Liberalism, Choice, and Compulsion | James Kalb | CWR
Contrary to what many people believe, no society can maximize free choice and all societies involve some sort of compulsion
Social liberals consider traditional moral restrictions cruel in their very essence. Each of us, they believe, should be as free as possible to pursue his happiness as he sees it, consistent with the equal ability of others to do the same.
To reject that position, as Catholics and other moral traditionalists do, is either intentionally to block happiness or to substitute the judgment of the powerful for that of the individual with regard to his own most basic concerns. And that, progressives say, is cruel, oppressive, or both.
It’s easy enough to find situations that seem to support the argument. If marriage is a specific sort of arrangement that imposes binding obligations backed by social authority, some people will find themselves caught in difficult situations that don’t get better. So in a morally traditional society some people will have enduring problems they could have gotten out of in a more liberal one.
An easy counter argument, supported by the facts, is to point to ways in which the socially liberal approach has evidently decreased happiness, for example by weakening family connections. A fallback argument for liberals is to say that regardless of how well traditional arrangements might work in theory, any attempt to restore or even preserve them would be tyrannical as well as ineffective.
This fallback is important and deserves discussion. The idea seems to be that an attempt to promote things like cultural coherence or functional sexual roles and standards would have to rely on social policies involving supervision, control, punishment, and exclusion. People would resent the meddling and wouldn’t go along. If traditionalists thought it would be good for young men and women to put more emphasis on getting married and starting families, for example, doing something about it would involve things like stigmatizing gays and singles, bed checks to prevent fornication, and telling women they can’t have demanding careers. How could such an effort be organized, and why expect it to work?
The question, then, is how a society that is morally more traditionalist could come about: if it’s not an option, or the means that would be required seem intolerable, we might as well forget about it. The answer to that question, not surprisingly, depends on the same issues regarding what people are like and how society works that are behind the culture war in general.
That war reflects the liberal view of man and the world.