With the birth of civilization came the creation of a class of the citizenry who seem to derive a perverse kind of pleasure from prophesying its doom. Ironically, it is the leisure time law and order affords men, who would otherwise fill their days with worry over how best to secure their needs against the privations of the wild, that makes such pointless pursuits as forecasting societal apocalypses possible. But whereas our forebears left such jokers standing where they belonged — shouting from the muck of street corners, fully open to the censure and ridicule of their more industrious brethren — we in modernity have elevated their histrionics, enshrining it in cable television hits and digital soundbites scrubbed of all context.
The latest trend in end-times prognostication fixates on the perceived decline in liberalism as a functional guiding ideology for society. In a world of fake news, social media sniping and physical confrontation of political foes, it often seems traditional bedrock liberal values — free speech and equality of rights to name a few — have been replaced with the politics of social grievance and sensitivity. The primary guiding maxim of the strange twilight zone land into which we’ve drifted is not governed by Aristotle’s golden rule: treat others with the respect you’d like to be afforded. Rather, offense is the barometer used as a gauge for action. People are neatly classified into groups, as if they were mere animals to be catalogued, whose boundaries are that of gender, race, class, ideology, etc. When one oversteps the territory of another, the mask of civility slips back; this is not barbarism, but virtue in the tribalism of today.
Utterly devoid of self-awareness, those whose hyperbolic rhetoric cannot be overlooked as contributory to the erosion of a shared common space bemoan the sectarianism of modern life and its effect on institutions. Whether the death notice comes from the left or right, the consensus seems to be the same: atomized individualism, embodied and encouraged by the reflexive hatreds cultivated by “me versus the world” tribal politics, fatally undermined the sense of communal oneness that previously made civil society tick.
Or so the general thrust of the argument runs. But there are two points of contention here. One involves the pronouncement of liberalism’s death and the other involves laying at the feet of institutions.
The first is not so much a function of demonstrably proving or disproving an argument so much as it is about confirmation bias. Whether or not liberalism is suffering a fatal sepsis is something only the march of time can prove out. The hyperbole of doom allays deep-seated primal fears that speak to that most fundamental of human drives: survival. Even as they stoke fears of social disorder and the upending of ways of life, they absolve the individual from blame, placing this instead on the amorphous “we” of social and political leaders. Collective fault absolves the individual from the vast majority of culpability while also offering hope for salvation. If only people can change their attitudes, things will improve. Again, the burden falls largely on others, not the individual, to seek out a solution.
As to the primacy given to institutions, this is a more complicated matter. Rhetorically, the idea that institutions are like an adhesive that serves to bind together the citizens of a society that applauds the pursuit of private projects is one that could have been lifted from the pages of the natural law gospel which serves as the cornerstone of liberality.
John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government is widely considered the greatest patrimony of Western liberality, states:
“there only is political society where every one of the members has quitted his natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. And thus all private judgment of every particular member being excluded, the community comes to be umpire by settled standing rules, indifferent and the same to all parties, and by men having authority from the community for the execution of those rules decides all the differences that may happen between any members of that society concerning any matter of right.”
For his part, Montesquieu, another major influencer of liberal thinking, draws a distinction between political liberty and freedom in The Spirit of Laws. The former might be unlimited, but rule of law dictates that “liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.” Like Locke, Montesquieu has a fairly narrow definition of liberty, echoing Cicero in calling it “a right of doing whatever the laws permit.”
The law, then is the foremost institution in society. It shapes not necessarily the way in which liberty is held by individuals but the way in which it can be exercised. Government is charged with securing freedom, but in order to do so, subjugates private interests to community standards. This new intermediary body — the public will — does not exist in a state of nature. Relationships are person-to-person, viewed primarily as a matter of rights-qua-rights as incursions the insecurity of nature are the primary concern of the social contract theorists. Even though the public introduces an element of separation between the individual and their rights by truncating the way in which they are exercised, this is mitigated by the fact that the individual, as a member of the general citizenry, contributes to the collective judgments of the public will.
Casting the decline of public institutions as significant to a perceived decline in liberalism is therefore in keeping with social contract theory. Whether the institutions in question is a public one — chiefly some organ of the federal government — or a private one, it serves as a manifestation of the public will. It provides a platform where opinion coalesces, creating a tangible expression of public values, crucial to the movement of society at large.
This view, however, also effectively makes society nothing more than the sum of its institutions. Since the private realm is truncated and subjugated to public oversight, institutions are the preeminent moving agent in society.
And therein lies the problem, both with social contract theory and with the modern view that as institutions decline so goes the liberal world. Society effectively becomes hollow and self-perpetuating. Society is made up of institutions, but of what are institutions made? The answer is simple: private individuals. Yet, private individuals are limited by the institutions whose constitutions they make up.
Montesquieu himself contradicts his idea that liberalism is narrowly defined in reference to respect for the rule of law by making a distinction between the nature and principle of government:
“this difference between the nature and principles of government, that the former is that by which it is constituted, the latter that by which it is made to act. One is its particular structure, and the other the human passion which set it in motion.”
In other words, institutions by themselves are null; they require an animating will, which comes from the individuals who populate them. Institutions are not self-containing entities; they require external influence. They might organize and broadcast the public will, but the judgments upon which this is built do not come from institutions, or even from law.
This is the crux of the error of social contract theory. The elevation of institutions as a regulator of the great swirling miasma of diverse private pursuits and personal inclinations does not ultimately respect the individual. Institutions become not merely percolators of public will and communal values; they become their authors, an effect which, on its front, seems reasonable because narrow private interests are ultimately under the authority of the collective view of broader society. This finds its most concrete expression in law, which is the ultimate institution, but requires guidance from other private institutions to set its tenor.
But there is no such thing as a “communal standard.” The wellspring of morality is the ability to discern right and wrong. There may be public conversations about how right and wrong are evinced through actions taken in different parts of society, but any consensus that emerges is a reflection of individuals privately evaluating an argument and either finding it of merit or dismissing it and instead offering a competing view of where community standards ought to lie. This capacity to reason is not a function of society; it is a function of the individual. The capacity to reason is not a product of a liberal order, but of the natural one.
As Locke writes:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health liberty, or possessions.”
The most fundamental precepts of morality have nothing whatever to do with the institutions, public or private, that spring from the natural order. They precede the natural order and are a function of the private, internal functions of the individual, namely the capacity to reason. Morality has its roots outside the liberal order; it precedes it. It is the state of equal and independent creation that reason tells individuals necessitates the liberal order.
The dichotomy set up between individualist pursuits and communal standards, particularly those who seek to tie the perceived decline of liberalism and its institutions to the former, is false. A liberal society has no agency; it is the sum of the actions and opinions of its constituent individual members. It is they who determine morality; community values are merely a reflection of private consensus and subject to change along with personal judgments.