The Illiberals’ Scientific Dilemma

In the past decade, a variety of thinkers on the right have assailed liberalism. By liberalism, they do not refer to the specific politics of the Democratic Party, but instead encompass the more general Enlightenment notion that the maintenance of human freedom and constraint on government should be the central concern of political theory. Their critique thus is very broad, targeting not only left-liberalism but classical liberalism.

The latter philosophy is generally thought to be an important strand of American conservatism because the precursors of classical liberalism substantially influenced our constitution and culture. Critics nevertheless argue that liberalism in all its varieties has been responsible for modern ills—the atomization of society, the destruction of traditions, and in the more overtly religious versions, the disappearance of God from civic society.

While I have previously argued that a critique that lumps together classical liberalism and left-liberalism is too broad, these undifferentiated assaults on liberalism also face a dilemma in locating science within their critique. If modern science is an essential aspect of modern liberalism (in its philosophical rather than modern political sense), the critique of liberalism has a normative problem. Science and technology have been responsible for so much of what the vast majority of people regard as progress—longer life, greater material prosperity, and more ample leisure—that a critique that includes modern science as a central defect of liberalism is unlikely to persuade almost anyone. On the other hand, if modern science is largely autonomous from modern liberalism, then the critique has a positive problem. Many of the problems that liberalism’s critics attribute to a political philosophy are actually the outgrowth of technological and scientific developments, and thus ending liberalism will not do much to change them.

Option 1: Science as Integral to Liberalism

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen may embrace the first view. He emphasized that mastery over nature was and remains part of the liberal program. Francis Bacon overthrew the Aristotelian view that the goal for man was to live in harmony with nature. The goal instead was to control nature and thereby to liberate man from its constraints.

But if rejecting liberalism includes rejecting the scientific enterprise and the technological progress that goes with it, this critique is destined to be a niche academic position, not a program with any political resonance. Before the continuous scientific revolution beginning in the 17th century, life was “nasty, brutish, and short” for most people, even in societies with stable governments. Scientific discoveries have been essential to the progressive lengthening of life and the transportation and infrastructure that have lifted billions of people out of poverty.

Moreover, science is now crucial to the power of nation-states. Every important nation needs to keep up with technology to remain militarily powerful. The only way that modern science could cease to be relevant to power politics is if we had a world government, not more localism of the kind Deenen and many conservative critics of liberalism favor. An anti-liberalism that opposes science is thus 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 included within liberalism and thus the critique against liberalism does not require jettisoning science. To be sure, liberalism’s support for free inquiry helped get the scientific revolution off the ground, but once the benefits of science were understood, they were not necessarily part of liberalism. Thus, modern authoritarian societies are often enthusiastic about science even if they are not liberal. More patents emanate from China than from the United States, showing that societies can be illiberal and yet focused 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.  

But if science is largely autonomous from the political philosophy of liberalism, the critics of liberalism have another problem. Many of the problems they believe liberalism has wrought may be better explained by the rise of science and the new material conditions it created. In that case, the problems that these material conditions create are not dependent on the strong, coherent ideology of liberalism of which Deneen and others complain. Instead, the pressure on traditions and social dissolution are modern, material facts of life largely brought about by scientific and technological revolutions, regardless of social philosophies embraced.   

Classical liberalism embraces traditions that are useful in solving some of the difficulties created by a modern world continually transformed by knowledge and technology.

The machines that science made possible started the first sustained economic growth in human history from the 17th century onward. This development naturally transformed society. As Adam Smith recognized, specialization became more rewarding. A meritocracy arose in response, permitting specialization to become more efficient, even in non-liberal societies. Modern transportation allowed people to move and effectively choose where to live. As machines reduced the importance of manual labor and white-collar professions 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 home life, because they could regulate the number of children they had.

The raw ability of most people, including women, to choose their work and their home makes it much more difficult to maintain the unified, traditional ways of life in which people had little choice but to participate. It is true that some religious groups, like the Amish and some Orthodox Jews, sustain very close-knit communities, but even there the possibility of exit in the modern world is always open and not infrequently exercised.

Modernity, brought about by science, also limits the kind of societies that can endure. In the world of material opportunities that science makes possible, communism could not deliver the level of prosperity that can contend with nations whose people had basic freedoms over work and place. It did not generate enough resources to compete militarily, and its most productive citizens wanted to emigrate where their productivity would be rewarded. Ultimately, even its military could not successfully compete with the United States.

