Clarifying the relationship between liberal democracy and Catholicism in America for those whose history doesn’t go further back than the 1980s.
In most democratic nations around the world, coalitions of the mainstream right include both classical liberals and conservatives. Depending on the voting rules of the nation, that coalition takes place informally within a single party, as in the United States, or formally across parties, as in the proportional parliamentary systems of Western Europe. These two fundamentally different political sensibilities are drawn together by a common enemy—the social engineering of the left. Both classical liberals and conservatives value personal responsibility, which is often undermined by the grand plans of big government. Social engineering also requires a scope of collective authority that trenches on the liberty valued by classical liberals and unravels the social traditions valued by conservatives. The happy result is fusionism—the united front of both classical liberals and conservatives against socialists and social democrats.
Technological acceleration could threaten fusionism. First, it may speed up the rate of social change, making traditions hard to maintain through civil society. Conservatives may be tempted to think that the state can provide a bulwark against social transformation. Fast technological change has created tensions between conservatives and classical liberals before (witness Tories versus Manchester liberals in nineteenth century England), but the rate of change today seems to me faster than ever and the possibilities for division between classical liberals and conservatives correspondingly greater.
More importantly, technology is beginning to permit personal re-engineering, pitting values of autonomy against values of a more tradition-bound (and frequently religiously based) view of what it means to be human. The excellent film Fixed underscores this point in its demonstration of technologies that transform the human body. A climber who had lost his legs to frostbite said he would not want to return to his natural state because his prosthetic legs were more effective. On the horizon are much more transformative augmentations to the human brain as well as babies whose genome is shaped by human design.
Some people featured in the film welcomed individuals’ authority to make these choices for themselves. These supporters called themselves transhumanists, but that seemed to me just another name for radical classical liberals in a world of accelerating technology. They valued choice with the Whiggish confidence that it would bring more fulfilling lives. Others in the film, however, worried that these choices would inevitably change the nature of humanity. Moreover, because of competition among humans, the choice of whether to augment would ultimately be illusory: few, if any, could ultimately resist the improvements that their neighbors were making to themselves.. While many who favored prohibitions on augmentations were leftists who were concerned that the choices would be available only to a few (a wrong factual premise, in my view), others sounded more conservative notes about the danger of trying to transcend limitations that have constituted humanity.
The ultimate such transcendence would be indefinite life extension—a prospect devoutly wished for by transhumanists. But Leon Kass, the head of President Bush’s bioethics commission, spoke for many conservatives in arguing that death gives meaning to life. I do not yet have a clear view on whether and, if so how, this tension between conservatives and classical liberal can be resolved. But accelerating technology may well sharpen the divide in the decades to come.