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  • Individual Limits:The Challenge for Liberal Education Today
  • Peter Augustine Lawler (bio)

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, writes that we should always devote ourselves to defending a true and dignified view of human liberty. The purpose of human life remains the same, but the threats to human liberty change from time to time. And liberal education should always aim, first of all, at freeing us from the partisanship underlying the chief threat of our time. Today, liberal or genuinely liberating education begins by alerting students to the creeping libertarianism and equipping them to resist its charms.

Not very long ago, the chief threat to human liberty was communism or socialism or collectivism. Thinkers from Tocqueville to Hayek nobly warned us about going too far down the road to serfdom, about surrendering our liberty, our concern for our individual futures, to a schoolmaster or nanny state. Defenders of personal or individual liberty from a variety of perspectives — political, economic, religious, familial, and individual, among others — allied against those who denied the goodness and even the reality of the free human being.

But now the communist evil empire — the Soviet Union — has disappeared; all that remains is a bad but fading memory. Tocqueville's fear that people in a democracy would lapse into an apathetic indifference about everything turns out not to have been that prescient. Nobody really believes we are slouching toward socialism any more. Not only that, sophisticated Americans are more anxiously obsessed with their individual futures than ever before. The "safety nets" that once protected each of us to some extent from bad decisions and bad luck — the welfare state, the family, the churches, neighborhoods, friendship, and so forth — all seem to be deteriorating. What remains of the welfare state will fall victim to demographic realities eventually, as we anxious individuals prove too self-obsessive to procreate enough replacements to help secure our futures. The downside of the perfection of the American meritocracy is that, more than ever, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we're not doing well, and the result is compassion is fading as a virtue. The good and bad news is that each of us is, more than ever, on his or her own.

That the news about our situation is, as usual, both good and bad is demonstrated quite effectively in Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox. Americans are more wealthy, powerful, and free than ever. It turns out that many of the problems associated with rapid technological progress — even its effect on the environment — have unexpected but real technological solutions. Despite all this undeniable success in pursuit of happiness, the paradox is that there is no evidence that we're actually more happy. Instead of contentment and fulfillment, we increasingly describe ourselves in terms of restlessness and anxiety. Easterbrook's astute observations are nothing new: Tocqueville noticed the Americans restless and even melancholic in the midst of their prosperity. Once again, Tocqueville's book turns out to be more true now than when he wrote it. Easterbrook suggests that we are whiners: Things are objectively much better, but we feel worse. So why can't we just be grateful for all the good things we have acquired?

We have trouble with gratitude, as Easterbrook admits, because the source of our unprecedented success is in experiencing ourselves as individuals more than ever before. To be an individual, as John Locke explains, is to regard everything we have been given by God, nature, tradition, and so forth as almost worthless. Our natural condition is poverty, insecurity, ignorance, dependence, and misery. There is no reason for gratitude. And so we work to transform what we have been given to satisfy our desires, as individuals, to free ourselves from the cruel tyranny of an indifferent nature. We work to make individual existences more secure and more happy.

The individual, as such, is suspicious about all forms of dependence as barriers to happiness. So nature must be conquered, and all human connections, as Locke explains, must be reconfigured in terms of contract and consent. Even or especially love is for suckers. It is an illusion that veils misery and oppression. Friendship all but...


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pp. 49-53
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