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Is There a Loss of Meaning in Liberal Societies?: A Conversation with Akiva Malamet, Part II
Liberal neutrality on competing versions of the good life is not a vice but virtue
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Reimagining Liberty, a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. Today's conversation is a companion to our prior episode. I'm joined again by Akiva Malamet, Managing Editor of The UnPopulist. Last time, Akiva and I talked about identity within liberalism. Now we turn to meaning. Everyone wants to lead a meaningful life, but one of the critiques of liberalism is that a liberal society takes away traditional sources of meaning and so leaves its citizens feeling detached, either unable to find meaning or seeking it in frivolous and so ultimately unmeaningful pursuits. How compelling is this objection, and what should we as liberals do about it?
Let me very briefly mention that Reimagining Liberty is a listener supported show. If you enjoy these discussions and want to get early access to new episodes, you can become a supporter by heading to reimaginingliberty.com. With that, let's get to my conversation with Akiva Malamet.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: Last time we talked about the issue of identity and identity politics within a liberal society and how those things should relate and interrelate. Today we're turning to another either problem or opportunity of liberalism, depending on your perspective, and that is meaning. To get us started, can you say a bit about why it is that liberalism's critics often raise meaning as a problem that liberalism has or something that liberalism can't provide?
Akiva Malamet: I think the fundamental challenge for liberalism that its critics have often raised is the problem of meaning. The reason that meaning is such a difficult problem is because liberalism is ideally not a metaphysical doctrine. It doesn't tell you what the point of your life is supposed to be. It doesn't tell you how to live your life. It doesn't tell you what we're all here for in some grand existential sense. It's not a religion or a religiously infused ideology the way that, say, the medieval political system was, where it was infused with Catholic ideas about the nature of birth and death and redemption and so on.
All liberalism does is say that people are equal, that people, because they're equal, have certain common rights, and that they should be free to pursue their own devices and their own senses of the good because they have these equal rights. Because it insists on equality among persons, and it insists upon individual rights leaving different people to pursue their own visions of the good, it inevitably suffers from the charge that it fails to provide a sense of meaning. It fails to provide a reason why people should be living their lives, what their lives are supposed to be for. All it does is give them a framework with which they can pursue their own independent interests. That's a more basic form of liberalism.
A more radical form of liberalism would say that there is no inherent good to be pursued, that there are only different individual varying forms of life, and that everyone has their own way of being. You might find a statement like that in John Stuart Mill's celebration of “experiments in living” in the third chapter of his book On Liberty, where he talks about there being many paths to the good, or John Rawls' discussion that there are many different ideas of the good life in A Theory of Justice.
In all of these, there's this idea that not only can we not interfere with different people’s paths, because all we are are equal rights holders, but there might not even be a common good for us all to adhere to, because all there are are individual people with their own individual sets of values and preferences and ideas about what matters in life. Liberalism often suffers from the charge of lacking a sense of meaning, because it doesn't provide one institutionally within its framework.
Now, I happen to think that this charge is false. I think what liberalism does is allow us to pursue our own individual sense of meaning, and that actually provides meaning in more diversity and abundance than you might find in alternative social systems. It is true that liberalism doesn't in and of itself give you a something to belong to, or a system to belong to, or a reason for your life in and of itself.
Aaron: A big part of the objection seems to just be based in an idea that ultimately meaning should be not freely chosen. It's not that in a liberal society, it is more challenging to find meaning, but there are people who can find it. We could help the people who are having problems, and once you find it, everything's okay, and the objection goes away. That doesn't really seem to be the underlying thinking in the objection, but rather there's something wrong with freely chosen meaning. It looks wishy-washy, it's not as robust or meaningful. A kind of meaning as what you would get from a state religion, or nationalism, or national identity, or ethnic identity, or something that, to go back to our identity conversation last week, is not freely chosen. It's imposed upon you. The argument, as I understand it, or as I'm going to characterize it—and tell me if you think this is unfair—is analogous to the way that, say, Aristotle talked about moral education, which was you don't get the young child to be virtuous, to internalize the virtues by explaining to them the abstract concept of compassion, or gratitude, or honesty, or fairness, or whatever it happens to be, and getting buy-in. It is better if you do the following things.
