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Since the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed “Progressive,” many American conservative intellectuals have become convinced that resistance to Progressivism is the essence of their cause. They believe the American political tradition, flowing from the philosopher John Locke, is grounded in the immutable “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—and preeminently in the God-given equal rights of free individuals to give or withhold consent to government. Progressivism, by contrast, is the poisonous fruit of European (that is, un-American) post-Darwinian and post-Hegelian speculations about society as an evolving organism in which the free individual is reduced to a cog in a Historical process that trumps both nature and natural rights. In principle, therefore, Progressivism can recognize no fundamental limits to state power. This message of the conservative intellectuals is reflected in the convictions of the admirable members of America’s Tea Party: Obama’s “change we can believe in”—his attempt to expand the welfare state during an economic crisis—is the latest episode in a longstanding and increasingly successful effort to displace our Founders’ vision of limited government.

There is some truth in this conservative message, but it is not the whole truth. And it distracts us from the real challenges we now face as a nation. The truth is that, whatever our Progressive president might want to do, our welfare state is imploding, and the era of Big Government is necessarily coming to an end.

Locked in combat against Progressive thought, conservative intellectuals have neglected the fact that there is an idea of progress in John Locke’s political theory, too. Locke wrote to promote the liberty achieved by the labor of individuals who progressively “humanize” an otherwise indifferent natural world. The most convincing narrative of the history of our country is that of the individual freeing himself (or herself) from nature for an ever-more-secure and self-determined pursuit of happiness. The truth is that Lockean or individualistic progress (with a small “p”) is in the process of achieving an overwhelming victory over Historical or Big-Government Progress (with a capital “P”). The idea that the free individual is the bottom line has defeated the idea that individuals or persons could ever be mere cogs in any statist or Historical vision. This has had, and will continue to have, big consequences in American political and social life.

Individualism and the Birth Dearth

Change in America over the last generation or two has largely been progress in Locke’s sense. The change we can actually see has been in accordance with Locke’s basic individualistic insight about who we are or might become—though sometimes in ways Locke himself did not anticipate. It didn’t occur to Locke, it seems, that so many free persons would become so self-absorbed that many would choose to stop having enough children to replace themselves. The main reason for the “birth dearth” among our sophisticated classes is not merely the transfer of dependence from family to government, but a kind of choice for radical personal autonomy over being “species fodder.” Nature may intend me to be replaced by my children, but we Lockeans are more concerned with living for ourselves—and so, among other things, with thwarting nature’s intention by staying around as long as possible, however great the health-care cost.

When Alexis de Tocqueville described the emotional withdrawal of “individualism,” he was mainly concerned that individuals would lose the spirit of resistance characteristic of citizens, and so create the preconditions for democratic or soft despotism. He thought that the natural limit to individualistic self-absorption would be the family: even in a democracy, free individuals would persist in thinking of themselves as parents and children. He had a kind of sociobiological faith that the limit to individual liberation would be the natural social inclinations that lead the species to perpetuate itself. Locke seems to have had that faith too. He thought people would continue to have children, and their natural inclination, supported by law, would cause them to stay together long enough to raise them.

But, in principle, Locke couldn’t have rejected the conclusion of our Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) that women have an equal right with men to be free individuals and so to define for themselves their personal identities. On this view, a right to abortion can be justified as what’s required for women (when other contraceptive methods fail) to be liberated from the natural inclination to be moms, so that they can become equal participants in the nation’s economic and political life. Individuals saddled by nature with female bodies have the right not be species fodder or reproductive machines for the state. They have the right, as autonomous beings, not to be determined by their natures, not even their bodies.

Until well into the 1960s, the Republicans were the relatively Lockean or pro-business party, and for that reason the Republicans were the party that pushed the Equal Rights Amendment. The Democrats were the more “paternalistic,” union-enabling, welfare-state party that aimed for a family wage earned by a husband-breadwinner. That position presupposed the dignity of “unproductive” motherhood. The liberation of women to become wage slaves just like men began in the 1960s, and that liberation became identified more as Democratic than Republican only because the Democrats became the feminist party, the party more dedicated to liberating women to be Lockean individuals. But neither party objected to women flooding into the workforce—which ended the dream of the family wage for most Americans, made it much more difficult for women to find dignity without earning money, and inevitably reduced the average size of the American family. With our Lockean premises, nobody denied for long that justice demanded equal opportunity for women as free individuals. Our two parties reached a consensus that government would have little to do with the encouragement of virtues untethered to productivity, and the Democrats fairly quickly ended their flirtation with “welfare rights”—which is to say, the right not to be productive.

