Last week Joe Carter helpfully gathered many of the contributions to what John Zmirak has called ‘The Iran-Iraq War Among Conservatives’. This at times heated exchange is largely between liberal and illiberal American conservatives and it is an important and lively one. I’m squarely in the liberal conservative camp believing, with Lord Acton, that freedom is the highest political good. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the very real concerns and anxieties of the illiberal conservatives.
[U]nless you have an explanation for how the classical liberal order can reliably produce moral and religious people then you haven’t actually established anything. It also doesn’t work to simply say that liberalism has always needed something else to round it out and save it from itself. The whole question is whether or not liberalism can reliably produce whatever that “something else” is. If it cannot, then all you have is a parasitic social order that will collapse as soon as these necessary citizens, which come from some other set of norms and values, run out.
But if the universe is created and sustained by God along with all the individuals in it, than any political order is necessarily parasitic. All things, including human virtue, are the products of God’s creation and providence.
Classical liberals like Locke, Smith, Bastiat, Acton, and Mises have answered the question of what a liberal political order can and can’t do to, “produce moral and religious people.” There is great diversity of opinion on that question. Where they are all agreed though is that no political order can do it all. Mises put it well in his book Liberalism:
Liberalism has often been reproached for this purely external and materialistic attitude toward what is earthly and transitory. The life of man, it is said, does not consist in eating and drinking. There are higher and more important needs than food and drink, shelter and clothing. Even the greatest earthly riches cannot give man happiness; they leave his inner self, his soul, unsatisfied and empty. The most serious error of liberalism has been that it has had nothing to offer man’s deeper and nobler aspirations.
But the critics who speak in this vein show only that they have a very imperfect and materialistic conception of these higher and nobler needs. Social policy, with the means that are at its disposal, can make men rich or poor, but it can never succeed in making them happy or in satisfying their inmost yearnings. Here all external expedients fail.
Jo Walton, in her novel The Just City (Part of the Thessaly Trilogy), provides a cautionary fantasy tale of just what happens when a political order takes it upon itself to produce moral and religious people. In the book the ancient Greek goddess Athena gathers people from throughout history to make Plato’s Republic a reality. This society constructed from the ground up by the state to make individuals their best selves is unraveled by the questionings and investigations of a time traveling Socrates with the help of some of the children whom the Just City has taken upon itself to form.
The lesson: Politics cannot save.
This is a vision of the state Lord Acton rejected as antithetical to Christianity in his essay, “The Roman Question”:
“There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state.”
If we do not realize that distinctions between both church and state as well as power and authority are important. If those distinctions are collapsed, then that collapse will inevitably crush those created, unique, image bearers underneath it. God created man and no state can recreate him better. It can only twist, distort, and destroy.
Acton’s vision of a society that is beyond the state, individual souls that are above it, and the God who rules it all through his providence is still worth defending. There is no political solution to the question of how to be our best selves, what is required for that is the free choice of the good.