This is a portion of a speech delivered by Michael Knowles at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt in Esztergom, Hungary, on July 28, 2023.
The liberals have levied all sorts of vague and preposterous attacks on Hungarian conservatives in recent years. But even the liberals can’t dispute one particularly conspicuous achievement, which is Hungary’s unique success at beginning to reverse the decades-long trend of demographic decline. And how have you done it? By supporting families. You’ve provided financial and political support for people to get married and have babies. You’ve provided more support the more babies people have. You’ve taken steps to protect babies in the womb. You’ve prioritized the good of your citizens over the desires of foreigners beyond your borders. You’ve defined what a marriage is and always must be and defended that definition.
That’s just common sense. I’m not suggesting it’s been easy, but it is simple enough. Egghead masters-of-the-universe in far-distant capitals would have us all believe that statecraft is too complex for ordinary patriots to understand. But politics, it turns out, is not rocket science, no matter what the liberal technocrats would have us believe.
This pro-family, pro-people policy did not arise in opposition to a neutral political order. It arose in opposition to an intentional liberal campaign to destroy the family — a powerful and longstanding political campaign to destroy the family by redefining marriage out of existence, discouraging and delaying marriage for those who still seek it, promoting contraception and “planned parenthood” for married couples, subsidizing the destruction of babies through abortion, reducing the ability of families to educate and raise their children as they see fit, and establishing an economic order that makes it ever more difficult for families to pay for their basic needs.
The liberal order pretends to be neutral, but it is not. Like all regimes, liberalism incentivizes certain behaviors and discourages others. In the social sphere, liberalism encourages disordered and deviant habits, most notably of late in the sexual realm, justified by an ever-degrading definition of individual freedom. In the economic sphere, liberalism encourages selfish habits of production and consumption which so radically reject the notion of a common good that they leave as an inheritance to successive generations little more than mounting piles of debt.
Normal people throughout the West are waking up to the reality that what we were told would make us free has actually enslaved us. Of course it did: because the liberal conception of freedom directly contradicts the classical and Christian understanding of freedom that built our civilization. Liberty, it turns out, is not the ability to do what we wish but the right to do what we ought. We’ve fallen for the false freedom of the addict.
I know Hungary understands this fact. While countries around the West are rushing to legalize all sorts of drugs, from the Peruvian parsley — the old devil’s lettuce — all the way up to the harder stuff, Hungary has held the line on drugs. As well you should. Drugs are the perfect way to understand how the liberal conception of liberty goes so wrong.
The liberal view is that liberty is nothing more than the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. According to this view, a heroin addict in some alleyway in Amsterdam is the freest man in the world. As long as he’s got a couple of bucks in his pocket and a place to shoot dope without fear of being arrested, that man is the pinnacle of freedom. Right? No, of course not. The heroin addict isn’t the freest man in the world; he’s a slave. He’s a slave to his appetites. He’s a slave to his addiction. He couldn’t stop himself from shooting up even if he wanted to.
This is why our Lord tells us that the man who sins is a slave to sin. He tells us that, if we are to be free, we must take his yoke upon us. Unlike the yoke of sin, the wages of which are death, the yoke of Christ — of truth and goodness himself — is easy and the burden light. But it is a yoke. This is what St. Paul means when he tells us that we can be slaves either to sin or righteousness. And crucially, this is what he’s describing when he laments that the things that he wants to do he does not do, but the things he doesn’t want to do, he does.
Modern liberalism, for all its incessant blather about free will, fails to grasp the defining feature of the will, which is that it’s split in two. We have a lower will, which is the appetite, and a higher will — the rational will — traditionally understood to mediate between the lower will and the divine will. The lower will tells us we want to eat that third dessert; the rational will tells us to put the cupcake down because we’ll regret having eaten it later.
And our appetites, by the way, are not fixed in stone. If we give free rein to our basest passions and desires, they will become more pronounced to the point that our rational will won’t be able to exert much control at all. That’s the heroin addict. But if we follow our rational will and discipline our appetites, soon our desires will change. Soon we won’t have quite so strong an affection for the fifth cupcake. Soon we won’t have so strong a desire for things that are liable to harm us. Soon enough, we might even develop tastes and appetites for things that are actually good for us.
This is, in theory, the purpose of liberal education —“liberal” in the classical sense — literally training in freedom — the type of education that befits free men. I say “in theory” because today liberal arts education tends to do precisely the opposite: it’s a four-year bacchanal, at best, and, at worst, an initiation ritual into a cult of absurdities designed to stamp out the last shreds of common sense that a student might possess. The modern university is failing to train students in the virtues that will help to make them free. The modern university primarily trains students in vices that will keep them ignorant and enslaved.
So what are we going to say? And believe? And teach? The answer can’t be “everything,” just as it can’t be “nothing.” All societies for all of history have had some standards, norms, and taboos. All cultures perform rituals. All people worship something. As that great political philosopher Bob Dylan once observed, “Everybody’s gotta serve somebody.” What a culture worships will define that culture. A culture that worships money will be materialistic. A culture that worships sex will be licentious. A culture that worships God will be godlier.
So what does liberal culture worship? Liberal culture worships the self. At every turn, liberalism insists that we prioritize the self in all its subjectivity over every other consideration. When reality says that you’re a man, but you yourself say you’re a woman, well, we must defer to you. To self-conception. When you conceive a child but decide for whatever reason that you don’t want the baby; well, you must be given free rein to do whatever monstrous act you see fit. When you no longer like your spouse, to whom you vowed a lifelong commitment; well, you must go on and get a divorce. Parents getting old? Stick them in a home. Don’t care for your nation? Fine! Who needs a nation? Who needs patriotism? You don’t owe anything to your country. Whatever liberalism meant half a century ago, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, it doesn’t mean that today. Today, liberalism mocks the notion that you might ask what you can do for your country. Today, liberalism impels its adherents to ask only what your country can do for you. It’s all about the individual, all the way down. And a man wrapped up in himself makes a small package indeed.
This, I think, is why nothing you Hungarians have done has shocked and irked liberals throughout the West quite so much as your family policy. Both progressives on the Left and libertarians on the Right have attacked Hungary’s family policy alternately as anti-feminist and as anti-laissez-faire-capitalist. In fairness, I suppose they’re right. The family policy, by rewarding families, undermines radical feminism, which opposes family. And the policy is anything but laissez-faire. It takes a hands-on approach toward achieving a clearly defined social end. But, of course, as we’ve already discussed, supposedly laissez-faire liberalism is also more hands-on than liberals like to admit. While other nations throughout the West have adopted liberal policies that make society more individualistic — so successfully that those nations are all literally dying and, now, rely on mass migration to keep their economies afloat — Hungary has implemented a policy to make society more family-focused.
What appears on the surface to be a tactical disagreement about how to tinker with public policy to achieve outcomes we all desire, in fact, represents a fundamental philosophical disagreement over the basic structure and purpose of politics. For liberals, the basic unit of politics is the individual; for conservatives, the fundamental political unit is the family. For liberals, man is an atom; for conservatives, man is the political animal. For liberals, the purpose of politics is to maximize man’s individual autonomy; for conservatives, it’s to enable and encourage man’s flourishing in accordance with his nature, which is intrinsically social.
It is no surprise, then, that the effect of liberal government has been to alienate citizens from virtually all bonds and especially from unchosen bonds: bonds to country, to family, even to ourselves.