Rather you essentially compel them to behave in virtuous ways. Take the toy away and give it back to their sister they just stole it from, or whatever it happens to be, and eventually through that habit they naturally instill it, and then come to understand its value over time, because at the very young age they can't immediately understand the value of the virtues. They just have to live in accord, be compelled to live in accord with them.
“I think the fundamental challenge for liberalism that its critics have often raised is the problem of meaning. The reason that meaning is such a difficult problem is because liberalism is ideally not a metaphysical doctrine. It doesn't tell you what the point of your life is supposed to be. It doesn't tell you how to live your life. It doesn't tell you what we're all here for in some grand existential sense.”
It feels like there's a similar sort of sense of meaning, in that those meanings that were pushed upon us through roles not of our choosing may initially feel unchosen, but once we have lived within them, accepted them, internalized them, we recognize that they are much richer than the freely chosen whims of taste and preference. There's a reason these particular kinds of meaning have stuck around for as long as they have, but you essentially have to be forced to recognize that.
The problem with liberalism is it takes away that compulsion, and so takes away the ability of people to work through that hard part of establishing, where the skepticism might push them off into just the more frivolous forms of "meaning." It's almost like “we know better,” and the problem with liberalism is it short-circuits the ability of those people who know better to help those people who don't find their way.
Akiva: Yes. I think there's a couple of things going on here. One is a kind of epistemic claim that some people know what the good is, or what it is to be good, and because they have the power to know what it is, they are right in enforcing it on other people. Because if you know what the good is, then it seems logical to say that other people should be following you and doing what you're doing. If they don't follow what you're doing, it's because they're mistaken or misguided, and so it's really for their own good. It has a paternalistic feature, where it's for their own good that you're forcing them into this way of life, because in the end it will be good for them.
That assumes a knowledge about what is good that presumes a universality of good—that there is a good that is valid for everyone, and that there's a certain way of being that is valid for everyone. I think liberalism not only insists on equality and on fundamental rights, but in later iterations, fundamentally denies the idea that there is a central fundamental good for each of us.
There is a deep belief, especially among, let's say, integralist or Catholic thinkers, but you find this among Aristotelians as well—and obviously there's a lot of crossover between Aristotelians and Catholicism—in the idea that there's a telos or a purpose for each person, and that people have purposes the same way that, let's say, a tree has a purpose, and the point of the tree is to grow. The purpose of a person might be to be moral, or to be educated, and to act in a moral and educated way.
The problem with this view, I think, is that people don't have purposes. People are independent agents with minds of their own and their own ways of understanding themselves and their relationship to the world that surrounds them. They're not just these mechanical, biological entities that can just be programmed in with the right set of sequences and can therefore be instilled with what is good. Because what is good is ultimately a function of the way that a person relates to the world. Now, there's a danger in being too extreme about this and saying that there are no commonalities between people, nothing that people share that they need. We could talk about, let's say, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where at the bottom you have things like food and shelter, on the top you have things like self-actualization. I think what is notable is that the stuff at the bottom is the things that we tend to share. The stuff at the top is something that's much more diverse and diffuse and about which there's much more disagreement.
I think the presence of that disagreement demonstrates to us that it's not simply an obvious function of we need to be virtuous or good in the same way that we need to eat or sleep or find shelter, but that what those things mean is subject to a great deal of debate. How we relate to them is subject to a great deal of debate because meaning is ultimately a function of the human mind. It's not a thing that exists out there in the universe waiting to be discovered. It's not a natural fact like rocks and trees, but it's a function of the way that people relate to their world.
Aaron: How much of the objection is about liberalism versus simply an objection to secularism? Obviously the two are related. Liberal societies tend to become secular societies. I think for reasons tied into what you just said, because for any given religion that you have, no matter how much you believe it to be true, the fact is that the majority of people on this planet are unpersuaded by it because they're either members of a different faith or they're non-religious. Any religion when not compelled anymore or not the only thing people are aware of is going to lose out to some extent. It's hard to maintain a monolithic faith in an open society.
