If two years of intermittent lockdowns, compulsory masking, and all the other effects of Covid haven’t convinced our remaining Dr Panglosses that we still live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, a simple counter remains: commonly-observed reality.
A quick trip around any of our cities and a glance at their inhabitants – the overweight and obese; the drunk and drug-addled; the unemployed and indigent – soon confirms that something is seriously amiss.
So stark is our social malady the Iranian-American author Sohrab Ahmari had this retort to anyone bold enough to claim otherwise: ‘Look around you.’ The implication is obvious: if our usual theories and metrics of social health, like overall GDP or the unemployment rate, aren’t matched by a virtuous citizenry and an orderly public square, then what value should we ascribe to such notions?
Answers to such problems – if ever broached – often vary, yet they usually involve some form of government spending or education campaign. More money for problem X; more ads at issue Y. That is, more of what has failed us for decades and the diversion of financial resources to issues that are overwhelmingly non-financial in nature.
The more fundamental cause is clearly something deeper within ourselves and our societies; one which reaches to the heart of our governing philosophy itself, the water in which we all swim: which is, of course, liberalism.
Whilst this is a term that is bandied about by the intellectually inclined to appear more intelligent than they are – as a catch-all for the lack of restraint and ‘negative liberty’ that ails us it’s remarkably accurate. The broader history of liberalism is more thoroughly documented by the likes of Briton John Gray or by American professor Patrick Deenen in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed.
Yet in lieu of any theoretical liberal utopia, our current liberalism is more readily recognised as the disease of which it purports to be the cure. To this end, a recently resurrected clip from the early 1970s between that doyen of post-war American conservatism, William F Buckley, and the famed English Christian commentator Malcolm Muggeridge, proves incredibly insightful.
For Muggeridge, liberalism is the problem. As he states bluntly:
‘I regard liberalism as the great disease of our society.’
A position from which he doesn’t resile either; when pressed on previous provocations regarding the damage done by 20th century liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt as compared to her more notorious contemporaries, Muggeridge tersely replies:
‘When I said that people like Mrs Roosevelt, admirable though they were in intention, would be seen to have done more damage than people like Hitler and Stalin, I meant precisely that.’
Hyperbole aside, Muggeridge’s point is that the fascist and communist movements associated with Hitler and Stalin have long laid dormant, largely extinguished by the Allies in the embers of 1945. Yet liberalism, as an ostensibly estimable ideology, clearly persists. As Muggeridge adds:
‘Hitler and Stalin…are now discredited. But liberalism, which has been the dominant philosophy in the most influential or even powerful nations of the West, continues to thrive despite the fact that every time it’s been applied the consequences have been disastrous.’
And while we may quibble over any equivalence between liberalism and the more murderous doctrines of fascism and communism, a dilemma remains. Muggeridge’s observations contain more than a grain of truth in light of liberalism’s expansion to the egregious and often obscene forms it takes today.
Indeed, even a cursory look around shows that the Muggeridge has been well and truly vindicated: the consequences of our liberalism really have been disastrous, especially for the safety of our children. The deeper philosophical point is that liberalism has nothing to say about notions of the ‘naturally good’ (e.g. health, beauty, wisdom) as it posits as its sole value infinite choice under the aegis of the market.
As a confirmation of this, take public health. In the fifty years since Muggeridge’s comments, many of our health markers have gone backward. Lesser known indices such as the prevalence of allergies, disabilities, and childhood medicalisation have all skyrocketed. The average weight of the populace is now at a point where only a third of us are within a healthy range, with the other two-thirds either overweight or morbidly obese. A circumstance that is correlated with assorted other maladies such as the consequent increase in diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and a variety of cancers.
A sad state which isn’t indicated in our supposedly sunny life expectancy either, with such results failing to differentiate between mere life (often preserved via medical intervention) and quality of life. These metrics also disregard non-health related outcomes such as the pejorative effect all this has on productivity, the ugliness and aesthetic degeneracy it entails, or the practical problems faced, such as military recruitment, by countries with overweight and ill populations.
Our liberal hegemons also have nothing to say about the social maladies they’ve induced. Most strikingly, they’ve helped undercut the means for our mere perpetuation with marriage and fertility rates at all-time lows, a state which has endured for five decades. Population growth has largely stemmed from mass immigration driven by government in order to maintain our (relatively youthful) workforce and taxation base, and to stave off complete civilisational senility.
A situation that, contra the liberal idea of the autonomous economic and social unit, has further inflamed social fractures and our incipient balkanisation. With trust in institutions and each other at all-time lows, civic tension and the fraying of the social fabric near all-time highs, and rises in crimes like carjacking, all manifestations of a populace that is not characterised by free and benign interactions, but of one that is reverting to natural ties of kin and tribalism. A circumstance that the recent federal election further confirmed with the growth of third parties, the rejection of the centre-right Liberals by minority groups such as Chinese-Australians, and the near-obliteration of our traditional bipartisan model.
This is not to explicitly mention all the other errata of our ascendant liberalism and the anomie and aimlessness it engenders either. A range of rather distasteful phenomena is almost unavoidable: be it the ubiquity of tattoos; the increase in illicit drug consumption, including efforts to legalise marijuana; the pervasiveness of gambling – particularly the online kind – to a point where Australians are now by far the world’s largest losers; or the presence of ‘vaping’ and cigarette smoking.
It’s thus clear that we’ve reached a terminus in which, to quote the British House of Lords’ member, Maurice Glasman, liberalism ‘is killing us’.
We have, as Australian academic Nick Dyrenfurth noted back in 2014, a liberal hegemony whereby, ‘Abstract values of freedom, choice and equality are preferred to notions of responsibility, duty and virtue’. With neither social nor economic liberals having ‘much to say about the people and places that we love’. A state which translates in practice to the nihilism we currently inhabit, and the conspicuous public and political absence of any debate regarding ‘the essence of a good life and the foundations of a good society’.
With these remarks the North Star should guide us in our efforts to restore our societies around a notion of ‘the common good’ – i.e. what has been the goal of political life, from Plato and Aristotle on… Without such notions we are condemned to float aimlessly along the currents formed by the economic liberals, who view any possibilities outside the market and its TINA–tinged framework as prima facie preposterous, or according to the whims of the socially–liberal Panglossians, who see any change from the status quo as an unwanted descent from the obesity, anomie, teenage mastectomies and so on that characterise their ‘best of all possible worlds’.
That is, even more of what is recognised by the rest of us as the nightmare in which we all live, and which we should most strenuously try to avoid.
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