Moreover, societies that have not embraced any program of comprehensive liberalism still face the basic conditions of modernity.  China has only recently emerged from totalitarianism and its government is still authoritarian, hardly liberal. Yet it still faces much of the social angst of modernity, like the decline of traditions and rural-urban polarization.

Moreover, because the conditions of science-infused modernity deliver goods that most people want, they become broadly self-sustaining. Even the nationalist and so-called far-right parties in Europe have no program that would change those basic facts about the modern world.

The dilemma about how to handle science makes most of the “solutions” to liberalism offered by these new critiques very weak. The renewed localism that Deneen embraces is hardly viable in a society where science, through the internet and now specifically through Zoom, is annihilating distance.

Even more fundamentally, it is hard to embrace a structure that puts tradition before freedom when science is continually changing the social and political landscape around which traditions formed. To be sure, tradition can remain important as a social guide to a flourishing life in modernity, but only if forced to compete in a free society with new norms in that new landscape and thus adapt to new material conditions.

That reality again shows the essential difference between left-liberalism and classical liberalism. Left liberalism wants the cooperation of the state to eliminate traditions that it finds retrograde. Classical liberalism embraces traditions that can show themselves still vigorous and useful in solving some of the difficulties created by a modern world continually transformed by knowledge and technology. Classical liberalism remains a coherent political philosophy for modernity. Its critics on the right have not yet provided a plausible alternative.

Reader Discussion

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on January 22, 2021 at 10:02:03 am

This article seems a minor mess. It appears to reject alleged arguments against liberalism which McGinnis alleges Deneen and unnamed others "may embrace," including an alleged accusation that "science is integral to liberalism," without discussing who actually alleges or espouses the arguments or why they're wrong. (I think that McGinnis fails to state or misstates the essential arguments against classical liberalism and that the real arguments are correct, for reasons not touched on by McGinnis.) And McGinnis seems to defend classical liberalism against alleged conservative critics without identifying those critics, explaining the conservative tenets of their criticisms, or discussing why they're wrong. I know the identity of liberalism's most-noted conservative critics, consider myself one of them, and think we are right. (None of us, BTW, thinks that the constitutional founding of America was a misguided, unfortunate enterprise or that it is now outdated.)

Mine is a comment, not an essay. Had we world enough and time (or had I the least incentive to do so, which on L&L I do not,) one might, first, speculate about what McGinnis may be trying to say, and, then, actually say what McGinnis may be trying to say or should have said, and, thirdly, unbundle it all, so that it is coherent and intelligible, which now it is not.

This site continues to underperform.

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on January 22, 2021 at 18:41:35 pm
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on January 22, 2021 at 17:08:40 pm

A very thoughtful articles that poses a problem that certainly needs to be taken seriously: what are the relations among science, modern technology, liberalism (of any recognizable stripe), and modernity? The writer shows clearly the problem with including science in and or excluding it from liberalism when one undertakes to criticize the latter. It's very helpful to have that problem raised so incisively, and I hope it gets addressed cogently and much more frequently,

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Donald Marshall
on January 23, 2021 at 14:45:26 pm

In the spirit of R2L's reference to CITOKATE in the "Democracies and Double Standards" comments I offer the following:

Professor McGinnis's essay has at least three major flaws. First, he posits the relationship between "science" and liberalism, and then proceeds to speculate as to the effects of criticism. Overlooking the passive voice noted by Paladin, and the potential for straw-man arguments, Professor McGinnis's analysis is incomplete.

Taking the combination of science and liberalism, as the basis for criticism, there are at least 4 possibilities:

a. Science is integral to liberalism and one cannot therefore criticize liberalism without criticizing science;
b. Science is integral to liberalism, but one can criticize the latter without necessarily impugning the former;
c. Science is not integral to liberalism, and criticism of liberalism misses the possibility that it is in fact science and not liberalism that is the source of grievance;
d. Science is not integral to liberalism and liberalism is subject to criticism for any ills it produces independent of science.

Professor McGinnis appears to only consider possibilities (a) and (c). This selective discussion creates something of a false dilemma. The alternatives presented by Professor McGinnis are not exhaustive, and the omissions instill a sense of being half-baked and invite confusion.

