It should be apparent by now that at the bottom of the liberal theory, the one thing which provides it with its foundation, there lies a peculiar picture of a human, a human qua individual.
It is tempting to trace this picture to Locke’s ownership postulate as one of our unalienable rights; that, however, would be a mistake. We have seen that the idea of ownership, in and of itself, is a fairly straightforward proposition (unless we are ready to do away with private property altogether as an inherent social evil). Indeed, even Marx found no fault with it except that he wanted to make it communal, shared by all alike, especially the workers.
If anything, it’s the positing of the ownership right to the exclusion of everything else – loyalty, commitment, sentiment, even affection, all the things, in short, which round up the full scope of human interaction – which is at fault here and produces the skewed picture. For indeed, in declaring all such influences artificial, a throwback to the past and of little or no effect on how the moderns tend to interact – with transactions having essentially replaced relationships! – the founders of the liberal theory have virtually reduced an ordinary, full-bloodied human to a construct: a market man, presumably subject to the very same impersonal forces, the market forces, bar none.
(That’s one basis for universal equality we find in Hobbes, the kind of equality which transcended the old hierarchical structures in terms of social ordering, rank, and privilege. Even the rich were no less subject to the same market forces, according to Hobbes, than the poor were, property owners no less so than common laborers or slaves. It was a revolutionary idea in Hobbes’s time, a form of egalitarianism in a manner of speaking, though on the perverse side.)
Perhaps the distinction introduced in Part VII between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” can serve to illustrate the one-sidedness of the underlying picture. Both appear to define the opposite ends on the freedom spectrum. The first asserts a fundamental right to act as one pleases, subject to the usual restrictions, of course; the second, a likewise right to resist all forms of coercion which might prevent the individual from acting freely, as defined by the former. The first is directed against individuals who might stand in one’s way, the second against all coercive institutions, including the state. Consequently, we’re asked to believe that these two positions preempt the entire spectrum, there being nothing in between.
Nothing could be further from the truth: both concepts fail to take the idea of responsibility seriously enough, the indispensable component of freedom.
A qualification is in order. A libertarian, for whatever reason, will hold the other fellow responsible in the event of his or her failure: we’re all entitled to our just deserts. A consistent libertarian will apply the same principle to their comings and goings.
So far, so good, and it conforms to the letter of Hobbes’s assertion that we’re all market men first and foremost, and that we all stand to rise or fall by the decisions we make vis-à-vis the market, right or wrong. None are exempt from having to pay the price.
That isn’t, however, the kind of responsibility I have in mind. What’s missing is how our decisions impact the other, not to mention how they affect the greater community. It’s precisely this kind of awareness that must become part and parcel of our decision-making process if our concept of freedom is not to become truncated and empty but endowed with its complete and intended meaning. Yet, this sense of responsibility is conspicuously absent from either rendition of freedom by the liberal theorists. Indeed, we’re asked to believe there is nothing in between, that our freedom is entirely circumscribed by the two opposites.
Whether it is so by design or not, it doesn’t matter. Suffice it to say, what’s implicit in such a view is a tacit assumption that none of us owe anything to society, that we can continue on our merry old way while pursuing our enlightened and sometimes less enlightened self-interests. Accordingly, we needn’t give any thought to the greater good, believing somehow that in the long run, it shall prevail regardless, despite our inattention, as if by the mysterious working of the invisible hand.
I suggest there’s something inherently wrong with this picture, something categorically wrong. For one thing, it dispenses with a human as a moral agent, the essential characteristic of our species. So yes, this is, in a sense, a moral critique of liberalism, a critique on essentially moral grounds. Against it, against the so-called market man, let us posit instead an ethical man, a far more comprehensive conception of what we are.
Ultimately, all political philosophies rise or fall with the soundness of their conception of the human subject, and the philosophy of liberalism is no exception.
In the remainder of this series, I intend to show that the liberal account of human agency leaves a great deal to be desired.