Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 7

The True and Only Heaven was, one assumes, intended to pro¬voke many such disputes about the selective readings and unortho¬dox interpretations of various figures. But there are two larger criticisms that I think Lasch invited, and they have application not only to that book, but to his work generally. Of the many peculiari¬ties about the moral tradition Lasch constructed in The True and Only Heaven, the most astonishing is the omission of Freud—a writer who had played an important part in Lasch’s earlier thinking. For surely the Freudian notion of psychic economy involves exactly the principle of compensation, and exactly the tragic sense of life, that Lasch so passionately admired in thinkers of far smaller intel¬lectual stature. But a writer like Freud could not figure in Lasch’s account, and the reason is that Freud has already been accepted as one of the heroes of modern culture. And this is also why the writers who do have a prominent place in Lasch’s tradition are either minor and eccentric figures, like Brownson and George, or major ones who are supposed to have been misread by everyone else, like Emerson and Niebuhr. For to have conceded that the “populist” moral conception is simply a limited and somewhat cranky version of a moral conception we find everywhere in modern culture would mean conceding that values modernity is supposed to have made obsolete are actually to be found at the very heart of modern life.
If, as Lasch suggested in his work on the family, there is a “deal” on which modern liberal society was founded, it is that we shall have the freedom to criticize the conditions in which we live. This bargain has given us an enormous body of literary and intellectual work, fiercely protected by liberal institutions, whose moral inten¬tion is to complicate all the issues that traditional liberal theory makes too simple. Lionel Trilling wrote a famous book to make this point; but The Liberal Imagination was not mentioned by Lasch. He seemed, and not only on the evidence of The True and Only Heaven, simply deaf to literature. “Misgivings were destined to be confined to a shadowy half-life on the fringes of debate,” he wrote of the spread of specialization and the division of labor in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. It is as though Wordsworth, Dickens, and Thoreau had never written, or their books never been read.
At the core of Lasch’s condemnation of liberalism is the familiar charge that liberalism is effectively without content—that “liberal man” is a wind-up contraption that chases its own short-term inter¬ests, and the liberal state a night watchman that only keeps the streets clean and the fights fair (or, at least, “efficient”). But liberal¬ism does have a moral conception of the self, which is expressed in the political doctrine of rights. There is virtually no mention of rights in Lasch’s attack on the elements of the modern liberal out¬look, or in his analysis, in The True and Only Heaven, of particular political events, such as the disputes about busing and abortion. Elsewhere, he linked modern feminism’s attachment to medical technology to the eighteenth-century idea of individual rights: the progressive mentality, he thought, regards access to reproductive technology as an enhancement of the woman’s right to choose whether to bear children. And it is clear that, like many other crit¬ics of liberalism, he wanted to replace talk of rights in our political vocabulary with talk of duties—talk of what we owe to our society and to each other, rather than what is owed to us. “Rights-bearers,” he claimed, near the end of his life, in a symposium on the subject, “are regarded as autonomous individuals, and that is precisely the style of thinking we are trying to avoid.”
This seems to me to be an insufficient account of rights. It is in¬sufficient historically because the recognition of individual rights figures crucially in the liberal idea of what counts as progress. And it is insufficient morally, as well, since our notion of exactly what a right entails—to speak freely, or to bear arms, or to travel or own property—and under what circumstances it must give way to other claims, is the subject of continual debate. The history of United States Supreme Court decisions alone is ample evidence of the intellectual and moral complexity of the idea of rights. It is true that from one perspective rights appear to uphold private interests against public goods—to protect my desire to publish obscene ma¬terial, for example, against the community’s desire to maintain stan¬dards of good taste. But from another perspective, a system of enumerated rights against the state, such as the Bill of Rights pro¬vides, is precisely an acknowledgment of the general claim of soci¬ety as a whole against the individual. This was the view taken by some liberal contemporaries of Lasch’s turn-of-the-century pop¬ulists: that it is only because we recognize the legitimacy of society’s claims generally that we undertake to respect the need for people to be exempted from those claims in specified types of behavior.

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