There is a relationship between them, but it feels like a lot of this objection is simply—Akiva, you say that there are multiple conceptions of the good, but in fact there aren’t. The one that's tied to my particular religious faith, which I believe to be true and not just something chosen, is the correct conception of the good because it's been given to us by a divine being that knows a whole lot more than you do, Akiva, about what's good for humanity or what the person who lives next to you in your coastal cosmopolitan enclave thinks is good for humanity. That's it. The problem is simply that liberalism enables, encourages, or allows people to drift away from this metaphysically true conception of the good. The objection's not really to liberalism per se, but to the secularism it allows.
Akiva: I think part of the challenge here, and this is why I mentioned an epistemic issue earlier, is that there's not just a claim being made by illiberals that there is such a thing as the good, as a general conception of the good, although I would challenge that. It's also that they have access to it. One of the problems I see in traditions of revealed religion is some claim that we can know what it is that the good is and what God would want. I am very skeptical that is the case.
I think even if you believe that there is a true faith, I think there is reason to believe that you don't necessarily know exactly what it is God would want, even within the terms of your own faith, that there are going to be limitations to what we can know and say about what God would want. I come from the Jewish tradition. Obviously, the Jewish tradition has the Torah as its text of faith, and the Torah has various prescriptions for how people should live. There are also places of ambiguity. For example, homosexuality—there are debates about whether the prohibition against homosexuality is simply a product of criticizing a particular violent male-on-male coercive sexuality, or if it's talking about homosexuality, period.
There is a hermeneutic dispute about the meaning of those passages between liberal and conservative Jews. I think there is an insistence on the part of conservative Jews, not only that their religion is true, or conservative religious people in general, but that they know exactly what it is that their religion demands of them with absolute certainty in a way that I don't think is necessarily epistemically warranted. I think that's a problem in addition to the question of whether it's a divide between religious and secularism. To me, the issue is not just an issue about secularism or liberalism. It's about people with epistemic confidence and people without epistemic confidence that they can know what it is that's good out in the universe. It's possible that I'm wrong about the good being something only in the eye of the beholder. I think it is also a big leap to declare that we know exactly what the good is based on our own limited human understanding of the universe.
The other thing that I would say is that liberalism is not secularism, right? Liberalism is non-preferentialism. Liberalism is non-favoritism. There's a lot of debate about whether you can have a truly neutral liberal regime, whether liberalism enforces secularism. To some extent, I think the criticism is warranted. Liberalism imposes secularism, but what it really wants to do is avoid favoritism. It wants to avoid a situation in which there is one single vision that is imposed and which the people who have very high confidence in their knowledge of what is good can then force it on other people.
I think, above all, liberalism is afraid of basically a power problem in which some people who are very confident in their knowledge of what is good can then force it onto other people. It has less to do with whether liberalism is secular and more to do with liberalism's fear that people who are flawed, who are limited, who don't know everything about the universe can then impose what they happen to believe onto other people.
This is a problem for two reasons. It's a problem because it's wrong to coerce people. Liberalism is very insistent on respecting the dignity of other people, and so therefore coercing them to behave in a way that you think is good is wrong. Even if you're very convinced that way of behaving is good, you should do it through persuasion rather than through coercion.
Also that there is a problem of tolerance, which is that if you impose yourself on me, I'm going to respond to you in a violent way. We're going to have a war, and there's going to be conflict in society. If we want to avoid conflict in society, we need to have some system in which we don't have favoritism or prioritization of one way of thinking over another way of thinking. There's a sense in which liberalism is secular, but it's secular on behalf of civil peace among world views.
Aaron: We've been talking about the problem of meaning so far in terms of the illiberal who says, “look, people are going to choose the wrong kinds of meaning. They're not all going to choose the same kind. Liberalism encourages, allows this. What we need instead to have meaning of the right sort, meaning that aligns with the actual good, is imposition, coercion, centralization, non-liberalism.”
