Is the world getting better or worse? It’s an important question, since the value of current social policy depends on the answer.
Ordinary people tend to see current tendencies as a problem, but opinion leaders are more likely to discredit the past in favor of youth, novelty, and progress. With that in mind, mainstream public discussion doesn’t pay much attention to complaints about basic issues. The official story is that decline is an optical illusion. Everyone gets older, memory is selective, things we love disappear, and new things seem less impressive than they once did. So we see the past through rose-tinted glasses.
The story has some points in its favor. In the simplest material sense, life seems to be getting better for most people. Medicine is more effective, and people are living longer. Also, incomes have mostly risen in recent decades, notably in places like China and India that were subject to actual famine within living memory. There are still wars, crimes, and social upheavals, but on the whole fewer people are dying violently than in the recent past.
Such things matter a great deal. They’re not the whole story, though, since man does not live by bread alone. When immediate physical threats like starvation and violent death recede to the background—as they usually do for most people—other concerns, such as human relations, come to the fore. Even material well-being becomes mostly comparative, so if people are as well off as their friends, neighbors, and relatives they’re not likely to feel seriously deprived.
The official line is that with regard to human relations life has also become better, because government has taken responsibility for them. Apart from their involvement in education, childcare, and public health, which is now broadly construed to include social and psychological well-being, governments have established agencies, often at the cabinet level, for the promotion of social tolerance and inclusion. These agencies enforce comprehensive regulatory schemes designed to prevent division and resentment. Examples include initiatives intended to fight discrimination, promote acceptance, prevent bullying, and so on.
So it seems that today we take intangible aspects of the good life very seriously, and have established a way of dealing with them that is organized on industrial lines, backed by public resources and authority, and guided by what is thought the best available expertise. Such efforts, together with government promotion of material safety and well-being, are thought capable of delivering a complete good life to each of us. They enable us to pursue our individual preferences with the material and psychological support of others, and the satisfaction of preferences, whatever they may be, is now considered the definitive summum bonum.
But how can we decide whether such views are correct? We could, of course, ask those thought to know better, and we know what they will say. Among influential people no basic problem with the approach now established can be taken seriously, since that approach corresponds so thoroughly to the outlook of the expert and media types who design it, operate it, and tell us about it, and who also define for themselves and others what is rational and real. We’ve made real progress, we’ll be told, and remaining problems must be treated as growing pains or evidence that more needs to be done on the same lines. If there is friction among groups, then diversity must be increased and groups brought into ever closer contact. If there is violence against women, then we must eradicate social patterns that accept that the sexes are different and have particular obligations to each other.
Ordinary people are in no position to raise questions. They aren’t experts, and any resistance on their part could only reflect fear, ignorance, rigidity, and bigotry. It may be necessary to take bitter clingers into account as a social problem, but their views can’t be taken seriously on their own terms. Whatever the current problems, nostalgia for a past that was racist, sexist, heteronormative, and religiously intolerant is considered utterly out of place.
Still, there is some reason to doubt the official story. Accepting it at face value is like accepting Bill Gates as our guide to computer operating systems. He’s intelligent and knows a lot, but the same could be said of many people who don’t agree with him, and his views reflect a certain amount of self-interest and professional deformation.
On the face of it, it would seem that there are fundamental problems with an operating system for human society, liberalism, that treats man as a pure creature of appetite and calculation, and abolishes the authority of every institution other than money, certified expertise, and government bureaucracy. Most readers can think of particular problems that result from such a system. A difficulty though is that the problems can’t be put together, evaluated, and acted on in any serious way if the system itself remains beyond ultimate question because there is no settled position outside it from which a critique can be developed, articulated, and asserted. Without such a position it becomes impossible to deal with overall questions like whether life is becoming better or worse.
The normal centers for the development and maintenance of independent views are independent institutions: the family, the Church, local and regional communities, cultural and moral tradition. To be grounded in such settings is to be capable of a certain independence of thought. The problem is that our current liberal regime wants to do away with all of them, or at least reduce them to purely private and sentimental attachments, because it believes that their independence and authority stand in the way of systematic promotion of rationality and justice. If centralized power needs a check, the theory is that it will come from the sovereign individual (who increasingly lacks any basis for independence), and from institutions such as the media, the universities, and the judiciary that are integrated with the regime.
That’s not likely to work. It seems clear that an intelligent check on the liberal regime requires the presence of an independent institution with its own source of knowledge and authority that is able to function and govern itself using its own resources. In other words, it requires a perfect society other than the state. The only example of such a society is the Church. In the West it has been the Church, cultural tradition, and organizational practicalities that have limited the power of secular authorities. The weakening of cultural tradition, the ever-greater power in the hands of secular authorities, and their ever-greater ambition to remake the world and everything in it, makes the Church’s independent and critical role indispensible for human freedom and dignity.
The primary reason for attachment to the Church is that through her we come to know God. A secondary reason, but one of ever greater importance, is that she is the only real obstacle to the combination of anarchy and totalitarianism toward which our current social and political regime tends. Without her we are stuck in a world in which everything is considered a social construction. Such a world will either fall apart or attempt to maintain order on a principle very much like Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”). Either way, humanity loses. Today more than ever, the only true humanism is in the Church.
Editor’s note: The image above portrays Henri de La Rochejaquelein who led the revolt against the French Revolutionary army in the Vendee (1793-1796). The symbol of the resistance was the Sacred Heart along with the slogan “God is the King.” It was painted by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin in 1817.