Let’s face the question directly: Aren’t the opponents of liberalism (and here, as elsewhere on this blog, liberalism includes much of what is now called conservatism in the United States) hypocrites? Don’t we benefit from the abundance, security, and mobility created by strong, bureaucratic states and global markets? Aren’t our attempts at living in defiance of consumer values really just particular “lifestyle choices” within the culture of choice we loudly criticize? Isn’t even our advocacy and complaint on electronic forums like this tainted, because dependent on technological developments driven by our civilization’s restless will to novelty and power?
Over at Front Porch Republic, Patrick Deneen offers a good and thoughtful response.
He points out that the “fragility” of our position as anti-liberals who enjoy considerable benefits under liberalism at least makes us self-conscious, humble, disinclined to fanaticism. So, your average localist, seeing the consumerist beam in his own eye, will not simply demonize or condemn his opponents, nor will he try to smash the present order with Jacobin zeal, because he realizes that contemporary man is not equipped to survive and flourish without many of the supports and conveniences of the liberal order.
The doctrinaire liberal, by contrast, believes all that is not liberal to be unjust, deserving only destruction. He is blind to the fact that liberal society:
has always free-ridden on the health and vitality of a pre-liberal, even anti-liberal culture. Most basically it assumes the existence of, but does little to support or replenish, the culture of good families. It relies upon the virtues of children raised in those settings, even as it is suspicious of–even destructive of–what are necessarily “paternalistic” (or “maternalistic”) features of those settings. It has sought to open every closed association and civil institution, ultimately emptying them of the capacity to elicit loyalty, memory and stability. It relies on the good will and sacrifice of citizens even as it assumes that we are fundamentally rational actors driven by self-interest.
. . .
[O]ver the past century and a half, liberalism has free-ridden on the millenia-long accumulation of “resources” that it has shown exceptional ability in accessing and utilizing, but very little capacity to spare or save. “Drill baby drill” is akin to the adolescent refrain of “it’s MINE, it’s MINE,” uncognizant of the work and fortune that went into every inheritance that we may have come into. We have been free-riding on the back of mountaintops removed, all the while congratulating ourselves for our hard work and accomplishment.
So, Deneen concludes, the main difference between liberal and anti-liberal free-riding is that, in its “willful (or ignorant) disregard of its free-riding, [liberalism] permits itself a self-certainty and ideological rigidity, perhaps ironically–and ultimately–undermining its own basis for existence, but not before leaving some considerable amount of devastation in its wake. . .”
I agree that liberalism, with its aspiration to perfect rationality and comprehensiveness, is rigid and blind to its own weaknesses. But surely the most significant difference between liberal free-riding and ours is more straightforward than that: Liberalism arguably needs the things it opposes (and destroys), while localism does not. If, as I think, we live in a world where there can be no effective agency wholly outside of liberalism, then of course localists will have to be in some sense “parasitic” on liberalism. But liberalism is not necessary for localism in the abstract. Perhaps liberalism has so enfeebled us that localists couldn’t survive if it vanished overnight, but localists could eventually be weaned off it. Liberalism is like a snake eating its own tail, while contemporary localism is like an ex-smoker chewing Nicorette.