Starting roughly from the mess we all admit we are in, John Gray, fellow in politics at Jesus College, Oxford University, subtly, valiantly, and sometimes brilliantly addresses all of the major problems facing liberal democratic society in this collection of four essays written during the past decade. Avowedly conservative in a lineage that links him with Michael Oakeshott (the greatest conservative theorist of our time, he thinks), F.A. Hayek, eventually with Edmund Burke, and, more tenuously, with Thomas Hobbes, Gray comes off somewhat Malthusian and more Tory than Whig.
But he seems unhappy about this and, in truth, any classification is misleading. Rather, Gray comes off sui generis as he distances himself from all known contemporary conservative positions–decrying the Thatcher and Reagan governments as failures, for instance–in a swing that may take him so far Right as to come out Left. But such terminology is itself flawed if we engage in non-ideological discourse.
As genre this book–if it is a book and not merely a disjointed collection–is not high but middle-range political theory (as the author himself directly says), and it is primarily political economy and policy, composed of four essays. Much of the analysis is oriented toward Britain rather than America or elsewhere.
The range of topics considered, at first, lead one to imagine the author might chart a path anticipated after 1989 and 1991 by those ready to rejoice that we won: “the spectacular collapse of the Soviet system, followed shortly by that of Swedish Social Democracy, when taken in the contest of a global movement toward privatization and marketization of economic life and the political impotence of all the traditional parties of the Left, encouraged among supporters and members of the New Right the triumphalist belief that their political hegemony was irreversible, and that it expressed an intellectual triumph that was no less decisive.” In keeping with the dismal science’s long tradition, Dr. Gray is here to tell us it ain’t so. Every silver lining has a cloud.
To begin with there is simplistic hubris, a key element in the Right’s critique of Marxian socialism’s claims to being on the road to the perfection of man and the world, that had crept into the misconception of laissez faire generally, and of the market specifically, as the real engine of human perfection. But human institutions, like man himself, remain forever imperfect and the market is no more a panacea for human ills than are Marxism-Leninism and the command economy. The Right has failed to take its own cardinal lesson to heart. A similar kind of perfectionism is to be observed at work elsewhere among the favorite shibboleths of the Right.
The minimal state is one of these, a utopian pipedream altogether impossible to be established or if established adequate to the pressures of modern post-industrial society. The Thatcher-Reagan conservative decade is to the point, with the results being the opposite of the goals: more government, more expenditure to support government, more legislation, and vastly greater national debt than ever before. The modern world and contemporary civil society simply demand more than a minimal state concerned primarily (if not exclusively) with a Hobbesian internal peace and defense against external enemies.
Then there is the individual and individualism. For three-fourths of this book the free and responsible individual–the autonomous person–stands as the standard bearer of Gray’s conservatism with many telling encomia to him included in the text. Human reality itself is nothing more nor less than “that of distinct individuals, pursuing disparate and sometimes incommensurate ends, whose satisfactions cannot be weighed or ranked on any single measure.” Talk of “general welfare” is a figment and a fallacy, since it is individuals and their autonomy that must be at the center of policy considerations. Such autonomy premises the satiability of basic needs as a condition of “human flourishing.” Autonomy implies both the market and the welfare state, to the end of meeting the “basic needs” of the entire population of a civil society that can sustain free government. It is this ethical consideration which is the primary justification for the market no less than of the welfare state: “what alone matters in political morality,” Gray writes, is “the well-being of individuals.”
What is implied, he insists, is not egalitarianism, nor market socialism (a “blind alley” and an “absurdity”) but an “enabling welfare state” capable of raising the underclass into full membership in civil society by creating individual autonomy and renewing the voluntarist community now teetering on the brink of disintegration and collapse. The controlling aim of policy must be the “autonomous pursuit of the good life” by all members of society.
In the final essay, however, the “autonomous chooser” who stood at the center of previous considerations loses place, and in Gray versus Gray our author becomes his own harshest critic: “The ultimate locus of value in the human world is not, therefore, in individual choices but in forms of life. This should lead us to qualify, even to abandon, the ideal of the autonomous chooser (which I have myself elsewhere endorsed) in favor of the recognition that the good life for humans–as for many kindred animal species–necessarily presupposes embeddedness in communities.... [I]t is not individual rights but often forms of life that need most protection, if only because it is upon them that individual well-being ultimately depends.” The Green environmental imperatives of Gaia are in and rights, justice, progress, individualism, minimal government, in varying degrees, are out.
Consistency is not everything, and the author’s candor in reversing field is engaging. But exactly what happens to our autonomous individual as he now is immersed in the community as an ensemble of social relationships? Does he retain personal integrity even though he is no longer autonomous?
The value and strength of Gray’s presentation are undeniable as a complex critique of much social policy, of the rationalistic assumptions of the Enlightenment’s penchant for systems, and of the related scientism of the positivists as key ingredients in New Right thinking. Strange as it sounds at first hearing, the argument, in final analysis, is very Burkean and Humean as rooting in historical experience the abstractions often bandied about in so-called conservative discourse.
This “cultural” foundation, however, is only vaguely referenced in Gray’s own presentation. Its embarrassing specifics are left aside in favor of an equally abstract appeal to “communities.” The address of this problem would open the door to the awkward problem of exceptionalism, since all communities and cultures do not equally yield liberal results, e.g. the experience of the dignity of every human person and of personal good or happiness (in a hierarchy from the material to the divine) as the end of governments grounded in consent and serving justice.
The question of the relative civilizational merits of particular communities leads, perhaps inexorably, in the direction of thorny problems of philosophical universals and toward a theory of human reality that is by design left aside in the volume before us. Could it be that Christianity, Western civilization, and Anglo-American constitutionalism have some essential pertinence to modern liberal democracy, individual liberty, and human flourishing? What if they did?