Mark Lilla and the Third Pillar
... I keep returning to James Poulos’s evocative phrase “the pink police state” in these kind of conversations, because it gets at the friendly amendment that I’d make to Lilla’s thesis: He’s describing two pillars of our present regime, cultural permissiveness and neoliberal economics, but there’s arguably a third pillar that’s more managerial and centralizing and ultimately collectivist, and that’s just as crucial to the underlying architecture. This pillar’s necessary existence is hinted at in his essay — as when Lilla says of our society that “the only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms” and notes that even in a hyper-individualistic culture we aren’t ”now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict).” But I don’t think he goes far enough in recognizing how large this unfreedom can loom, and how much, well, statism — both old-fashioned and newfangled — is ultimately required to enforce “the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties,” to protect the self-determining individual (and the self-determining powerful stakeholder, just as importantly) from the harshest consequences of morally-unconstrained choice, and to regulate and restrain that same self-determination whenever it transgresses the rules of tolerance and diversity.
I’m afraid I don’t have an obvious alternative to “libertarian” that would encompass this third pillar of our present order, and distill the entire structure’s complexity to a single word or phrase. But the third pillar’s heft and importance is too substantial to ignore, and there are all kinds of elements of our age — from “too big to fail” to the Department of Homeland Security, from the design of Obamacare to the nature of our coalition politics, from the political forays of Mark Zuckerberg to the fate of Brendan Eich — that don’t make sense if you can’t sense its shadow, or recognize how big a role it’s likely to play, going forward, in keeping the whole edifice standing up.