In the Netherlands, a depressed teenager died after seeking euthanasia, and a number of outlets reported earlier this month that she had been euthanized by a clinic that accedes to suicide requests from people suffering from mental illness.
This was false; in fact, the teenager committed suicide at home, starving herself while parents and doctors offered palliative care. And so the media narrative shifted, becoming about the problem of sensationalism and ideologically motivated fake news.
The initial narrative was indeed bad reporting. However, contrary to the tone of some of the correctives, the underlying facts remain shocking even after the correction. It remains shocking that a young woman’s parents and doctors would give up on treating her at 17 and let her kill herself. And it remains shocking that Western nations are normalizing euthanasia for mental illness among otherwise healthy adults.
But are you shocked, or merely troubled? Since the Benelux countries began their experiments with euthanasia, there has been a lot of mainstream media coverage that’s skeptical of the new system — critical, concerned. But concern is not the same as outrage, of the kind that reliably greets policies pursued by governments seen as populist. If Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushes a university out of Hungary, it’s the Crisis of the Liberal Order. If depressed people are euthanized in Belgium, it’s just … troubling, and the only overt outrage is on the religious right.
This difference is, in one sense, understandable, since the populists are seen as challenging the liberal order, while the Benelux legal suicide guidelines are operating within the procedures of liberalism, following the rules and consulting the experts, pushing liberal premises to particularly consistent ends.
But suppose you believe a legal and medical system that colludes in the suicides of the depressed is as grave an evil as any populist policy to date. When such a system emerges as a seemingly organic feature of the liberal order, what then should be your attitude toward liberalism itself? This problem, the possibility that liberalism could through the working of its own principles lead to something truly evil, connects to a somewhat-baffling argument among pundits this past week about whether American conservatism is becoming “post-liberal,” whether the post-President Donald Trump right might leave liberal democracy itself behind.
A lot of this talk is overstated. Just as the argument about “socialism” among Democrats is more about whether to back “Medicare for All” than about whether to go #fullMarxist, many conservatives supposedly debating “post-liberalism” are really just debating the balance between libertarianism and economic populism, not preparing to give up on the Constitution. And both debates are taking place in a context defined more by stalemate and stagnation than by a 1930s-style crisis.
But even if overstated, the post-liberal and socialist turns reflect a real change in our politics since the halcyon 1990s. On right and left, it has become easier to imagine ways the liberal order might deserve to fall, because of evils generated from within itself.
On the right, that imagining extrapolates from examples like the Low Countries’ euthanizers toward a future society that remains formally liberal but resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” — dominated by virtual reality and eugenics and mood-stabilizing drugs, post-familial and post-religious and functionally post-human. Would such a society deserve the political loyalty of (let us say) a traditional Christian or Muslim, just because it still affords them some First Amendment protections? It is reasonable to say that it might not.
On the left that imagining takes the form of a dire ecological extrapolation — a fear that climate catastrophe isn’t inevitable despite liberalism but because of it, that the combination of governments with limited powers, publics with limited knowledge and corporations with capitalist incentives might be responsible for civilizational disaster. Does this scenario (or other equivalents involving artificial intelligence) call liberal proceduralism into question? For some radicals on the left, it might. Versions of these imaginings are familiar from past critiques of liberalism. But without being necessarily persuasive, they are more plausible now than 20 years ago, and they explain as much of the flirtation with post-liberalism as xenophobia or millennial ingratitude.
Which means that the liberal order’s defenders need to take them seriously. Liberalism has never done as well as it thinks at resolving its own crises. America’s gravest moral evil, chattel slavery, was defeated by an authoritarian president in a religious civil war, not by proceduralism or constitutional debate. The crisis of the 1930s ended happily for liberalism because a reactionary imperialist withstood Adolf Hitler and a revolutionary Bolshevik crushed him. The liberal peace that followed may depend on fear of the atomic bomb.
All of which hints that a genuinely post-liberal politics might, indeed, someday be required — to save liberal civilization from dystopia or disaster. The post-liberalisms presently on offer are not as serious as either their advocates hope or their critics fear. But if you cannot imagine ever being a post-liberal, left or right, you are not being serious either.