This new consensus was not about letting people live as they pleased in any 1960s “do your own thing” sense; it was about perfecting our meritocracy grounded in productivity. Insofar as “neoconservatives” worried about the family, they were mainly concerned with fending off dysfunctional behavior that undermined individual liberty and economic prosperity. We can affirm that the liberation of women was more good than not, without denying the downside in terms of sustaining the safety nets that used to constitute the minimalist American welfare state that had its heyday in the 1960s.

One result of the liberation of women—and of men, who were given a license to behave badly—is an explosion of the number of lonely single moms who desperately need the welfare state to get by. What they need, government is going to be less and less able to provide. And the routinization of divorce (far beyond Locke’s or Tocqueville’s expectations), with the individual’s pursuit of happiness in mind, has also produced lots of lonely men. The fastest growing demographic category today is men over sixty- five who aren’t close to either a spouse or children. They, too, are going to need public help as they increasingly fade away into chronic forms of age-related debilitation, but it is clear that we won’t be able to afford what those individuals need either.

Working Hard to Stay Around

Locke probably would not have been surprised that so many free and sophisticated individuals would so prudently attend to the health-and-safety risk factors that threaten to extinguish their very being as individuals. Given Descartes’s big promise about free individuals employing modern science to produce indefinite longevity for particular persons, it would have surprised Locke even less that medical technology has been so successful in keeping so many persons alive for so long. More than ever, free individuals regard their health and safety as something under their own control, and not in the hands of either God or fortune. Given what we now know and can do about risk factors, we increasingly regard death as an evil to be avoided through prudent calculation. And so, more and more, we consider death as the product of stupid, unsafe choices. We used to think only the good die young; now, we think it’s the ignorant and self-indulgent who do. Sophisticated individuals are increasingly repulsed by people feckless enough to be fat, and we even think there should be a law or a tax to discourage their irresponsible behavior.

Lockeans are often criticized for reducing personal morality to health, safety, and consent, but they are very serious—very puritanical—when it comes to that individualist trinity. Our individualism is not about living as you please, but rather about doing what’s required to secure one’s own personal future. And our so-called transhumanists give us an unprecedented incentive: with the right regimen of diet, exercise, and lots of supplements, they say, young people can reasonably hope to stay around until the “singularity” arrives and something like personal immortality becomes possible. St. Augustine was right that it’s most important not to screw up when eternal life is on the line, but what was wish fulfillment for Augustine is now something we can do for ourselves, according to some of our Lockeans. Certainly we are not told to relax and enjoy ourselves when it comes to eating or sex. In some ways, we are more preoccupied than ever with the bad things both of those natural processes can do to free beings with bodies.

The sustainability of Social Security and Medicare depended on people being more easygoing about eating (or health in general) and the natural consequences of sex than sophisticated people are now. Those programs depended on the demographics of the 1950s and the 1960s, with men often dying in their late fifties or early sixties (and so, not drawing a dime from entitlement programs for the elderly), while having three or more children to pay for those programs in the future. Our welfare state depended, in other words, on the risky behavior displayed for us as insane on the television show Mad Men.

Our Demographic Trend

By thinking of ourselves more and more as free individuals who are responsible for ourselves, we have produced an aging society with a growing number of old people and fewer young ones. The result is that the ratio between productive and unproductive Americans continues to tilt in favor of the later, despite the fact that we put more of a premium than ever on being productive. (One reason among many why viewers are appalled by the advertising executives on Mad Menstaggering back to the office from multiple-martini lunches is the loss of a half day’s productive work.)

