Liberalism (more accurately, modern liberal democracy) is coming to be perceived as a problem not just for many religious believers, but also for many secularists as well
However, it will be useful first to attempt a definition of liberalism so as to bring out the particular problems and dangers it poses – problems that are now becoming more and more evident in Western countries throughout the world.
The first point to make concerns the universal presence of liberalism in modern politics. We tend to think that liberalism is the political philosophy of the Liberal Party in Australia. But hang on! Isn’t the Liberal Party supposed to be the conservative side of politics in Australia? And aren’t the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in direct opposition to each other?
The truth is that all political parties in Australia (and in most of the Western world) are liberal parties. There are liberal liberals, liberal labourites, liberal greens, and so on. So, the conservatives are liberal, the socialists are liberal, the radicals are liberal. Liberalism is the atmosphere or the environment in which they all live.
But we still haven’t defined liberalism. And that is not an easy thing to do. If you Google the word “liberal”, you will find an enormous volume of literature, a great deal of it rather confusing. Different commentators emphasise different things. However, I think the most crucial aspect of liberalism has to do with the particular way in which it characterises human freedom.
You can never just posit the term “freedom” on its own. It is always going to mean freedom for something or freedom from something. Freedom for implies some set goal, some pre-ordained end you want to achieve. Freedom from just implies that you want to be free of constraints so that you can set up your own goals or simply live without any goals.
For the greater part of the history of the Christian West, we conceived freedom as being freedom for something. In the last two or three hundred years it has become predominantly freedom from perceived constraints – usually perceived religious constraints.
Let’s look at this “freedom for”. What is it that we need freedom for? Here again, my limited background hampers me, but I have always found it useful to think of this in Platonic and Aristotelian terms. In the classical understanding, you needed to rise above any negative attribute that might hinder you from a proper appreciation or understanding of what Plato calls “The Good” (in Christian terms, God). In other words, it was a freedom to attain something.
When Socrates famously says, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, this is basically what he is getting at. True freedom entails climbing above our mere animal natures (the mere “getting and spending”) to achieve some higher end – the vision of the Good for Plato, the telos (= “end”) for Aristotle, and (ultimately), the beatific vision for Christians. And it’s not just a “higher” end but a “proper” end – a “flourishing”, Aristotle would say.
Another and closely related way of looking at all this is to think about purpose. In the classical understanding, freedom entailed having some purpose, something concrete to achieve. In modern liberalism, freedom does not necessarily involve any purpose. It is simply freedom for freedom’s sake, whatever that might mean. Freedom to be purposeless!
Perhaps now we can begin to see just how poisonous this particular type of freedom is, because the moment I make a free choice to adopt a particular stance – a particular philosophy or religious creed – then, I am in a sense, no longer totally free. The modern concept of freedom is, at base, self-negating and perniciously restrictive. This type of freedom is only OK while it is conceived in the abstract.
Now, before moving on to consider the source of this new conception of freedom, let us briefly recap in order to bring into line Platonic, Aristotelian and traditional Christian views on freedom.
As we have said, the positive sense of freedom implies that we have some goal or desired outcome. For Plato, it was the apprehension of the Good, for Aristotle the achievement of some proper telos or end state. These are essentially the same. They boil down, in fact, to an apprehension of the Real. The Real is the Good. This ought to be obvious in Plato, for, when he talks of the “Really Real”, he obviously means the ideal world of perfect forms, on which the imperfect world we live in depends.
Now, for Aristotle, this perfection is equated with Actuality or pure Act, as against Potentiality. To put it another way, any being aspires towards full actuality – that is, the full realisation of its potential. The Good is the fully real. So, then, the freedom we require is none other than the freedom to strive towards pure act (God).
When people say that something has attained its full potential, they mean that it has converted all its available potentiality into act – which is its full reality.
Think now about the other notion of freedom – “freedom from”. It is freedom in the abstract or, in Aristotelian terms, pure potentiality, never attaining even partial act.
I should also make some brief comment concerning the notion of sovereignty. Liberals bang on incessantly about “the sovereign individual” – as if we were all little kings and queens wholly in charge of our own affairs.
In fact, the traditional idea of sovereignty involved the principle of subsidiarity. One’s first duty (after the duty to God) was to the family, then to the local community, then to the state.
Even before the lockdown, we were never really “sovereigns” as the liberals would have us believe. The more supposed “sovereign rights” we have, the more laws necessary to protect them. We have never been more hedged in, more suffocated, by laws and licences. Let me give you some examples.
In my wallet, I have the following permits: licence to drive a vehicle, licence to drive a boat, licence to own a firearm, licence to work with children, licence to use agricultural chemicals, licence to go fishing (now covered by my state-issued seniors card – which is a licence to be old).
When fishing, of course, I must obey size limit rules, bag catch rules, rules concerning methods of catch, etc. Somewhere or other I have a birth certificate, a marriage licence and, one day, I will have a death certificate. If Bond was licenced to kill, I must be licenced to live and to die.
My car must be registered, my boat must be registered, I must wear a seat belt, I must wear a lifejacket, I must register my firearm, my house must have a certificate of occupancy, and any building alterations at my house must have a compliance certificate issued. I must register a dog, if I have one. The dog must be microchipped. Before long, all of us will be microchipped – not forcibly, of course, but just in the interest of efficiency and ease of getting around. We will happily follow the bellwether to the slaughterhouse.
If the NBN comes past my house, I must connect. If I ride a bicycle, I must wear a helmet. My front fence must be less than 1.2 metres high. I must not remove any trees from my property without authorisation. If I wish to burn off fallen leaves and twigs, I must notify the fire brigade. I must not use town water to wash my car.
Once a month, on Sunday mornings, I used to read part of the Scriptures to about 20 octogenarians at my church (that is now forbidden under lockdown rules). For this I now have to sign a special, three-page document that states that I am a low risk as a paedophile.
If I were a smoker, I must not smoke in a public closed space or within so many metres of a building. Soon, I suspect, I must not smoke at all. Luckily, I can still breathe, as long as I do so through a face mask.