A Note on Pahman and Liberalism

I assure you: the new theme of Opus Publicum is not Dylan Pahman. However, when one man is wrong about so much and so often, it’s difficult not to say something. Following up on his misguided and ill-reasoned attack on Pope Francis, Pahman now turns his sights to the so-called Benedict Option and those who support it. While I harbor my own reservations concerning the “Options” phenomenon, I do believe their various proponents have their instincts in the right place, at least as far as rejecting late-style liberalism is concerned. Pahman, an Actonite to the core, disagrees. Liberalism isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative, or so Pahman believes. The case he makes for this rickety conclusion is anything but convincing.

According to Pahman, the push to reject liberalism is both wrongheaded and premature because while things aren’t perfect, they’re not that bad either. For instance, Pahman comments that while the Supreme Court may have gone a step too far with its same-sex marriage jurisprudence, we’re only a year removed from that same court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the one which allegedly upheld the principle of libertas religionis. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that Pahman is a very good student of Supreme Court history. Otherwise he would know just how precarious Hobby Lobby’s legal position is. Having been decided by a mere 5-4 majority, a small shift in the Court’s makeup could spell the decision’s end. After all, the Court has radically shifted on several issues in short order, including the right of states to outlaw homosexual sodomy and apply the death penalty to certain classes of juvenile offenders. The Court’s direction over the past several decades has been decidedly “progressive” and there’s no good reason to believe that will change anytime soon, if ever.

Pahman next tries to mount a tepid consequetialist defense of liberalism, albeit without much in the way of hard data. For Pahman, liberalism provides breathing space for multiple positions and ideologies, though he fails to mention that liberalism provides no clear way to distinguish between them. Truth and error hold hands in a liberal order and so long as the economy is expanding and people have unfettered access to more “stuff,” all is well. Moreover, Pahman rejects the idea that there is a monolithic liberalism while holding to the observation that “we are all liberals now.” Maybe. As early as 1932, during his review of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, Leo Strauss observed that we all live under the horizon of liberal thought and that even an anti-liberal like Schmitt couldn’t help but freight his ostensibly anti-liberal argument with liberal categories. Strauss believed it was still possible to find a horizon beyond liberalism, but it required returning to ancient and medieval philosophy.

And is that not what the “Options” proponents are trying to do? Whether it’s through the thought of St. Benedict or the missionary life of St. Dominic, the recent wave of anti-liberalists are attempting to find a horizon beyond liberalism, rooted in pre-modern thought, though not entirely detached from (post)modernity either. Whether that is a strength or weakness is a matter to consider another day. Pahman doesn’t seem interested in reflecting on what the “Options” proponents are actually for. Instead, he’s content with a liberal ordo that makes no exacting moral demands and, in return for quietism, provides a bloodless existence filled to the brim with comfort, distractions, entertainment, and so forth (cf. Carl Schmitt).