“Really the biggest challenge for liberals is that human beings are not naturally liberals. Human beings became liberals through a very long process of cultural and social evolution. What we need to do is keep nudging people in towards being liberals. … Instead of chastising them for not living up to our standard, our liberal vision of the good, we need to try and work with them to try and find as much crossover between liberalism and their own attachments as we possibly can.”
There's another version of the objection to liberalism on grounds of meaning, which is that people in a liberal society can't find any of it. Not that they're necessarily choosing wrong, which is the first objection, but that they can't choose at all. There's a crisis of meaning, that there's a malaise, there's despair, there's a feeling of meaninglessness because they haven't been told. They're unable to do what you just said liberalism is all about, which is going out into this diverse world and finding your bliss, pursuing your meaningful path, defining the good for yourself. Instead, they basically wallow in meaninglessness because it hasn't been given to them.
David Brooks is a big advocate of this objection to liberalism, of like, we need nationalism, we need great national projects, we need a war every now and then to give men meaning. To some extent, I find that one a more interesting objection, because to me, the “we just need to impose a single meaning because it's the right one,” just strikes me as obviously wrong for all sorts of reasons. The epistemic ones that you just raised, the anti-coercion questions, and so on and so forth, it's just not an intellectually interesting one.
The one of people having a hard time finding meaning seems to me—and this is what I was thinking about a lot when you and I first were talking about doing this topic a few weeks ago. It seems like there's a split between viewing meaning as the result of big things versus little things; that meaning as big things is very much the perspective of the, we need to impose it from the top, the anti-secular perspective; that meaning is part of being something bigger than yourself, whether that is a religious faith or the nation or your tribe, that you are part of something bigger and that's where you get meaning from.
That's always been—I guess I have a hard time putting myself in the headspace of that view of meaning because it seems like the meaning to me, and meaning that's very compatible with liberalism, is about small stuff. Meaning comes from the things that you're passionate about, the stuff and the people that you love and that you interact with and that you think through life with.
Meaning is found—I get tremendous sense of meaning out of these podcast conversations that I am lucky enough to get to have on a regular basis. The writers that I enjoy reading and the sense of connection between fellow minds and so on. That's all very small stuff. It's not wars and nationalism and nations and gods and so on. It's just like meaning is other people and their works. That just seems to be something that it doesn't seem like a lot of people want or don't feel is good enough or meaningful enough or big enough.
Akiva: Yes. I think different social political systems have different challenges. With respect to meaning, I think the challenge of a theocratic or authoritarian system is that your concept of meaning may not be shared by other people. In a liberal system, the problem is that your concept of meaning might be that not everyone is as good at finding their own bliss as someone else might be.
Each of them has their own kind of challenge, their own kind of constraint. I think the big challenge of liberalism is that it doesn't hand people meaning. It tells them to go out and find it. Going out and finding something is much harder than being handed it. It just obviously is. Saying that we know what the point of your life is, and it's to be a medieval peasant and to obey the priest in your local parish in the year 1324, obviously is much psychologically easier to cope with in the sense that there's no ambiguity about what your life is than to be a human being in the year 2023 and to say your life could be anything.
You could have all kinds of jobs, you could marry, or you could have all kinds of romantic relationships. You could have different kinds of friendships. You could have all kinds of hobbies. There's a bit of a paradox of choice thing going on where there's just so much stuff and so many possibilities that it's hard to find yourself.
There's just a different problem that liberalism has to face, which is how do you cultivate autonomous citizens who are capable of making choices for themselves? How do you cultivate people who are capable of finding their own bliss? Education towards being autonomous is very hard to do because education necessarily entails conformity or tends to involve conformity because you're all teaching towards a certain subject and you want everyone to learn it and so on. Teaching people how to be themselves is actually quite hard.
