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The Case for “Serfdom,” Rightly Understood

Conservatives only empower the state when they make an idol of liberty.
bakertown ice cream

Last Saturday I had the honor of addressing the 50th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society. The title of the meeting was “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” My remarks sought to suggest that conservatives should be more circumspect about their rote incantation of the word “liberty,” and that there may even be something to be said for “serfdom,” properly understood. My remarks in full are printed, below.

“The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?”

 The Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting—50th Anniversary

Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

I would like to begin my remarks by calling to mind two commercials that aired at different points during the last five years. The first aired in 2010, and was produced by the Census Bureau in an effort to encourage Americans to fill out their census forms. It opens with a man sitting in his living room dressed in a bathrobe, who talks directly into the camera in order to tell viewers that they should fill out the census form, as he’s doing from his vantage as a couch potato.

Fill out the census, he says, so that you can help your neighbors—and at this point he gets out his chair and walks out the front door, past his yard and the white picket fence and points at his neighbors who are getting into their car—You can help Mr. Griffith with better roads for his daily car pool commute, he says—and then, indicating the kids next door, “and Pete and Jen for a better school,” and continues walking down the street. Now neighbors are streaming into the quaint neighborhood street, and he tells us that by filling out the census, we can help Reesa with her healthcare (she’s being wheeled by in a gurney, about to give birth), and so on… “Fill it out and mail it back,” he screams through a bullhorn from a middle of a crowded street, “so that we can all get our fair share of funding, and you can make your town a better place!”

The other ad, produced in 2012, was produced by the Obama re-election campaign, though it was not aired on television and has today disappeared from the internet. It was entitled “The Life of Julia,” and in a series of slides it purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds from a young age to college loans to assistance for a start up to healthcare and finally retirement. In contrast to the Census commercial—which portrayed a neighborhood street filled with people who knew each others’ names—“The Life of Julia” portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we’re shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.

The first ad is a kind of Potemkin Village behind which is the second ad. The first ad shows a thriving community in which everyone knows each others’ names, and as you watch it—if you aren’t duped by what it’s portraying—you are left wondering why in the world would we need government to take care of our neighbors if we knew each other so well? Why is my obligation to these neighbors best fulfilled by filling out the Census form? The commercial is appealing to our cooperative nature and our sense of strong community ties to encourage us to fill out the Census form, but in fact—as the commercial tells us—it is in order to relieve us of the responsibility of taking care of each other; perhaps more accurately, it’s reflecting a world in which increasingly we don’t know our neighbor’s names, and instead turn to the government for assistance in times of need.

The second commercial is what lies “behind” the Potemkin village of the first. Julia achieves her “independence” by means of her reliance upon the government. Her life is a story of “success” because she has been supported at every step by a caretaker government. She has been liberated to be the person she wants to become by virtue of being the beneficiary of the government dime. Julia, in fact, is freed of the bonds that are portrayed in the Census commercial. Freedom is where there are no people—only Julia and the government.

The title of this meeting is “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” I think it’s clear what the answer is supposed to be, and we are all aware that “liberty” is the watchword of the conservative movement. But here’s the problem: I think Julia regards her condition as one of liberty. She is free—free to become the person that she wanted to become, liberated from any ties that might have held her back, whether debts to family, obligations to take care of aging parents, the challenge and rewards of living with a husband and father of her child, or relying on someone to help her with a business or with her care as she grew old. Would she call her condition “Serfdom”? I rather doubt it.

Serfdom, to be accurate, is an arrangement whereby you owe specific duties to a specific person, a lord—and in turn, that lord owes you specific duties as well. What the life of Julia portrays is, in a strictly factual sense, the direct opposite of Serfdom—it portrays the life of a human being who for the first time in human history is FREE from any specific bonds or obligations to anyone (except maybe for getting her child onto a little yellow bus, never to heard from again). If you were to ask Julia what she would prefer—Serfdom or Liberty—she would surely respond Liberty.

But it’s a particular kind of liberty—a liberty unaccompanied by concrete duties and responsibilities to one another, but rather, abstract relationships increasingly and ever-more comprehensively mediated through the State. Because for Julia, and the denizen of the modern liberal state, our truest liberty is achieved when it is uniformly and unfailingly provisioned by the State, and not dependent on the unreliability of any other set of relations or institutions. This was the main point of E.J. Dionne’s latest book, Our Divided Political Heart, who argued that “community” and the State were the same thing, and the point summed up in a line stated several times during the Democratic National Convention, “The government is the only thing we all belong to.”