Professor McGinnis also seems to conflate science and technology. The two are not the same, and occupy different places in mankind's intellectual and cognitive experience. Science is concerned with the knowledge of the way the world is, technology with using that knowledge for particular purposes. The field effect is science, transistors are technology. Mitochondrial respiration is science, Zyklon B is technology. Science is concerned with the facts of phenomena, technology with how those facts might be used. The key difference is that science is indifferent to moral judgments, but technology assumes the conscience of those who use it. Also, the knowledge that we call science may change, but the underlying phenomena do not. Advances in science are advances in understanding. We would be quite surprised to receive a notice that "The Krebs cycle will no longer be supported after September 1, 2021. You must upgrade your metabolism to a newer version before that date or become an anaerobe." Technology has no such constraint.

Professor McGinnis also seems selective in his consideration of the effects of technology. While he seems amenable to certain perceived benefits of, for example, birth control, he does not address the possibility that this technology has effects beyond the economic, or the presumed benefits to convenience and life-style choice. Most significantly, he does not address how this and other technologies might enhance the excesses of liberalism, giving legitimate grounds for criticism of either.

Finally, Professor McGinnis does not provide a cogent explanation of what he calls tradition. He appears to treat it as a nostalgic preference by romantic and sentimental fogies who cannot figure out how to use the Roku. He does not seem to consider that traditions survive when they incorporate a degree of truth and experience that does not change with advances in technology, or as he calls it "new norms." There are some facts of life that are, well, facts, insensitive to momentary fashions and oblivious indulgences. It is of course a matter of belief, but unless I hear a reasonable argument that there will be a technology that replaces human dignity, or that makes liberty, or conscience obsolete, I shall regard Professor McGinnis's thesis as unproven.

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on January 23, 2021 at 18:05:04 pm

Science predates “liberalism”, either the traditional or the “illiberal” form by several centuries.
Once the privileged, fair-haired progeny, it is now the bastard child of science, properly defined, and has in turn bastardized its parent and caused it to devolve into ‘scientism”, and further into an even more corrupt politicized and pale proxy of even that degraded form.
Science can, and often does stand alone. Whether it ought to or not is a separate question. That the electrical properties of hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur and carbon (amongst others) are uniquely *suited* for and conducive to organic life is first a finding of Science and secondly an unalterable fact not susceptible to “revisionism” or denial because carbon is currently a disfavored element.
In this exaggerated example, we would observe a present pretension to knowledge advanced by those who prefer “scientism”, an admixture of politics, ideology and a modicum of scientific data, presume to correct the unalterable empirical facts of physics, biochemistry, etc.
Scientism grows out of an inability, thankfully lacking in true science, to recognize and accept the constraints under which the phenomena must be either observed, measured or operate. It is, in fact, without order. In the political sphere, it is a preference for license over ordered liberty. In the physical sciences, it is the silencing of opposition; the willful ignoring of data unsupportive of the theorem.
It, for example, leads us to conclude that a human being born a male may ex nihilo become a female. It causes us to deny the actual biochemical and empirically verifiable evidence that “maleness” or “femaleness” involves far more than the typical and readily observable sexual homologs such as body protruberances or concavities of one form or another. Indeed, what we may be observing is a form of “phase change” where not unlike the trigger of reduced temperature causing water to phase into ice or gas, we find a mere wish capable of fully transforming a male into a female. My Goodness, how many protein / polymerase chains must be changed? How many gene expressions must be altered? – And all this accomplished in the time it takes to say, “I wish it so.”
The “bastard” child, liberalism, or perhaps, more apropos, illiberalism has in fact bastardized the parent, science. Who dares speak freely AND empirically on the true nature, the true underlying predicates of sexual classification? Who dares defy the present orthodoxy?
And yet, there is more. We observe this bastardizing, this silencing not only in the soft sciences, “gender studies, sociology, etc etc) but we observe it in harder sciences, paleontology, biochemistry, evolutionary-development studies, etc.
And further, I would submit that this is NOT simply a recent trend, a product of hyperbolic political / cultural tensions. From the earliest days after the introduction of Darwinian evolutionary theory, a concerted effort has been (successfully, I would add) made to deny, diminish and / or denigrate the analysis and works of others who proposed alternate theories. The argument is one of Functionalists (Darwinians) and Structuralists (Owens, etc). ( I’ll not go into details as that would take an entire library).
My intent in referring to this controversy is to assert that Liberalism has ALWAYS been a bastard child of science AND an ungrateful one – one unappreciative of its lineage and willing to suppress any part of that parentage should it interfere with Liberalism’s contemporaneous pedagogy and ideology.
To talk of science being integral to liberalism is beside the point. Like an arrogant spoiled child, (il)liberalism evidences no such affinity; rather, it makes use of whatever may be at hand.

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