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A friend and colleague often forces me to read The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is a dreary compendium of leftist ideology and smug conventional wisdom he enjoys using to depress me. Nonetheless, I do occasionally read beyond the opening paragraphs to see what I would be thinking if only I were as “smart” as I should be. I struck gold (well, pyrite at any event) in a recent issue. The April 5 “Review” section of the Chronicle included an essay by one Mark S. Weiner titled “The Paradox of Individualism.” The paradox? That individualists (bad guys to begin with, of course) end up destroying true individualism by tearing down government.

If that sounds odd to you, congratulations. But here is the argument: were today’s individualists (by which Weiner means, of course, anyone opposed to the persistent expansion of government into every area of our lives) to succeed, the result would not be an increase in individual liberty. Rather, the result of any substantial reining in of governmental power would be an increase in “clan” power, bringing intolerance, violence, and a general degradation of our way of life.

Obviously and predictably enough, the enemy to be fought is anyone prey to “antigovernment ideology.” Such has it been for the Chronicle crowd for many decades. What actually is somewhat refreshing (or perhaps merely the result of an unguarded moment of honesty) is Weiner’s open admission that the purpose of the state, for liberals, is to undermine more natural forms of community. As Weiner claims, “left to our own devices, humans tend to live under clan rule.” And, as far as this statement goes, Weiner clearly is right. Even John Locke, the founder of modern liberalism, saw the roots of human society in extended families, in which elders were given respect on account of their experience and past services. The anthropological case actually is a bit more mixed, but in general family based groups (clans actually are not rooted only in family ties, but such details are not dispositive, here) arise earlier and are more stable and long-lasting than formal political constructs.

The fundamental error underlying Weiner’s essay is the unthinking belief that groups rooted in familial ties are by nature primitive and hostile to, well, pretty much all good things. We are, on this view, naturally driven to be narrow-minded and exclusionary, so our nature must be hemmed in and altered by the state. The dystopian vision on which Weiner draws is one of more natural family ties mixing with religious dogma and personal power to bring brutal tyranny down upon anyone who is “different,” meaning, of course, both minority populations of various sorts and, of course, those individuals who choose lifestyles violating religious precepts and traditional conceptions of virtue.

The response to this calumny on local affection is long and fruitless because the liberal hostility to family and family based societies is not rooted in fact or history, but rather ideology. Still, I must mention that human rights, for example, are the product of religious thought and practice stemming from the (bad-old, family centered) Middle Ages, and that the same goes for both rule by consent and the rule of law.[1]

One should give the critique of “clan” ties its dues:  such ties can and sometimes do blind people to their wider obligations and provide excuses for unjust and even deadly misconduct. It was the balancing (though not the defeat) of such ties with a universal Church that fostered the formation of Western Civilization. That said, the notion that the territorial nation-state is immune to the failings of selfishness (one might simply say “sin”) is insupportable. The number of “exceptions” to the supposed rule of benign nation-states is too long and varied to be denied. Human ignorance, hostility, and even brutality are facts of our flawed nature which all communities must combat, and from which none are immune.

To be fair, most liberals recognize some of the failings of the nation-state, which is why they seek to go beyond that nation-state to some kind of international super-state that will somehow keep all of us peaceful and tolerant (and, no doubt, driving our communal Prius to the recycling center). But here is where the ideology of anti-family statism becomes clear. The assumption is that, other things being equal, local ties make us “biased.” They “cloud our judgment” with irrational emotions and keep us from seeking a greater good, which inevitably looks to a broader, more equal distribution of material goods, combined with ever-greater commitment to acknowledging the right of every individual to do whatever he or she wants, so long as it causes no clear outward physical harm. And, of course, good liberals define this combination of material control and moral indifference “toleration.”

Liberal toleration treats traditional families as its enemy because traditional families seek to rear their children in particular values, toward particular goals that have historical roots and have the flourishing of particular communities as their purpose. Particular persons, according to such a traditional, family centered viewpoint, are best off, not if they are treated as abstract individuals whose choices matter only if they bring overt harm, but rather as whole persons whose dignity depends on their ability to pursue various goods in common with their intimate fellows.

And here is the true paradox of individualism. If we see ourselves and one another as mere individuals—as selves defined by our choices but dependent on no one for the legitimacy of our non-harmful actions—we degrade actual persons. If we join Mr. Weiner and others who see the state as the necessary guardian of a “fair” distribution of material goods to people who do whatever they happen to like at the moment, answering to no one but themselves, two things happen. First, the person loses his or her place in a community that can actually give meaning to life. And, second, the state becomes an increasingly powerful, pseudo-parental force able to define what is harmful, (not just violence but, for example, politically incorrect speech or “discrimination” in seeking to avoid paying to support abortions) and what is necessary for each individual.

