Individual Liberty and Statism

Patrick Deneen argues (drawing from the sociologist Robert Nisbet) that an emphasis on individualism (and specifically the sort of individualism celebrated by our Founding Fathers and enshrined in the constitution) leads directly and inexorably to Statism.

Statism is a logical and even inevitable consequence of individualism – and thus, that the apparently opposite and conflicting philosophies of classical liberalism [ie, the Republican Party and libertarianism] and progressive liberalism [ie, the Democratic Party and socialism] are actually inseparable. If this is the case, to seek to combat iterations of collectivism by appeal to the individualistic principles of classical liberalism is to be engaged in the philosophical equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. (from Community AND Liberty OR Individualism AND Statism).

Why does Deneen (and Nisbet) claim that seeking individual liberty inevitably leads to an all-powerful state? As Nisbet says (quoted by Deneen), human beings are by nature social and relational creatures. This sociological principle, by the way, matches what the Judeo-Christian tradition has said from the beginning. And Nisbet goes on to make a profoundly Christian conclusion from this: The “assumption of anthropological individualism … deforms the human person” and it is the deformation “that fosters the conditions that make collectivism and attractive and even inevitable alternative” to the Republican and Libertarian party principles.

Deneen continues: “Without the rise of individualism, the rise of collectivism is inconceivable.”

In other words, the solution to the massive state intrusion into our lives is not simply to reduce government. Two hundred years of autonomous individualism in America have intruded into our public institutions (marriage, family, churches, communities) and often actuly broken them down. We now have several generations that have grown up in a world largely unchecked by any institution except the state. If influence of the state were dramatically reduced or removed, chaos would reign because few institutions and communities remain to check the insipient evil in our hearts.

If Libertarians and/or Tea Partiers were given massive victories and repainted America with their pallet, it would be likely that we would have our own Tottenham chaos over here in the colonies. Please don’t misunderstand, dismantling the massive American government is not a bad thing. But rather than making our primary agenda to rail against state intrusion, we need to begin a massive grass-roots effort to rebuild the public institutions which have been decimated by two hundred years of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This may seem an impossible task, a quixotic adventure, but it is probably the only hope of recovering the civilization our forebears hoped to create in the New World.


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