The Stages of the Politics of Individualism

Emerging Christian Interaction with Political Ideologies Part 3

The first ideology that David T. Koyzis explains in his book Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (InterVarsity Press, 2003) is called “Liberalism.” Again, by using this term, political scientists do not mean popular definition of “liberal” in American political debates (as opposed to Republican Conservativism) but an over-arching political ideology that has a commitment to individuality. The American political system has the individual at it's heart, and the political debates deal with the differing views on how to ensure individuals their rights and offord them with equal opportunity.

I’m into the next chapter in Koyzis’ book now (on the ideology of Conservativism), but before we go there, we should understand the development of liberalism is America (since this is the political ideology that we all work in as American, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat). Koyzis maps out five stages of development.

The Stages of Liberalism’s Development
Koyzis states that Western liberalism has gradually expanded both the range of freedom for individuals as well as the role of government to protect these freedoms.

  • Stage 1—“Hobbesian Commonwealth”: Koyzis calls this “pre-liberal” in that it laid the foundations of individual rights (especially the right to self-preservation) while at the same time affirmed a sovereign state.
  • Stage 2—“Night Watchman State”: Expanded on Hobbes in that we have the right to both preserve our life as well as earning a livelihood. This is where free market capitalism enters into the formula. In the same year as Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, which laid out the economic implications of liberalism: individual competition (which was new in that it moved economic competition from nations [“mercantilism”] to individuals). Capitalism is economic individualism: each person is to act in his own self-interest. It is said that altruism is not helpful to a capitalistic system, for when each individual seeks his or her own self-interest, an “invisible hand” leads the process for the best of all in society. The government, then, is put in the place of referee over the “game” of capitalism, setting the rules and making sure all play by those rules; but in no way is the government to attempt to determine the outcome. Some even likened this economic game to “social Darwinism,” in which the fittest survive in an economic society. The government, then just watches over the activity, making sure all play by the rules.
  • Stage 3—“Regulatory State”: After a while, the inevitable dark side of unchecked capitalism (especially when the industrial revolution created the abuse of labor and the formation of monopolies) reared its ugly head. Therefore, the government was no longer seen as the only potential abridgment of individual freedom; private concentrations of power also endangered it. Therefore, the role of government was advanced to include the protection from infringements from nonstate centers of power. The Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts of 1890 and 1914 epitomized this new regulatory state. Theodore Roosevelt believed that the federal government must control “industrial baronage.”
  • Stage 4—“Equal Opportunity State”: Liberal ideology continued to morph as it was realized that not only are people limited in their opportunities by public and private centers of power but also by impersonal factors such as insufficient economic resources, whatever the source of this lack may be. “If life is indeed a game, then the contestants have by no means got an equal start. Some have taken off from the starting gate with an extra advantage that will tend to favor their ultimate victory, while others are not only laboring under various handicaps, but may not have reached the gate at all.” Liberalism has a heightened sense of fair-play, so it often reexamines the rules of the game so that everyone gets a “fair-shake.” And since the “game” of life begins with every generation, if one’s parents have fared poorly in the last round, it will affect one’s chances to get ahead in their own round.
    Koyzis makes this analysis: “It is at this point that the analogy to a game begins to break down, which demonstrates once more a central weakness of liberal individualism: it is not only unable to account for the ontological status of community; it also ignores the connectedness of individuals to previous and succeeding generations. It pretends that the individual is an isolated runner in the race, whose success or failure depends wholly on herself.”
  • Stage 5—“Choice Enhancement State”: Since liberalism is dedicated to the desires of the individual, their will naturally be conflicts among individuals when they seek those desires. “The task of liberalism, therefore, is to try to accommodate these desires as much as possible in a reasonably peaceful and stable manner. But in no case should the liberal state attempt to prejudge the choices lying before individuals, since that would be an undue limitation on freedom of choice.” There is therefore a refusal to “legislate morality” in a purely liberal ideology. But this causes problems in that there are consequences for some individualistic behaviors that actually cause harm to society. In the quest to validate all lifestyle choices, liberals call upon government to ameliorate, if not altogether eliminate, such consequences so they can continue to engage in the quest for a utopia where everyone can do what she wants to do. Koyzis writes, “This final stage of liberalism demands that government effectively subsidize irresponsible behavior for fear that doing otherwise risks making the government into a potentially oppressive legislator of the good life.”
The tensions we feel in contemporary debates between "progressives" and "conservatives" and the like is this: The conservatives are harsh critics of this fifth stage of liberalism and want to go back to the 2nd stage of liberalism (the "Night Watchman"). Reagan conservatives believe that we can and should turn the clock backward to a better style of liberalism. However, Koyzis states that this is "inadequate because it seeks merely to reverse a lengthy--and possibly inevitable, given liberalism's presuppositions--historical process rather than to question in the first place liberalism's reduction of the state to a mere voluntary organization charged only with fulfilling the shifting terms of a social contract."

