by Christian Smith
Classical liberalism is the bedrock of our culture. It is not only around us and in us-it is us. In fact, it is the social philosophy that has dominated Western life and thought for three hundred years. On a personal level, we cannot understand our own values, impulses, and lifestyles without understanding it. And, on a social level, it is impossible to understand our economy, culture, and political system without coming to terms with the good and not-so-good things about classical liberalism. Most importantly, faithful Christian living demands that we wrestle with the social and cultural environment where we incarnate the kingdom of God, so that our faith is relevant and responsive to its social context.
Now, just to be clear, classical liberalism is not the political orientation about which there was much name-calling in the 1988 Presidential election. The kind of liberalism Bush accused Dukakis of (being a member of the ACLU, and so on) refers to contemporary liberalism. Contemporary liberalism-distinct from what we know as political conservatism-is a variant of classical liberalism which emerged in the 1930s and dominated national politics in the 1960s. In fact, contemporary conservatism is itself every bit as much within the classical liberal tradition as contemporary liberalism. They simply represent two different political strategies on how best to achieve the same goals and values, those of classical liberalism.
The very pervasiveness of classical liberalism makes it difficult for us to get a grip on it. Just as a fish might have difficulty understanding the importance of water-since water is all the fish has ever known-so too we have difficulty seeing the significance and influence of classical liberalism.
Classical liberalism penetrates almost every aspect of our reality. In the United States, especially, classical liberalism, as a cultural world view, has no serious rival. Most of us take its assumptions as axiomatic-not as theoretical propositions to be evaluated and judged, but as true descriptions of the way things are. So, we are not simply talking about an abstract philosophy here; we are talking about our social world and, even, about ourselves-a difficult topic to talk objectively about.
Yet talk about it we must, for classical liberalism lies at the heart of many of our personal and social problems. It also represents the key reality with which we must grapple in our effort to faithfully incarnate the kingdom of God in our modern world. Confronting, understanding, critiquing, and reconstructing (if not replacing) classical liberalism is a task worth taking on.
Our short-term need is to recognize the effects that this world view has on our instincts, thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions. Just as psychotherapists bring unconscious realities to consciousness in order to help people get control of them, we need to objectify classical liberalism to get some control over it, to understand how it influences us in order to filter its influence. Our long-term need, however, is to construct a new social philosophy that incorporates, within a new framework, the genuine values and insights of classical liberalism while discarding what is faulty and dehumanizing. Both jobs will take work, but both are crucial to the integrity and future of our Christian faith.
WHAT EXACTLY IS classical liberalism? It originally developed in 18th century England and served to explain and justify the new emergence of entrepreneurial (and later, industrial) capitalism and to limit the power of the State. Its major protagonists were John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. Classical liberalism is not just an economic theory or a political ideology-it is a complete social philosophy, offering a perspective on who human beings ought to be, on social relations, on political power, on economic activity, and on the purpose of life itself. Classical liberalism's major assumptions provide the basis for an entire world view, that is, our world view.
The first major assumption of classical liberalism is that the basic unit of reality is the individual, not the family, community, or nation. Society is not a community of different kinds of communities. Society, and groups within society-even churches and families-are simply aggregate collections of distinct individuals.
The second assumption concerns human nature. Classical liberalism assumes that the most important fact and characteristic of all human beings is that they are, at the core, competitive and self-interested. Humans are conceived as pitted against each another in the pursuit of their own individual interests. The world is more like a huge game of Monopoly, where everyone is trying to beat out the others, rather than like an Amish barn-raising where everyone works together toward a common goal.
Third, classical liberalism insists that the chief end of life is the realization of individual fulfillment. The main goal and purpose of life is to maximize your own satisfaction, to achieve the fullness of your desires, to pursue your personal fulfillment. Furthermore, the goals and means of human fulfillment are defined individually and relatively. In other words, what constitutes fulfillment for an individual can be defined only by that individual and not by others. I can decide what will fulfill me, and you can decide what will fulfill you. It's everybody for themselves.
The fourth assumption flows naturally from the first three, namely that the greatest social value for individuals is freedom from dependence on the will of others. Freedom is the value to which all other values must be subordinate. Why? Because dependence on the will of others could hinder the pursuit of self-defined, individual fulfillment. Personal autonomy must head the list of all social values. The automobile is a technological incarnation of the quest for autonomy: it allows an individual to go anywhere, at anytime, for any reason at little cost (at least in the short run).