It is impossible to overstate the extent to which our existing entitlement programs were premised on “Baby Boom” demographics. As long as the population and the economy were both growing briskly, we could easily afford to sustain and even expand benefits for the elderly. Public policy deliberations in the late 1960s and early 1970s were also informed, however, by deep concerns about overpopulation. So President Nixon’s Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (1969) actually endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment as a way of discouraging female fertility—a way to get women to think of themselves less as mothers and more as free individuals. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that our experts were intent on undermining the demographic foundation of the welfare state. If it were reasonable to hope we could soon be anywhere close to returning to Baby Boom birthrates, there would be no talk today of entitlement reform.

Lockeans might begin to attempt to solve our demographic problem by saying that the old should just become more productive: we need to push the retirement age back—way back. If the elderly are healthy, they should keep working. We can expect that to happen, and responsible experts say many or most people might well be stuck working as long as they can. But there are obvious limits to that remedy. A high-tech society is full of preferential options for the young; the old might be healthy, but they still often lack the mental agility required to keep up with incessant techno-change. Even in college teaching—not a demanding profession—there’s plenty of complaining that the abolition of mandatory retirement is keeping around the ineffective and out-of-touch at the expense of scholarly productivity and consumer (student) satisfaction. The aging, overpaid professorate is probably the most compelling argument against tenure, one that will prevail soon enough in our techno-meritocracy. If the old keep working, we will quickly realize, it will have to be in less productive and (much) lower-paid positions. After all, we value the wisdom connected with age less than ever, and we’re getting more skeptical of the thought that being old means being entitled.

Some of our Tea Partiers—especially those in the rural South—believe that the dissolution of the welfare state will restore the situation that prevailed in most of our country’s history of liberty. The elderly, like on The Waltons, will return to live in the homes of their children and grandchildren. I actually favor government programs that would facilitate that change, but again there are limits. A Lockean or techno-productive society has dispersed families throughout the country and the world. The ties that produced extended families are weaker than ever. It seems less natural or normal for parents and their grown children to share the same place.

Throughout most of our history, the health-care system has been dependent on most caregiving being done voluntarily by women. But that isn’t usually possible in a Lockean country where women have become productive individuals just like men, and where there are fewer young people to provide caregiving, whether paid or voluntary, for the burgeoning number of elderly. Not only that, health care will remain far too costly for ordinary families to afford, and techno-progress by itself cannot make it cheaper. We are getting better and better at keeping the old and frail around, but our wonderful success in sustaining their biological being often takes decades of expensive medical intervention. The good news is that we are steadily pushing back cancer and heart disease. The bad news is that the default form of dying is becoming Alzheimer’s, which is a long, predictable, costly, caregiving-intensive disease for which there is no cure. For young women compelled by duty or circumstances to care for a parent with such a disease, there will be less opportunity than ever to become a mom, and so the situation they face will be worse still for the generation to follow.

Locke himself rather coldly suggested that the only compelling tie parents will have on their grown children will be money. He wanted to free individuals from the constraints of patriarchy; he didn’t want parents to be able to rule their adult children. And he didn’t want the relations of free individuals to rely on love—except the love for little children (who are temporarily incapable of taking care of themselves). If you’re going to get old—which Locke was in favor of—you’d first better get rich. Our libertarians aren’t wrong to say that we should do what we can to encourage people to save for their own futures. But our 401(k)s can no longer be counted on to produce returns that outpace inflation. The average person is less sure than ever that his money will last as long as he will, but nonetheless he surely knows that he’ll be stuck depending largely on his own money to live well.

The implosion of the welfare state, which is caused most of all by our aging society, doesn’t look like a new birth of freedom for old folks. As we learn from Socrates’s musings in The Republic, there may be nothing more difficult than being old and poor in a democracy, a regime which has no idea what old people are for. That is not to say that we are going to begin euthanizing the elderly or even “rationing” them to early graves. We know that the elderly are free persons—they’re not nothing—and so we’re committed to helping them stay around as long as possible. To say the least, however, we don’t know much about how they might have purposeful lives in our increasingly individualistic world.

