The Universal Acid of Liberalism
Carl Benjamin’s Five False Assumptions of Liberalism aims at understanding how “liberalism as an ideology is colliding with progressive icebergs.” But it would be more accurate to describe liberalism as the sea itself.
The core commitment of liberalism is autonomy. According to John Kekes in Against Liberalism, autonomy is the “inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged.” And as Joseph Raz explains in The Morality of Freedom, “a person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life.” Liberalism, then, doesn’t collide with the progressive iceberg of transgenderism—the trans ‘woman’ is simply a man pursuing the logic of liberalism to its conclusion, and demanding autonomy from biology to ‘author’ himself as he chooses.
Indeed, liberalism’s foundational false assumption is autonomy. Although Benjamin explains why the state of nature imagined by Hobbes and Rousseau is false, he hasn’t yet drilled down to the vision of autonomy that underlies it. Nor does he explore in Five False Assumptions the reality of the family as the true foundation of the state—or the damage the Sexual Revolution has done to it by emphasising autonomy.
Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke all proposed a contractual theory of the state. They saw it as something artificial, not natural: humans choose to author it. But man is naturally social and has never existed without rights and duties. When the first child was born, its parents had duties towards it. These were its rights since rights are essentially communal—something owed to us by another. My rights exist only within a community as your duties. As Alastair MacIntyre put it in After Virtue, belief in abstract individual ‘human rights’ is like belief in unicorns.
Pre-Enlightenment, nobody talked about ‘individual rights’. The concept assumes the truth of liberalism by conceiving rights as monadic properties independent of social life. As Aristotle and Aquinas used the term ‘right’, however, it’s a thing or act someone owes to another. Within the society of the family, for example, the father has a right to obedience from his son, and the son has a right to education from his father.
Society has always existed because humans need the society of the family to survive. Justice has thus always existed because it determines how the members of the family relate to each other. Given the nature of the family, it’s not just for a son to disobey his father.
But family life scales upward into the clan or tribe, and then the nation. Hence, traditionally, the king is called Sire: because he is the father of the nation. When the family broadens out to the extent that it becomes self-sufficient under a common authority, as in a village, it is bound by natural law to organise into political society. It’s possible for states, as in recent times, to originate via contracts, but they don’t have to. The family naturally forms civil society. That is what Social Contract Theory gets wrong.
Rights remain rooted in the notion of the common good. Murder, for example, is wrong because it harms the common good. Likewise, so is suicide. But nobody has an individual right to, say, abortion or changing gender. And individuals and the family cannot transfer their rights to the state in the way the Social Contract Theory requires. Justice dictates that the right to private property, for example, cannot be passed over to the state, nor can the right of spouses to procreate and educate their children.
Thus the problem of autonomy arises yet again. We don’t own ourselves in a way that would allow us to give away all our rights. Rights are not intrinsic qualities of individuals. Liberals themselves would be likely to admit this if asked whether it would be morally right for, say, a disabled black lesbian to sell herself into slavery.
Moreover, if the state is a mere social contract, then the unborn were not parties to it. They could therefore choose not to enter into it. If it’s a convention, nobody is born a citizen. On the view that the family constitutes a natural society, however, the infant naturally becomes a member of it.
Another absurd consequence of Social Contract Theory is that the state has no greater authority than the contracting parties give it. It is nothing more than the amalgamated power of autonomous individuals. Rousseau saw that, logically, this meant citizens may withdraw the authority of the rulers at any time. But this cannot account for the fact that the state has rights that no individual possesses—such as the right to inflict capital punishment—and hence cannot come into being through delegation. Nor does the state arbitrarily grant itself these rights. Like the father’s authority in the family, the scope of the state’s authority is delimited by society itself.
Like the family, the state is a natural society—hence its existence among the earliest, most primitive peoples. Given that marriage is a human universal, and promiscuity has never been a stage in human history, the state must have always existed. Unlike the family, however, it is a self-sufficient society. The family is temporally prior to the state in that the state is a development of it, but the family ultimately depends on the state for what it cannot provide for itself. The state thus exists for the family but, unlike the family, depends on no society above itself.
From infancy onwards, then, the apparently autonomous man of liberalism is dependent on his family and fellows for his temporal welfare. The reality of human life is dependency, not autonomy. And the individual must sacrifice his personal good for the common good. Only a common good—a good that can be shared entirely by several persons, meaning a spiritual good—can ever be the basis of any society.
This isn’t to be confused with socialism. Whereas liberalism violates the principle of solidarity, socialism violates the principle of subsidiarity. For liberalism, the state comprises individuals in a homogenous mass. For socialism, the individual is submerged in the whole. Liberalism dissolves; socialism absorbs.
But respecting both solidarity and subsidiarity means society is hierarchical in structure. Individuals, families and all kinds of voluntary associations—guilds, for example—retain their identity, rights, and functions while the state directs them to the common good. As Pope Pius XI put it, “the city is for man and not man for the city.”
Since autonomy is the inner citadel of liberalism, admitting the existence of any natural society brings that citadel crashing down. And since man, as Aristotle said, is naturally more inclined to conjugal than to political society, this is why the Leviathan contractualist state must ultimately deny the objective reality of sex differences.
This is the final step of the modern movement to destroy the natural society of the family that started with Marx. His propagation of sexual immorality, fully weaponised in the Sexual Revolution, caused the confusion about sex in contemporary culture by severing it from family. The essence of manhood is the potential for fatherhood just as the essence of womanhood is the potential for motherhood. The fact of being male or female is thus a calling to a particular role within a family.
All questions about how sex roles are socially constructed therefore miss the point because society itself is natural to man. And severing sex from family cuts off masculinity and femininity at the root. The radicals—from the Latin radix, meaning root—knew this. Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, for example, lacks a single reference to motherhood in all of its 842 pages.
But not only cultural Marxism fears the family. A. C. Grayling, a classical liberal, described divorce as “liberating people,” and Michael Ignatieff described a father walking out on his children as an “act of the liberal imagination.”
Liberalism isn’t just the sea. It’s a universal acid, and transgenderism is the reductio ad absurdum of liberalism. As Aristotle said, small mistakes in the beginning lead to big ones in the end.
Will Knowland has taught English literature and language for over fifteen years. Currently a private tutor, he also writes on Substack about literature defined as what E. R. Curtius called 'the great intellectual and spiritual tradition of Western culture as given form in language'. Will is a Roman Catholic and is married with six children.