Reasonable Doubts: Unified Kvetch Theory

Got a problem? Blame "radical individualism."


In case you were wondering against whom the traditionalists' culture war was going to be waged, James Dobson and Gary Bauer are pleased to clarify matters. "STOP AND LISTEN, AMERICA," they demand in their co-signed full-page ad in the May 4 Weekly Standard, which plays off the Jonesboro, Arkansas, schoolyard massacre. "Are we surprised at the spectacle of children killing children?…Radical individualism is destroying us!"

That last is not a misprint: Among many of the nation's social conservatives, it's getting to be more like a slogan. "Radical individualism threatens to devour even America's children," says Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, in a piece written before the shooting sprees. Watergate veteran Charles Colson, now a preacher who's described present-day America as groaning under an "amoral libertarian regime," warns against getting "suckered in by the radical individualism of American culture."

True, some found it a stretch for Dobson and Bauer to blame this year's string of schoolyard murders on an excess of radical individualism (with its reputedly related -isms of secularism and skepticism). Jonesboro, after all, had not exactly been famed as a hotbed of Rand-quoting individualist radicals, or even latte-drinking freethinkers. Like Pearl, Mississippi, and West Paducah, Kentucky, other towns hit with schoolyard killings, Jonesboro is located both physically and temperamentally in the Bible Belt. (Springfield, Oregon, and Edinboro, Pennsylvania, scenes of other shootings, were likewise no one's idea of stamping grounds for the secular elite.) Still, like Eleanor Roosevelt in her heyday, the nation's trads seemed determined to shift the blame for crime away from individual sociopaths and onto the social and cultural environment said to have shaped their psyches–a trend not dampened even by a rampage carried out by a Swiss Guard in Vatican City.

It's not happenstance that as terms such as individualist, libertarian, choice, and autonomy turn into epithets of abuse in many traditionalist circles, many of these same circles are turning a friendlier ear to proposals for state intervention in the economy. Pat Buchanan, of course, has long since departed the free market reservation. Gary Bauer made headlines by deriding the "free-trade mantra," rhetorically assailing Wall Street and big business, playing footsie with unions in their efforts to curtail U.S. firms' use of low-wage labor abroad, and, perhaps most damaging in practice, blasting reformers' plans to privatize Social Security. In Commentary, William Bennett and John DiIulio call for making peace with big government, while in The Wall Street Journal Bennett deplores the "idolatry of the market" and complains that the options offered by "unbridled capitalism" are the enemy of "values and human relationships." ("Well, yes," replied syndicated columnist Steve Chapman. "They're the enemy of authoritarian values and coercive relationships.")

"Over the past five or six years," as David Frum has summed it up, "social and religious conservatives have taken gleeful pleasure in an increasingly emphatic rejection of free markets and limited government." This is very newsy in one sense, but in another it's also unsurprising. What did we expect would happen? How long was fascination with individualist economics supposed to last in a movement shaped on a deeper philosophical level by scorn for individual self-interest and for the individual capacity for reason and self-government? How secure are property rights likely to be in a movement whose rhetoric so often deprecates the very concept of rights, as opposed to seeking to distinguish genuine from spuriously asserted rights, and to uphold the former with vigor?

The influential religious-traditionalist magazine First Things generally maintains a studied silence about matters economic, except for the important task of diminishing the importance of those matters in the wider scheme of things. But its wider philosophic stance is unmistakable. Editor Richard John Neuhaus writes with scorn of the "notion of the unburdened, unencumbered, autonomous self," while a January 1998 book review offers a notably unsympathetic account of the liberal ideal of "autonomy–the idea that the imperial self is to be the sole arbiter of its destiny….But why should the increase of autonomy lead to the diminishment of evil, as liberals claim? It would only do so were we to understand human nature, in the manner of Rousseau, to be intrinsically good [whereas experience teaches that it's a mix of good and evil]. To increase human autonomy is therefore to increase the human capacity for evil; to rein in evil might require reining in human autonomy."

What, I keep wondering, would traditionalist polemicists do without Rousseau as a scarecrow? In 25 years of acquaintance with classical liberals and modern libertarians, I've yet to meet one who asserted the perfectability of human nature or viewed children as inherently good until corrupted by contact with society. (Indeed, it's Dobson and Bauer who seem implicitly to be assuming the latter. Else, why not admit, in discussing the school shootings, that some kids seem to grow up evil no matter how benign their environment?) Most classical liberals invoke the corruptibility of human nature precisely as a reason not to entrust some persons with coercive power over others. But apparently we're not meant to turn around the reviewer's last sentence so that it reads: "To increase the human power to coerce others is therefore to increase the human capacity for evil; to rein in evil might require reining in the extent to which people can coerce others."

