Ruling Our Selves: The Right Kind of Regime Change

Tales of a “crisis of liberalism” flow from the pens of writers from a variety of ideological perspectives. Some want to rejuvenate liberalism or shore up its foundations, while others want to demolish it. For his part, Patrick Deneen is calling for regime change. In Why Liberalism Failed, he proposes not a political revolution but “resistance” against the regime of liberalism. Deneen conducts a regime analysis in the sense that Leo Strauss suggests in Natural Right and History, wherein one views a regime as a “way of life” or pattern of social interaction that rewards some character traits and behaviors while discouraging others. For Deneen, the regime of liberalism rewards individualism, encourages a narrow view of self-interest, and impoverishes our moral imaginations; as he wrote in Public Discourse: “If we want a different politics, ultimately we must offer a different moral imagination for ourselves, our children, and theirs.”

Deneen’s core claim is that the theory and practice of liberalism rests on an overly individualistic, thin anthropology, so reductive as to be false and so dominant as to be destructive to our social ecology. Liberal ideas about human nature, particularly those of English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, do not adequately capture the complex reality of human personhood. Liberalism, he argues, denies the need for self-rule and the connection between liberty and virtue: 

Liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires. This kind of liberty is a condition of self-governance of both city and soul, drawing closely together the individual cultivation and practice of virtue and the shared activities of self-legislation. A central preoccupation of such societies becomes the comprehensive formation and education of individuals and citizens in the art and virtue of self-rule. 

According to Deneen, the reductive idea of the human person at the heart of liberalism constrains our moral imaginations and debilitates our culture. Deneen’s book and Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option have received their fair share of criticism, and each have notable historical and analytical flaws. But the most important and insightful point these writers advance is the claim that the self must be ruled, and contemporary American culture does not provide the resources for persons to achieve self-rule. 

Deneen and Dreher challenge us to imagine a different way of living, a better way in which we try to become self-ruling persons in self-ruling communities. We can take them up on that challenge without a political revolution; we can and should pursue regime change in the social sphere without overthrowing the liberal political order. 

Liberal Self-Government 

There is a liberal version of the idea of self-government—indeed, The Economist’s Bagehot column notes, “The essence of liberalism is self-government.” The liberal idea of self-government, especially as expressed by English philosopher John Stuart Mill, is that the individual should be sovereign in all things concerning only the self. In On Liberty, where Mill introduced the “harm principle” that legal or moral coercion should only be exercised over an individual to prevent harm to others, we find the declaration, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” 

Mill’s utilitarian moral theory emphasizes that true self-interest, or true happiness, is found in pleasures appropriate to the elevated souls of human beings, pleasures of the intellect for instance. In that sense, Mill recognizes that we are multi-faceted creatures with competing inclinations, desires, and goals, some of which are base and some noble. His theory requires a distinction between base and noble pursuits, and acknowledges the need for a measure or rule of action to decide which of our inclinations, desires, and goals to pursue. We need to suppress some inclinations and desires while cultivating others in order to pursue the goals that we deem worthy. In short, we need to govern our selves. 

But Mill’s legal and political theory is mainly concerned with external constraints on liberty. For the Millian liberal, self-government is primarily opposed to the tyranny of arbitrary social constraints based on race, class, gender, or belief. The idea is that the individual as a “progressive being” should not be constrained or coerced by external social conventions but free to pursue “experiments in living” that allow for innovation and redound to the benefit of society. 

Mill’s social justification for the sovereignty of the individual and his moral theory notwithstanding, contemporary liberalism fosters a one-dimensional and indulgent view of the self. For example, liberal philosophers Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell argue that expunging “surplus moral constraints” is emancipatory: they write that “morality constrains liberty” because it “constrains the satisfaction of desires and imposes limits on the pursuit of interests, especially, but not exclusively self-interest.” Treating the individual as sovereign justifies the narrow pursuit of self-interest along with other voluntary pursuits. 

As Deneen argues, there is an older understanding of liberty and self-government emphasizing the fact that we can be enslaved not only by external forces, but by our own desires: 

Liberty had long been believed to be the condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government. 

