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.