The province of Québec is possibly the most secularized jurisdiction in North America, yet Montreal’s McGill University boasts a dissident from the apparent post-christian consensus that took over that province during the Révolution tranquille of half a century ago. He is Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought in the Faculty of Religious Studies at one of Canada’s premier universities.
The January-February issue of Touchstone carries an important article by Farrow, The Audacity of the State, whose title is an allusion to Barack Obama’s book and his former pastor’s similarly named sermon. Unlike many of today’s opponents of the most recent stage of liberalism, which I have elsewhere labelled the “choice-enhancement state,” Farrow is unwilling simply to fall back on an earlier, libertarian form of the ideology. This can be seen most clearly in his critique of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:
The power of On Liberty to overturn social and moral and religious conventions arises from Mill’s exciting and flattering suggestion that freedom will lead you into the truth. That iconoclastic gospel from the Romantic period still competes very successfully, tractable as it is to post-modern cynicism, with the older idol-smashing gospel of Jesus, that “the truth will set you free.”
Mill’s gospel takes no account of the creator/creature distinction, or of the fallenness of man. It takes no account of a freedom higher than freedom of choice, and gives no thought to how the truth of our own good will be recognized, or how that good will prove commensurate with the good of others. It is incurably romantic and naively optimistic. Most significantly, it fails to reckon with the fact that, in the absence of an overarching common good, based on a prior truth to which both the individual and the state are subject, the state must become the arbiter of all the competing goods of “free” individuals. It is not the individual who triumphs, then, in the appeal to a freedom that is prior to truth, but the state.
Behind Mill stands Rousseau, of course, whose rather more obvious statism Mill hoped to avoid. The basic premise of On Liberty is drawn from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that “liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not injure another.” And that dictum is in turn drawn from Rousseau, who got it from the Marquis d’Argenson, to whom we actually owe the harm principle: “In the Republic each man is perfectly free in all things that do no harm to others.” Rousseau’s intention in popularizing it was to downplay the obligations imposed by civil society, which he regarded as a corrupting more than a civilizing influence, especially in the form of family and church [emphasis mine].
One’s primary obligations would hereafter be understood as obligations chiefly to oneself, on the one hand, and to the state on the other. That is what the harm principle is really all aboutthe elimination of the oppressive middle term between the individual and the state. This begs the question, however, as to what does or does not harm another, and who will decide that. Both Mill and Rousseau have ideas about that, and one gets glimpses of Mill’s ideas in the final chapters of On Liberty. Only glimpses, mind you, because Mill’s ideas aren’t really very libertarian after all.
Farrow’s astute analysis should be taken to heart by libertarians who think they are critiquing late liberal statism but in reality are doing no more than to facilitate its agenda over the long term.
While we’re on the subject, you might wish to read Farrow’s analysis of the latest chilling action of the government of his home province: The Government of Québec Declares War.