My disquiet at liberty without obligation to others
by D.J. Webb
I have made it clear that I view a common culture as vital to any sort of functioning society that can maintain a separate existence to the state. A real society has a specific religious heritage that influences culture and moral values and provides the basis for a society where people know how they should behave—know what sort of behaviour is culturally and anthropologically sanctioned in their community—and thus how to forge sexual and other relationships with other people and bring up children.
I don’t say the religious heritage has to be the scientific truth or the historical truth. Rather, its relevance to society consists in its acceptance over centuries as the foundation of (and, in itself, the expression of) social values. England is a Christian society, and and Christian values have been found over centuries to be a decent and worthy context for the upbringing of children. Without that heritage, the bonds or the bands of society are loosened; people forget how to behave within the family and towards children (as well as to neighbours); and the resultant social chaos is used to justify the intrusion of the state.
One could imagine a society that had lost all worthwhile social values but where the state did not intervene—not a rational or decent society, but merely a grubby and chaotic mélange of humanity, characterised by crime, delinquency, and the preying of the strong on the weak. The Edlington case, the attempted murder of a 9-year-old boy and of his 11-year-old brother by two brothers aged 10 and 12, took place around 30 miles from my home. It summed up for me the post-Christian—actually, post-cultural—nature of the society in which we live, where there are no longer any norms of behaviour.
This sort of thing has grown out of the “permissive society” of the 1970s. What was then viewed as freedom—or even libertarianism—is now more clearly seen as the tossing aside of all obligations to one another. If you are unhappy in marriage, get a divorce! Constant domestic arguments are, after all, bad for the children (or so the argument goes that is constantly advanced by those who appear not to really give a damn about the impact of divorce on the children). Are you sick of having to care for your children and be there every night? Just drop them off at the children’s home then! Tell the social workers you can’t cope! Or hire a babysitter and go clubbing until four in the morning, and leave your six-month old baby in the care of a stranger.
Should you bother getting your children christened? Or taking them to church every week? Is there even a Sunday school in the local area they could attend? Everything now comes down to the line of least resistance—justified by the braying sense of superiority of someone who can only regurgitate BBC propaganda on the absurdity of Christianity and morals. Only losers believe in God and bring their children up in the church. The whole thing is nonsense anyway.
These values possibly make more sense or are less harmful when implemented by the professional middle classes. When imported wholesale by housing estates full of people without gainful employment, the effect on society is disastrous. What seems like freedom—sexual and moral freedom—to the middle classes is merely social decay and brutishness when put into effect by the working classes.
It is becoming clearer to me by the day that a society with no cultural bonds and no anthropological expectations or social obligations placed on its members cannot be a free society. Sure, people do do what they want. But the expectation of rights without duties prevents people from leading good lives. We all want our own rights, and reject the burden of obligations towards others, who, in turn, reject a sense of duty towards us as conflicting with the rights they are asserting for themselves.
Freedom in the libertarian sense conceptualises freedom from state control—not freedom from all social or cultural bonds or obligations. Such obligations are at the heart of the Common Law, which ought to operate without state involvement, in so far as we are dealing with a population that recognises the need for mutual consideration and respect. To claim the Common Law could be the basis of a free society, without state intervention, in a society that lacks the concept of mutual consideration and duty towards others is simply to make a meaningless statement.
In the final analysis, freedom is based on bonds of social obligation, bonds that ought to be strong enough not to require state intervention and strong enough to withstand bureaucratic demands to intervene. I don’t see the relevance of libertarianism to a society that has lost its common culture and agreed morality. Consequently, the confusion of libertarianism—support for a free society—with individualism needs to be challenged. Individualism is not the basis of English Common Law, and can only be relevant to a hermit. When individualism is adopted as the moral code of a society, it turns a nation into a group of individuals with no cultural connections with one another, and thus greater direct bonds with the state, which then performs the role of “parent”.
What we should be seeking is not individualism, but rather a free civil society that is not directed by the state. This can only come about where people are not individuals as such, but largely members of families functioning in line with clear social norms. The unit of society is therefore, not individuals, but families, and freedom is only imaginable on that basis. “Permissiveness” reflects the latitude given to individual behaviour within an overarching structure of state control, which libertarians ought to be seeking to avoid.
I would argue that, at a minimum, this means that relationships should be worked at where there are children, and should not be seen as dissoluble by the state. It may be that failing to maintain non-reproductive relationships has fewer social consequences. However, even then, while not prying into behaviour behind closed doors, we should seek to ensure that public behaviour reflects the need for decorum and the primacy of the family arrangement in social organisation. The Christian church should be required to adhere to the New Testament’s teachings; should have a central position on the school curriculum; and public respect for the Established Church should be cultivated as a matter of public policy.
A certain amount of hypocrisy is healthy. If you suspect your vicar is having a relationship with the verger, simply do not ask. If he adheres to the teachings of the Church when addressing the faithful from the pulpit, there is nothing to gain from “outing” his private behaviour. If you have “fallen out of love” with your spouse, stay together for the sake of the children, and do whatever you need to do to keep up appearances. If prostitutes are thought to frequent a sauna, let them be–far better that they ply their trade there than on the streets. And if their customers go home to their wives at the end of the day, society continues to function well. Given that religion is not really “divinely revealed”, these things are harmless, and only become harmful once the lives of children begin to be turned upside down by divorce.
There is indeed a certain irony in the fact that a free society is only possible where social limits on behaviour are keenly felt without state imposition. Libertarians should not claim that freedom means owing nothing to anyone else and showing no concern for the interests of others. It is quite the reverse: only by bearing in mind the need for social bonds can we eliminate the need for the state to start laying down the law.