The fifth major assumption, which is linked directly to the assumption about competitive self-interest, concerns our individual rights. Classical liberalism assumes that the most fundamental human right is to accumulate, enjoy, and transfer property without limit. Private property and the right to it makes us individuals: we can know ourselves as distinct persons because we have the right to the property of our own bodies, energies, and possessions. This right precedes and overrides all others; no other value, person, obligation, or government can deny anyone this right. Even a person starving on the street has no rightful claim on what we might own. The right to property also has no limits: there is no amount of private property that an individual could not have the right to possess. No one can be too rich.
Classical liberalism's last major assumption concerns the role of government: the only legitimate purpose of political society is to protect individuals from violations of their natural rights, especially the right to private property. Through national defense and a legal system, government must maintain an environment where an individual's right to pursue fulfillment is protected. Beyond this negative role, government has no legitimate function. This is the root of the popular belief in the United States which says, "government is best which governs least." (However, though retaining this assumption in rhetoric, both contemporary liberalism and conservatism have abandoned it in practice).
To some, these assumptions may appear perfectly natural and acceptable. To others, they may seem repulsively cold and inhuman. In either case, they are the assumptions on which our society and culture are built. Like it or not, they shape who we are and how we live. For example, when we send soldiers off to fight and die to "defend our freedom," we are sending them off to defend a way of life that, at heart, incarnates these assumptions. This is the reality we must face as we struggle to faithfully live out Christianity in our own social context.
WHAT KIND OF sense can we as Christians make of classical liberalism? How ought we to evaluate it?
The first step is to recognize that classical liberalism needs evaluation. Most Christians either are hardly aware that such a life-shaping world view exists or endorse it as God's own way. The former consequently have no control over the ways classical liberalism shapes them; they are entirely the objects of its influence. The latter-who confuse God and country-defend classical liberalism as the "Christian" way of life and, consequently, are also entirely the objects of its influence.
Neither option is acceptable, for we are ultimately to be the objects of the Holy Spirit's influence. In fact, all philosophies, all political structures, all economic systems, all ways of life are subject to the judgment of God; none-capitalism or socialism, democracy or monarchy, classical liberalism or Marxism-should be invested with divine approval. Though certain social systems may better approximate God's will for society, none of them is "God's way." To think otherwise is idolatry.
Instead, we must discern and judge the value and inadequacies of classical liberalism. As Paul said, we must "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2Cor. 10:5).
How then do we evaluate classical liberalism? How does it stand up to Christian reflection?
First, we would simply be reactionary if we did not recognize valuable insights in classical liberalism. Indeed, classical liberalism has been such a historically powerful force because it contains genuine insights about and valuable contributions to social life.
The first and most obvious insight is that individuals are valuable and important: they should not be abused or crushed by other individuals or groups. It is not acceptable to unjustly sacrifice individual welfare for collective good.
Second, freedom is an important social value. Human beings-reflecting their Creator-are creative and are called to create and recreate their world. But true creativity requires a certain degree of freedom, both personal and social. Repressive, conformist societies that force uniformity on their members obstruct God's will for human creativity and diversity.
Freedom is important, too, because living before God in true righteousness and integrity requires freedom, not compulsion. God did not create robots pre-programmed for love and obedience; God created free beings with the ability to make and act on moral choices. Society, then, should cultivate freedom for responsible living.
A third insight of classical liberalism is that individuals should be, in some sense, happy and fulfilled, and not empty and miserable. From a Christian perspective, humans do, in fact, have gifts, talents, and abilities that they ought to cultivate and use to glorify God. Indeed, we, as individuals, have callings before God to spend our lives in certain ways that resonate with who God made us to be. These are, in a sense, our destinies, which we have a moral obligation to pursue, to God's glory. And, to do so is fulfilling or satisfying in a deep way.
THESE ARE SOME important insights of classical liberalism that have contributed much of value to us as individuals and as societies. Nevertheless, classical liberalism, as a social philosophy, has also done us many a profound disservice.
On some issues it has misformulated a valuable insight so that, in the end, it conveys as much falsehood as truth. On other issues it has simply been wrong from the start. Let's examine how this has happened.
First of all, the idea of human autonomy is one such incorrect assumption. The fact is, people are not fundamentally independent, autonomous creatures, as classical liberalism argues. Rather, we are-all of us-fundamentally interdependent creatures. Thoreau's vision of the solitary, self-sufficient individual struggling to resist the harmful influence of civil society is a romantically naive, adolescent fantasy. Individuals can survive, develop personal identities, seek their own fulfillment, and even oppose society, only because they are, more fundamentally, begotten by, sustained by, and connected in a complex web of human relations. At bottom, paradoxically, it is our firmly rooted place in-and not our distance from-society which gives us our individuality.