I do think liberalism has this problem. I don't think it's an insurmountable problem. I think it requires helping people self-examine and say, "Well, what is it that excites you? What is it that you care about? Do you care about volunteering? Do you care about video games? Do you care about whatever? How does that relate to your overall sense of what you get out of your life?"
“Liberalism is non-preferentialism. Liberalism is non-favoritism. There's a lot of debate about whether you can have a truly neutral liberal regime, whether liberalism enforces secularism. To some extent, I think the criticism is warranted. Liberalism imposes secularism, but what it really wants to do is avoid favoritism. It wants to avoid a situation in which there is one single vision that is imposed and which the people who have very high confidence in their knowledge of what is good can then force it on other people.”
The other thing that I think is important to recognize is that the critics of liberalism have a point when they point out that self-sacrifice is a really important way that we get meaning. That being part of something transcendental is an important way that we get meaning. There's like a dopamine hit, for example, when people volunteer at like a soup kitchen because they get a certain emotional chemical reaction from doing something that transcends themselves and goes beyond themselves, right? The mistake that those people make is that they know what's best for other people in terms of how to achieve that feeling. There may be many different ways that people can achieve that feeling of self-transcendence without it being centrally directed or chosen for them by someone else.
Aaron: I'm reminded of there's a line from the poet John Berryman that both my parents used to quote all the time when I was a kid, where the poem is the poet listening to his mother as a kid. The line is, “ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.” I think that's what this is. It's like meaning within liberalism demands inner resources or the ability to cultivate them or a willingness to cultivate them. I think your point about education is really interesting because it demands resources specifically tied to autonomy.
At the same time, it's not like liberalism is lacking in people who will help you find meaning or groups who will help you find meaning. It's full of them. If you think that meaning is found through Catholic faith, chances are there's a Catholic church available to you, either in your city or if you're in one of the small towns in America where churches are in decline, online. If you think meaning comes through being a sports fan, you've got lots of options. If you think meaning comes through reading 19th century English novels, you can find book clubs and you can pick and choose. You can go to that soup kitchen and you can get that dopamine hit. If you don't get the dopamine hit, then you can just go on to the next thing.
It seems like it's not that there aren't resources for you to draw on. Maybe this just ties it back into that first objection to liberalism and meaning where there's not the imposition, there is not someone telling you this is the one. If there is, like you were raised in a particular religious faith or a particular community, there's always at the back of your mind an escape option. You can always say, "Actually, this isn't working for me. I want to try something else," which then maybe makes the connection to this source of meaning more tenuous.
I guess it reminds me of how often when I read, say, a Josh Hawley talking about the breakdown of sources of meaning in America, how often it doesn't seem to describe an America that I recognize. It seems to describe this America where people are just trapped in these, it looks like something from the Mad Max films and not the parts where there's the weird cults that have taken over an area, but the vast expanses in between where it's just you're wandering by yourself with nothing and nobody. It would be awfully hard to find meaning in those areas.
We just have an overwhelming amount of things telling us this is what meaning is. This is the Marxist objection to liberalism, is that commodification and late-stage capitalism have turned everything into just ephemeral products that are constantly telling us, "This is the thing that's going to give you meaning. Buy me.” No, now a week later, "This is the thing that's going to give you meaning. Buy me." There's so many options.
It just seems like if you want to find meaning, it's out there for you.
Akiva: Yes. I'm inclined to agree. I think there's two things going on. I think there's the people are afraid that you won't choose the right thing and they're very confident that they know what the right thing is. Usually it's some religious faith or some nationalistic cause. They think that the only way that people can really feel fulfilled or be fulfilled … those people—I think this goes back to your point about the small things—are fundamentally skeptical of ordinary life. They think life has to be grand and triumphant and triumphalist. There needs to be this kind of mythic overtures to everything where everything that you're doing is part of some larger, powerful because. There's great honor and glory associated with it. To me, that's just an inability to draw value from ordinary life.
Ultimately can be quite dangerous, I think. Napoleon famously called the British a nation of shopkeepers in a derisive way. I find this very funny, but also very insightful because what he's saying is that there's fundamentally a lack of value in just providing for your family and going about the business of your day. That in order for your life to be valuable, you have to kill people on the battlefield. That's the only way your life can be valuable, is to go to war.
