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.