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LIBERALISM/ Better than Our Philosophy: A Response to Muñoz

Our Founding principles are not the best invocation against practices like slavery and abortion because they also produce individualism and a view of liberty as the absence of constraint.

John Locke John Locke

I am honored that my friend and colleague, Phillip Muñoz, would deem my recent First Things article, “Unsustainable Liberalism,” to be worthy of reflection and critique here. It is this kind of serious colloquy among colleagues that has made my first months at Notre Dame delightful, stimulating, and a model of what university life should be.

Muñoz acknowledges that my critique of liberalism is correct—or, at least, of liberalism’s pathologies. He points to my explicit critique of Hobbes’s voluntarism, and what he regards as my implicit critique of Rawls’s political liberalism, as the true sources of liberalism’s pathologies—particularly its inevitable tendency to render all relationships tenuous, fungible, and based upon preferences of the individual will, as well as its deep ontological premise of human antipathy to nature. He then proposes the “principles” of our first Revolution, and particularly those articulated in the Declaration of Independence, as the source of a “healthy and proper understanding of liberalism.

It’s puzzling, but perhaps revealing, that Muñoz does not mention by name the thinker I spend most space criticizing—John Locke. This is a convenient omission, since by jumping from Hobbes to Rawls, Muñoz gives the impression that my critique focuses on the thinkers responsible for proto-liberal state authoritarianism and high liberal state redistributionism—that is, thinkers whose work can be understood as distinct from America’s founding principles.

Muñoz recommends the liberal thought between these extremes, to be found in the “principles” of the Declaration—without mentioning that those principles are animated by, and indeed, at numerous points draw explicitly from, the arguments of John Locke. That is, he pretends that I have not considered this other option, when in fact the brunt of my critique addressed precisely the adoption of Lockean political theory as America’s founding philosophy.

While Muñoz rightly summarizes my arguments, his defense of the founders responds to a different charge against liberalism: its relativism. My critique focused particularly on the way that political voluntarism eventually pervades all human relationships, including those of family, locality, and religion, as well as the baleful consequences of a philosophy that grounds the attainment of human freedom on our ability to master and conquer nature. By “voluntarism,” I mean a philosophic claim, arising especially in the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke, that political arrangements can only be deemed to be legitimate when they have been voluntarily chosen by the citizenry.

My argument—fleshed out in more detail in the First Things article—submits that this basic political insight cannot and was not intended to be limited merely to political arrangements, but eventually colonizes all human relationships. Under liberalism, our basic outlook becomes one in which all relationships are subject to the perpetual calculus whether they will redound to my personal benefit.  We come to prefer “exit” over “loyalty,” the experience of the novel over commitment, “hook-ups” over binding love.

Muñoz appeals to the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration as proof that the founders rejected relativism, and thus that their views are distinct from those of Stephen A. Douglas and John Rawls. His is a valid response—to a different critique. In fact, Muñoz altogether avoids responding to the core of my argument, because to do so would force him to admit that there is no way to avoid the Lockean (and founding) sources of these pathologies. Better to respond with a valid critique to an argument that I did not make.