It's this fundamental mythology. People who don't live in real life in some sense, they live in mythology land, where the only way that life can be meaningful is if we lose the ordinary things of our lives and we self-transcend into something where we're no longer really people. We're these characters in a play. We're not really choosing for ourselves, but we're driven by the nation or by fate into some grand drama. I think there's that problem, which is that there's a fundamental lack of vision about the different kinds of meanings that can occur.
As you said, I think there's also a paradox of choice problem and a problem of ephemerality. There is a difficulty in a large capitalist society where you're being sold stuff all the time to figure out what it is that will actually give you value on a permanent basis. There's a lot of hucksterism, right? Now, I think that is preferable to a society where we're being forced to participate in things. Deirdre McCloskey, the economic historian, likes to remind people that it's vastly preferable to be sweet-talked into something, to be persuaded into something than it is to be forced into something.
For most of human history, what it meant to participate in common life was to be forced into something. For all the complaining about consumerism, it is better to try to have people convince you with a commercial than it is to say that you have to at the point of a sword. That being said, there is a lot of crap in the world. There's a lot of short-term answers to people's problems. There's a lot of stuff promising that you'll be happier.
Some of this is about cultivating the right habits. I think turning to sources of wisdom that have a deeper sense of what people need psychologically in order to be happy. I like to remind myself a lot every time I see a commercial of the saying from the Talmud, which is, who is the happy man? The man who is happy with what he has, or is satisfied with what he has. It's a quasi-Buddhist idea where it's about really getting satisfaction from what you already have before you start going after other things. It's not an ascetic claim, but it is a way of trying to entreat you to appreciate what's already in your power and in your control and what you have access to. That way you're not constantly dreaming for the grass that's greener on the other side.
Yeah, I think there are three problems. I think there's this idea that they know what's good for us. Not only do they know what's good for us, but that vision of goodness has to be this grand mythic thing that doesn't really exist. Then I think there's a separate problem of learning how to invest in the things that are lasting and not ephemeral.
Aaron: How much of these objections are similar to the question I asked at the beginning about how much they were really about secularism versus liberalism? How much are they about status versus strictly meaning? I think about this in the context of, as you said, how many people seem to believe that there should be a mythic quality to life. You see this a lot in the alt-right toxic masculinity spaces of a very specific conception of what it means to be masculine and a hatred of the men who don't embody that. What's often interesting in those shrill critiques is that the men that they're objecting to, it's not just that those men maybe don't have as big of chins as these people imagine themselves to have, but that those men are actually, in our contemporary liberal society, higher status than them. They're more successful in the marketplace. They might have more education. They're the kinds of people who tend to be more celebrated in the media. They're the leaders of corporations and so on. The kinds of men who these people, the toxic masculinity version, have become lower status than at least at one time they were perceived to be.
It seems like a lot of this is simply, "I am going to not just affix meaning to a certain vision of the way that society should operate and certain identities within it, but then imagine myself to be a member of those identities that would be higher status in that conception." Feminism has meant that men are lower status now, and the problem now is that the family has fallen apart and we don't have meaning that way. Men need to find, reestablish meaning as head of household. Women need to reestablish meaning as stay-at-home moms. That's coming from people who would, if that world were achieved, at least imagine themselves to be higher status than they are now.
Akiva: Yes, I think there's something to that. I think there is—well, there's two things going on. One is that there are ways of being and lifestyles that are no longer our cultural focal point. The nuclear family and the white picket fence lifestyle no longer suits many people. Visions of men and women where men are these breadwinners and are tough and don't talk about their feelings and all that stuff are going out of style.
We're slowly going through what many sociologists are saying is a feminization of society in which people are more comfortable being soft and talking about their feelings and using words instead of force. That's part of the progress of what the sociologist Nobert Elias called the civilizing process. I think as ways of being and lifestyles and identities that are founded on these older understandings of how to be, that are founded on strict gender roles and heteronormative ways of sexual expression and so on, or based on Christian social codes.
