Liberal agnosticism about the good life has some compelling historical reasons behind it. It is a mind-set that was consciously cultivated as an antidote to the religious wars of centuries ago, when people slaughtered one another over ultimate differences. After World War II, revulsion with totalitarian regimes of the right and left made us redouble our liberal commitment to neutrality. But this stance is maladaptive in the context of twenty-first century capitalism because, if you live in the West and aren’t caught up in battles between Sunnis and Shiites, for example, and if we also put aside the risk of extraordinary lethal events like terrorist attacks in Western countries, then the everyday threats to your well-being no longer come from an ideological rival or a theological threat to the liberal secular order. They are native to that order.
…If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents. We are therefore unable to offer any rationale for regulation that would go beyond narrow economic considerations. We take the “preferences” of the individual to be sacred, the mysterious welling up of his authentic self, and therefore unavailable for rational scrutiny. The fact that these preferences are the object of billion-dollar, scientifically informed efforts of manipulation doesn’t square with the picture of the choosing self assumed in the idea of a “free market”. It is a fact without a noisy partisan, so our attention is easily diverted from it. Further, by keeping his gaze away from such facts, the liberal/libertarian keeps his own soul pure, lest he commit the sin of recommending to others some substantive ideal, one that will necessarily be controversial. But outside his garden wall there are wolves preying on the townspeople. In our current historical circumstances, his liberal purity amounts to a lack of public-spiritedness.
This excerpt, I feel it’s fair to say, sums up Crawford’s message in a nutshell. (There are many other thought-provoking parts in this book, some of which I’ll get to in the coming days.) I am on record as having raised a skeptical eyebrow at such assertions before, but in this case, I find myself more open to giving Crawford’s perspective as charitable a hearing as I can, partially because I sympathize with and trust his overall approach. I think he is honestly trying to envision what, if anything, can be done to protect fellow citizens from the predations of neoliberalism and its armies of highly-trained experts who utilize the most sophisticated psychological and advertising techniques to manipulate our wants and needs without our awareness. So, as a thought experiment, I find myself pretending I’m a bodhisattva, having attained comfort and security, and now I want to return to this fallen world and help as many others as I can. Or pretending I’m an ancient Greek, out for a stroll around the Agora, only to find myself accosted by some pug-faced man named Socrates wanting to know what my idea of the good life would entail. Barring some unreal Jacobin fantasy of total social re-engineering, what should people do to avoid living the isolated, directionless, debt-ridden lives that pervade so much of society today?