Liberalism, conservatism, choice, and limits

What now for conservatives? Andrew Bacevich says they should advocate restraint–economic, personal, cultural, and in the foreign policy sphere. He contrasts this with the liberal culture of “unchecked individual autonomy,” “Ponzi scheme” capitalism, and neoconservative foreign policy. Damon Linker replies that what Bacevich advocates is tantamount to a culture of authoritarianism.

I agree with Linker that there’s no going back to a pre-modern culture and politics of authority–and we wouldn’t want to even if we could. (I’m also not sure that’s what Bacevich is proposing; in his book The Limits of Power he writes quite positively about the movements for expanding human freedom in the 20th century and laments conservatives’ opposition to them; see pp. 26-27.) Yet I don’t think Linker grapples seriously enough with the problem that some forms of liberalism face: if freedom of choice is the highest good, then it’s difficult to make the case for any restraint on human appetite. This is true even if freedom is only the highest political good, as that arch-liberal Lord Acton held. The reason is that sometimes we have to choose collectively in light of a greater good than the sum of individual desires.

Or at least it seems to me. A Millian harm principle might get you a good distance toward curtailing human selfishness, but is it enough, for instance, to get us to care for the environment, even if that might mean lowering our material standard of living? Or to work toward justice for people living in absolute poverty? Linker is right in my view to defend the “modern, liberal order” that “valorizes consent and individual choice,” but somehow that order needs to be balanced with a sense of limits and restraint. Bacevich’s writing thus can provide a useful corrective.

3 thoughts on “Liberalism, conservatism, choice, and limits

  1. It is interesting to compare the situation when the Federalists were complaining that they couldn’t get a decent road built to now. We had a much more libertarian idea of government, and it was seen as the enemy of development. That sounds like a dream situation for the Green Party. To have the kind of environmental disasters we see, you have to have strong government pushing them forward at every turn.

    The invisibility of the poor requires all kinds of intrusions as well.

  2. Lee

    Well, I think that might be right in a lot of ways. To me the question, though is: ok where do we go from here? Is a “green” agenda best served by pruning back government intervention or by government action to mitigate environmental problems? Right now I think I would probably say a mixture of the two, but I’m open to persuasion.

  3. Well, the first thing I would want to note is that there is a lot of future pollution on its way that would be prevented by scaling back government intrusions. Stopping that would probably do more toward a cleaner future than most likely clean-up operations would.

    I have worked for an environmental remediation company before. I got some sense of satisfaction thinking of how glad I was that leaks from underground storage tanks were being cleaned up by our company. There is a flip side to some of this, though. Could there be cases where the government involvement gives people a false sense of security? There was one public school site where it was said that the ground “bubbled.” (Yikes!) I had to wonder why it remained a school site. The government was paying for clean-up. But I had to wonder. Students who lived nearby would be assigned to that school as a matter of course. I hope it is safe whenever that happens.

    Government actions to mitigate environmental problems come in various flavors. I do think creating framework that would keep people more responsible for their messes would be a good idea.

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