Liberalism and Means without an End

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, December 18

In an intellectual tradition that can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, we have made means supreme and have created a society with no discernible end. Our means serve no end in particular but every end in general and thus means become the end in themselves: a futile and endless endeavor.

Hobbes believed it erroneous to assume that man had any purpose beyond his own survival and comfort. Perhaps some greater purpose existed but Hobbes thought it was not apparent as evidenced by constant disagreement between men over that purpose. If men could not agree on their own end, thought Hobbes, then society had no legitimacy in pursuing one end over another as such controversy inevitably led to violence. All the state could do was assure men the free pursuit of that basic purpose of survival and comfort. In Hobbes’ worldview the controversial values of religion and morality and its ultimate end of salvation were to be replaced with the valueless pursuit of prosperity. Society was not meant to aid man in achieving salvation in the next life but to meet his physical needs and wants on this earth.

However, jumping forward to the 20th century, intellectual Ludwig von Mises observed that man’s wants can never be satisfied; he will never be truly comfortable. He noted that with each new innovation and increase in prosperity the desires of man also expanded. According to Mises, no matter how prosperous we become we will always desire more – a fact readily apparent in every materialist society. Things do not satisfy men’s souls. To Mises, however, this was an argument in favor of increasing prosperity and, indeed, one of Mises’ primary concerns was how to maximize wealth. If people want more then the function of the market is to meet those wants and no one should interfere with that. Never mind that the market will always fail to provide “enough” no matter how prosperous its economy becomes. Like Hobbes before him, Mises believed that prosperity was the only legitimate end of society. However, as Mises himself observed it is an end which can never be reached. We will never have enough.

Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, like his mentor, Mises, and Hobbes centuries earlier, also asserted that the state should not attempt to realize any conception of higher human purpose because to do so would violate the market of the liberal society. The market, which is to say private economic activity, cannot be subjugated to higher human purpose. But the market is not an end in itself. It is a mere means. The market is the mechanism of production and exchange by which we create and mediate wealth. Then, to Hayek, like Mises, it is this creation of wealth that reigns supreme and any “personal” belief about any higher human purpose must be subordinate to it. To Hayek this was the mark of what he called the “Great Society.” Hayek’s Great Society is distinguished from smaller communities by what he called the absence of “unity of purpose.” This is what made society great: every man could pursue his own purpose and no purpose could be subject to another under the law: it was the means of production and not shared ends that tied men together.

Mises’ disciples are poor illustrators and even worse comedians

The ultimate end of the liberalism of Hobbes, Mises, Hayek and a thousand other progressives is to expand the means of society necessary to maximize prosperity so that every man may be better equipped, at least materially, to pursue his own personal ends individually and independent of the rest of society. Any social end beyond this is anathema. No end may be declared “better” and therefore worth social pursuit over other ends. Thus, disciples of Mises, in carrying the liberal logic to its end, declare that male chauvinist pigs, drug pushers, blackmailers, dishonest cops, counterfeiters, and non-contributors to charity (to name a few) are not only justified in their actions but are heroes for pursuing their own selfish interests in the face of social moral “oppression.”

However, by subjecting ends to means, by declaring means supreme and ends as something that doesn’t matter beyond “personal” preference we are creating a meaningless society. Is a society which is free to pursue any end but is not allowed to place any one end above another really free? After all, is it not the quality of our ends and not the efficiency of our means that really matter? What worth is it to be a mastermind if it means being a criminal mastermind? What worth is it being rich without an appropriate end to direct those riches? Isn’t physical wealth without a good end to direct its use a poverty?

The truth is that we cannot pursue whatever purpose we like even in Hobbes’ Leviathan or Hayek’s Great Society. Even the liberal state admits that some ends are bad even if it cannot admit that some are good. Thus, men are constrained in their purposes: he cannot steal, he cannot murder, and he cannot commit fraud. Such limits alone, however, are insolvent. If the state can tell a man that he cannot do something because it is evil it should also tell him that he can do something because it is good. “Do no evil” can only serve the higher calling to “do good.” Otherwise, what’s the point?

The liberalism that began with Hobbes sought to liberate man from the conflict of religion in society. Men fought and died for salvation. Therefore, salvation had to go. Ultimately, liberalism seeks to sever man from God. In the liberal society men may pray because they believe in God and eternal life and men may desecrate the Body of Christ because they believe it’s just a cracker and there’s nothing after death anyway. In the liberal society it does not matter which you choose so long as you choose. Do you feel like you’re “expressing yourself”? That’s all that matters. What does not matter is whether there is a God and life after death or no God and nothing to follow our short, brutal life except the horror of nonexistence. Both are perfectly valid, satisfying stances.

Except that is insanity. If there is no God then the pursuit of the eternal is in vain and men waste their short lives on a specter. If there is a God then the stakes are astronomically higher. The things of this earth are but dust and every man should fervently tend to his own soul lest he be lost forever. For society to treat the position of the unbeliever as equally valid and desirable in the name of plurality becomes a repugnant act of almost incomprehensible callousness as it abandons him to eternal damnation. The one end above all others that society must concern itself with is not material wants or even needs but salvation. If it is bad to let a man die of hunger it is infinitely worse to let him die of sin. Mercy and charity demand that we tend to the salvation of others.

Our society must boldly seek the truth in regards to God and salvation or we can never know towards what ends we must direct ourselves and any means, no matter how efficient, are for nothing. Liberalism is not even capable of acknowledging the question, much less provide an answer.

Christian Ohnimus is a husband and registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He hopes to raise a holy family with the help of his better and more beautiful other half.

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