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Freedom And Obedience

I'm delighted that Patrick Deneen has taken the time to craft a vigorous response to my post about Andrew Bacevich's thoughts on the end of conservatism - delighted because Deneen has a powerful mind and is perhaps the most formidable blogospheric defender of the paleocon outlook I set out to criticize.

Deneen attacks me on two ground. First, I absurdly and ham-handedly link Bacevich's defense of individual self-restraint to the authoritarianism of the Legionaries of Christ, a scandal-ridden Catholic religious order. Second, and more broadly, my critique of authoritarianism actually amounts to an assault on all forms of "self-government" -- a term that Deneen uses to mean not liberal democratic political institutions and procedures but the ability and willingness of individual men and women to govern their own appetites. Genuine liberty, in Deneen's view, involves living and acting within self-imposed economic, social, and moral limits; it does not assume the embrace of authoritarianism. On the contrary, it is nations (like the contemporary United States) in which individuals devote themselves to satisfying limitless appetites that foster the most debilitating forms of tyranny. This, at any rate, is what I take Deneen to be saying.

By way of response, let's begin by returning to Bacevich's first criticism of the United States, which Deneen tacitly endorses. Among their many other sins, Americans affirm the "right to choose" above all other social and moral principles, producing a nation in which individuals freely "fornicate, marry, breed, abort, divorce, and abandon." To take the first item on this list, Bacevich and Deneen would clearly prefer that their fellow citizens not "fornicate" as much as they currently do. How might this goal be achieved? One possibility is that we pass and enforce laws upholding sexual chastity. That sounds pretty authoritarian to me. But of course, Bacevich and Deneen deny that they're advocating any such thing. Okay, then, let's take them at their word: What they want is for Americans to restrain themselves, to resist their sexual appetites, to repress their desires, to rein them in. And that's not authoritarianism; it's "self-government."

Except for one thing: It now appears that Bacevich and Deneen aren't really opposed to a "culture of choice" at all. Rather, they're opposed to a culture in which people make the wrong choices -- in this case, the choice to fornicate instead of the choice to resist their sexual appetites. But here's what I don't understand: Why would a free man or woman choose to resist rather than act on his or her sexual appetites? I mean, we've invented birth control. Sex is very pleasurable. It's a way to enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with another human being. Why not choose for fornication? Why, in other words, is it wrong, in itself, to fornicate? Can we even imagine a response to this question that does not make reference to the authoritative teachings of an orthodox religious tradition?  

Without such an authority, all Bacevich's and Deneen's talk of "self-restraint" simply makes no sense. People only act to restrain their desires for a reason. In some cases, that reason might be self-interest (for instance, a desire to avoid exposure to sexually transmitted diseases). In other cases, it might be the desire to avoid hurting those we love (when, say, avoiding fornication with those other than one's spouse). But neither of those reasons can tell us why fornication as such is wrong. For that we need some authoritative standard or ideal of intrinsically right or wrong actions. And it is only (orthodox) religion that can provide us with such a standard or ideal.

But here's the problem: As I tried to explain in my original post, we have every reason to view with deep suspicion those who speak in the name of such standards and ideals. (This is where the ultra-orthodox Legionaries of Christ came in in my original post.) Indeed, the rise of modern liberalism can be understood in large part as the attempt to found a new form of politics without reference to no-longer-authoritative standards and ideals.

Now, to be sure, Deneen proposes a very different, far more philosophically elaborate account of the origins of modernity than the one I've just suggested. Following Leo Strauss, he thinks we should look to the pages of a book written five centuries ago in Florence, Italy to understand the character of American predatory capitalism and imperialistic domination of the world. Following Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, he suggests that every advance of personal freedom furthers our enslavement to the tyranny of technology and the modern state. (You just can't win with some people.)

Call me na