As that stuff fades out, those people who are part of that culture perceive themselves to be lower status and they feel like they no longer matter. Because in some sense, they don't matter as much as they did in the sense that they don't have cultural hegemony. Of course, they can still be traditional men and have traditional wives and all that stuff, but they're not going to be at the top of society and they're not going to necessarily be celebrated for the way that they choose to live their lives by society at large. They're going to have to derive satisfaction simply from doing it because they want to do it. Even their traditionalism is going to have to be a autonomous, self-directed thing. It's going to have to be a liberal traditionalism rather than illiberal traditionalism.
That's what I always find funny about the trad phenomenon of people who want to be trad wives or men who want to be like traditional heads of households, is that they'll say, well—especially the women will say, "Well, we want to be traditional, but I chose to be traditional," which is a funny paradox. I think these are people who are wrestling with the fact that their lifestyle is no longer at the center of culture and realize that there's a reason it's no longer the center of culture because it is unequal and because it doesn't allow for liberty and so on.
Part of them, I think, maybe recognizes that there are good reasons for that, but also at the same time feels a sense of great existential unease because they don't know who they are if their vision of life is not being universally accepted. Their identity, and I think we talked about this last time, their identity is founded on everyone else sharing their identity and on their identity being at the center of culture. That can create a big crisis for people. I think that's true in terms of them not feeling having the status they used to have, but it's also not just a question of status. It's the general sense that their way of life is sort of dying out or is becoming more marginal.
Aaron: Yes, I think that's a critical point, is that as with the identity, feeling more authentic to people when it's widely shared or compelled. This gets back to the big versus small. Meaning also can feel more meaningful if it is where other people find meaning at the same time. I was thinking about that as you had mentioned the Napoleon line about nation of shopkeepers. When we look around at … the only time I ever see television commercials is when I'm watching football games. Those are filled with commercials that are very much about how meaningful a certain typically rural working class life is where you're lifting bales of hay into the back of your new Ford pickup truck at sundown. It's small, right? This is not like you're part of something huge, except elements of like, this is what America is, and therefore you're part of America. It is very much like immediate work, family, just not big and grandiose lives. It's a smaller form of meaning, but it's also very much framed as, this is the authentically American thing.
I think a lot of the objection is we're not marching off to war. I can find ways to have a meaningful life that's not like being a niece. That sort of lifting bales of hay into pickup trucks is really only meaningful if it is representative of the broader America. As soon as it's not, as soon as the broader America is represented by sitcoms with diverse characters, and effete college professors, and music that's not singing about love of country, then those little meaningful things are no longer meaningful.
Akiva: It's interesting that there's really two moves in the anti-liberal meaning critique. One is that we are too small, and we need to go big. We're too concerned with those ordinary, mundane, what they would characterize selfish, self-interested, shopkeeping, regular, my life, my interests versus something big and grand. On the other hand, there's this turn to simplicity in a world that's increasingly complicated.
In a way, they're connected, because the mythology of the big and grand is simple in its own way. There's the good guys, and there's the bad guys. There's the heroes, and there's the villains. There's the glorious men, protecting the tenderhearted women. Everyone has a very clear role. It's not a complicated story. What happens then is that the small things become mythical as well. All of it returns to the world of myth, where even the small things have to be grand and self-sacrificing, even when they're profoundly self-interested, and self-focused, and me with my little farm. There's an interesting, constant need to mythologize and to simplify in a world that is very complicated.
I think to want to recreate—this is something Friedrich Hayek talked a lot about—the idea that we live in what he called cosmos and taxis. Cosmos is the big, great, grand world of impersonal exchange, and government, and impersonal rules, and abstract processes, and mechanization, and not artisanal goods and all that stuff. Taxis is the small, local, intimate relationships.
