Making Moral Mistakes Mandatory

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Further thoughts on Sohrab Ahmari and ‘David Frenchism’

The leading anti-immigration voice in our country belongs to my friend Mark Krikorian of the Mayflower Krikorians. Two of the most prominent voices associated with our dotty new blood-and-soil nationalism are linked to the surnames Buchanan and Ahmari. My colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty calls himself a nationalist, too — a nationalist in the cause of at least two nations, by my count. That’s two Irishmen, an Iranian, and an Armenian, three of them Catholics and all four of them gentlemen who, if earlier generations of so-called nationalists had had their way, would be admiring these United States from afar.

Funny old world.

On Friday, I appeared opposite Sohrab Ahmari on a panel hosted by the William F. Buckley Program at Yale. He argued that the main duty of the state is not to protect liberty but to achieve the good, biblically defined. That’s what he said when he showed up, anyway — he was a little bit late owing to the fact that the state he would entrust to do God’s work here on Earth cannot quite manage to make the trains run on time, a fact that you might think would be of some interest to a bantamweight Mussolini.

Mr. Ahmari, who is the op-ed editor of the New York Post (where I write about twice a month), is a Catholic convert, as am I. (I suppose I identify as “Puritan curious” these days; it must be that book on the Presidents Adams.) I have never met a Catholic convert who is not a fan of A Man for All Seasons, and Mr. Ahmari reminds me a little bit of the young idealist of whom Thomas More says: “We must just pray that when your head is finished turning, your face is to the front again.” National Review is a magazine that in its early days boasted a collection of freshly reformed Trotskyites, doctrinaire libertarians, and militant Catholic anti-liberals, but to my knowledge none of them was all three at the same time, whereas Mr. Ahmari can run through that cycle in a three-day weekend. I will be happy for him when his jackboot phase has ended, but who knows where he will land?

You can bet it will not be in a place close to my sometime colleague David French. If you have followed recent intramural conservative factional politics, then you will know that Mr. Ahmari has a bizarre and unseemly obsession with David French, who is a leading conservative critic of the Trump administration and its sycophants. Trump’s admirers like to say, “He fights!” Trump of course is a medical marvel, having had the only case in recorded medical history of bone spurs that healed without any medical intervention whatsoever, a miracle that was witnessed right around the time the Vietnam draft was coming to a close. French served in Iraq without any compulsion and has dedicated much of his career to literally making a federal case of it when Americans’ religious liberties are violated by various peckerwood city councilmen and mealy-mouthed deans. But he is almost unfailingly polite, and thus Mr. Ahmari et al. heap scorn upon what they call “David Frenchism.” But when Mr. Ahmari recently was fool enough to get on the other side of David French in an actual debate, the stuttering and incoherent mess to which he was promptly reduced was evidence enough (superfluous, in fact) that David Frenchism is made of sterner stuff than our newly minted young nationalists had thought. He fights.

The question before us at Yale was very closely related to the French–Ahmari dispute: Whether American liberalism (by which we mean the liberalism of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, not the managerial pretensions of Elizabeth Warren) is a victim of its own success. My answer is that liberalism is part of a package deal called liberal democracy, which simultaneously is a victim of liberalism’s success and democracy’s failures, many of which were presciently dissected by the aforementioned Presidents Adams: faction, vanity, envy, ambition, the “passions” that so worried the Puritan philosophes of New England. We have peace of a sort and prosperity enough, but we want purpose, and so we must be miserable.

For the partisans of David Frenchism (and you can count me in their number), it would be enough for government to secure our liberty. I would in fact consider my work as a political critic complete (and the eschaton finally imminent) if I believed that the state could be trusted to do that. There is much more to the good life than politics, and liberty, properly understood, is only a means, not an end. The question of what we are to do with that liberty might be answered in any number of ways consulting many different sources of wisdom. But it is far too important to be left to the people who cannot even quite make the trains run on time. A government that is soon likely to be presided over either by Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren is not a fitting instrument of moral instruction, and the people — We, the People — who bear the blame for having made it what it is ought to be modest in our expectations about what we might make of it in the future.

Somewhere in Mr. Ahmari’s catechism are the words Put not your faith in princes. It took ten plagues and a river of blood to communicate the fullness of that truth in the time of Moses. But there is nothing that is finally and truly unforgettable, which is why we conservative are obliged to keep bothering our countrymen about pesky little truths that many of them would rather forget. One of those is that investing mere political functionaries with the power of moral compulsion does not liberate the polity from moral error but instead makes the moral errors of certain men universal and mandatory.

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