The Entitlement Implosion

The primary experience of most ordinary Americans these days is the erosion—with the prospect of implosion—of the various safety nets of our relatively minimalist welfare state. The change we can actually see has been, and will continue to be, from defined benefits to defined contributions. Private and even public pensions are done for. They will continue to be replaced by 401(k)s. That kind of change will also be true of health care, as employer-based plans become unsustainable. It will also soon be true of Medicare and probably Social Security—if not quite as soon as Representative Paul Ryan thinks. Ryan, it is already obvious, will come to be known as a man just slightly ahead of his time. In that sense, just as obviously, he is the real progressive—the prophet of the more or less inevitable world to come. And his opponents, who are called Progressives, are just as obviously the real reactionaries.

The good news here, the new birth of freedom celebrated by the Tea Party, is more choice—a lot more choice—for individuals. The bad news is that risk is being transferred from the employer and the government to the individual. All of our entitlements will have to be transformed in a Lockean or individualistic direction in what might nevertheless be futile efforts to save them. Other, related changes that Lockeans should believe in include the fact that unions, both public and private, are also done for—despite President Obama’s efforts to prop them up. Their reactionary attempts at protectionism have no place in a globalized and rigorously competitive marketplace. The same can be said of the ideal of employer and employee loyalty. People will be able to be—and will have to be—a lot more entrepreneurial and self-employed. One reason among many that employer-based health care cannot survive is that it depends on an increasingly obsolete model of employment. The present health-care system is actually not particularly good for the self-employed—which is to say, for more and more of us. Fear of losing insurance shouldn’t be a reason for passing up an entrepreneurial opportunity, and guilt about an employee’s health-care situation shouldn’t be a reason for not firing superfluous or inadequately productive employees.

All these economic changes have, of course, both good and bad aspects. We might say that they are changes we can sort of half believe in. The Tea Partiers are enthusiastic about a new birth of freedom and a return to the Lockean Constitution of our Founders. And there really is a lot of good to be said about a renewed emphasis on individual responsibility, just as there is a lot of good to be said about perfecting the productive meritocracy that is the main source of our prosperity. Perhaps there will also be a new birth of voluntary associations—such as the extended family, the church, and the neighborhood—and voluntary caregiving for the social support even free individuals need to live well. Lockean political and economic reform is not incompatible with Christian charity, and anxious, lonely individuals futilely pursuing an ever-elusive happiness and even more futilely trying to cheat death might have more reason than ever to turn to the organized and relational religion of the personal Creator. Certainly the usually solidly churched, big-family, and otherwise communitarian Tea Partiers don’t really share the comprehensive libertarianism of our sophisticated autonomy freaks.

Status Quo Conservatism

It would be wrong, however, to call these changes popular. The Tea Party has peaked, and it never got anywhere near to a majority of Americans. People can’t help but be conservative when it comes to preserving the entitlements on which they have come to rely. Consider that, at present, the Republicans continue to dominate the debate on health care; people remain convinced that Obamacare will wreck their employer-based plans without replacing them with anything nearly as good. Republicans are mostly campaigning against the president’s bigger-government change without offering a clear alternative. They know, of course, that the employer-based schemes don’t have much of a future. The Republicans’ advantage over the president might fade quickly if they were to begin emphasizing the reasonable view that there is really no alternative but to have each individual buy his own private insurance, and have means-tested subsidies to make it possible for everyone to be covered. Individuals would have their own insurance; they would have more choice and could be cost-sensitive consumers; but they probably wouldn’t get the coverage they have now at (to them) such a low cost.

When it comes to health care, most people are neither Progressives nor Lockeans. They are status quo conservatives, believing that change in any direction will not be progressive in the sense of serving their personal interests. But like it or not, change in the Lockean direction will come, and the institutionalization of Obamacare over the next few years will only delay the inevitable in a needlessly costly way. For now, however, this is a message no one seems prepared to hear.

