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Floundering with the Flavor of the Month

June 9, 2020 (1,693 words)

All contemporary political and social commentary misses the mark. It fails to get at the heart of the problem it sets out to address. How can that be? The fly in the ointment, it seems to me, is how we have prioritized personal autonomy above all other considerations.

It is our highest ideal as a people, seen as the surest path to progress and human flourishing. While both are unmitigated goods and worthy objectives, our understanding of each has unfortunately been severely compromised.

Allowing everyone to have their say, and do their own thing, is the essence of personal autonomy. But that is a recipe for conflict and chaos, as any sensible man or woman who has their wits about them surely knows. So we seek to apply the necessary restraints to the free-for-all, being careful to preserve the sense of radical individual freedom we all cherish so dearly.

It’s a balancing act that is impossible to maintain. Even if it seemed to be working out fairly well there for a while, by which I mean a few hundred years.

Here is the problem in a nutshell: Human nature is unruly. Not everyone possesses an innate self-awareness and level of maturity to wrestle with and control their un-neighborly impulses. And life is complicated. Not everyone has enough information at their disposal to make informed decisions. Even more problematic, not everyone possesses the cognitive ability required to process some of the more nuanced information, even when it is presented to them.

The whole thing may have sounded like a good idea at the time, but this letting everyone to their own devices has resulted in many of us making rather poor choices. This leaves the little people, in particular, feeling adrift and at loose ends – when not downright stressed out.

a society-wide liberation from superstition…

If you’ll recall, the master plan was a society-wide liberation from what we were told was superstition. That is to say, we were told to forgo belief in anything that could not be seen, or held, or empirically proved.

In this new world order, the one that slowly emerged some five hundred years ago, custom and tradition – based on keen observation of past experience – were now seen as limiting human potential, rather than a life-giving fountain providing meaning and purpose.

Henceforth the only legitimate authority had to be elected by popular consent. Appointment to power was now universally frowned upon. Equally important, this grand getting-out-from-under would simultaneously put the common rabble on the path to improved material circumstances.

That’s ultimately how this realignment of priorities was sold to the masses: See here, poor souls, you will make out better in the long run.

Viewing all this through that limited lens, it does appear the human condition is much improved. As economists are quick to point out, most people are better fed, clothed, and housed than were their forbearers of, say, two centuries ago. But of course that doesn’t tell the whole story, now, does it?

For one thing, personal debt is at an historic high. Statistically speaking all may be well, since the average standard of living is on the rise. But the gains have not been equitably distributed, not by a long shot.

even less regard for collateral damage than before…

From a financial standpoint the push for personal autonomy has always been about enabling the clever and the advantaged to pursue their economic self-interest with even less regard for collateral damage than before. It’s always been the cream of the crop that embraced this new ethos most enthusiastically. They merely enlisted the rabble as needed to overthrow the old order, thus neatly consigning custom and tradition and concern for others to the dustbin of history.

In retrospect all the high-minded talk of liberty and equality was little more than an elaborate ruse. It’s always been business as usual. Those that have are still reluctant to share with those that don’t have. The cause of liberty and equality that drove the revolution may have made an appealing rallying cry, but those lofty aspirations were always intended to be limited to the right kind of people.

It’s certainly true the moral restraint of an earlier age, designed to keep the well-off from thoroughly ransacking the peasantry, was too often ignored or overlooked. And as a result the peasantry was routinely raked over the coals, and left to barely get by.

But now the pursuit of economic advancement is unfettered, without even a residue of moral restraint to rein it in. And anyone looking to improve their lot in life is encouraged to adopt the same approach. One might call it a license not to care about one’s neighbor.

This is how our revered concept of personal autonomy expresses itself when it comes to economic behavior. The odd thing is, defending such callousness has consistently been the core of what passes for the conservative position.

dressing this up as a principled pursuit…

Conservatives have always – always – dressed this up as a principled pursuit of what they like to refer to as “economic freedom.” But that freedom, in this context, means getting as much for oneself as possible, and giving away the bare minimum required to keep the rabble off one’s back.