There's a challenge because we're evolutionarily designed to want to exist within simple, easy to understand, local relationships where there's a certain number of people, and that's everyone that we know, but we live in a world that is not like that is much more complicated, that has lots of strangers that we have to cooperate with on a daily basis. There's an impulse to try and want to recreate and imagine somehow that we can get back to some reality where it was less complicated. I think there's just a great desire for that.
Aaron: It is the case that going through life feeling like life, the universe, and everything are meaningless is psychologically scary for people. The cosmic horror of a writer like H.P. Lovecraft is ultimately just about the scariness of a universe that not only doesn't have meaning itself but doesn't seem to care at all about the meaninglessness of our own lives. The horror is in discovering that, right? There's like this latches on to something that is deep-seated. That doesn't mean that we should undo liberalism because the alternatives that we've discussed, the illiberal alternatives on offer of nationalism or centralized and domineering religion or enforced hierarchies are not only not desirable for a whole set of reasons, but also failures of finding meaning for people. Because what they are is helping some people feel like they've found meaning at the expense of a whole bunch of other people. The only reason it looks uniform and meaningful across the board is because all those voices who are losing out in this have been silenced through various means.
This is why like the mid-century consensus of everything seemed great in the 1950s or reviews—I was watching a BBC crime drama that was set in the 50s in a small village. I was reading reviews online and the show brings up race issues and the problems of gay characters who—this is a crime in England at the time. Reading reviews, one-star reviews on IMDb and people being like, "I don't understand why they're injecting this stuff into this 50s village because these weren't concerns people had in the 1950s." It was like, "Well, they were, but it was just those voices were being excluded," right? That idyllic version of it excludes the meaning of minorities and LGBT people and so on. We don't want to go to that. We don't want to undo liberalism because it will fail both in terms of the justness of the system and actually as a source of meaning.
This strain of discontent because of a sense that liberalism doesn't provide meaning is nonetheless quite powerful within liberal societies and can, in some cases, often through right-wing populist movements, rise to take a considerable amount of power on promises that like you will find meaning through me, the strongman leader who will force people to respect you again and place your interests first and so on.
How do we deal with that as liberals who want to maintain liberalism, not just in terms of a set of institutions, but as a ability for people to find their own meaning and chase what's meaningful to them, even uniquely to them? How do we address those concerns without undoing everything that makes liberalism meaningful?
Akiva: It's a big question. I think we need to—and I'm at the risk of being somewhat essentialist about humanity here. I think humanity is a very tribal species. We're a very intimately ordered species where we really focus on our meaning comes from the people we know and the close relationships with that we have. We're not good at functioning in a big complicated world, as I said, where we have to do a lot of anonymous, impersonal transacting. I think we need to find a way to make our intimacy feel—that urge for intimacy and that urge for meaning and that urge to avoid alienation feel satisfied while at the same time learning how to cooperate in this large impersonal system. To some extent, this is about useful mythologies or what the historian Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities,” where nations aren't really real. They come from the imposition of some kingdom that then conquers all the other kingdoms and then creates a story about how we're all French or we're all German and so on. I think we need better stories. We need better myths, for want of a better word, about what it means to be liberal that people can buy into.
I am not fond of saying this, but to some extent, it means we need to try and adapt what are fundamentally illiberal phenomenons for our own purposes. I don't know that people will ever be non-nationalistic, but what we can do is say that let's let our version of nationalism be the most inclusive, the most non-specific, the most civic, and the least ethnic, the least religious, the least particularist that we can, and work with the impulses that people have without surrendering to them.
I think that's really the biggest challenge for liberals is that human beings are not naturally liberals. Human beings became liberals through a very long process of cultural and social evolution. What we need to do is keep nudging people in towards being liberals using the—instead of chastising them for not living up to our standard, our liberal vision of the good, we need to try and work with them to try and find as much crossover between liberalism and their own attachments as we possibly can.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reimagining Liberty. If you like the show and want to support it, head to reimaginingliberty.com to learn more. You'll get early access to all my essays, as well as be able to join the Reimagining Liberty Discord community and book club. That's reimaginingliberty.com or look for the link in the show notes. Talk to you soon.
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