CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Decline and Fall of Liberalism

Aug 2, 2000

In the last few months they have come out in favour of legalising drugs, X-rated videos, surrogacy and euthanasia. They have recently called for accepting homosexuals as “family”. The International Socialists? Far-left Labour politicians? No: the Young Liberals.

What is the basis of this moral nihilism which is afflicting the Young Liberals? What motivates a group of young idealists to espouse a list of causes that even the Federal Government is reticent to champion?

The liberal tradition has struggled to maintain a balance between freedom and order, between the good of the individual and the good of the community. These two streams have tended to verge and converge, with the libertarian stream putting freedom, individualism and reason at the forefront, while the traditional conservative stream has emphasised order, virtue, tradition and authority. The former appealed to Mill, Locke and Montesquieu, while the latter turned to Burke, Tocqueville, and Coleridge.

The Young Liberals, it seems, are attempting to put all their apples in the libertarian basket, at the risk of upsetting the whole cart.

As an example of the moral anarchism emanating from the Young Libs take a recent letter by the Victorian President declaring that Paul Keating was right to stress the diversity of families position.  She also criticised those who think a mother and father might just be the best thing we can give a child, claiming that this is an “ideal” which only “a minority of Australian families resemble.” Given that the Bureau of Statistics says this “ideal” makes up 86 per cent of all families, that’s some minority.

The Young Liberals apparently believe that only extremists think a family should include a mother and father, preferably cemented by marriage. They should have a second look at what some American small-l liberals are saying. President Bill Clinton, no rabid right-winger, recently came out in defense of Dan Quayle who had criticised TV character Murphy Brown for having a child without a husband. Said Clinton: “Would we be a better-off society if babies were born to married couples? You bet we would.”

Nor was Clinton alone in this view. His most leftward Cabinet member, Donna Shalala, said this: “I don’t like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong.” And America’s foremost left/liberal columnist, Lars-Erik Nelson put it this way, “Yes, Dan Quayle was right. American children are better off when they grow up in two-parent families.”

The case can be made just as strongly for Australian children. Yet the Young Liberals regurgitate the trendy pop sociology that any relationship is as good as another. Moreover, they would have us believe that having kids raised by a mother and father united by marriage is an historical fluke, something which originated in the 1950s in America and ended a few decades later.

Perhaps the Young Liberals have been reading the works of too many American and English libertarians. If so, they should reread some of these authors, many of whom seem aware of the need to put limits on the quest for freedom, arguing that unbridled individualism is ultimately suicidal.

Just a few examples. The leading American free marketeer and Nobel prize winner, Milton Friedman, recently said in an interview, “I think our real problems today are not economic. Our real problems are social – deteriorating education, lawlessness, homelessness, the collapse of families, teenage pregnancies, the crisis in medical care.”

Murray Rothbard, another leading American libertarian, has written a lot lately about the decline of moral standards and the folly of unfettered liberalism.

One final example. In a new book entitled Out of Control, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, argues a similar case. The problem, as Brzezinski sees it, is what he calls “permissive cornucopia” or the priority given to individual self-gratification. This new hedonism is brought on by the “massive collapse, especially in the advanced parts of the world, of almost all established values.” Like Solzhenitsyn, he applauds the collapse of totalitarianism, but laments: “the role of religion in defining moral standards has also declined while an ethos of consumerism masquerades as a substitute for ethical standards.” And echoing Friedman, he describes the inner weaknesses of modern society as “derived more from cultural than from economic causes.”

In a properly functioning society, external laws and rules are complimented by internal restraint and personal morality. But modern society, with its emphasis on self-gratification, has precariously upset this balance. Says Brzezinski, “An increasingly permissive culture, exploiting the principle of the separation of church and state, squeezes out the religious factor but without substituting for it any secular ‘categorical imperatives,’ thereby transforming the inner moral code into a vacuum.”

The absence of internal moral self-control has resulted in external constraints seeking to do the job of both, with the courts and legal system now becoming the final arbiter of right and wrong. Such a situation may well become the breeding ground for the emergence of more totalitarian systems.

The civil libertarians who seem to predominate in the ranks of the Young Liberals need to remember that society is composed of responsibilities as well as rights. By demanding the right to do this and the right to do that, without providing a corresponding emphasis on responsibilities, the Young Liberals will ensure that the current fragmentation of the social fabric continues. Our society already defines freedom as the abandonment of constraint. In such a context rights will continue to be demanded while responsibilities are ignored.

Freedom has only recently been considered to mean freedom from restraint. Traditionally it has always meant to be free from arbitrary and capricious rule. It did not mean freedom from social sanctions.

Many of us in the conservative tradition have long argued for limited government and the importance of individual freedom. Yet we also recognise that there are social and cultural requisites of a free and democratic society, as well as political and economic ones. It is a grievous mistake to neglect the social and cultural context in which individual liberty can be meaningfully exercised.

Self-government is predicated on civic responsibility, and civic responsibility is predicated on a framework of moral values. By seeking to overturn much of the moral basis of civilised society, the Young Libs are only undermining the one good they so highly value – freedom.

Tolerance, freedom and pluralism are all goods to be promoted and encouraged. But as American commentator George Will once said, the four most important words in politics are “up to a point”. These goods must be sustained by individual and civic responsibility. The freedom-as-rights line being pushed by the Young Liberals can only result in societal collapse if taken far enough. “Liberty”, said Edmund Burke, “must be limited in order to be possessed.” By seeking to overturn every social striction, by seeking to legitimise every individual behaviour – no matter how irresponsible, outrageous or aberrant – the fragile good of freedom will only elude the grasp of the Young Liberals.

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