This is where our compromised understanding of progress and human flourishing comes into play. Yes, human dignity demands that all have the bare necessities of life: enough to eat, clothes to wear, and a safe place to stay. And material improvements in the developed world over the last several centuries have indeed seen to those necessities, in large measure.

But the inherent dignity that every man and woman possesses from birth is not respected – and certainly not enhanced – by drowning the majority who lack an “ownership interest” in a sea of cheap consumer goods that lack any intrinsic value. The miscellaneous stuff every First World commoner can now afford to buy does not provide a sense of meaning or purpose.

The clever and advantaged may get off on increasing their net worth and enlarging their portfolios, ad infinitum. This seems to be a constant, down through history. But that cold pursuit offers little solace to the rank-and-file. Devoting one’s existence to a continual upscaling of debt leads decent people to question the logic of such a life.

Which then begs the obvious question: If this is where personal autonomy leads us, is it really the best organizing principle for a civilized society to follow?

pushing back against an unrestrained economic exuberance…

Pushing back against an unrestrained economic exuberance, with its undeniable tendency to bleed into an outright exploitation of the disenfranchised and the down-trodden, has always fallen to what we now refer to as the liberal voice. It serves as an important counter-balance to the economic status-quo. It functions as society’s conscience, if you will.

The liberal critique was unerring as long as it focused on the excesses of the economic elite. But, sadly, its integrity has suffered a serious blow, taken down a notch by its own variation on “personal autonomy” that has caused so much havoc in our economic life. During the course of the 20th century the liberal voice revealed its own wayward tendencies in supporting what is euphemistically referred to as freedom of expression when it comes to sexual activity between consenting adults.

Such as the notion that monogamy is overrated, and actually constitutes a form of arrested development. Not to mention it being all-but-impossible to maintain for a healthy biped. And heterosexuality is just one option among many acceptable forms of physical intimacy.

(It’s one thing to agree homosexuals should no longer be stoned to death. It’s another to hold them up and admire them as some sort of advanced species, more highly-developed than the rest of us. There is a compromise to be broached somewhere in there, between the two extremes.)

The revolution in sexual mores that for centuries was the sole purview of the well-to-do and the avant-garde, who could misbehave without incurring debilitating financial repercussions, began filtering through the rest of society early in the 20th century, before going mainstream in the 1950s.

Around the same time the general standard of living spiked as a result of the post-WWII boom, come to think of it…

our modern faith excludes any consideration of the divine…

Somehow our thoroughly modern faith in reason and scientific certainly, which excludes any consideration of the divine, means we can now fool around with whomever we please.

While conservatives have always been known to discreetly indulge the odd dangerous liaison, promiscuity became a pet project of the liberal agenda in the last half century or so, and is now a non-negotiable policy position. This may be due, in part, to a general revulsion at the sight of so many economic exploiters publically proclaiming to live by a Christian moral code, while blatantly violating that code’s most fundamental precepts.

The economic hypocrisy of the average conservative does not in any way justify the licentiousness of the average liberal, but the former has most definitely paved the way for the latter. As so often happens, the failings of the few have undermined the belief and practice of the many.

Which brings us to our current stalemate: Liberals continue to provide a valuable service when they hammer away at the glaring hitch in our economic clockwork – a lack of equitable distribution. But their Achilles heel is their full-on commitment to personal autonomy when it comes to sexual mores. Instead of emancipating free spirits from stifling bonds, as the brochure so attractively promises, it has created deep hurt among intimates.

Conservatives, on the other hand, talk a good game when it comes to loyalty and honorable conduct, as everyone knows. But they sabotage themselves with their “economic” adherence to personal autonomy, which shreds the social fabric they claim to care so much about.

And there isn’t a single political or social commentator working today – no matter the following they may command in the moment – that shows the slightest awareness each side in our oh-so-familiar liberal/conservative cage match harbors a stubborn contradiction.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
June 9, 2020

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