Deirdre McCloskey’s critique of Deneen, while appropriately chiding him for ignoring strands of liberalism such as Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek’s that are cognizant of human sociability, dismisses too quickly and glibly the critical element of self-rule that Deneen is promoting: “Deneen’s definition of liberty is what Constant called ‘ancient’ liberty, the right to be loyal to a polis and to have some voice in it, the ability to participate loyally in a lovely community. Sparta, say.” Deneen does favor participatory self-government, but his conception of liberty is richer and grounded on a deep sense of the need for self-rule as opposed to the simple pursuit of self-interest and satisfaction of desires, or a kind of Spartan subjection of self to society. According to Deneen’s understanding, the individual is not automatically sovereign, but must pursue and attain self-mastery. 

Governing Our Selves 

Almost everything worth having or doing in life—every kind of professional, social, or personal achievement—requires a degree of self-mastery, command over one’s desires and inclinations. We all have desires and inclinations that tend to prevent us from achieving our goals—to procrastinate, break commitments, or indulge addictions. Even from a purely rational, utility-maximizing perspective, self-mastery is a difficult but necessary challenge. Philosopher Jon Elster, in his studies Ulysses and the Sirens and Ulysses Unbound explicates the implications for the rational actor of such problems as “time inconsistency” and “weakness of will.” Some of our momentary desires and tendencies obstruct us from our long-term goals, requiring a degree of foresight and “precommitment” to master.

Wise teachers of the past connected the quest for personal self-rule with the good of order in society. In The Republic, Plato inquires what good governance of a city looks like via analogy with the governance of a human soul. Like a city, Plato suggests that the human soul has more than one part: reason, emotion or passion, and appetites together form the person. In a properly-ordered soul, the rational part rules the emotional and the appetitive. Elster has carried on the tradition of connecting personal self-rule with political self-government, analogizing constitutional constraints to individual strategies for attaining self-mastery such as precommitment.

A religious perspective adds depth to our understanding of the challenge of self-mastery. The Apostle Paul describes the agony of life without grace, stemming from inability to control behavior: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Rom. 8:18b). Christian thinkers, notably St. Augustine, aver that human beings cannot attain self-mastery and intrapersonal harmony on our own. Each of us harbor disordered desires that war against our reason for control of our souls. God created humans with reason and will, harmoniously unified. Yet the Fall, resulting from a willful rejection of this harmony, caused a great disordering—human beings received what we asked for. Now, our reason and will have lost control over our “flesh”—our desires and passions. We are unable to will or choose rightly, desperately in need of God’s grace in our struggle for self-mastery. We rest assured God will finally grant it.

Some studies in modern psychology have reaffirmed the idea that self-rule, particularly if it relies simply on “willpower,” is exceedingly difficult. In a journalistic review of recent studies at Vox, Brian Resnick notes that people who appear to successfully master temptations actually report not experiencing temptations as intensely as those who failed to do so. In other words, people who appeared to be best at self-control actually had to exercise it the least. Why? Resnick quotes psychologist Brian Galla, who notes that part of the reason has to do with habituation and precommitment: “People who are good at self-control . . . seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.” These studies suggest that attaining self-mastery is not based on sheer willpower, but on developing good habits and a manner of living that helps us achieve our long-term goals. 

Governing our desires is a challenging, often exhausting part of human existence; beyond mastering the technical or mental skills necessary to compete in the economy, we must learn to rule our own selves in order to live a good life. 

Emancipation or Enslavement? 

Deneen and Dreher both discuss the ironic truth that the technological tools thought to liberate the self can also enslave us to our own desires. My generation is all too familiar with one such avenue of enslavement: internet pornography. There is perhaps no better example of license leading to the tyranny of desire in contemporary culture than the widespread phenomenon of porn use

Deneen’s claim is not that we have become less moral in modern times, but that liberalism encourages us to ignore the idea that liberty might require self-government. The way we evaluate institutions has shifted; consider the flight from marriage and the general changes in the way people view marriage—and divorce—since the 1960s. For many, marriage has become more a vehicle for personal fulfillment than an institution that helps to order personal life and social interaction. 

