Politics & Policy

Are Conservatives Really Just Liberals?

Bill Kristol (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Conservatives have commitments that precede our classical liberalism.

‘Conservatives could ‘rebrand’ as liberals,” wrote Bill Kristol on Saturday, delighting the subset of the Internet that has long raged about neocon infiltrators and fake conservatives. But Kristol, editor at-large of The Weekly Standard and a one-time professor of political philosophy, meant something different. “Seriously,” he continued. “We’re for liberal democracy, liberal world order, liberal economy, [and] liberal education.”

Is Kristol right? Some say yes, conservatives have been classical liberals all along. “Truth in advertising” was how Adrian Vermeule, the conservative Harvard law professor, characterized the American conservatives-as-liberals “rebranding.” An astute British observer had a knowing laugh: “Is there anything funnier than watching right-wingers gradually realise they’re just liberals in real time?”

This view, that American conservatism crossed the River Styx into philosophical liberalism with its embrace of the free market, is too clever by half. Really: Are we so devoted to Gladstone that we have learned nothing from Disraeli? So preoccupied with the Wealth of Nations that we have forsaken the Bible? All Locke, Smith, and Friedman, without Fortescue, Burke, and Kirk?

I don’t think so. Any fair appraisal of the American conservative movement would not, like Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Team unmasking the ghost only to find a man underneath, find liberalism all the way down.

But does that mean conservatism is illiberal? In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony argues that “there’s no such thing as an ‘Illiberal.’” This is true as far it goes. Describing populists, nationalists, and Nazis alike, “illiberalism” too often functions as a lazy catch-all for critics. This is similar to how Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists beat up on “religion” in the abstract, conflating dissimilar belief systems to gain an argumentative advantage. However, “illiberalism” is also a useful grouping of the alternatives to liberalism, our ancien regime. Conservatism, a certain type of traditionalist would hold, is just one of these alternatives, entirely distinct from liberalism.

Yet this too seems unlikely and unfair. Just refer back to Kristol’s list: Conservatives can comfortably embrace liberal democracy, liberal world order, liberal education, and arguably, a liberal economy. I would add liberal free speech, religious liberty, and the values of the American Founding. I’d also note that Edmund Burke and Adam Smith were mutual admirers, viewing each other as allies not enemies.

What emerges is a complicated picture of conservatives as not wholly liberal yet not wholly illiberal either. Conservatives, it seems to me, are more than liberals; or, put it this way: We are liberals secondarily. By this I mean that we have commitments that precede our liberalism, and these commitments are themselves pre-liberal. Their authority is ancestral, not chosen. They are the first, the permanent things, and contra Locke, conservatives find their authority legitimate.

Conservatives, it seems to me, are more than liberals; or, put it this way: We are liberals secondarily.

Conservatism, for example, may include liberal capitalism, but with a prior commitment to the dignity of the human person, the redeeming covenant of marriage, and the goods of family, faith, and community. Those are the foundations that we attempt to conserve, before we employ liberalism. It allows conservatives to escape from a self-undermining, pure libertarianism and pursue “economics as if people mattered,” as E. F. Schumacher put it.

Behind every conservative embrace of liberalism, there is a prior and pre-liberal commitment. We are for liberal free speech, but with a prior commitment to decency. We support liberal democracy, but with a prior commitment to justice, not just conflict de-escalation. We praise liberal education, but to save it from undermining itself with skepticism, we need a prior commitment to Truth.

Finally, conservatives defend liberal world order, but with a prior commitment to the nation, America. This is why U.S. conservatives (including Bill Kristol) overwhelmingly supported Brexit while Britain’s Liberal Democrats were its strongest opponents. And for much the same reason, Leo Strauss presciently identified Zionism as a conservative movement in 1956. As Strauss reminded the editors of National Review,

The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage. . . . Political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate, are capable. . . . It helped to stem the tide of progressive levelling of venerable ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.

A full commitment to a liberal world order leads liberals to sacrifice national identity and sovereignty to international organizations such as the EU and U.N. It induces Jews and Christians to accept “emancipation” from religion and nationality in the hopes of joining Hillary Clinton’s “global village” or becoming Karl Marx’s “species-beings.” This is why Prime Minister Trudeau insists that Canada has “no core identity” and President Macron rejects any “single French culture.” It is why President Obama, in so many words, dismissed American exceptionalism.

But American conservatives walk a different path. We understand that such a liberal order would be brittle; standing for nothing, it is left with no tool but force to secure obedience. But who would fight and die for the European Union? This sort of unrestrained liberalism risks losing the pre-liberal loyalties upon which our liberty and security truly rely.

Irving Kristol had a similar worry about liberalism in economics, the unrestrained “free society” of Friedman and Hayek. “It is interesting to note what Hayek is doing,” wrote the elder Kristol in 1970. “He is opposing a free society to a just society — because he says, while we know what freedom is, we have no generally accepted knowledge of what justice is.” Kristol thought Hayek’s characteristically liberal move was dangerous. “Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society?” he asked, “I do not think so.”

We need liberalism to bring our nation freedom, wealth, power, and peace. But that same liberalism weakens the pre-liberal commitments that form its very foundation.

In order to recover that prior commitment to justice, which was so necessary to sustaining capitalism and liberty, Kristol recommended “the long trek back to pre-modern political philosophy. . . . Perhaps there we shall discover some of those elements that are most desperately needed by [our] spiritually impoverished civilization.”

Accordingly, Irving Kristol would write in 1993 that religion was the most important pillar of modern conservatism. Vying for second and third were nationalism and economic growth. Liberalism surely requires all three elements to survive, but the first two are pre-liberal. Liberalism risks abandoning them in its fixation on abstract theorizing about universal, natural man, disconnected from faith, family, community, or nation.

There is certainly a tension, and more than one, in this conservative relationship to liberalism. We need liberalism to bring our nation freedom, wealth, power, and peace. But that same liberalism weakens the pre-liberal commitments that form its very foundation. Liberalism, then, risks undermining itself and therefore must be managed or rationed. As a parent might say, liberalism is good in moderation.

But even still, American conservatism is destined to be odd. If we are to be patriots, loyal to our founding ideals, then liberalism must be part of what we strive to conserve. This feature of American conservatism has led some thinkers, most notably Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, to urge a reevaluation and even a rejection of the American Founding. But such a rejection would threaten to render conservatism — always confusing in a country founded by a revolution — incoherent. Our venerable American difference, so obvious to observers such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, is our passionate commitment to liberty. As American conservatives, defending liberalism is part of what it means to stand athwart History.

It would be un-conservative for Americans to abandon liberalism, just as it would be un-conservative to give in too fully to the liberal temptation. Calling ourselves “liberals,” as Bill Kristol suggested, would obscure what many of us really believe to be foundational. We don’t need a Liberal Party — or an Illiberal Party either, for that matter. Both are hasty attempts to “rebrand” the movement in response to the election of President Trump. Instead, let us focus our conservatism. It should cherish the spirit of liberty while defending the goods that come before and sustain it.


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Elliot Kaufman — Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review. He studies political theory and history at Stanford University. His writing has previously appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Stanford ...

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