After a while, this literature all begins to blur together: the funhouse caricatures of supposed libertarian precepts-cum-character flaws ("atomism," materialism, "moral relativism," hedonism–the first two perhaps characteristic of some but not other libertarians' views, the latter two absurd as applied to the great majority); the relentless use of loaded terminology, with "gratification" and "self-actualization" the favored new pejoratives for happiness or self-betterment when pursued along unapproved lines, and "expressive individualism" the preferred sly trivialization of the ambition to shape one's own life rather than accept a hand dealt by others–as if the chance to choose where one lives or who one marries, the wish to live in a society with open horizons rather than one of conscription and regimentation, were on the same level with the taking up of finger-painting as a lark–self-expression, you know.

Then there's the tendency to conflate libertarianism with other viewpoints and social phenomena whose only apparent common theme is that traditionalist commentators dislike them too. Thus the libertarian impulse is seen as somehow an outgrowth of '60s liberationism (tell that to Rand or Hazlitt or Hayek), which is connected to changes in sex roles, which is really part of the same trend as Darwinism and undue confidence in science, which of course has a lot to do with disrespect for religion in the public square, and so on. Thus a wide variety of odiums rub off mutually, some of which, like "economism" and "hedonism," might otherwise be thought unlikely to coexist in a single culprit. But the cue, it seems, is taken from the description of heaven in the old hymn, "There'll Be No Distinction There."

On a practical level, as some on the other side well realize, the issue keeps getting back to coercion. "What would the response be from an ACLU lawyer [to your censorship proposals]?" asked Michael Cromartie of Robert Bork in an interview published last year in Christianity Today: Replied Bork, "`You are inhibiting my liberty and my right to express myself.' And the answer to that is yes, that is precisely what we are after." Well, we can't say we weren't warned.

In her book The Divorce Culture, soft-communitarian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead calls for "a vision of the obligated self, voluntarily bound to a set of roles, duties, and responsibilities and of a nation where sacrifice for the next generation guides adult ambitions and purposes." Reasonably innocuous, you might think–and in fact entirely too innocuous for Anne Roche Muggeridge, who, reviewing the book for The Wall Street Journal, upbraided Whitehead precisely for her concession to the concept of voluntariness. "The very phrase `obligated self,'" declared Muggeridge, "breathes contradiction when it lies outside a tradition–and a legal order–that imposes duties on us. (How can we be `voluntarily bound' to anything?)"

Start with the premise that coercion is a positive moral good, and it's unlikely
your eventual favorite policy book is going to turn out to be Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose. And so the logic of individualism-loathing keeps naturally beckoning trads into closer cooperation with figures to their left. It might start with a polite hearing for a centrist like Glenn Loury, who writes in The New Republic that "religious traditionalists rightly decry" such cultural problems as "radical individualism, moral relativism, and materialism." Before long one has moved on to stronger stuff, such as the key communitarian text Habits of the Heart, by veteran left-labor academic Robert Bellah, et al. Free market opponent Robert Kuttner has picked up the patois like a native. Calling America "a social desert of radical individualism, whose credo might as well be `everyone for himself,'" Kuttner calls for "oases of broader values," by which he really means a revival of labor unions.

Which still leaves the tantalizing question for traditionalist thinkers: Is there some underlying, systemic problem afoot in the world of which all the little surface problems–from contraception to economism, from medical marijuana to the abolition of compulsory chapel at universities, from MTV to Darwinism, from modern art to the existence of this magazine–are really just different manifestations? The search for a Unified Kvetch Theory took a detour when one or two well-known writers suggested that the common theme among all the different manifestations of modernism was that they were all antinomian, which sent everyone scurrying to their dictionaries.

Historically, the term applied to various religious enthusiasts who believed ordinary precepts of morality no longer applied to persons like themselves who were carrying out God's aims. (David Hume on Puritan-era factions: "The Antinomians even insisted that the obligations of morality and natural law were suspended, and that the elect, guided by an internal principle more perfect and divine, were superior to the beggarly elements of justice and humanity.") Very freely translated in recent conservative writings, the term refers to the supposed tendency of moderns to believe that if your social-political views are advanced enough, you're entitled to whatever you feel like without reproach–an easy position to attack, the sole inconvenience being that remarkably few people actually hold it. Disagreeing with biblical-literalist notions of morality does not an antinomian make.

"Antinomianism" didn't catch on as an all-purpose explainer, but now, as we see, "radical individualism" is pulling up fast on the outside. At least most of the population has some inkling as to what it means, if not a very clear one (which may be the point). It saves the debate from having to rest, at least yet, on explicitly theological grounds. And it can be pressed into service to explain almost anything. People are always–the nerve of them–doing something different from what we have instructed them to do; and every time they disobey they have subordinated their real duty, which we have pointed out to them, to their selfish desire to have their own way.

There's too much human liberty in the world–for all those other people, that is. Yes, it's a theory with real potential.

Contributing Editor Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law Is Paralyzing the American Workplace (The Free Press).