That is the claim made by Dan Hugger in a recent post at the Acton Institute. Hugger, picking up on the French-Ahmari debate, argued that my framing of the debate—that liberalism ultimately fails because it both relies on other social norms and institutions to shape citizens and tends to erode those norms and institutions over time without replacing them—fails because ultimately no political system produces good citizens because that isn’t the job of political systems:
Jo Walton, in her novel The Just City (Part of the Thessaly Trilogy), provides a cautionary fantasy tale of just what happens when a political order takes it upon itself to produce moral and religious people. In the book the ancient Greek goddess Athena gathers people from throughout history to make Plato’s Republic a reality. This society constructed from the ground up by the state to make individuals their best selves is unraveled by the questionings and investigations of a time traveling Socrates with the help of some of the children whom the Just City has taken upon itself to form.
The lesson: Politics cannot save.
There are two places Hugger goes wrong.
We’ll begin with the minor and then move to the major. The minor point is that I never said anything about states, politics, or governments forming citizens. Rather, I referred to “social orders.” Social orders are not in any way equivalent to politics narrowly defined or the state. Social orders, rather, are the broad set of norms, rituals, customs, beliefs and so on that unify a society. My claim is that the liberal social order tends to eat away at human community because it is premised on the idea that human communities are purely voluntaristic. Once you make that move, the human individual becomes the most natural state for humanity and communities are entered into and departed from based purely on the will of the individual. Liberal proceduralism only works if the members of the polity have some other more basic social imaginary which they carry into their participation within liberalism’s procedures. But when that older, prior social imaginary is lost, proceduralism collapses in on itself, crushed by its own agnosticism and refusal to pick sides on matters of the good.
The argument, then, is not that we need politics to form good citizens, but that we need a social order which supplies us with the various norms, customs, habits, beliefs, and rituals that will do that. This order will include the church, but it also needs other communities—the family, labor, and neighborhoods all come to mind.
This brings us to the greater and far more alarming error. Hugger argues that “if the universe is created and sustained by God along with all the individuals in it, then any political order is necessarily parasitic. All things, including human virtue, are the products of God’s creation and providence.” I can only hope that this is a hastily written paragraph because the downstream theological implications of this portrayal are jarring.
To call something “parasitic” is to say that it derives its life from taking the life of something else. To suggest that this is how human virtue works relative to God implies some rather alarming things about one’s doctrine of God, as if God’s life is somehow extracted from the divine essence and transmitted to human beings where it manifests as virtue. It is hard to see how this thought does not end somewhere heretical.
The other point to be made is that Hugger seems to assume that any time one form of life is sustained by another, the proper word for that relationship is “parasitic.” But this is absurd. Indeed, the whole point of the term “parasite” is to distinguish it from other forms of symbiosis in which one life sustains another in a mutually beneficial way. Do children have a parasitic relationship to their parents? Does a spouse who does not earn an income but relies on the husband or wife to provide for the family financially have a parasitic relationship to the primary breadwinner?
Why am I belaboring this point? Here is the issue: The claim of liberalism’s defenders is that the crisis of our day is something less comprehensive than the liberal social order. So we can resolve the problem without tampering too much with the markets or modern ideas about religion or free speech. The sources are fine, they tell us. The problem is something different. You can distinguish, we are told, liberal proceduralism from liberal ideology. You can attack some lesser form of idolatry or false religious belief and retain our current market systems.
To which the post-liberals respond: The logic of contemporary progressivism is that human communities are artificial constructs. Identities are not given; they are manufactured. Any community that hinders the work of an individual narrating their own identity across their life is thus unjust and evil and should be socially marginalized at the least. This is the justification for progressive extremism on abortion and their historically unprecedented sexual revisionism. And when we condemn these things, the Actonites stand with us, to their credit. They have held the line on life and on marriage.
But, then, how does Hugger argue with me? He argues by assuming that relationships, even the relationship between humanity and God!, is “parasitic.” This, then, is simply the market liberal’s version of the exact same line that sexual and gender progressives have been pushing for years now: Human communities are not natural. They are merely power relationships. In his attempt to defend liberalism, Hugger ends up transposing the progressive idea about human relationships existing on the horizontal plane onto the vertical relationship between God and humanity. He has, in other words, written the liberal rejection of community into the basic fabric of reality. And that is a move that is exactly as frightening as it sounds.