Rather than evaluating institutions according to the degree to which they promote self-government—freedom from “enslavement to one’s own basest desires”—we evaluate them against precisely the opposite standard: the degree to which they promise unfettered pursuit of those very desires. But that emancipation very often results in the kind of enslavement the older conception of liberty and self-government taught us to fear. 

We face a “commons” problem in our social life. Each of us is incentivized to pursue individual desires for short-term gratification, pecuniary gain, or intemperate pleasure-seeking because the cost of these behaviors is widely distributed while the benefit is concentrated. But the social commons is soon degraded when each of us responds to these incentives. Millian legal and political theory lends itself to neglect of the social commons since it emphasizes maximum freedom from external constraint to secure the sovereignty of the self. For example, laws making divorce difficult or restricting the production of pornography would run afoul of the harm principle, except on a broad definition of “harm.” But such laws might, as Scott Yenor has argued, contribute to forming persons capable of exercising self-mastery and a social ecology that can sustain liberty. 

Governing Our Selves in Community

Attaining self-mastery is a long and difficult process, and it may require resources external to the individual self. The Rule of Benedict was, not incidentally, designed for people pursuing godly self-rule in community. We need encouragement and accountability—sometimes rebuke—in our quest for self-mastery. Self-government at the personal and communal level are mutually reinforcing; Dreher gives the example of college students in communal living arrangements encouraging each other and offering accountability for controlling porn use. The establishment of such self-governing communities will help individuals in our pursuit of self-government. 

Our ability to imagine a different future for ourselves, our children, and their children means first imagining our own selves differently than contemporary liberalism encourages us to. A more complex self-understanding would inspire a more nuanced moral imagination, first through the recognition that personal self-government is an elusive achievement for which we must strive. Our selves need to be governed, so we need to learn and practice governing ourselves. If persons are not simply monistic actors, but instead bundles of desires, needs, convictions, and aims—often contradictory—then some form of self-government becomes necessary. Freedom cannot simply be freedom to pursue desires, and the classic distinction between liberty and license regains its centrality in the analysis of self-government.

A more nuanced understanding of personhood would also acknowledge that we are persons in community. We need institutions that will help us rule our selves, and in order to build such institutions, we need to live in self-ruling communities—what Yuval Levin has termed “moral subcultures”—with the space to breathe. 

These ideas are certainly countercultural—consider Dreher’s invocation of Rule of Benedict as a source of guidance for daily life or Deneen’s championing of Amish communities as sites of resistance against the tendencies of contemporary liberalism. These ideas and practices are counter-cultural not only in American culture at large, but even in religious communities. Yet, voluntary embrace of such counter-cultural practices and institutions may be just the regime change we need. 

The Right Kind of Regime Change

The choice is not between a Spartan communitarianism or Brook Farm-style collectivism, and contemporary liberalism, as McCloskey would frame it. There is, as Fred Bauer has argued, a third way, a “Tocqueville Option.” We need not overthrow the liberal political order or abandon the liberal political institutions we have inherited—federalism, constitutional limits on government power, respect for individual rights, and even the market—to pursue self-rule and build self-ruling communities. As Deneen himself argues, the kind of regime change we need can be pursued at the local level, through re-orienting “practices” of local engagement and self-government. Leah Libresco has illustrated concrete ways of pursuing this kind of regime change. Voluntary submission to communities of moral formation aimed at the attainment of self-rule can be pursued within a pluralistic, liberal order based on consent. 

Deneen rightly describes as “chilling” a colleague’s dismay that most Amish young people actually choose life in an Amish community and declaration that “we will have to consider ways of freeing them.” That is a distinctly illiberal attitude we must vehemently reject. The Amish community operates completely on voluntary participation, since it incorporates the Rumspringa. It is thus perfectly consistent with the liberal political order, and perhaps even with the underlying philosophy of liberalism, if not in its contemporary form. The first step for those seeking regime change toward self-government is to advocate for the right and the good of consensual, voluntary participation in long-term moral communities, a “central preoccupation” of which is helping people attain self-government—especially families and communities of faith.