To the extent that anything can really ruin the world, liberalism is ruining the world. Philosophical liberalism (not the American political ideology) says that it is best to create a society with rules that do not favor any individuals’ value system; if not intruding on others’ rights, citizens should be left to live out their own conception of the good life. Exercising free choice is the most important expression of selfhood. Advertisers love liberalism.
Have you seen the 7UP commercials that tell you to “be yourself” by drinking 7UP? This is liberalism as marketing. You probably already understand that the commercial is pretty weird, because you aren’t actually expressing individuality and freedom by consuming a mass-produced soft drink. But I want to argue that you would also not be expressing your individuality by consuming a drink made in your secret basement with unstable isotopes that you had just discovered. This is how a 4th-grader expresses individuality — by mixing all the condiments together at lunch and drinking it for 50 cents and a few seconds of attention. At the risk of sounding like Tyler Durden, I’m going to posit that we are more than the sum of the products we buy, the choices we make. Yes, choices about what to eat and wear and do can certainly communicate who we are, but these preferences should be expressions of an identity grounded in principles and ideas. Choices express values; they are not values themselves.
Freedom is the organizing principle in liberalism. Oprah, Home Depot commercials, the much-hyped promise of the Internet — so much of our culture is built on the cult of the self, the idolization of choice. Even people who question this zeitgeist often fall victim to the liberal ideology; articles about how Facebook is ruining your life, for example, suggest that it is the technology itself that is to blame. If you could just make different choices — use Facebook less and eat superfoods more — you’d be happy. This kind of pop liberalism ignores the reasons we continue to do things that are bad for us, and, regardless of what Oprah says, not all of these reasons are within our reach to change or even understand.
To blame Facebook or alcohol for our problems is to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for fixing them. It is to point moronically at the shadows on the cave wall. Just get rid of them, make things like they used to be, and it will be better. But the shadows have always been there. That doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic or that we shouldn’t challenge them, but you can say that things are bad now without saying they used to be better. Try it; I promise you’ll still hate reality TV.
Our consumerist, liberalist society teaches us that we can be anything we want, do anything we put our mind to. We are all ego, no unruly id or overbearing superego to impede our freedom to consciously choose. This is the worldview of the TED talk, which teaches us to unlock all the hidden potential in ourselves and never talks about power and structural problems, about what constrains our lives.
Instead of making better choices, we should focus on better understanding ourselves and why we make the choices we do. This is the concern of classical thought. Socrates didn’t exhort us to “make choices that accurately reflect thyself” but rather to “know thyself” at all, which is the more rigorous task. Neoclassicists such as Alexander Pope picked up on this thread: even while believing we were always going to be fallible, that we were “reas’ning but to err,” he still cheered us on to “know then thyself.”
Liberalists come at it from the opposite direction, assuming, like TED talks and 7UP, that we can be fundamentally improved, if only we’d make the right choices, and conversely, that we have become diminished over time by all these modern distractions. But the important question is not, “Should I use Facebook less?” but rather, “What am I looking for on Facebook and is this the best way to find it?”
The fetishization of choice is also at the root of Girls-Gone-Wild feminism. Some young women have come to believe two things: First, that using their bodies in a way their parents would disapprove of is necessarily a free choice. Second, that because it is a choice, it is necessarily good and liberating and an expression of self-empowerment. Of course, it isn’t really a free choice at all — though it discards one rule (that women should repress their sexuality), it conforms precisely to another: that women are reducible to their body parts and that those body parts are for men. But even if it were freely chosen, would it necessarily be good?
The liberalist promise of choice relies on a lie of objectivity. It tells us we can understand and respect all people’s desires from an impartial viewpoint and, so long as they don’t infinge on others’ rights, allow those people to determine their own lives. The truth is that we cannot do this and that such an objectivist ideal is founded on its own conception of the good life, namely that freedom of choice is paramount. Rather than try to suppress opinions and claim that we make unencumbered decisions, we should seek to know these prejudices and power structures as well as possible so as to better live with them, and maybe even correct them through consistent, rigorous effort.
The products we buy, the lifestyle we live, and the media we consume can undoubtedly be important expressions of our values and thus of who we are. But the right to choose is not an end in itself. We should be choosing so as to best live a good life, and we cannot know we are doing that until we spend some time thinking about what a good life is. Acknowledging and discussing everyone’s different preferences and attitudes is not enough; until we understand the reasons behind our choices, we will be able to blame everything but ourselves and the systems we have created for our problems.