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Ron McK said...

All this hard work deserves a comment. I hope you will cover the the whole book so I can understand everything covered by it.

Liberalism is a title that has been claimed by an enormous range of political philosophies. Some are very individualistic and others are quite communitarian, so many will feel his critiques is unfair. The pitfall of covering such a broad topic in one chapter is that it makes it seem a bit simplistic.

We are all individuals so some recognition has to be givent to this, while recognising that we also belong to families, commmunities, nations, etc. Liberals have also opposed those who go to the opposite extreme and force everyone into the same mould.

I think the reference to "self interest" is a bit misleading. Self interest is not the same as selfishness. The concept as expounded by Smith just means that people are in the best place to know what they want. No one else can tell me what colour shoes I want.

The point about the invisible hand is that if enough people want pink shoes, wise manufacturers will start to make them. No one has to make them make pink shoes.

Self interest does not rule out altrusism. People can choose to be altruistic if that is what they want. If people choose to help the poor rather than wearing pink shoes, the pink shoe manufacturers will decline and the organisation assisting the poor will grow.

Similarly self interest is not inconsistent with caring for family and participation a community.

Part of the problem is that the expression "self interest" is not a very good term for what Smith was trying to describe. Most modern people assume that he met selfishness, but this is not the same concept.

I look forward to your further reviews.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for your great input. Rest assured that Koyzis is more nuanced and offers caveats in his chapter that I can't include in a small blog post of summary.

Your right in your the clarification that "self-interest" does not necessarily mean "selfishness." That does indeed need to be stated.

But I think that Smith's theory is a bit too optimistic about human nature: He pretty much trusts that if all members of society seek their own best economic interest that the best interests of everyone will be served. The "invisible hand" will contribute to the general welfare. We found that this optimism did not play itself out in reality when we faced the evils of the unchecked capitalism of the early industrial revolution (robber barons, monopolies, child labor, work conditions, etc).

And I think it needs to be stated pretty bluntly that ethical egoism is philosophically opposed to altruism. Ayn Rand was pretty adamant that altruism is not simply wrong in a theoretical sense; she felt that it is an ethical problem that actually damages people's lives. Rand felt that self-interest and altruism were polar opposites. And Rand has had an enormous influence in American economic theory.

Thanks for your insightful comment. What do you think of Ayn Rand and her influence on American economic theory?

Ron McK said...

Hi Bob
Adam Smith came out of a Calvinist background, so I do not think that he was over optimistic about human nature. But anyway, I do not want to defend him.

I think that we need to be careful what we are critiquing. The free market capitialist economic system is a marvellous system for providing people with what they need. I bought a bag of potatoes yesterday. Someone must have sown them 10 monthes ago, but I did not have to worry about that. Someone else harvested them. I did not need to order them 6 months in advance. They were there just when I needed them.

The point is that to be successful in business, you have to work incredibly hard to produce something that people want when they want it. If the business gets it wrong, it is the one that suffers. If a business does not keep up with what people want, they can often fail. This is what Smith meant by invisible hand. The market rewards those businesses that provide people with what they want when they want it.

However the market is not God, so it cannot do everything. It does not discern between good and evil needs. If people want prostitutes, then the market will provide them. However, the problem is with the people, not the market. You cannot blame the market for evil hearts. And it is the church's responsibility to change people's hearts through the gospel.

The people that run buinesses are sinful like the rest of us, so they will sometimes commit crimes. Those should be punished. However, when the state goes beyond punishing crimes, it is usually the business people that benefit.

We should be thankful for what the market does well. It is better than having to queue for bread as happened in the Soviet Union. We should not chastise it for not doing what it cannot do, make people good. That is our job (through the gospel).

We should also be careful about "fettering" capitalism. Most efforts by the state to limit capitalism end up benefiting businesses by creating artificial monopolies. The corn law's in Britain benefited rich land owners and caused shortages of food. Free trade reduced the price of food, because cheaper wheat could be imported.

