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Individualism And Conservatism


A reader sends the above Daily Show clip, with the comment:

It really shows how pervasive and deep the logic of individualism is.

He’s right, of course. The clip is a bunch of interviews of pro-life GOP conventiongoers talking about the right of Mitt Romney to choose whether or not he’s in favor of the party’s platform plank on abortion, and in so doing, talking about how sacrosanct “individual liberty” (or “personal liberty”) is.

This puts me in mind of an “open letter” to Catholic Republicans that the liberal Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters wrote. There is something here for all cultural conservatives to consider in our relationship to the broader conservative movement. Excerpt:

The heresy of libertarianism has taken root within the Republican Party, and it has done so in the area of our culture where it is most dangerous because most pervasive: economics. I say “heresy” for two reasons. First, because libertarianism fits with the definition of heresy attributed to Lord Acton, it is a “truth run amok,” that is, it takes sound ideas about human freedom and responsibility and runs too far with them, ending up in the kind of knee-jerk, anti-government politics that could scarcely be more at odds with the classic view of government as a good found in Catholic social teaching, in the writings of Aquinas and even, with a big qualification, in Augustine. Secondly, and more dangerously, this libertarianism raises issues of theological anthropology of the first order.

Our friends at the website “RealClearReligion” were kind enough to highlight my recent post taking on William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal. McGurn had sought to clear Congressman Paul Ryan of the charge of dissent from the social magisterium of the Church. (He also tried to clear Ryan of the charge of being a bad Catholic but no one I can think of has made such a charge.) The editors at RCR, as is their habit, chose their own title for my post. They labeled it “Paul Ryan Rejects the Trinity.” Of course, that was not exactly what I wrote. But, what I did write is that the foundational doctrine of our faith, the Trinity, tells us something about the nature of the God in whose image we humans are made. And what it tells us is that our God, and therefore ourselves, are not atomistic, autonomous individuals in the libertarian mold, but embedded in relationships. For God, we call that relationship love, absolute, unconditional, self-surrendering love. For us humans, stained by sin, we say that we are called to love, called to communion with the Trinitarian God of love, but because of sin, we are often selfish and turn our backs on God. It is good to remember that Ms. Ayn Rand, who inspired young Mr. Ryan to get into politics, believed that selfishness alone was noble and warned her readers that altruism was evil. And, so, when I hear some Republicans invoke words like “freedom,” words that can contain many meanings, I worry that they mean something different by freedom from what Christians mean. Christ came to set us free from sin, not from our social obligations one to another.

“In philosophy, what comes first is the private search for truth, which then, secondarily, seeks and finds traveling companions. Faith, on the other hand, is first of all a call to community, to unity of mind through the unity of the word. Indeed, its significance is, a priori, an essentially social one: it aims at establishing unity of mind through the unity of the word. Only secondarily will it then open the way for each individual’s private venture in search of truth.” For all their invocations of God, the libertarians are deeply anti-religious if these words just quoted are true. Better to say, these words just quoted articulate a Catholic understanding of religion, not a Protestant one, and not an American one. And those words are, of course, from Joseph Ratzinger in his 1968 book “An Introduction to Christianity.”

Nowhere is the inability to grasp the social nature of man more obvious than in the reluctance of today’s Republican Party to come to terms with the fact of rising income inequality.

Read the whole thing. Individualism is at the core of the American spirit, for better and for worse. As I’ve said many times here, the problem American liberals have is that generally speaking, they don’t really grasp that sexual autonomy is a myth. But conservatives don’t really grasp that economic autonomy is also a myth, and consequently, don’t think as deeply as we should about the bonds of community that include, yes, economic relationships.

In every polity there is a necessary tension between the claims of the individual and the claims of the commons. Politics is to a large degree about negotiating that tension. Still, it’s incoherent, the way Republicans go on and on about the sacrosanct nature of “individual freedom,” yet hear them also draw the line at abortion and gay marriage. Libertarians may be “heretics” in one sense, but at least they are fairly consistent. A philosophy that makes the desiring, choosing individual its absolute telos can be called a number of things, but “conservative” is not one of them. This would no doubt come as news to all those people Samantha Bee interviews in her Daily Show piece. Which is the problem.

David Brooks picks up on this theme in his post-convention analysis:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.

The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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