wrong, in itself, to fornicate? Can we even imagine a response to this question that does not make reference to the authoritative teachings of an orthodox religious tradition?

Without such an authority, all Bacevich’s and Deneen’s talk of “self-restraint” simply makes no sense. People only act to restrain their desires for a reason. In some cases, that reason might be self-interest (for instance, a desire to avoid exposure to sexually transmitted diseases). In other cases, it might be the desire to avoid hurting those we love (when, say, avoiding fornication with those other than one’s spouse). But neither of those reasons can tell us why fornication as such is wrong. For that we need some authoritative standard or ideal of intrinsically right or wrong actions. And it is only (orthodox) religion that can provide us with such a standard or ideal.

But here’s the problem: As I tried to explain in my original post, we have every reason to view with deep suspicion those who speak in the name of such standards and ideals…. Indeed, the rise of modern liberalism can be understood in large part as the attempt to found a new form of politics without reference to no-longer-authoritative standards and ideals.

Let’s ignore the his obvious leap (and to my mind, fall) where he claims that the only two rational reasons for self restraint are self interest (avoid hurting yourself) or avoiding hurting others, and then his unsubstantiated claim that fornication is ruled out by neither of these. (We here will, I expect, agree that it in fact is.) What’s really startling to me is his implicit idea that anything not banned by law is thus a matter for a “culture of choice”: That anything you’re not willing to use civil law to ban is thus implicitly an entirely licit choice within society.

It strikes me that this way of thinking leads almost necessarily to either an anarchic social and cultural breakdown, or to authoritarianism. (And since society naturally resists the former, more likely the latter.) There are a great many behaviors which we naturally want to see not happen and are hesitant to call a matter of choice and yet which the state is very poorly provided to regulate. (Poor parenting springs to mind as an immediate example.) If one essentially holds that anything you’re not willing to outlaw is a perfectly acceptable “choice”, it will naturally follow that you end up legislating all sorts of things that almost certainly should not be legislated about.

The inability to imagine morally and culturally enforced standards (which seems to be a symptom of our modern brand of secularism) will almost certainly lead to a tyrannically restrictive approach to government where it becomes reasonable to legislate everything from education curricula to eating habits to smoking to lawn care.

8 Responses to Road To Tyranny

  • To be fair, Damon more or less retracted that post wholesale, saying he hadn’t thought the matter through well enough:

    On Tuesday of this week, I posted an item in which I drew connections between an essay by Andrew Bacevich and political authoritarianism. Two days later, I posted a follow-up in which I expanded on the argument. In retrospect — and in light of some online reaction to the posts — I’ve concluded that the connections I made in the original item were overdrawn, and that I made things even worse in the second post. Ideas and arguments can take on a logic of their own, and I foolishly followed the logic of mine into a position several steps more radical than one I really want to defend. I trust that future online disputation and debate will provide many opportunities for me to address these and related issues again — and so also to stake out and develop a more moderate, nuanced, and genuinely liberal position.

    http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/linker/archive/2009/02/13/lessons-in-blogging.aspx

  • That said, the post was pretty embarrassing. Not as embarrassing as trying to make a career out of attacking people you used to work for by smearing them, but embarrassing nonetheless.

  • Darwin, excellent post. This has always been a bugaboo of mine as well. It’s a trap that conservatives fall into also at times. I’ve made offhand comments about not particularly liking SUVs, and had a friend respond as though I wanted to completely obliterate them from the planet. My personal dislike for them does not indicate that I necessarily want to impose legal sanctions upon ownership. But as a country, we have exalted the concept of choice as almost the ultimate good.

    Another thing Linker talked about hit upon something I was thinking about just yesterday. Many of the things we don’t do as Catholics strike me as good choices even absent religion. No sex outside of marriage: well there are a lot of rational reasons not to. No birth control: ever watch a commercial for the pill and hear them rattle off all the side effects? There are none of those for NFP.

    I don’t mean to say there are simply utilitarian benefits to being a practicing Catholic. But, when you think about it, there happily are such benefits to practicing the faith.

    One last thing – the final paragraph of your post points put the liberaltarian folly, such as it exists. If there is a threat to true liberty, it ain’t coming from the right.

  • “Not as embarrassing as trying to make a career out of attacking people you used to work for by smearing them, but embarrassing nonetheless.”

    Ouch John Henry! I am sure that left a mark on Mr. Linker. Perhaps he will return every dollar he ever received from the evil “theo-cons” ? Nah, that would be an act of high and inconvenient principle, and we all know there is no money in that.

  • To be fair, Damon more or less retracted that post wholesale, saying he hadn’t thought the matter through well enough:

    Ah, I hadn’t seen that one. I’ll drop these things into my “blog fodder” folder and sometimes not notice the follow through.

  • Donald,

    Perhaps I was too unkind. I am sure Mr. Linker is sincere, and his arguments should be evaluated on their merits (such as they are). I think his writing on these topics suffers from a lack of nuance and subtlety, which suggests an inability (or unwillingness) to appreciate his opponent’s arguments. And, well, I think his decision to publish an attack book on his former employer (and so soon after leaving) is ethically dubious.

  • Rather wobbly, but Linker gave it a whirl, didn’t he. The tyranny to come is apt to be a very selective tyranny, rife with the strangest socio-cultural bedfellows, if the past twenty years are any indication. And I think they are.

  • Mr. Linker writes:
    “Except for one thing: It now appears that Bacevich and Deneen aren’t really opposed to a “culture of choice” at all. Rather, they’re opposed to a culture in which people make the wrong choices — in this case, the choice to fornicate instead of the choice to resist their sexual appetites. But here’s what I don’t understand: Why would a free man or woman choose to resist rather than act on his or her sexual appetites? I mean, we’ve invented birth control. Sex is very pleasurable. It’s a way to enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with another human being. Why not choose for fornication? Why, in other words, is it wrong, in itself, to fornicate? Can we even imagine a response to this question that does not make reference to the authoritative teachings of an orthodox religious tradition?”

    He illustrates Medawar’s comment about people being educated beyond their ability to follow an abstract argument. His arguments read the scribblings of a high school student.

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