The Bondage of the Autonomous Self
"Liberty" is a word of ancient lineage, yet liberalism has a more recent pedigree, being arguably only a few hundred years old. It arises from a redefinition of the nature of liberty to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. By ancient and Christian understandings, liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by the individual or by a political community. Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty--requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites--the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice. This limitation was achieved not primarily by promulgated law--though law had its place--but through extensive social norms in the form of custom. This was so much the case that Thomas Aquinas regarded custom as a form of law, and often superior to formalized law, having the benefit of long-standing consent.
Liberalism reconceives liberty as the opposite of this older conception. It is understood to be the greatest possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms. The only limitation on liberty, in this view, should be duly enacted laws consistent with maintaining order of otherwise unfettered individuals. Liberalism thus disassembles a world of custom and replaces it with promulgated law. Ironically, as behavior becomes unregulated in the social sphere, the state must be constantly enlarged through an expansion of lawmaking and regulatory activities. "The Empire of Liberty" expands apace with an ever-enlarging sphere of state control.
The same dynamic is seen in the economic realm: fulfilling the sovereignty of individual choice in an economy requires the demolition of any artificial boundaries to a marketplace. The market--once a defined and limited space within the city--must ultimately become borderless. The logic of liberalism thus demands near-limitless expansion of the state and the market. A massive state architecture and a globalized economy, both created in the name of the liberation of the individual, combine to leave the individual powerless and overwhelmed by the very structures that were called into being in the name of her freedom. Current electoral discontents within liberal democracies are directed both against titanic economic forces and against distant and ungovernable state structures. Contemporary liberals condemn such "populist" responses, but they are a reaction to the ungovernability of both the economic and political domains and represent a bottom-up effort to reassert political control over an increasingly administrative state and a denationalized economy. While liberals are quick to condemn such populism as "antidemocratic," in fact, for all its evident problems--including its easy manipulation by demagogues--the contemporaneous effort to assert popular control over both centralized state structures and the global market signals a reinvigorated democratic impulse that worries liberals precisely because it is driven by the demos.
1) Many of us are old enough to remember when custom and accepted notions of proper human behavior governed much of social life. Now, however, positive law--promulgated law, as Deneen calls it--is virtually the sole standard in the workplace, in educational institutions, in most public life. The principles of custom are regarded as inadmissible. But positive law as the standard for human conduct is unworkable. Human life is too varied to be regulated in that manner, and the very attempt leads to intolerable tyranny. We even are headed toward speech regulation regarding use of pronouns!
2) Ironically, the liberty of liberalism based on liberalism's central anthropological claim--that the individual is autonomous--leads to suffocating state control--bondage--over the individual. That, in turn, leads to "populist" movements of resistance against the managerial elite who maintain this regulatory bondage over non-elite individuals with non-elite, non-liberal, views.
3) Customary law relies upon the recognition of human nature as a knowable reality. Liberalism rejects the very notion of human nature on philosophical grounds, claiming instead that each individual can choose his own reality. Remember Anthony Kennedy's "sweet mystery of life," lampooned by Justice Scalia? Well, that happens to be the law of the land. What that means is that if human nature is either not a reality or cannot be known in any case, then custom is in principle an unwarranted imposition on the individual. Such thinking is, as Deneen argues, destructive of all social structures in principle--and we are seeing the results. Progressive or Libertarian, the results are basically the same.
4) The vast majority of people do implicitly accept the reality of human nature and the constraints that that reality entails. Liberalism evaded this difficulty by means of a studied dishonesty, that is ever more apparent:
The achievement of liberalism was not [accomplished] simply [by] a whoesale rejection of its precedents [i.e., of earlier Classical and Christian thinking], but in many cases attained its ends by redefining shared words and concepts and, through that redefinition, colonizing existing institutions [think, especially: educational institutions and courts] with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions [anthropological = referring to human nature]. (p. 23)