With Medicare, the Democrats now have the advantage. They seem to be the status quo conservatives, defending the existing, defined-benefit, fee-for-service program. Americans have forgotten, for the moment, that one source of funding for Obamacare will be cuts in Medicare. And the Democrats don’t deny that sustaining the current program will depend on waves of cuts. Newt Gingrich was clearly wrong when he called Representative Ryan’s Medicare reform plan “radical social engineering”—branding it with the kind of attack Republicans usually reserve to describe Progressive experiments in bigger government. Payments under the Ryan plan would go to private insurance companies, and the resulting competition might well drive costs down (as they did in President Bush’s unfairly maligned prescription drug benefit program). The Ryan plan would likely stretch the government dollar in ways which give people the best deal they can get in a time of diminished resources. But Gingrich did play to the true popular mood when he created, in effect, a moral equivalence when it comes to any significant change in the present entitlements regime. People think all change is risky and undesirable. Although everyone really knows that Medicare and Social Security as we now know them cannot last, devolving responsibility to the prudent calculations of the individual is, at best, ambiguous news.

The Change We Can Actually See

The progress of American individualism in the past generation has not been toward apathetic contentment (Tocquevillian individualism) but toward the intensification of personal self-obsession (Lockean individualism). People are more detached from others than ever, or less animated by personal love or less moved by thinking of themselves as part of a whole greater than themselves. That means that, in the Lockean sense, we are thinking more personally or individually; we believe that the “bottom line” is keeping the free person alive as long as possible. The result can only be, we now see, the increasing anxiety of individual responsibility. Americans have not been living any Progressive or Marxist dream of having freed themselves from scarcity for unalienated self-fulfillment. And they know, now more than ever, that such a dream can never become real in some postproductive age.

In this respect, the vision of our libertarians (or Lockeans on steroids) turns out to have been, to a point, most realistic. The Marxian idea that the modern techno-conquest of nature could allow people to live unobsessive, and so unalienated, lives was naïve—a naïveté present, for example, in the 1960s version of our Progressivism. Naïve, too, was the idea that government planning could remove worry and anxious planning from individual lives. People are, it turns out, stuck with working. And the demands of productivity actually accelerate as technology progresses. They are also in some ways more future-obsessed than ever. Free individuals tend to believe that their own deaths are the extinction of being itself, but as Lockeans we are less whiny-existentialist and fatalistic about that than we are powerfully resolved to do what we can to stay around as long as possible. (We can exempt our religious minority of observant believers from this view of who we are, just as we can notice that they are actually the ones who are mitigating our birth dearth with their many babies. It is always possible that there could be a religious solution to the crisis of our time.)

Our libertarians were wrong, however, to think that we could flourish in abundance by understanding ourselves with ever-more-perfect consistency as free and productive individuals progressively untethered by biological direction. It turns out that it is not free individuals but men and women in touch, so to speak, with who they are by nature who have enough babies to secure our productive future and so to pay for our minimalist entitlement programs. So it also turns out that the hyper-Lockean attempt to detach individual autonomy from birth and death and love is the wrecking ball of the welfare state. The least that can be said is that the free individual has triumphed over the feckless dependent.

Our demographic “crisis” has destroyed the Progressive dream of a schoolmarmish social democracy humanely enveloping us all. The good news is that Tocqueville was wrong to worry that we would slouch into subhuman contentment. The road to serfdom, we see now, will never get to serfdom. The bad news is that to the extent that we understand ourselves as free individuals (and nothing more) we pursue happiness, as Locke himself explains, but hardly ever find it. The next stage in American progress, we can hope, is that we will discover, or rediscover, the truth that the free or personal being is necessarily a relational being. That would, however, take us a step beyond Locke in thinking about who we really are.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2011.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Sorry, are we speaking of Locke or Marx here – the notion that nothing matters more than economics. The French say that one becomes what he hates most, and so Americans ostensibly won the Cold Wra in order to become Marxists, in the primacy of economics and the growing demand for equality.

  2. re: Your paragraph on the “aging professorate”. Funny–at Columbia I always found the older, even elderly, professors to be the most wise, articulate, profound–and dignified–of the teaching class, while the “younger professors” were more scattered, shallow and tried too hard to “relate” to us students. A bit of Mr. Chips-distance is a good thing.

  3. “They have the right, as autonomous beings, not to be determined by their natures, not even their bodies.”

    Right: liberalism is a revolt against any constraints reality might place on humans.

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