In the Year of Our Lord 1776, a motley group of educated men gave their declaration to the world of a new conception of government. The government was to be of, by, and for the people, with the state only as a force to protect the liberty of its subjects from government overreach. They conceived these ideas from a long legacy of thinkers in western Europe that constituted what we would call “The Enlightenment.”
A self-serving name, to be sure. Those who were fond of these new ideas of life, liberty, and property gave it the flattering term. From the inception of our nation, we have prided ourselves on upholding these noble ideas that no man shall be inhibited from living his life full of virtue by a government that demands his submission.
Then in the same breath, as we declared this new philosophy of good governance, we laid the foundations for our own demise.
By its very core principles, liberalism, as it is understood as a product of the Enlightenment, enables its own demise in a vicious cycle. Let us take first a core tenant of liberalism, liberty of speech, and thought. By baking these principles directly into the set of ideas constituted as liberalism, it provides the means by which it would be destroyed as the ideology of its time and place. These principles of liberty are not bad inherently, but when added to any system of ideas, they allow the whole to be subverted quite easily. This means that the electorate and people who task themselves to uphold the liberal values in their country have to work overtime to socialize new generations and educate them properly, protecting them from subversive elements. To some degree, this extra effort that is required is a result of the abstractions of the Enlightenment prescribing government that contradicts human’s natural inclinations of hierarchical self-organization. As a society that encourages free thought and expression as virtues march forward, the potential for their values to be subverted increases.
We are seeing the byproducts of this in our own nation. Since the founding fathers codified these principles of liberty and free thought into our nation’s laws and customs, they allow the possibility for those same values to be subverted by malicious actors, who manipulate the population by various means (in our case, media in all its forms, technological and otherwise). But surely this also allows reason to be freely taught to the masses, and people will naturally follow that which is reasonable, right? No. John Stuart Mill said that freedom of speech is a necessary condition to root out bad ideas, but that doesn’t stop people from adopting unreasonable ideas and spreading them like cancer across the body politic. The assumption of the Enlightenment of the inherent reason of all individuals is wrong. Some people are beyond reason in our time. You can blame postmodernism’s rejection of logic for that.
With other sets of ideas, like Communism, for example, its core principles perpetuate its own existence. The struggle of the proletariat is a worldwide battle, and it never stops until everyone is communist. It was “Workers of the world, unite!” and it paved the way to justify imperialism, misery, and tyranny. In liberalism’s desire to give a voice to all, it gives a voice to its subverters.
Ideological maintenance cost is something to consider moving forward as a nation. How much work do we have to put into upholding a set of principles and the ideas that germinate from them? It’s important that our civilization’s core principles are able to be supported easily, and that usually means that the principles are in accordance with human nature.
Human nature is one that acknowledges natural hierarchies of competence and dominance. This pattern is seen all across the animal kingdom, and we humans are no different in our natural state. Hobbes was notable in his characterization of human nature in a state of “Warre” (anarchy), being that every man is entitled to, essentially, everything, and those who possess the greatest attributes and things that would help in achieving dominance will rise to the top. This is the animalistic side of our nature and one we cannot ignore under any circumstances when engaging in statecraft.
In respect to this “ideological maintenance” I have mentioned, we can say that those principles that are most in accordance with our natural inclinations to organize ourselves by competence would be ideal. This is known as a meritocracy, as this hierarchal structure is the essence of it. If we can acknowledge in our society one’s rightful place in it, and let the excellent be excellent, then we will have harmony and prosperity.
Moving forward as a nation, we have to seriously question our philosophical foundations and their consequences that we see all around us today. Of course, not all of our woes are the fault of our enlightenment roots. We can continue on with our love of liberty insofar as we properly educate our children and craft our state to serve those principles rigidly, never allowing the rejection of reason in our halls of power and beyond.
In America, we must make reason king again and allow those most reasonable and wise to steer the ship of state and society.