In his short article, at The New Republic, Bacevich argues that any conservatism with a future will have to address the inability of Americans to restrain themselves, saying:
“When it comes to the culture, conservatives should promote an awareness of the costs of unchecked individual autonomy, while challenging conceptions of freedom that deny the need for self-restraint and self-denial.”
So Bacevich believes that unchecked autonomy can have costs and that some measure self-restraint and self-denial are components of any true freedom. This is not exactly a new idea. But because Bacevich uses the phrase “culture of choice,” Linker reads his argument as—I am not kidding—a call for theocracy, a call for “fixed limits on human choice are set by absolute political, spiritual, and moral authorities.” Linker concludes with this:
“Does a culture founded on choice lead to problems of its own? Of course it does. But an authoritarian culture is no solution to those problems, which flow from the depravity of human nature itself. And that's why the paleocon critique of modern America is so troubling and radical: The object of its enmity is not this or that aspect of our society or culture but rather the human condition itself. ”
Patrick Deneen tries to sort out the difference between Republican self-restraint and masochistic slavish servitude to religious authority, but it is to no avail.
“A culture that would seek to reign in our propensity to depravity would not rest either on private liberation nor "authoritarianism," but the inculcation of the faculties and abilities of self-government. Only one who seeks private liberty in all respects would regard such cultivation of self-government as oppressive, and would ultimately have to face the reality that such thoroughgoing private liberty is purchased by means of the expansion of public power and a truly frightening prospect of authoritarianism. Already we can see that much of the American public would be willing to sacrifice liberties in the name of sustaining a growth economy that encourages near-infinite, but never fulfilled, personal satiation. This, however, is not liberty.”
Deneen's definition of freedom, by the way, is “self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.”
Linker comes back with this:
“…let's begin by returning to Bacevich's first criticism of the United States, which Deneen tacitly endorses. Among their many other sins, Americans affirm the ‘right to choose’ above all other social and moral principles, producing a nation in which individuals freely ‘fornicate, marry, breed, abort, divorce, and abandon.’ To take the first item on this list, Bacevich and Deneen would clearly prefer that their fellow citizens not "fornicate" as much as they currently do. How might this goal be achieved? One possibility is that we pass and enforce laws upholding sexual chastity. That sounds pretty authoritarian to me. But of course, Bacevich and Deneen deny that they're advocating any such thing. Okay, then, let's take them at their word: What they want is for Americans to restrain themselves, to resist their sexual appetites, to repress their desires, to rein them in. And that's not authoritarianism; it's ‘self-government.’
“Except for one thing: It now appears that Bacevich and Deneen aren't really opposed to a ‘culture of choice’ at all. Rather, they're opposed to a culture in which people make the wrong choices -- in this case, the choice to fornicate instead of the choice to resist their sexual appetites. But here's what I don't understand: Why would a free man or woman choose to resist rather than act on his or her sexual appetites? I mean, we've invented birth control. Sex is very pleasurable. It's a way to enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with another human being. Why not choose for fornication? Why, in other words, is it wrong, in itself, to fornicate? Can we even imagine a response to this question that does not make reference to the authoritative teachings of an orthodox religious tradition?” [emphasis mine - wbr]
I guess Plato's Republic doesn't count as imaginable? Nor the Nicomachean Ethics? It's not like those works have had a major influence on Western thought or anything. Or was Plato a secret Catholic or something?
Now that I'm in the last chapter of Jeffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition, I'm pretty sure that Stout's pragmatism can justify a culture of self-restraint. In fact, it's instructive to see how Stout and Linker differ in their responses to traditionalist critics. The traditionalists (Milbank, MacIntyre, and Hauerwas, in Stout's case) challenge modern democracy with a syllogism:
- Premise 1: Democratic values displace the older virtues of self-restraint and self-government.
- Premise 2: The older virtues of self-restraint and self-government are necessary to human flourishing.
- Conclusion: Therefore a democratic culture is inimical to human flourishing.
To sum up: Read Andrew Bacevich. Read Patrick Deneen. Read Jeffrey Stout.
Exercise democratic self-restraint, and don't read Damon Linker.
UPDATE: Somehow I missed John Schwenkler's post, which goes into more detail on why Linker's reading of Bacevich is so misguided. Read that one too.