Classical liberalism also fails to recognize our interdependence with the natural world. Instead of seeing humans as stewards in a fragile, finite, complex, organic web of natural life-of which we are a part-classical liberalism tends to view the natural world as a thing to be exploited and controlled. Humans are insatiably acquisitive creatures who can subdue and possess the earth without limit or impunity. This arrogant view is largely responsible for the destructive pollution of God's creation and the selfish, short-sighted depletion of the earth's natural resources.
Human interdependence means that a person's decisions and actions affect the people around them, even people they may not ever know or meet. In greater or lesser degrees, what I do affects you and what you do affects me-it is inescapable. When we forgive a wrong, blast our stereos, drive recklessly, burn trash, serve the homeless, tell lies, waste energy, pick up litter, or abandon our families, we-like it or not-send out ripple effects which positively or negatively impact the lives of others near and far. I, for example, may not have to breathe the smoke of all the cigarette smokers in this nation; but I do have to help pay-through insurance premiums-for the expensive medical services eventually required to care for their prematurely failing bodies. Their smoking affects everyone-like it or not. The fact is, we are all in this business of society together. This reality should create a sense of responsibility and accountability among each other. Classical liberalism fails to recognize this.
Classical liberalism foolishly and arrogantly blinds itself to human interdependence by focusing only on individual autonomy; the injurious consequences are many. We pay for our maximized personal freedom with a minimized sense of belonging, of rootedness, of support, of continuity, in short, of community. Classical liberalism engenders a loneliness, privatism, and alienation unknown in most traditional societies. It also subverts any sense of responsibility for and accountability to each other. Rather than helping and caring for each other, as we've seen, it's everyone for themselves. Such a society is less than fully human.
A second flaw of classical liberalism is its distorted idea of the common good, which it believes to be the automatic end product of all individuals pursuing their own individual interests. This is foolish. The common good often demands the subordination of individual interests. Sometimes, for example, all the members of a community have to make individual sacrifices-of personal time, for example-that ultimately result in an enhancement of the community's common good. Conversely, often the same actions in the individual interests of each person in a group, such as not having to pay for polluting the air with automobile exhaust, act to damage the common good of the group-in this case, a polluted common air space.
Classical liberalism claims that the only unit of reality is the individual, that no other social entity has reality or importance. But if that is so, how can whole cities be judged (Jonah 1:2) and entire generations be condemned (Lk. 11:29-32)? How can nations walk in the light of God (Is. 60: 3, 5; Rev. 21: 24)? How can whole households be saved by the belief of one of its members (Acts 16: 31-34)? And how can the church be, not simply an aggregate collection of saved individuals, but "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's people" (1Pet. 2: 9). Clearly, classical liberalism's one-dimensional perspective misses the whole collective reality of human existence.
A FURTHER DEFECT of classical liberalism is its obsession with individual self-fulfillment. Quite simply, from a Christian perspective, individual self-fulfillment, per se, is not the goal of human life. It may be a by-product, but it isn't the goal. Rather, glorifying God is the purpose of life. In the long run, living for God's glory is fulfilling-in one sense of the word. But in the short run, it can often seem anything but fulfilling. Does it feel like self-realization to deny oneself and take up the cross (Mark 8: 34)? Is it self-fulfilling to lose one's life (Matt. 16: 25) or to put to death one's natural self (Rom. 8: 12-13)?
The basic difference is this: from a Christian perspective, individuals seeking self-realization have to deal with the reality of human sin. Our efforts to achieve self-fulfillment directly are thwarted by our broken nature. Sin must be dealt with-often in ways that seem entirely unfulfilling-before anything like fulfillment is possible. Even then, the self-fulfillment that is important in a Christian sense is often achieved through spending oneself to nurture or develop something other than oneself.
When it comes to individual happiness, classical liberalism ignores the issue of sin, pretending that it doesn't exist. From this perspective, self-fulfillment can and should be achieved through the relentless, direct pursuit of one's own interests. This is the philosophy that has nurtured the self-help pseudo-ethics of recent pop psychology: "You owe it to yourself to be fulfilled, to find your true self, to be self-actualized, to have everything you deserve, to become all that you were meant to be."
But we, as Christians, should know better. We need to ask ourselves and others, what kind of life-orientation is really more self-fulfilling: that of Mother Theresa or of Ivan Boeskey? That of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Howard Hughes? That of Corrie Ten Boom or of Dr. Ruth?
