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29 May 2013

Liberalism, post-liberalism and loneliness

Killer by Adamski and Seal was one of the biggest and most influential hits of the 1990s. Its title might suggest a pre-occupation with criminal violence, but actually the song is about loneliness – as made clear in the lyric “it’s loneliness that’s the killer.”

It turns out that Messrs Adamski and Seal were on to something. A growing body of research suggests that loneliness – and specifically the feeling of being lonely – is detrimental to both body and mind.

Writing in the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz summarises the latest research:

  • “...loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

If that is the case, then we have a problem because loneliness is on the increase: 

  • “In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, slightly more than one out of three adults 45 and over reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time). A decade earlier, only one out of five said that. With baby-boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 a day, the number of lonely Americans will surely spike.”

It's not just the greying of the population that’s driving the loneliness epidemic; family breakdown is another contributory factor:

  • “As nearly half of all marriages continue to end in divorce, as marriage itself floats further out of reach for the undereducated and financially strapped, childhood has become a more solitary and chaotic experience. Single mothers don’t have a lot of time to spend with their children, nor, in most cases, money for emotionally enriching social activities.”

Furthermore, scientists are confirming what should be intuitively obvious, which is that emotional deprivation in childhood has lifelong effects:

  • “Deprive us of the attention of a loving, reliable parent, and, if nothing happens to make up for that lack, we’ll tend toward loneliness for the rest of our lives. Not only that, but our loneliness will probably make us moody, self-doubting, angry, pessimistic, shy, and hypersensitive to criticism.”

This isn’t just a matter outward behaviour, the effects of emotional isolation have been detected in the wiring of the brain and even gene expression. The good news is that much of the impact of loneliness – even the physical impacts – are reversible. 

Shulevitz concludes her article by quoting Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at UCLA:

  • “Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls ‘molecular remodeling.’ ‘One message I take away from this is, ‘Hey, it’s not just early life that counts,’’ he says. ‘We have to choose our life well.’”

“Choose our life well” – what better slogan for a liberal society! And yet the choice that liberalism (both social and economic) gives us, is the freedom to break the personal ties that define a traditional society. Mobility, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, secularism, immigration, offshoring, tax avoidance – the things that all these features of modern life have in common is the severing of previous connections. Of course, for many people, this works out to their satisfaction, but other people get left behind – and alone.

For libertarians this is just the price has to be paid for freedom. The liberal approach, however, is to try and compensate through state intervention. Early years intervention programmes like Sure Start are a key example of this approach:

  • “James Heckman, a Nobel Prize–winning economist at the University of Chicago who tabulates the costs of early childhood deprivation, speaks bitterly of ‘silos’ in health policy, meaning that we see crime and low educational achievement as distinct from medical problems like obesity or heart disease. As far as he’s concerned, these are, in too many cases, symptoms of the same social disorder: the failure to help families raise their children.” 

But, surely, the fundamental problem here is is not the failure to help families raise their children, but the failure of families to raise their children.

There is no clearer illustration of the difference between liberalism and the emerging politics of post-liberalism. Liberalism is about substituting for family and community; post-liberalism is about restoring  family and community.


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