Neoclassical Liberalism’s Entropy

David Brooks – 11/17/17.

John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory, which explains how humans are formed by relationships early in life, and are given the tools to go out and lead their lives. The most famous Bowlby sentence is this one: “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.”

Attachment theory nicely distinguishes between the attachments that form you and the things you then do for yourself. The relationships that form you are mostly things you didn’t choose: your family, hometown, ethnic group, religion, nation and genes. The things you do with your life are mostly chosen: your job, spouse and hobbies.

Through most of American history, our society was built on this same sort of unchosen/chosen distinction. At our foundation, we were a society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community, creed and faith. Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights.

The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their freedom well. The liberal institutions gave them that freedom.

This delicate balance — liberal institutions built atop illiberal ones — is now giving way. The big social movements of the past half century were about maximizing freedom of choice. Right-wingers wanted to maximize economic choice and left-wingers lifestyle choice. Anything that smacked of restraint came to seem like a bad thing to be eliminated.


We’ll call this worldview — which is all freedom and no covenant — naked liberalism (liberalism in the classic Lockean sense, not the modern progressive sense). The problem with naked liberalism is that it relies on individuals it cannot create.

This is the point Yuval Levin made in a brilliant essay published in First Things back in 2014. Naked liberals of right and left assume that if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after examining the evidence. But if you weaken family, faith, community and any sense of national obligation, where is that social, emotional and moral formation supposed to come from? How will the virtuous habits form?

Naked liberalism has made our society an unsteady tree. The branches of individual rights are sprawling, but the roots of common obligation are withering away.

Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war.

People can endure a lot if they have a secure base, but if you take away covenantal attachments they become fragile. Moreover, if you rob people of their good covenantal attachments, they will grab bad ones. First, they will identify themselves according to race. They will become the racial essentialists you see on left and right: The only people who can really know me are in my race. Life is a zero-sum contest between my race and your race, so get out.

Then they resort to tribalism. This is what Donald Trump provides. As Mark S. Weiner writes on the Niskanen Center’s blog, Trump is constantly making friend/enemy distinctions, exploiting liberalism’s thin conception of community and creating toxic communities based on in-group/out-group rivalry.

Trump offers people cultural solutions to their alienation problem. As history clearly demonstrates, people will prefer fascism to isolation, authoritarianism to moral anarchy.

If we are going to have a decent society we’re going to have to save liberalism from itself. We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal. The crucial battleground is cultural and prepolitical.

In my experience, most people under 40 get this. They sense the social and moral void at the core and that change has to come at the communal, emotional and moral level. They understand that populism is a broad social movement, including but stretching far beyond just policy. To address it, we’re going to need to confront it with another broad social movement.

Many people my age and above seem clueless. Our elected leaders were raised in the heyday of naked liberalism and still talk as if it were 1994. Many public intellectuals were trained in the social sciences and take the choosing individual as their mental starting point. They have trouble thinking about our shared social and moral formative institutions and how such institutions could be reconstituted.

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

History is full of examples of nations that built new national narratives, revived family life, restored community bonds and shared moral culture: Britain in the early 19th century, Germany after World War II, America in the Progressive Era. The first step in launching our own revival is understanding that the problem is down in the roots.


Liberal’s Entropy


The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider political world outside their heads.

There is a great irony in this. The supposedly bland, conventional universities of the 1950s and early ’60s incubated the most radical generation of American citizens perhaps since our founding. Young people were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. Yet once that generation took power in the universities, it proceeded to depoliticize the liberal elite, rendering its members unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. There can be no liberal politics without a sense of We—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share.

And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm.

Mark Lilla – excerpted from WSJ 8/12-13/17

What Does “American” Mean

What does it mean to be an “American” … “we the people” ?We the People

Were the indigenous tribes of North America Americans (they were, after all, here before any white and to this day are members of other, first nations, that the US Government suppressed through violence)?

Were the Pilgrims Americans (they were, after all, subjects of the English King)?

Were the imported African slaves Americans (they were, after all, brought here and kept here against their will)?

Were the waves of northern and later southern European immigrants, who came here for reasons of economic opportunity from the 1830s to the 1930s Americans (they were typically, after all, not English speakers, with limited employment skills other than manual labor)?

Were the Irish Catholics Americans (they were, after all, followers of (then) alien religion of questionable dual loyalties to the Pope and this nation, fleeing famine more than pursuing US citizenship)?

Were the the European Jews who fled religious oppression across Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s Americans (they  were, after all, arguably coming to the US out of fear for their lives more than a desire to be Americans)?

Were the Central and South American guest workers who came to this country to support the post-WWII industrial agriculture boom Americans (they were, after all, coming at the invitation of US agribusiness interests, with the overt or implicit consent of US boarder officials, and later at the invitation of construction, lawn care, and light manufacturing industries)?

Is the Iraqi war refuge an American (many of which, after all, fear for their lives because they worked for US Coalition forces in the long Iraq war and were promised protection, only to have the US exit the country, leaving a power vacuum for pro-Iranian Shiite warlords to take over and persecute anyone who cooperated with Americans)?

The Voter Study Group’s recent study sheds light on current American (note the circularity) beliefs about American-ness.

  • Respect for American political institutions and laws
  • Have US citizenship
  • Accept diverse racial and religious backgrounds
  • Speak English

Are the four attributes of American-ness shared across the political spectrum.

Arguably, this a good basis for defining citizenship.  Respect for political institutions and laws and speaking English are the minimum conditions of individuals binding themselves to group norms (we have to suppress our personal and subgroup interests for those of the nation).  We circumscribe that larger group identity with the bright line of citizenship (Canadians and guest workers are not Americans). But then we leave the door opening to joining the group of American citizens by honoring racial and religious diversity (see chart, below).

The next group of defining attributes shows the difference among Americans and defining the width of the door for admitting new members.  (Current) Americans are mixed on how important (a) being born here, (b) living here most of your life, and (c) being a Christian is.  Debates about European heritage as  prerequisite to American-ness are mostly in the rearview mirror of our national debate.

Voter Study Group Importance of Being American

One question, not asked in our “me-centered society” and this survey, is to what degree some form of national or community service is a fundamental attribute of American-ness.

“57 percent of Americans favor requiring every American between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve one year in public or community service in exchange for educational benefits and other support. However, the poll finds that 18-29 year olds are opposed to mandatory service by a margin of 50 to 48 percent.”  – Bi-Partisan Policy Group.  2013 Survey.