As a political philosophy and system of governance, liberalism is a product of Western Christian civilization. Yet some of its roots are decidedly illiberal. Thomas Hobbes offered an intellectual framework for our burgeoning Provider State, reducing people to hedonistic machines that accept the oversight of a Sovereign who serves as theologian-in-chief. Jean-Jacques Rousseau cited man’s natural compassion in support of rendering everyone collectively dependent on a sovereign General Will, which Jacques Maritain later called an “immanent social God.” Frederic Bastiat dismissed these pretensions by noting how self-serving lawmakers bend morality to justify—via greed and false philanthropy—the legal plunder that divisively empowers them.
The prevalent method of redefining morality today is to inculcate into society whatever ideological potion the regnant political class peddles in the name of political correctness, much as “soma” was used in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Since the time of John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the role of teachers as change agents has been promoted by well-organized social scientists—often Fabian, Marxian, or Gramscian socialists—who enjoy the financial support of teachers unions and tax-exempt foundations. Lately the spirit of this age has been channeled through social media that are shaped by a symbiosis of tech barons as well as opinion leaders and culture mavens, which Joel Kotkin calls the Oligarchs and the Clerisy, respectively.
Five centuries ago John Calvin recognized the moral hazard that arises when people are induced to act contrary to their consciences. It seems that all the buzzing, blooming confusion of our modern media culture has swollen into a mechanism to demoralize the populace, by making us witnesses, even accomplices, in other people’s bad behavior, by assaulting, weakening, and undermining our moral defenses. Fights over the public purse may end in cynical quid pro quos. Intrusive social regulations may be the price for getting a piece of the plunder but people with bad consciences are more easily manipulated. Eventually they become fatalistic and slavish in their attitudes. We may grumble about the corruption we see in every direction, but too often roll over and go back to sleep. Instead we should heed Solzhenitsyn’s counsel: Live Not by Lies.
For many it is difficult to distinguish between the conscientious and measured expressions of dissent that gave birth to America and a spirit of sedition that would smash every authority. In part this is due to a long campaign of partisan disinformation and political gaslighting that has rendered the public mind more receptive to either/or emotional appeals through which real problems and crimes are oversimplified, absolutized, and then used to divide and conquer. Coercive ideologies and tactics use the West’s accustomed freedoms and toleration to subvert them in the name of some overriding purpose or higher good. The art of politics is increasingly displaced by an elaborate, pervasive, panoptic technology of image-making and message control.
The key ingredient in any politically-motivated behavior-modification scheme is the state of dependency and sense of futility it encourages. Gradually the public becomes dependent upon the State or an identity group for its sustenance, education, worship, or employment. Whatever the revenue-seeking State or other powerful entity wishes to regulate may be redefined as a privilege that requires permission. This permits the dispenser of favors—the turnstile operator—to take the legal and moral high ground while controlling access to formerly public goods. At the same time, it may arouse new desires that are soon enough also regulated on a pay-for-play basis.
This manipulative dynamic was understood long ago by Lord Henley, who in Vernon v Bethell (1762) 28 ER 838, wrote that “necessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men, but, to answer a present exigency, will submit to any terms that the crafty may impose upon them." Henley was later quoted by Franklin Roosevelt to justify his proposal for a Second Bill of Rights. But in the name of helping the needy (and later, as J. Budziszewski puts it, the “merely wanty”), Roosevelt helped construct a Provider State that compels us to submit to any terms the crafty may impose on us. It is a clever form of entrapment. The ingenuity of this scheme is reminiscent of what Reinhold Niebuhr observed about the wiliness of "the children of darkness." Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society is only one among many scions of an even older Social Gospel.
Radical social movements have long been embraced by the academy, becoming essential components of the larger political mechanism that has steadily de-Christianized the culture. Corporate America meanwhile measures the good life by people’s access to hedonistic affluence while substituting for original sin ever more invasive standards of social justice that spare none, perhaps not even the new elite.
The spread of this ideology-driven cultural revolution might have been slowed in America if its originally decentralized federal system had been kept. Instead, the Progressive movement of a century ago carefully laid the foundations for a centralized federal bureaucracy which, ever since, it has bent it to its purposes. The name of the game is to capture the centers of cultural creativity and public authority as a step toward controlling the levers of power. Garet Garrett was ahead of the learning curve when he rigorously analyzed this still novel situation in his 1938 essay, "The Revolution Was.”
Today’s Gulliver is entangled by administrative law, as Philip Hamburger and John Marini have observed. Who could have imagined that our politicians’ infatuation with red tape would blossom into identity politics and the use of lawfare to undermine constitutional protections? We see the old dialectic at work. The hedonistic Eloi are preyed upon by power-hungry Morlocks in our updated version of H. G. Wells's Time Machine. This is the circle of life. Yet, whether it takes the form of a virus or a parasite, every successful revolutionary movement eventually succumbs to its excess.
Marcello Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians provides a framework for understanding the moral challenge of our times: specifically, what Pitirim Sorokin in The Crisis of Our Age (1941) characterized as the “chaotic syncretism” of an “overripe sensate culture,” by which he meant a materialistic “dumping place of the most fantastic and diverse bits of the most fragmentary ideas, beliefs, tastes, and scraps of information.”
The diversion of the liberal project by such “European wizards” as Rousseau, Bentham, Hegel, and Marx from its foundation within a Christian culture has led to its conversion into something hostile to its parent, into what Pera calls “the secular equation.” As programmatic ideologies divorce themselves from their Christian roots, they displace the public expression of Christianity and substitute themselves as comprehensive secular creeds, often in the form of what Michael Polanyi called a moral inversion, that together have provoked the long-term cultural crisis of the West.