The railway barons were empowered by state governments giving them monopoly powers in certain areas because they wanted to advance their states ahead of others. Someone has called the rail barons "political entrepreneurs".

I read that when Rockerfeller got involved in oil in about 1860, the price of kerosene was 60c a gallon. By then end of the century it was 6c. This was a tremendous benefit in a time when people dependend on kerosene for cooking and heating their homes. So what did he do wrong? Did he steal from anyone?

Teddy Roosevelt made a lot of the robber barons, but mostly for his political benefit.

It is not a crime to become rich. It is a crime to steal, or use violence to force people to do things against their will. We need to be careful to distinguish between the two. It is also wrong for government to grant privileges to business as often happens in the modern world.

I have not read anything of Ayn Rand's work. My understanding is that she was vehemently anti-Christian, so I have not bothered with her. I understand that she advocated ethical egoism, because whe considered altruism to be a form of human weakness. That is very different from the so called concept of "self interest". I am not sure how influential she is on American economics.

I do not see a conflict between free market capitalism an altruism. Businesses actually have to be altruistic and serve to survive, if they cannot get the state to give them a monopoly. To be successful, they have to be constantly thinking about what their customers want, and making sure they provide it. Because customers change their mind, they cannot rest. It is no use producing what people wanted last year. You have to know what they want now. You often have to have invested a large amount a year ago, to produce what you thought then they would want now. If you get it wrong, then that investment is lost. So business people have put a lot of effort into thinking about what other people want. A business that decides to produce what it thinks people should want will fail.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks again for you input. Yes, I agree that there is much to be praised in capitalism. When we are so immersed in an ideology, it is helpful to be critical of it, and in so doing we do not always go for absolute balance.

So thank you for the balance.

You said, "the market is not God, so it cannot do everything. It does not discern between good and evil needs. If people want prostitutes, then the market will provide them. However, the problem is with the people, not the market. You cannot blame the market for evil hearts. And it is the church's responsibility to change people's hearts through the gospel."

I agree to some extent with your statement. But I think that we must ask, In what degree is the problem actually in the system? You say that the market is not the problem...why not? If free-market capitalism is a Creation-Norm from God, I would agree. But it is not. It is a man-made system that must therefore have flaws inherent in the system. It may have (and I believe it does have) a lot to commend it as a good system, but it is not something that is ontologically good, nor is it ontologically neutral.

To throw responsiblity of creating goodness out of the system and into the hearts of individual people is to give captialism a normative structural and creational status that it does not deserve.

By the way, is Ayn Rand influential on American economics? One of Ayn Rand's followers was America's chief of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.

Thanks again for you comments. It's fun to talk with a "Blessed Economist!"

Ron McK said...

Your comment about ontological goodness has had me thinking all day. What would the econonomy look like, if there had been no fall.

There would still be some scarcity, as time is finite and the resources of the earth are finite. Of course there would be no curse, so life would be easier.
Adam would need tools and equipment (capital) to provide for all human needs, so he would have to be a capitalist in the economics sense.

Given human personality, there would be some specialisation and division of labour. Some exchange system would be needed to shift the stuff produced around. God made a subjective valuation of the world he created, so man would need to continue to make valuations of things that could be produced. So some sort of pricing system might exist. The efficient allocation of resources would probably need some sort of market and price system (the only alternative would be for everyone to obey the prompting of the spirit, but that sounds quite mechanistic.)

The fulfilment of the creation mandate would require considerable business activity. Much of this would be done by family businesses, but for some tasks some large corporate entitities might be needed.

So I see that the guts of free market capitalist system would be needed even if there had been no fall.

I would be interested to know what particular aspects of the system itself you see as being a problem. To make a useful critique, you need to be more precise. For example, I see the whole limited liability things as a serious problem. It is has encouraged the development of large corporates without any accountability to owners.

With regard to Alan Greenspan, I think most Randians would see him as having sold out, so I would not see him as a source of Randian influence on economics. Greenspan was the master of timing. He came in when things were bad and went our before they had time to go wrong. This is perfect timing for a politico. However, I think that history will show that Greenspan was bad for the American and world economy.

Bob Robinson said...


I wish I were an economist to answer your good inquiry about what particular aspects of the system I see as being a problem. I'm working at a more theoretical level here, and can only point at problems that a layman would see, not knowing exactly what causes these problems within the system.

