Most of us believe that people should be free to live how they want as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. This has become such a truism that many of us can’t conceive of life otherwise.
We naturally value the freedom to lead independent lives – but is it possible for society to be too free?
In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen argues that this freedom comes with a cost. While expanding our autonomous choice, liberalism – the dominant ideology of modern society, which values individual freedom as the highest good – has destroyed the norms and institutions that hold society together. This weakening of social ties and norms in the name of individual liberty has made society increasingly lonely, selfish, and mistrustful.
How individualism destroys social bonds
Liberalism views individuals as being best suited to determine for themselves what a good life is. This understanding of the good life is fundamentally at odds with religion, which sees the good life as being defined objectively by God. The embrace of liberalism, Deneen argues, has sent society on a crash course.
In order to pursue their own independent visions of the good life, people need to be unlimited in the pursuit of their desires. To accommodate this freedom, the customs, morals, and obligations that limit desire had to be gradually destroyed.
Having destroyed the bonds holding society together – marriage, religion, community, morals – in the name of liberation, we find ourselves in an increasingly fluid, chaotic society of isolated individuals bound together, increasingly, only by their membership in the state.
This transformation was accomplished through the state, which chipped away at the religious and moral authorities governing people, and gradually took over the power previously held by those institutions. While we are used to thinking of the individual and the state as being opposed, Deneen argues that the state actually created the modern individual by assuming the sole authority to limit a person’s freedom; people can opt out of all other social relations, including marriage, church and community, but not the state.
In the Sexual Revolution, historically underrepresented groups harnessed the power of the state to gain rights by breaking the power of traditional, Christian institutions to govern sexual appetite and define gender. The state re-defined and softened marriage with no-fault divorce to accommodate individual desire. A single Supreme Court ruling overturned centuries of common moral sense on what it means for a person to be a life, re-defining unborn children as non-entities that can be rightfully killed if they present an obstacle to autonomy.
These changes replaced God with the State, and objective morals with subjective desire. In a liberated society, each individual person is an independent moral authority, deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, true and false.
Whereas religion commands that people follow an objective framework of right and wrong to live a good life, the liberated society only has one sin: judgment.
Life without order
In the liberated society, judging another person’s lifestyle is the only real sin.
But history shows us that some stigmas are good. Shame serves an important social and moral purpose. A society is only as good as the people that make it up.
If everyone in society was lazy, cowardly, and lacking in self-control, things would fall apart very quickly. Culture, institutions, and norms shape citizens to be good so that society can hold together. What kind of people can we expect our society to create if the only lesson is: “Do what you want, worry about the consequences later, and don’t worry about anyone but yourself?”
Individualist society views shame and virtue with indifference at best and suspicion at worst. Morals instructing people to be decent, to control their appetites, to be productive and to sacrifice their personal interest for the greater good go against the basic principle of individualist society, which instructs people to treat their self-interest like it is the greater good.
The Lonely Young
As obligations to one’s neighbors, community, family, and religion dissolve, society becomes selfish, mistrustful, and isolating.
Modern dating provides a good cross-section of a society liberated from norms. The fluid, normless landscape of modern dating has left a growing number of young people unable to form healthy, stable relationships based on mutual love, trust, and respect.
By gearing sex toward individual gratification, casual dating frustrates the formation of stable relationships by design. Dating apps like Tinder maximize sexual freedom with seemingly limitless choice, but at the cost of cheapening sex. Abundance of choice promotes low-trust, non-committal attitudes and behavior; potential partners become commodities to be used and discarded.
Left alone to pursue their individual interest, people become isolated. This is especially true of young people. Recent studies say that young people are the loneliest members of society. Curiously, young Americans are having less sex than previous generations. They are also delaying marriage longer.
College debt, high housing costs and low wages are partly to blame, but the low-commitment standards of modern dating are likely a factor as well. The selfishness of modern dating, and an abundance of choice, leave people jaded and bored. With delaying marriage comes fewer babies. Fertility rates have reached new lows, and many American women expect that they won’t have families as big as they would like. Curiously, individualism is taking on a newer, unexpected shape: not promiscuity, but retreat from sex and relationships. While this might result in fewer unwanted pregnancies, it isn’t any healthier for society if young people are failing to fulfill some of the most basic functions of human life.
Individualism destabilizes society by curbing social pressures that encourage pro-social behaviors like marriage and reproduction. In Westernized Japan, eroded social ties and pressures have created a demographic crisis: Japan has the world’s oldest population, but it also has a sexually inactive young population. Some 4 in 10 Japanese people aged 18 to 34 are virgins. A quarter of Japanese men approaching 50 are unmarried. A liberated society cannot prevent single men from turning to porn as a substitute for meeting women. Evidently, individualism leaves people the option to indulge their appetites, but it also gives the option of retreat from society. Neither one is sustainable.
Society for the strong
Extreme freedom makes everyone lonelier, but especially hurts society’s most vulnerable. A liberated society is ideal for those individuals best suited to thrive without institutional support: the rich, the intelligent, the beautiful, the powerful, the healthy, and the young. The poor, the ugly, the old, the sick, the unintelligent, and the weak are pushed to the margins.
Marriage and church traditionally provided support to society’s most vulnerable. Their decline has left many people to lead precarious, unhappy lives. It isn’t by accident that the opioid crisis is worst in economically depressed regions of the country.
Sexual liberation started as a movement among intellectuals on the west coast; its spread to the lower class, and the ensuing collapse of marriage, has had a profound impact on America’s poorest. While marriage has remained fairly robust among the elite, marriage has declined drastically among the working-class.
Stable institutions don’t just help people living on the fringe; they support the great majority. Deneen addresses this in an essay for the American Conservative, “Experiments in Living.” John Stuart Mill, liberalism’s major philosopher, argued that morality, or “custom,” oppresses exceptionally creative and talented individuals. Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke saw things differently: the rules that “oppress” exceptional people should be left alone for the good of the majority, who benefit from their guidance by having stable, normal, happy lives.
Individualism is based on the idea that each individual should be left to discover the good life for themselves. That might work for the truly exceptional, but most of us benefit from structure. Humans are needy, vulnerable, beings. Most of us need guidance, through norms, morals, and institutions, to give our lives purpose, meaning, and connection to other people. While establishing limits on what we are allowed to do, authorities set our lives in order.
Deneen ultimately argues that liberalism doesn’t make us more free: what we get is a chaotic society of lonely people controlled by their appetites and an oppressive state. Is a society like that really free?