Are classical-liberal principles sufficient for conservatives and their political action? Or are they insufficient? Do conservatives need to employ or cultivate something beyond them in politics? And what might that be? This is the heart of a debate running fitfully through the American Right. It’s a debate that we’ve had before. But it’s worth having it now, trying to depersonalize it, and moving forward.
First we have to clarify what we mean by classical liberalism. In the little series of essays, volleys, and personal attacks about the future of the American Right, there is a kind of intellectual shortcut at work. It goes something like this: The best of America’s founding principles are modern Enlightenment principles, a body of thought that could be called “liberalism.” And people who declare themselves classical liberals today, whether they be centrists who defend a “liberal world order” or libertarians and conservatives, are the true bearers of this tradition. One often hears them say that because the American Constitution is a liberal one, the work of conservatism is the preservation of a liberalism, “classically understood.”
But there are not only philosophical problems with this, but rather obvious historical ones. The Founders supported policies and institutions in the nation and in their home states that are anathema to today’s classical liberals. Those Founders cared for liberty but did not call themselves liberals. They were engaged with Enlightenment-era philosophers — some Founders may even count as Enlightenment-era philosophers — but vastly more important to them was classical history and political philosophy, usually trading under the name of republicanism. The Founders did not have the sharp modern distinctions between negative and positive liberty that libertarians cherish today. Many of them in fact viewed the republican ethos of sacrifice for the common good as the true exercise of liberty, and a republican and liberal government as the effective way to elicit this from its best citizens. They certainly didn’t think society was self-organizing once all individuals recognized each other’s negative liberties. Nor did the Founders have all sorts of concepts that modern liberals cherish today, such as an ideal of “viewpoint neutrality” that pretends to make no distinction or favor between feminism, Presbyterianism, Judaism, or, for that matter, conservatism.
In my experience, there is occasionally a morbidly ideological quality to the people who defend “classical liberal” principles as the only admissible ideas in politics. This is particularly evident when a liberal begins talking about the “open society” of liberal philosopher Karl Popper. Liberal principles are no longer describing and managing the way people engage in politics, but determining ahead of time all the values they will take into the public square. Instead of liberalism treating the worldviews of the Christian and the agnostic as two competing visions, held by equal citizens, it simply treats the worldview of the agnostic as the entirety of the common ground between them. Suddenly any deviation from liberal principles is seen as containing within itself the destruction of freedom entirely. In one entry of this debate, Dalibor Rohac contended that Sohrab Ahmari’s objection to Drag Queen Storytime at the public library, and his determination to enter the public square as he is, a Catholic, and reorder it to the Highest Good, is indistinguishable from joining ISIS, or being a genocidal white nationalist.
In this way, advocates of liberalism recognize no other political good but “liberalism” itself, effectively adopting the second article of the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man: “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
The aim of all political association, really? This itself is “illiberal” in the original sense of the word: ungenerous and parsimonious. The only free society becomes the one that obediently seeks to enact the vision of Karl Popper. The fine-print definition of the Open Society’s “pluralism” turns out to be conformity.
My own view is that “liberalism” has always been modified, restrained, or elevated by other traditions, pre-liberal inheritances, and social facts. It has been given not only shape but direction by republican forms, and life by democracy. Liberalism has been “ordered” to other goods, by the character of the people or by the felt demands of a nation living under it.
John Adams described the weakness of the liberal federal government he and his compatriots had bequeathed to the nation, and its vulnerability.
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.
Adams’s assessment would fail the “liberal” test put forward by Rohac and by many of Sohrab Ahmari’s critics. They asked Ahmari, “Who determines the Highest Good?” And so they would retort to Adams, “You believe in virtue. Who defines these virtues?” But they also do something else. They exclude as much as they can the possibility of Ahmari and those like him having a say in the definition, while giving legal advantages to Popper’s disciples and whatever they themselves deem to have an “open” quality. Thus you have silliness of the “free and liberal” societies, which would allow a baker to turn down a potential wedding client for any trivial reason — for instance, the cake isn’t to his taste, or he wants a day off — but would forbid him doing the same for a very grave reason, his religious conscience.
If religious conservatives are worried that liberalism is insufficient, it is because this liberalism has been paired with something else that is substantively and implacably hostile to us. It is what the nationalist Polish conservative Ryszard Legutko calls the “demon in democracy.” Instead of the virtues of classical republicanism, the romance of nationalism, the ructions of democracy, many modern liberals give us a vision of an Open Society that is informed by the dreams of Communism itself, a withering away of nationality, religions, social distinctions, and even the family that occurs underneath the tutelage of liberal democratic capitalism rather than a Communist party. That is why, so often, the legal suppressions aimed at Christianity are aimed at things like the principled refusal to profit from one’s labor. None of these cases involve the systematic and conspiratorial deprivation of goods, as Jim Crow did. What offends the modern liberal is something else. The mere assertion of a higher good beyond the Open Society, and beyond ourselves, something higher than profit, is itself counted as an injury, as treasonous. And so it surprises me little that Sohrab Ahmari’s willingness to champion the Highest Good is taken as an offense, an injury, or evil itself.
We are not now anywhere near the end of what exists of America’s constitutional inheritance. Conservative victories will be achieved through the existing arrangements of these states, and they will be made by men like David French who understand the strengths of this system and can improve upon it. Therefore our victories will involve and implicate liberal ideas. But we must not confuse our rich liberal inheritance with the ideological straitjacket of Popperian “liberal democracy.” We are also heirs of a republican government; we possess our respective faiths, and our passion for the nation’s life and its history. All of this restrains, ennobles, and enlivens a liberal tradition.