I do know that capitalism has not brought about the utopian ideal of equitable opportunity to everyone in our society (though it does seem to do better than the other economic systems that I know). The poor get poorer, the rich get richer, the powerful horde their power, and the government passes budgets and tax laws that exacerbate the problem.

And, worse of all, Christians presume that the American way is the Christian way, no questions asked.

Ron McK said...

Hi Bob
Anyone who uses the word ontological cannot call himself a layman :-)

Your concern about inequality and rich people is interesting. There are about six ways that a person can become rich.
1.Discover a new technique or product that everyone wants.
2. Work hard and saving everthing for a lifetime.
3. Be born in a rich family.
4. Win a lottery.
5. Steal money from someone.
6.Get the government to take actions that creates a monopoly or favourable situation for your business.
The first three are probably okay. Henry Ford became rich because he made cars available to ordinary people. He did not force anyone to work for him or buy his cars.

The first three seem to be legitimate. No 2 might be stupid.
Most Christians would say four is wrong. 5 and 6 are definitely wrong.

When criticising the rich we need to be careful that we do not drop into Pharisaeism. I find it ironic that when people rail against the rich getting richer, they are always referring to people that are a bit richer than they are. The hard truth is that you and I are among the richest group of people who have ever lived on earth. There is nothing to stop us from selling everything and giving it to the poor. Certainly the system does not stop us from doing this.

My riches can be used for good or evil. I have the choice of buying a new HDTV so I see the poor with more pixels, or I can do something to help them.

The problem is that being generous is never enough. Pharisees always want to make other people generous too. This is where progressive taxation comes in. The implicit argument goes like this. If I were rich, I would be generous. The rich people are not as good as me, so they cannot be trusted to be generous of their own accord. They should be forced to be generous. We should tax the rich more, so the money can be used for the poor. My problem is that I cannot see Jesus forcing other people to be generous.

David Koyzis said...

Bob, you have nicely summarized my argument about the development of liberalism. In response to "ronmock," I quite understand that liberalism covers a lot of territory and that each of its manifestations must be properly addressed and analyzed as such. I recognize, of course, that not every use of the word liberal necessarily relates to liberalism as an ideology. However, I do believe that the manifestations I discuss in my second chapter have a certain genealogical relationship to each other. Hence my five stages.

If I were writing the book again, I think I would emphasize the narrative structure of the worldviews behind the ideologies, because that would make the connections clearer. I did a bit of this last year in a two-part blog post, Unlocking Locke. One cannot simply take the ideologies as collections of approaches to various issues; the basic worldview narrative (which may, of course, be eclectic or synthetic) must be taken seriously.

Best wishes and thanks for reading my book.

David Koyzis

Bob Robinson said...


Though I think I can properly call myself a theologian with some credentials to back that up, I'm certainly a layman when it comes to economics! But as a theologian, I must attempt to apply theology to all aspects of life, for I believe that Christ is redeeming all things to himself (not just "saving souls" and the like). Thus the current discussion here.

With all respect to you as an economist, I think it is rather simplistic to say that being born into a rich family seems "legitimate." Stage 4 Liberalism would say that it is not fair when the system is set up to make the rich-by-inheritance the more powerful in society simply because of their family wealth. This is not "equal opportunity." The "Burger King Mom" (in the words of Jim Wallis) does not have the benefit of a wealthy inheritance while she works 35 hours at a fast food chain without health benefits for her kids. She is trapped (and so are her children) in an economic system that rewards the rich and hinders the poor.

It is not just those who are not as rich that rail against the rich getting richer. It is the consistent "railing" of the Old Testament Prophets. Over and over again, one of the most grievous sins that the prophets point out is the evil oppression of the rich over the poor. Liberal economics seems to reduce the issue to "Well, if I, as an individual, will just be more generous, then that's the only possible solution." To God, it is not just individuals who oppress the poor, it is as much a societal, social, systemic issue that must be addressed beyond the bounds of individualism.

" 'Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind. They are continually setting traps for other people. Like a cage filled with birds, their homes are filled with evil plots. And the result? Now they are great and rich. They are well fed and well groomed, and there is no limit to their wicked deeds. They refuse justice to orphans and deny the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' asks the LORD. 'should I not avenge myself against a nation such as this?' " (Jer 5:26-29) At first it sounds like an idividualistic sin that the LORD is pointing out, but then he says, "Should I not avenge myself against a nation such as this?" The scope of the issue is national.