And this was exactly what early conservative thinkers recognized was the “end-game” of liberalism—it sought, to the greatest extent possible, the elimination of all constitutive ties to any mediating or civil institution, to be replaced by our direct relationship with the State. This would be accomplished not by means of enslaving the population, but by promising that this constituted the very essence of liberation. This was the basic insight of Tocqueville’s culminating chapters of Democracy in America—that the democratic despotism of a mild “tutelary” state would come about not by force and terror, but by the willing acquiescence of an isolated and individuated citizenry. This was the argument of Bertrand de Jouvenel, who observed in his neglected masterpiece On Power that the rise of the centralized modern State was spurred when monarchs, seeking to break the power of local lords, promised liberation to the people in return for their direct fealty, and thus began a long and familiar tradition of expanding State power in the very name of liberation of individuals from mediating ties. His argument was refined and made with distinct power in the modern context by Robert Nisbet in the earliest years of American conservatism, in his 1953 book Quest for Community, in which he argued that the totalized State was not simply the imposition of despotic force upon a recalcitrant people—it was never that—but was desired by populations whose “longing for community” had been transferred from a range of identities and memberships below the level of the State, to the State itself.

We begin to see this with ever-growing clarity in our own times—a new, kinder and gentler total State. It promises its citizenry liberty at every turn, and that liberty involves ever-greater freedom from the partial institutions of civil society, or ones remade in accordance with the aims of the State. The states as sovereign political units have been almost wholly eviscerated, and are now largely administrative units for the federal government. Satisfied with that victory, we now see extraordinary efforts to “break” two institutions that have always been most resistant to the total State: churches and family. We see an unprecedented efforts by the Federal government to abridge religious liberty by conscripting religious institutions like Little Sisters of the Poor (and my institution, Notre Dame) to be agents conscripted into providing abortifacients, sterilization and contraception—in the name of individual liberty. We can expect determined and even ferocious efforts to bend Churches to accept gay marriage as a norm, even to the point of forcing them entirely out of the civil realm. And we see increasing efforts of the government to “liberate” children from their families—represented perhaps most chillingly by the MSNBC clip showing Melissa Harris-Perry explaining how the greatest obstacle to State education has been the pervasive notion that kids “belong” to families rather than belonging “collectively to all of us.”

This broader social, cultural, political and economic pedagogy is having extraordinary success. A recent Pew study on the behavior and beliefs of the “Millennial” generation—those 18-32 years old—suggests that this is the least connected, most individualistic, and therefore “freest” generation in American history. In comparison to previous generations at a similar point in life, they are least likely to belong to a political party, least likely to be members of a Church, least likely to be married by age 32. They have high levels of mistrust, yet strongly identify as liberals and support President Obama. These are the generation whose best and brightest occupied the administration building this week at Dartmouth, demanding “body and gender self-determination”—that sex-change operations be covered on campus insurance plans. They are a generation that is increasingly formed by a notion of autonomy as the absence of any particular ties or limiting bonds—and while they highly mistrust most institutions and relationships, they nevertheless view the government as a benign source of support for their autonomy.

So, as I look again at the program title, I must admit that it’s not obvious to me what I’m supposed to favor—The Road to Liberty or Serfdom? Because, as thinkers like Nisbet recognized at the very beginning of the conservative movement in America, the rise of individual autonomy and centralized power would grow together—Leviathan would expand in the name of liberty. He understood that the most fundamental obstacle to the rise and expansion of the State was the “little platoons” praised by Edmund Burke—particular and real ties to private, religious, and civil institutions. He called for a “new laissez faire”—a laissez-faire of groups. He understood that what would prevent the rise of the kind of Liberty promised by Leviathan would be something like a robust patchwork of more local institutions and relationships that gives at least this nod to one aspect of “serfdom”—debts and gratitude to each other, obligations and responsibilities should and must be grounded in real human relationships.

Now, I’m not proposing that the conservative rallying cry should be, “Give me Serfdom or give me death!” I don’t think pushing serfdom is going to make conservatives more popular today. But I do think we need to recognize that conservatives haven’t cornered the market in promoting “liberty,” and if that is our totem, then the Progressives will win the debate, as on many fronts they are today. What distinguishes Conservatism is not that it believes merely in liberty—understood as autonomy—but that it has always understood that liberty is the necessary but not sufficient condition for living a human life in families, communities, religious institutions, and a whole range of relationships that encourage us to practice the arts of self-governance.

I’ve been asked to speak on the “the road ahead” in the realms of economics, culture, and politics. For the central vision of conservatism to survive the coming storm, in all these realms it must provide a better and fuller understanding of liberty, liberty as self-rule learned and practiced amid robust human relationships and personal bonds of trust and shared sacrifice. Conservatives just can’t be against Progressivism, because increasingly that is seen by the world as being against the freedom of everyone to do anything. It can’t simply be against government, but must be engaged in “demand destruction” of the individualist impulse that leads people to look to the government for its realization. In the realms of economics, politics, and culture, it must turn creatively to promoting ideas, policies and ways of living that show, support, and protect the excellence of the life, not of Julia, but of families, communities, Churches, and institutions that have always been the schoolhouses of republican self-government.