Sociology, Liberalism, and Freedom

Wilfred McClay has a fascinating essay in today’s OpinionJournal on the subject of the future of sociology. Despite the apparently wonkish subject matter, McClay makes several observations that cut right to the heart of America’s domestic policy debates. Here’s the most important…

As Nathan Glazer has put it, [Seymour Martin Lipset] had a lifelong interest in how societies, guided by their histories, “set limits for their development that are difficult to transcend.”
Those words express one of the abiding themes of the “old” sociology: how the stubbornness of social forces circumscribes what is possible for us as individuals. Around every man, said Tocqueville, a fateful circle of freedom is drawn, beyond which that man ceases to be free. Such an observation is unwelcome in a culture that values the free individual above all else and imagines that all things should be possible.
McClay’s observation is provocative, because I don’t think people (including perhaps Mr. McClay himself) fully realize how tightly contemporary liberals want to constrict the circle of freedom that Tocqueville describes, despite the fact that they believe in their hearts that they stand for the opposite.
The liberal attitude towards individual freedom has devolved into a belief that people should have freedom to behave as libertinely (or not) as they choose within their homes and in their personal lives, but beyond that, basic human interactions should be heavily regulated. Here’s my usual list of examples…
  • Liberals believe that government, not parents, should pick the school a child goes to, i.e. liberals fiercely oppose reforming geographic monopoly school systems through the use of charter schools, vouchers, etc.
  • Liberals believe that the practice of medicine should be socialized, so the government has a final veto on what treatments patients are allowed receive from their doctors. (That’s how “cost-control” works in a government-run universal healthcare system.)
  • Liberals believe that government should take a large part of a person’s paycheck and place it in a compulsory retirement plan, rather than giving employees maximal control of their own retirement resources.
The widespread skepticism on the left towards freedom-in-practice, while purporting to support freedom-in-its-ideal, is what has led the social issues like gay marriage and an uncompromising position on abortion (for partial birth abortion, against parental notification, etc.) to their prominent places in the liberal agenda. Since liberals are only willing to take a stand for individual freedom within a very narrow realm of the personal, they make that stand as doggedly as they can.
I think a large part of the polarization and the nastiness of our politics results from liberal inability to resolve the contradiction between their beliefs and their rhetoric with regards to individual freedom. Since they can’t resolve the contradiction, they settle for yelling real loud.

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