Bryan Garsten

Liberal societies, I want to suggest, are those that offer refuge from the very people they empower. The reach of this formulation will become evident when we allow ourselves to use “refuge” in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, so that institutions and practices can offer refuge from a powerful person as much as a fortress can. […] 

Because liberal societies offer within them different sorts of refuge, they should not produce many refugees fleeing elsewhere. The United States does not generally produce large refugee flows, but those it has at times produced — as when enslaved Americans fled to Canada before the American Civil War — have offered good indices of weaknesses in its liberal credentials. Liberal societies themselves should by their nature appreciate the plight of foreign refugees and err on the side of welcoming them, but the facts do not allow us to say that liberal societies are always more welcoming than nonliberal societies. The crucial indicator of liberalism is whether a society produces refugees. A society becomes more liberal when it reduces the reasons that people have to flee — not by converting all people to one outlook or identity, but by offering them the chance to find refuge internally. Liberal societies aim to generate no exodus. 

It is in this sense that many of the recent developments I have regularly decried on this blog — surveillance capitalism, panoptic governance, coercive administrative practices (especially in academia) — are straightforwardly anti-liberal, sometimes consciously, sometimes blindly. I like the framing of refuge. From Florida’s “Stop WOKE” law to the anti-bias “teams” and “task forces” that populate American campuses, the common theme is: You have no refuge from us. Resistance is futile.

Garsten’s essay is trying to do a lot of things, and I think he gets tangled up at times, in interesting ways. For instance, on page 143 he moves seamlessly from celebrating the founding of cities to celebrating the spread of markets, in a way that suggests that he thinks that the reason we have cities is to spread markets. There are other views on that point. But the major themes involve certain claims about healthy societies. Such societies 

  • do not generate many refugees 
  • are hospitable to refugees from elsewhere 
  • provide means of exit from their internal systems and structures 
  • provide means of exit from the society altogether 

Thus the conclusion: 

Some critics worry that if we are given the choice to flee evils in the many ways a liberalism of refuge protects, our mobility will turn us into “rootless” beings. This concern has been given too much weight since Heidegger and Arendt. We are not trees who flourish when deeply rooted in the soil. We are human beings with legs, meant to explore. What we need to flourish is not roots so much as refuges from which we can venture forth and to which we can retreat. Often, we end up returning to where we started with new insight or appreciation, like Odysseus gratefully coming home. Sometimes we do not, or cannot, return home, and so we begin again and find, in those beginnings, a distinctively liberal adventure — the noble work of building a new society that refugees know so well. 

I have reservations. For one thing, whether “building a new society” is “noble work” depends on the kind of society you’re building. (See: the Taliban.) More important: Is “exploring” the main thing that legs are for? Again, it depends on why you’re exploring. If Garsten had said that legs are for exploring to find food for your family and community, and to bring that food back to those who hunger, I’d have been happier. And in general, I think it’s more important for our minds to explore than our legs, even if when doesn’t create new markets. 

In general, Garsten’s vision is a libertarian one, whereas I prefer anarchist models. In my view the primarily difference between libertarianism and anarchism is that the former wants to expand the scope of individual freedom while the latter wants to expand the scope of collaboration and cooperation. What if we were to re-frame “refuge” and “exit” in anarchist, or at least communitarian, terms? 

An interesting book in this regard is Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, and especially the character of McPhee. McPhee is basically Lewis’s old tutor, William Kirkpatrick, AKA Kirk or the Great Knock, and I have always found it touching that Lewis sought to find some way to offer that dour atheist the blessings of Christian community, but without as it were forcing him into a false conversion. 

The community of St. Anne’s — an attempt by Lewis to embody the themes of his great essay “Membership” — is not quite anarchic, and I say that not because it has a Director but rather because no one else but Mr. Fisher-King could be the Director. Still, it is a collaborative and cooperative endeavor, and no one is coerced into participation, nor is anyone who wishes to belong excluded — though they may not choose their own roles: the community strives to make charitable but honest assessments of what its members are capable of, and especially what risks they can be expected to take. 

No community is perfect, of course. When the people of St. Anne’s become aware of the gifts of Jane Studdock, one of them goes to far as to say “You have to join us” — but that is immediately recognized not only as counterproductive (Jane flees at the first hint of coercion) but also contrary to the character of the community. One must enter freely or not at all, and the damage done by that moment of impulsiveness is almost irreversible. 

St. Anne’s is of course an intentionally Christian community or “body” through and through, which leads to the question: Why is McPhee there? He is no Christian, and for all his respect for the Director, he believes the man prone to nonsensical words and thoughts. 

The answer is that McPhee is there because he wants to be. Eccentric though he is, the community gives him refuge — indeed, it would violate its character as much by exclusion as by coercion. He is given tasks appropriate to his abilities, though he cannot participate directly in the spiritual warfare which, in this story, comes to be the chief business of St. Anne’s. As one who does not believe and therefore does not pray, he lacks the protection he needs against supernatural Powers. He cannot — as the Apostle, or John Bunyan, might say — “put on the armor of God.” If McPhee resents this, he doesn’t say much about it; after all, he has found a place where he is respected and loved, and where his service is welcomed with gratitude. And what better refuge can any of us hope for?