Furthermore, classical liberalism over-emphasizes the competitively self-interested side of human nature. In doing so, it legitimizes and encourages personal and social vices rather than virtues. Most people are, to some degree, competitively self-interested (although that is not all humans are). However, it is one thing to realistically recognize and account for our oft-times selfish nature. It is quite another thing to identify selfishness as the core fact of human nature, legitimize it, and construct a society and culture that approves, encourages, and rewards it.
Society-from a Christian point of view-ought to encourage the positive potentials of human nature: cooperation, community, peace, social responsibility, and civic virtue. We need a social philosophy that understands society as a collective project to enhance the common welfare, not as a cutthroat playing field where only the strong and ruthless receive the prize.
A related defect of classical liberalism is that it encourages a spirituality of materialistic consumption, where goodness and happiness are measured by how much stuff one can accumulate. In the eyes of classical liberalism, "whoever dies with the most toys wins" is almost literally true. This is not just an attitude. It is a spirituality that displaces a true Christian spirituality. In a classical liberal society, the Sears catalogue is the Bible, shopping malls are the temples, and going to department store sales are our pilgrimages.
A final flaw of classical liberalism is that it considers questions of personal and social ethics only in terms of human rights: it thinks in terms of who has the right to do what without interference from another (for example, the right to smoke, have an abortion, publish pornography, hold a church meeting). Relatively speaking, classical liberalism's focus on human rights is a vast improvement over many of the unjust abuses of defenseless people throughout history. However, the language of rights is not the only way for a society to seek justice and freedom, and may not be the best way.
Classical liberalism's emphasis on human rights ultimately reinforces what divides and separates us from one another, putting us out of each other's reach. It focuses attention on how much each of us can get away with, without worrying about the interference of others. Perhaps a more appropriate approach to ethics would focus not on human rights, but on our human responsibilities to each other.
Christianly speaking, it is not the (supposedly) self-evident existence of inalienable rights possessed by each individual that provides the basis for the value and protection of individuals. Indeed, our historical experience seems to indicate that protecting individual dignity will require rooting that dignity in something greater than the individuals themselves. Rather, it is that each human person is made in God's image and, as such, must be treated with dignity, love, and compassion by others. In our efforts to protect individuals from unjust violations of their human dignity, we would be wise, in the long run, to build our reasoning on the foundation, not of rights, but of our common interdependence, moral obligations, and social responsibilities to each other.
OUR LONG-TERM PROJECT must be to construct an alternative social philosophy that can undergird the kind of social life God would intend for humans. Such a social philosophy will have to recognize that the fullest human life is not found in a Robinson Crusoe-like independence, but in the context of a mutually-dependent, nurturing community, accounting for our social and ecological interdependence. It will also have to better integrate individual interests with the common welfare of communities and society, recognizing that legitimate individual "self-fulfillment" is most often realized through self-giving, not self-serving. Our alternative social philosophy must account for the reality of human selfishness without legitimizing and rewarding it; more fundamentally, it will need to encourage the social virtues of peace, cooperation, and community. Finally, in a more Christian social philosophy, the concept of individual human rights will need to be superseded by the common imperative of mutual social responsibilities and moral obligations.
In the short run, however, we simply need to deal with the more practical matters that affect our daily lives today. Right now, we have to become conscious of the powerful effects that classical liberalism has on our lives, personally and socially, so that we can take control and begin to filter these effects.
We need to contradict classical liberalism by recognizing and strengthening the interdependence of our relationships and our mutual responsibilities to each other. We need to build our churches into true Christian communities of love, commitment, and justice, rather than mere collections of autonomous individuals. We need to learn to be accountable to one another, submitting our lives to one another in love. We need to worry less about material possessions and experiential fulfillment and focus more on spiritual maturity, justice, and service to others, especially the most poor and needy. We need to think of our important relationships-in church, community, marriage, and family-not primarily as means to self-realization, but as commitments that, with hard work, bear the fruit of spiritual growth, moral character, and love.
The Bible tells us, "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is" (Rom. 12:2). This means that, among other things, in this time and place in history, we must confront classical liberalism. As the social philosophy that is the dominant "spirit of our age," we must understand classical liberalism, criticize it, and reconstruct it. Where it offers valuable insights, we must appreciate it; where it leads us astray, we must contradict it. By bringing classical liberalism under the judgment of Christ and by living out a better, more realistic and just alternative in our personal lives and Christian communities, we can, indeed, prove to this age what the will of God is.