Inside the Box: Liberal and Conservative Failures
In a provocative article in the Spring 2009 issue of Intercollegiate Review , Dwight Lee argues an ironical thesis: “Nothing Fails Like the Success of Private Enterprise and Freedom”. It is Lee’s contention that the dominant secular liberal voices in our culture have a bad habit of describing as failures the successes associated with private enterprise and freedom. In this he touches upon a significant truth—but it is not the whole story.
Long-time readers will be aware that I have often criticized what I will call here the secular liberal mindset. But there is a “merely conservative” mindset as well, which is rooted in the unfortunate assumption that if the liberal mindset is wrong, then the conservative mindset must be right. Catholics need to avoid the trap of thinking everything is either left or right. We have our own way of thinking and, to use philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen’s famous phrase, Catholics must “transcend the dialectic”.
To his credit, Dwight Lee provides a few telling examples. Thus he notes that the “obesity crisis”, which has led to a demand for (more) government restrictions over private enterprise and personal freedom, actually represents a tremendous success for enterprise and freedom. Indeed, wherever these have not been given the chance to work their magic, people have not had the luxury of being concerned about obesity, for they have been too often either under-nourished or actually starving. Similarly, the perception of a “crisis in medical care”, which also generally leads to a demand for greater government control and reduced freedom, is really the other side of an amazing success story in which private medicine has improved our health and extended our lives. This success includes a vast reduction in the cost of life-saving procedures (such as heart-bypass surgery) which have gradually become routine. And in a third case, Lee points to modern manufacturing, which has enabled millions of people who used to live relatively poorly as farmers to enter the middle class and become better educated, while enjoying extraordinarily low prices for consumer goods. Yet all we hear about is how bad businessmen are, and how the government must keep them from continuing to harm the social order.
These examples are indeed telling, and they should make any reasonable person think twice about the knee-jerk reactions of our cultural elite. After all, the secular liberal mind has three characteristics which contribute mightily to an unbalanced perception of “problems”. First, the secular liberal mind has unrealistically high expectations for this current life, which it regards as man’s only shot at utopia. Second, being subconsciously utopian, the secular liberal mind is equally interested in orchestrating everything to usher in the utopia, and so it profoundly distrusts the messiness that can result when “less enlightened” people are left free to chart their own course. Third, these prejudices of the secular liberal mind give it a vested interest in devaluing anything which tends, like free enterprise and personal liberty (not to mention tradition and religion), to discredit its own point of view.
There are a great many conservatives who instinctively grasp the truth behind Lee’s argument, and so far so good, for any recognition of truth is a positive thing. The problem is that there is much more to consider. Even if the secular liberal mindset is more prevalent and more influential than it should be, Lee ignores several other important reasons for criticizing certain aspects of our own success—reasons that are not rooted in a false view of human nature. First, every human person is rightly concerned with the problems he faces now, not the problems that would have been (or were) faced under other circumstances. Although it is always necessary to avoid tunnel vision, it is not reasonable for a culture facing the problem of obesity to pretend that all it is doing is enjoying the fruits of plenty.
Second, socio-cultural success invariably raises both the bar and our concern about those who fall beneath it. Medical care is a classic case of this, as I argued in an earlier column (The Bishops, Justice, Health Care and Social Change). Our very success in this area enables us to understand good medical care and to see the disproportionate problems faced by those who do not have access to such care—and also to come to the conclusion that, in our time and place, it should be possible to ameliorate that problem. I am very wary of government solutions, as I think everyone should be, but a recognition of contemporary health care deficiencies is not a denial of past success but a recognition that we should desire to share this success more widely.
Third, human persons and human societies are notoriously unbalanced. It is hardly rare that success brings new problems in its wake; in fact, it is normal. As fallen creatures who lack integrity, we can rarely keep anything in harmony for long. Our expectation should be that every success will have to be substantially tweaked, and that some successes will even have to be abandoned in order to recover important goods which were lost along the way.
I have alluded from time to time to secular liberal guilt. It is one of the most instructive paradoxes of modern life that those who deny the guilt of personal sin seem to feel instinctively guilty about their own social success, their own affluence, their own opportunity. Added to the philosophical relativism generally characteristic of the liberal mind, this subconscious sense of guilt often leads to corrosive criticism of one’s own past, followed by a commitment to ill-conceived correctives. A psychological disposition of this sort often lies at the heart of utopianism. Those who don’t understand human nature can never devise sound social policies and, unfortunately, the political pursuit of utopia is invariably and necessarily totalitarian.
But for their part, mere conservatives are often caught in a false dialectic with liberalism which, despite their generally more traditional and religious understanding of human nature, can make them blind to the flaws in anything secular liberals don’t like. Combined with a typical preoccupation with the individual, this can lead to a knee-jerk reaction against almost anything that addresses the need for human solidarity.
There are many good reasons to be concerned about the problems so frequently attendant upon various kinds of success, and any Christian of more than adequate means who doesn’t feel at least a little uncomfortable hasn’t thought seriously enough about the social dimensions of the Gospel. It will always be highly worthwhile to apply a traditional examination of conscience to questions of the common good, for neither an incorrect diagnosis nor an incorrect prescription prove that a disease isn’t real.
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