The scientific dilemma of the illiberals

Over the past decade, various right-wing thinkers have attacked liberalism. Through liberalism, they do not relate to the specific politics of the Democratic Party, but embrace the more general education that preserving human freedom and restricting government should be the central concern of political theory. Your criticism is therefore very broad and is aimed not only at left-wing liberalism, but also at classical liberalism.

The latter philosophy is widely viewed as an important strand of American conservatism, as the forerunners of classical liberalism have shaped our constitution and culture significantly. Critics, however, argue that liberalism in all its forms has been responsible for modern evils – the atomization of society, the destruction of traditions, and in the more overtly religious versions, the disappearance of God from civil society.

While I have previously argued that a criticism that summarizes classical liberalism and left-wing liberalism is too broad, these undifferentiated attacks on liberalism also face a dilemma when it comes to including science in their criticism. If modern science is an essential aspect of modern liberalism (in a philosophical rather than a modern political sense), criticism of liberalism has a normative problem. Science and technology have been responsible for so much of what the vast majority of people view as progress – longer lives, greater material prosperity, and more leisure time – that a criticism that includes modern science as a central defect of liberalism can hardly convince anyone. On the other hand, if modern science is largely independent of modern liberalism, then criticism has a positive problem. Many of the problems that critics of liberalism attribute to political philosophy are, in fact, the result of technological and scientific developments, and ending liberalism will not do much to change them.

Option 1: Science as an integral part of liberalism

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen might take the first view. He stressed that the control of nature was and will remain part of the liberal program. Francis Bacon overturned the Aristotelian view that man’s goal is to live in harmony with nature. Instead, the aim was to control nature and thus free people from their constraints.

However, if the rejection of liberalism includes rejection of the scientific enterprise and related technological advancement, then that criticism is meant to be a niche academic position, not a program with political resonance. Before the ongoing scientific revolution that began in the 17th century, life was “evil, brutal, and short” for most people, even in societies with stable governments. Scientific discoveries have been critical to the continued lengthening of life, transportation and infrastructure that lifted billions of people out of poverty.

In addition, science is vital to the power of nation states today. Every major nation must keep pace with technology in order to remain militarily powerful. Modern science could only cease to be relevant to power politics if we had a world government, no more localism like Deenen and many conservative critics of liberalism. Anti-liberalism that opposes science is therefore not a viable political philosophy.

Option 2: science as autonomous from liberalism

It might be more plausible to argue that modern science does not need to be drawn into liberalism and therefore criticism of liberalism does not require the science to be discarded. While liberalism’s support for free research helped kickstart the scientific revolution, once the benefits of science were understood, they weren’t necessarily part of liberalism. Modern authoritarian societies are therefore often enthusiastic about science, even if they are not liberal. China has more patents than the US, which shows that societies can be illiberal and still focus on scientific discovery. Even totalitarian nations like the Soviet Union tried to separate much of science from the party line because scientific progress was so important to their national security.

However, when science is largely independent of the political philosophy of liberalism, the critics of liberalism have a different problem. Many of the problems that they believe liberalism caused can be better explained by the rise of science and the new material conditions that it created. In this case, the problems these material conditions create do not depend on the strong, coherent ideology of liberalism that Deneen and others complain about. Instead, the pressures on tradition and social dissolution are modern, material facts of life, largely produced by scientific and technological revolutions, regardless of the social philosophies applied.

Classical liberalism encompasses traditions that are useful in solving some of the difficulties posed by a modern world that is constantly being changed by knowledge and technology.

The machines that science made possible started the first sustainable economic growth in human history in the 17th century. This development has of course changed society. As Adam Smith realized, specialization was becoming more rewarding. In response to this, a meritocracy emerged that made it possible to organize specialization more efficiently, even in non-liberal societies. Thanks to modern means of transport, people have been able to move around and effectively decide where to live. As machines reduced the importance of manual labor and employees became more central, women joined the workforce and were no longer as dependent on the traditional male breadwinner. Birth control gave them more control over their domestic life because they could regulate the number of their children.

The raw ability of most people, including women, to choose their work and home makes it much more difficult to maintain the consistent, traditional way of life in which people have had no choice but to participate. It is true that some religious groups, such as the Amish and some Orthodox Jews, have very close communities, but even there the possibility of leaving the modern world is always open and not infrequently exercised.

The modernity brought about by science also limits the types of societies that can endure. In the world of material possibilities that science enables, communism has not been able to attain the level of prosperity that has struggled with nations whose people had fundamental freedoms of work and place. Not enough resources were generated to compete militarily, and the most productive citizens wanted to emigrate where their productivity would be rewarded. In the end, even its military could not successfully compete with the United States.

Moreover, societies that have not adopted a program of comprehensive liberalism are still faced with the basic conditions of modernity. China emerged from totalitarianism only recently and its government is still authoritarian, barely liberal. Yet it is still exposed to a large part of the social anxiety of modernity, such as the decline of traditions and the polarization of the country and the city.

Since the conditions of science-based modernity deliver goods that most people want, they also become largely self-sustaining. Even the nationalist and so-called far-right parties in Europe have no program that would change these fundamental facts about the modern world.

The dilemma in dealing with science makes most of the “solutions” to liberalism that these new criticisms offer very weak. The renewed localism that Deneen is adopting is hardly feasible in a society in which science destroys distance via the Internet and now especially via zoom.

More fundamentally, it is difficult to accept a structure that puts tradition before freedom when science is constantly changing the social and political landscape around which traditions have been formed. Of course, tradition can remain important as a social guide for a flourishing life in the modern age, but only if it is forced to compete with new norms in this new landscape in a free society and thus adapt to new material conditions.

This reality again shows the essential difference between left-wing liberalism and classical liberalism. Left-wing liberalism wants state cooperation to eradicate traditions that it considers to be in decline. Classical liberalism encompasses traditions that can still prove energetic and useful in solving some of the difficulties posed by a modern world that is constantly being changed by knowledge and technology. Classical liberalism remains a coherent political philosophy for modernity. The critics on the right have not yet provided a plausible alternative.

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