It’s true, I’m no fan of George Weigel. But the purpose of this post is not to rehash old arguments. My aim here is modest: I just want to highlight two instances of Weigel’s recent writings that seem startling in their lack of self-awareness.
First, from a few weeks ago:
Underwriting that self-centered (indeed, selfish) concept of freedom is the idea that the human person is just a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is what we mean by “human rights.”
And then more recently:
Shaw’s contention is that Hecker and those of his “Americanist” cast of mind did represent an assimilationist current in U.S. Catholic thought—a tendency to bend over backwards to “fit into” American culture—that eventually made possible Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden… My own view is that the failure of Catholics to infuse American politics with Catholic social doctrine has had a lot more to do with creating Joe Biden & Co. than Isaac Hecker and the nineteenth-century “Americanists.”
First things first: I share Weigel’s disdain for this self-centered approach to freedom. This is predicated on the idea of an “unencumbered self”, defined by Michael Sandel as “a self understood as prior to and independent of its purposes and ends.” What this means, of course, is that such a person is not bound up in any conception of the common good—the idea that the good the community transcends the good of the individual, and cannot simply be disaggregated into the sum of subjective goods.
This is a worldview that implicates both sides of the political spectrum. As I argued in my recent Commonweal essay on the rise of Trump, many on the left do indeed embrace a politics of self-definition and self-determination—what Tony Judt characterized as the “unrestrained freedom to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large.” And I also singled out the furor over transsexual bathrooms as emblematic of this worldview.
But here’s where I part company with Weigel: the political right is just as infatuated with the “unencumbered self” as the political left. Here, freedom is typically heralded as freedom from coercion, predicated on individual autonomy—an ideology stretching from John Locke through modern free market libertarianism. But this is also incompatible with the common good, and for largely the same reasons. It is all part of the post-Enlightenment shift from the common to the individual, from the centrality of the good to the centrality of the right.
But George Weigel never connects these dots. He never seems to realize that the economic system he likes has the same ideological roots as the sexual revolution he hates. And even the way he describes this worldview—a human being mindlessly seeking to satisfy his or her “twitching bundle of desires”—eerily echoes the language used by neoclassical economics to explain human motivation. Specifically, the goal is to satisfy subjective material preferences, and the market is praiseworthy to the extent that it exhausts all voluntary trades that can satisfy these preferences. Is Weigel even aware that this is the foundation upon which neoliberal economics is built?
This is problematic not only because it represents a false view of human nature and human motivation, but because it can actively degrade virtuous practice and impede genuine human flourishing. Putting it simply, if the message sent by society is that traits like selfishness, greed, and materialism are to be valued, then people will start acting this way. This is how social norms are formed. And this is how things start to go wrong, dramatically wrong. But again, Weigel seems oblivious to all of this.
On his second essay: this time he is blaming Catholics for cultural assimilation—not all Catholics, just the Democratic politicians he holds up to opprobrium. But again, where is the consistency? What about the cultural assimilation of leading Catholic Republicans like Gingrich, Santorum, or Ryan? These politicians seem to have found comfortable homes in the American Calvinist culture, wedded to a libertarian mentality that downplays any collective action that might second-guess market outcomes—whether it’s protection of the poor or protection of the planet. Paul Ryan, after all, famously lauded Ayn Rand, and Rick Santorum seems far more fluent in the language of political evangelicalism than traditional Catholicism. None of these speak the same language as Pope Francis on economics. Aren’t they just as assimilated as any of the Democrats Weigel condemns—if not more so?
Ultimately, Weigel laments that American politics has not been infused with Catholic social teaching. I share that lament. But Weigel himself has been one of the main impediments to such an infusion over the past few decades.