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Sohrab Ahmari’s biggest mistake

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The debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French has sparked a useful conversation about the means and ends of liberty. In that discussion, both men make valid criticisms and both sometimes fall short, but a recent column by Ahmari reveals perhaps the most glaring error in his perspective.

Ahmari believes both economic interventionists (“progressive liberals”) and those who oppose state intervention (“conservative liberals”) share the same goal of maximizing freedom apart from state coercion. At First Things, he writes:

Progressive liberals are quite open about their aim: to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the “free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits,” as Pierre Manent has written. Conservative liberals and libertarians share in this view of the highest good: The unfettered life is the best life. Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits.

Ahmari argues that the civil sphere needs a guiding philosophy to bend the arc of society toward the common good:

Critics fret that such talk risks unsettling the peace of modernity and resurrecting “a premodern concept of the higher good.” It was precisely liberalism’s “ability to filter out the old prejudices,” one critic asserted, “that made the peace of the modern world possible.”

Ahmari may not know it, but his words were presaged by a speech given in the Vatican in 2016, which stated:

Our challenge is mostly a moral one, to redirect our efforts and vision to the common good. Centesimus Annus, which we celebrate and reflect on today, and Laudato Si’, are powerful, eloquent and hopeful messages of this possibility. It is up to us to learn from them, and to move boldly toward the common good in our time.

That speech was given by Senator Bernie Sanders. In fact, Sanders used the phrase “common good” no less than nine times.

Similarly, in a characteristic formulation, UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said:

We challenge the narrative that only the individual matters, the collective is irrelevant. And instead we say the common good is the aspiration of all of us.

Sohrab Ahmari’s fundamental error is that the Left is driven by nothing more than maximizing personal choice and freedom. These and countless other examples indicate that the modern progressive movement has a more overarching view of society’s ends than imposing “autonomy-maximizing norms.”

True, the Left presented itself as the leading force for personal freedom during Ahmari’s formative years. Social liberalism meant liberating the individual from the tyranny of the Moral Majority. (Rev. Tim Keller addressed the concept of rejecting a traditional identity and selecting a modern identity at the Acton Institute’s 28th Anniversary Dinner last year.) Overthrowing the Judeo-Christian values embedded in the West would open an exciting vista of freedoms. When (and what) to smoke, the ability to end a loveless marriage, or choosing when (and how) to engage in a variety of carnal pleasures lay just at the other end of the struggle against joyless bourgeoise society. This view may be best summarized in one sentence: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” taken from Anthony Kennedy’s decision in his Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling.

Aldous Huxley, best known for Brave New World, summarized his personal motives for rejecting traditional morality (and its God) in his book Ends and Means:

The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.

Shearing the world of meaning opened options that Christian society foreclosed, to be sure – including overthrowing “unjust” capitalism. However, a split emerged between those committed to personal autonomy: Some truly embraced a “live-and-let-live” ethic. They may be found at Reason magazine, the Adam Smith Institute, and other organizations that might call themselves libertarian. But others intended to overthrow a virtuous society to supplant Western morality with a new morality.

Identity politics is the West’s reigning moral code. Intersectionality separates the layers of our secular hierarchy into their proper social functions, like the nine ranks of angelic hosts, delineating who may speak and who must “check your privilege.”

“Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia – if we take a broad view of the history and diversity of human societies, it’s obvious these forms of oppression are not inherent to all times and places. They arise and flourish under certain conditions, but not others,” writes Katlyn Nicholson in “A Marxist Approach to Fighting Oppression.” Both “women’s oppression” and “systemic racism” developed as a consequence of capitalism. (Pre-capitalist societies such as the ancient Sumerians, presumably, shunned racism, sexism, and heteronormativity.)

This desire to atone for the West’s past drives the Left’s view of the common good – and its economic policies. The state must take action to undo centuries of oppression so pervasive they still eradicate all hope, yet so minute they cannot be perceived without a graduate degree.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has presented her Green New Deal as “the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social, and racial justice in the United States of America.” In April, she proffered her plan to Al Sharpton’s followers as “the moral, political, and economic underpinning of making bold investments and dignified jobs, because that is the necessary plan to fix the pipes in Flint and clean the air in the South Bronx and create unionized energy jobs for transitioning workers in Appalachia and West Virginia, for single-payer health care and Medicare-for-All and tuition-free public colleges and universities to prepare our nation for the future, and for the end of mass incarceration, the war on drugs, examining and pursuing an agenda of reparations, and fixing the opioid crisis, too.”

The Left is animated by a vision of the “common good” that has nothing to do with leaving personal choices to the individual. Decisions over where to send one’s child for school, whether to purchase disfavored products for self-defense, the ability to dispose of earned income, even the proper use of pronouns are increasingly dragged into the civic realm in the name of establishing “justice.” To present this as autonomy and liberation stands the statist ideology on its head.

This is not to say David French’s approach is free from error; we will perhaps explore those at another time. But Ahmari’s column gives such a perfect glimpse into his defining misstep that it demands comment.

The greatest practical mistake from this error would be repealing limits on the state and constructing a state apparatus that secular progressives could use to establish their view of the common good de jure. It would be doubly tragic were this done under the mistaken notion that the forces of light will use its machinery to nudge America into the kingdom of Heaven.

(Photo credit: Screenshot.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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