"The powerful dictate what they desire—they all conspire together." (Micah 7:3)

God sees evil in the accumulation of huge Estates that force the poor out of equitable places to live. "Destruction is certain for you who buy up property so others have no place to live. Your homes are built on great estates so you can be alone in the land. But the LORD Almighty has sealed your awful fate. With my own ears I heard him say, “Many beautiful homes will stand deserted, the owners dead or gone. Ten acres of vineyard will not produce even six gallons of wine. Ten measures of seed will yield only one measure of grain." (Isaiah 5:5-10)

The consistent rebuke from the Prophets is against the systemic evil in which the rich "oppress" the poor (the needy, the hungry, etc). "The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice." (Ezek 22:29)

I agree that you have the moral choice "of buying a new HDTV so I see the poor with more pixels, or I can do something to help them." Very good. I agree. Be sure to get one big enough to see every fly walking across their faces as they look at the camera with those puppy-dog eyes. Seriously, While I agree that individuals are responsible for their own economic decisions, Christian economics must move beyond individualism.

You also say, "My problem is that I cannot see Jesus forcing other people to be generous." Maybe not, but the end of poverty is a major part of the dawning Kingdom of God. When Jesus announced the purpose of his ministry, he said, The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." What is "good news" for the poor? Is it that they will be happy in their poverty while the rich get richer (hey, "all we need is Jesus!")? Or is it more likely that Jesus is announcing that he will "release the oppressed," as the verse continues, thus fulfilling the Prophets' preaching that economic justice will come at the dawning of the Kingdom of God?

Jesus is announcing that in Him, the Kingdom of God is the Year of Jubilee, which, above all things, was an leveling of the field... economically.

Bob Robinson said...


What an honor for you to join in on the conversation! I've found the book to be fery enlightening - especially the summaries of Roman Catholic, Kuyper, and Dooyeweerd's contributions to political theory.

Bob Robinson said...

The Year of Jubilee:

Jesus' anouncement: Luke 4:16-21

See, also, the Old Testament background on Jubilee in Lev 25, especially as this is incorporated into Isaiah 58:6; 61:1–2.

(see also: Ex 21:2–6; 23:10–12; Deut 15:1–18; 31:9–13).

Ron McK said...

Hi Bob
It is not enough to quote the prophets. You need to be more precise about what they were attacking. The scriptures you quote are mostly about sinful people doing sinful things, and not systemic issues(whatever that means). They are critical of extortion and theft (my no 5 above). They are also critical of the situation where kings and political powers use their power to look after their mates (my no 6). That is definitely not a free market. They are also critcal of judges that do not give justice to the poor, but favour the rich (also covered by my No 6). Most of the problems are with the political system and not the economic system.

We also have to be clear about the meaning of the word justice. I believe it was failure to give justice to people who had paricular cases that they could not get heard. I do not think the prophets meant social justice or equality in the modern sense. I am interested that the only place that equality is mentioned is in 2 Cor 8, in the context of generous giving. Paul uses the example, of Jesus who became poor to make us rich. That seems to me to be the Christian model.

I believe that "the spirit of the lord will be upon me..." will change things for the poor. We see how that should happen in the first few chapters of acts, where people like Barnabas gave and the church developed a diaconate minsitry. There is no evidence that Jesus intended that the church should use political power to force the rich to be generous.

Please do not label me an indivdiualist. If you read some of my other writing you will see that passionate about Christian Community(voluntary).

I believe that we will eventually see equality, but it will come through Christians take the gospel seriously and taking christian community seriously as well.

American Churches and Christians are amazingly rich by historical standards. If they chose to do so, they could resuce all the burger king mums, and set them on a better life. It is just a matter of will. I see it as a bit of a cop out to blame the system.

I think the Jubilee is an important concept, but we devalue it, if we just use it as a slogan. I have studied it for a long time, and I am still not certain how it can be applied in the modern world. (I am sure it can be, but it is not that easy to see how). I do not see any evidence that it should be enforced by the state, but I still have more thinking to do on this one. I do think it is a big jump to go from jubille to some form of socialism as some commentators do.

I would be interested in your response to this question. Does Jesus intend us to use political power to force the rich (who have not committed crimes) to be generous to the poor?