John Adams was the most conservative, prudent and skeptical founder, the prime mover of independence in the Continental Congress, and our second president. In his message of October 1798 to the Massachusetts Militia he wrote the most succinct explanation I have seen of the central problem at the origin of liberalism:
“Because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion, avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest chords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
No matter how much some try to hide it, this is liberalism’s central problem, its original sin, something that would weigh heavily on its development but that only now can be seen in its full effect. Liberalism as originally conceived replaced religion and virtue with passions and rights. Those are fragile supports on which to found a society, never mind a virtuous one. Machiavelli was wrong, the high cannot be defined by the low.
In 1689, John Locke, the philosopher of liberalism, wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration:
“I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other … The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like. It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life.”
There you have it: liberal government is based exclusively on interests and rights. The rest of the letter deals with the need to tolerate all religions. In other words, the government should only concern itself with satisfying the desires and protecting the rights of the collection of individuals who would form the liberal republic. Ironically, when Machiavelli thought that Fortuna had finally been conquered, only by chance could a society founded on such low bases avoid degeneration: that its citizens continue to be religious and virtuous persons in the private realm, and that those virtues would translate, again by chance, to the public realm.
Christianity and traditional morality were embedded as second nature in the American Colonies, but John Adams, who understood human nature, admonished us of the dangers ahead. As Patrick J. Deneen writes, even American liberalism, by far the best system modernity could create based on its low expectations, lives off its pre-modern inheritance:
“The most thoughtful liberals —perhaps above all, Tocqueville— recognized that liberalism contained an internal logic that threatened its own self-destruction. The anthropological individualism at the heart of its theory could be given institutional credence so long as those assumptions did not colonize every aspect of human life. Liberalism rested fundamentally on pre-modern and pre-liberal institutions and practices, ranging from family to community, from church to civil society. In spite of the official rejection of the pre-modern tradition, liberalism assumed and benefitted from a kind of ‘unofficial’ continuity of the pre-modern, Aristotelian-inflected inheritance. Thus, Tocqueville observed, though Americans justified their actions in terms of self-interest, they continued to act altruistically. He wrote that ‘they would rather do honor to their philosophy than to themselves’.”
And there is another irony in liberalism, as Phillip Blond notes in his superb review of the book The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst:
“The triumph of liberalism today more and more brings about the ‘war of all against all.’ Liberalism brings about the very thing, a universal civil war, from which it initially promised deliverance. It also brings about what has never existed before, but what it claims was there in the beginning: an isolated individual abstracted from all social ties and duties. Thus what liberalism claims to base itself upon, and escape from, is what it both constructs and ensures.”
As I have written before, the founders couldn’t foresee the radicalization of liberalism: the transfiguration of Rousseau’s romanticism and Nietzsche’s nihilism into postmodernism, a metamorphosis that has made our time unlike any other before it, when subjectivism rules and when truth and belief are one and the same. But the seeds were there from the beginning. Now a majority of modern Americans say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral, and the unaffiliated proportion of the population is growing. Absorbed by this new morality, we talk about “values” without noticing that they are subjective preferences, moral choices without any objective basis. And we talk about “community” when there are very few real ones left.
Frustrated but hopeful, I end this essay with another quote from Phillip Blond’s review:
“So it is fitting that Milbank and Pabst issue an implicit call to realism and an explicit call to Christianity. A just politics requires ‘the weight of objectivity and the glimpsed seriousness of the Good.’ We cannot have this without a ‘new irruption of a communicable ethical and probably religious vision, genuinely able to move people.’ Unfortunately, the institutions that could advance this are in disarray. Christian shepherds are distracted by their own liberal dreams; their flocks are scattered.”