The individual is an insupportable fiction used by some on both the left and the right hand side of the ideological spectrum in fights over the appropriate size and conduct of the centralized, territorial nation-state.  Actual persons do not need such a state. They need families, churches, and a variety of local associations in which to pursue goods in common with their fellows.  The state may take many forms besides that currently seen as natural. It has a vital role to play in coordinating among communities, preventing violence, and supporting human dignity. To the extent that it eschews this coordinating role in favor of ruling, marginalizing, transforming, and even destroying traditional, natural groups, it undermines any possibility for human dignity—whether it acts in the name of individuals, or justice, or God, or Mother Earth, or any other putative good its operatives claim requires hostility toward the natural font of human virtue.

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[1] The medieval roots of these values, along with limitations on governmental power, constitute the theme of my “Is Constitutionalism Liberal?” 33 Campell Law Review, 529 (2011).

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2 replies to this post
  1. Professor Frohnen: The more I read such statements as “most liberals recognize some of the failings of the nation state, which is why they seek to go beyond that nation state to some kind of international super-state that will somehow keep all of us peaceful and tolerant” and also “Liberal toleration treats traditional families as its enemy because traditional families seek to rear their children in particular values,” the more I realize that I and my self-designated liberal friends are either not liberals at all or else are very different from the “most liberals” about whom you (and so many other conservative commentators) write. I must just hang out in the wrong circles: I don’t know a single liberal who advocates world government (we don’t dislike the UN, though) or who doesn’t value (and participate in) both traditional and non-traditional families, complete with their attempts to inculcate values.
    It’s quite puzzling to me; maybe this is a distinction between academic liberals (I confess that I don’t know any of them) and regular folks?

    On a more positive, and appreciative, note: “The individual is an insupportable fiction used by some on both the left and the right hand side of the ideological spectrum in fights over the appropriate size and conduct of the centralized, territorial nation state” is, in my opinion, both true and well-said. Thanks…

    • Mr. Shifflet,

      Obviously liberal individuals and groups don’t explicitly attack family or publicly call for the primacy of supra-national institutions over the state, as such statements are politically untenable; most probably don’t admit such ideas even to themselves. However, their principles move them towards actions that show a belief that the welfare of the individual is the purpose of all such institutions, and thus their legitimacy cannot be supported if those institutions make demands on the individual beyond the most obvious behaviors that must be grounded for the sake of conflict avoidance. This perspective was widespread at my university and is implied everywhere in the press; to say that liberals do not share it is fundamentally absurd. Conservatives can see patterns out of liberal thought and behavior which they don’t see in themselves, just as liberals can see in conservatives.

      This perspective leads to problems, as the individual has less obligations to those groups and the groups are expected to make a constant competition of treating individuals better and better in exchange for less and less. So the individual can leave as he chooses, use the “authority” figures within the institutions as if they were there to serve them, and hold the ultimate prerogative in all matters of personal identity, no matter how it disrupts expectations that make the group predictable and create the sense of shared identity that hold the group together.

      Within the institutions that have been wrecked by this kind of thinking, the people who are made to pay the price for all this are those in positions of formal responsibility. Their legitimacy in question every time a member of the group feels vaguely dissatisfied, they have been perpetually bent to public opinion and made to act less as powerful influences in society than caretakers, not granted real respect no matter how well paid they are. This could be parents, or employers, or clergy, or politicians who make the mistake of overestimating people’s intelligence. Investing oneself in any institution, dedicating yourself to it and gaining formal power, makes no sense.

      But for most liberals, I would hardly expect this to matter. This disempowerment is the point. They are authority figures, and if their investments in institutions had anything but charitable humanism motivating them, then they can be dismissed as bastards.

      Some of us long ago came to the conclusion that, in disagreements between parties, the liberal will invariably side with whoever makes themselves out to be victims and underdogs most effectively, while siding against formal authority. It’s pure Judeo-Christian moral principle that demands it, a liberation narrative. What the people are being liberated from is obligation to those in positions of hierarchy, and social order itself becomes an unnecessary oppression through that lens. This is rarely stated explicitly. It’s a worldview. It’s everywhere once you look for it and it demonizes every form of obligation an individual can have to an authority figure.

      The institution is the legitimacy of its authorities. Liberals are constantly attacking the prerogative of those authorities to do anything more than provide care, and particularly hate any kind of coercive disciplinary action. I don’t see how any liberal could not see this trend in their own point of view.

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