TBO and the Free Rider Problem

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Full disclosure: I still have not read the book (backstory on that here). But I am decreasingly convinced that it would be worth the investment of my time. A friend sends me this line from the review of the book in the latest print issue of The Economist:

It is thanks to hard-won liberal tolerance that there is space in liberal democracies for the kind of soul-saving retreat from the larger society that he [Dreher] recommends. Despite the sense of rectitude, ‘The Benedict Option’ is at bottom a call for free-riding on the liberal modernity it professes to spurn.

I think that kind of critique of TBO ought to be tempered, though, with the acknowledgement that what makes liberalism liberal is precisely its willingness to permit a great deal of this kind of free riding. This is for many reasons:

  • Because we respect the conscience, especially the religious conscience.
  • Because the process of discovering new and better modes of organization requires wide permission for experiments; I’d certainly rather be a TBOer than a complacent bourgeois who doesn’t think our civilization has any moral problems worth worrying about.
  • Because the comparative “thinness” of moral norms in liberal society inevitably provokes attempts to recover moral “thickness.”
  • And because we recognize that forbidding people to live a certain way – either by coercive law or by informal social norms – is always a very blunt instrument, and whenever you forbid X you also make it difficult to do all the things that are different from X but superficially like it. So even if we knew that TBO were bad enough to deserve our opprobrium, we ought still to moderate our rate of fire upon it, lest we inflict too much collateral damage upon better moral reformers.

There are limits to free riding – I support jailing pacifists who refuse the draft during wartime – but by and large we should remember that when we sign up to be liberals, we sign up to be plagued by religious and moralistic free riders.

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