The Corner


It Would Be Nice if Critics Stopped Straw-Manning Classical Liberalism

Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C., September 20, 2018. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Yes, I know, the last thing you wanted to read today was another entry in the right’s liberalism wars. But I can’t help myself. Someone was wrong on the Internet, and I feel compelled to respond. Earlier today Sohrab Ahmari tweeted some thoughts that perfectly encapsulated my frustrations with at least some of the contemporary right-wing critiques of classical liberalism. Here’s Ahmari, writing about woke children and woke students:

Let’s put aside for the moment whether anyone should be “terrified of the woke children” (there’s way too much fear on the right) and address the key substance of Ahmari’s critique. According to him, on the one side there exists a left-wing force that gives students a “vision of the good,” while liberals respond to cries for justice with simple “deliberative procedures and norms” or mere “viewpoint diversity.”

No, that’s wrong. That’s not the argument. To explain why, I’m going to refer back again to my years fighting against unlawful speech codes and other forms of enforced ideological orthodoxy on campus. I used to have a little speech that I’d give many of my clients at the outset of litigation — whether they were Christians students, Christian ministries, or conservative professors. I would tell that that their lawsuit was ultimately the least important part of their engagement on campus. The critical question was what would they then do with the freedoms they won in court. Their freedom would exist soon enough, but still they had to step forward boldly into the space made for them.

The instruments of classical liberalism — including free speech, free exercise of religion, and due process — were the mechanisms that empowered students, student groups, and members of the faculty to put forth their competing “vision of the good.” It’s not as if my kids attend Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Tennessee to hear about “viewpoint diversity.” They attend — along with hundreds of others — to hear a robust presentation of the Gospel and to create a thriving Christian community. When I litigated on behalf of a pro-life professor in North Carolina, it wasn’t so he could talk exclusively about free speech in higher education (though he does that ably), but also so he could speak powerful truths about the incalculable worth of a growing child in the womb.

Classical liberalism is the frame, the structure through which a pluralistic society makes competing arguments for the common good and the Highest Good. Frederick Douglass called the right to free speech the “dread of tyrants” not simply because dissenters will argue for more free speech, but because they’ll bring to bear reason and passion to strike at the heart of injustice. It is no coincidence that intolerance thrives when the marketplace of ideas withers. That’s why Heterodox Academy is, in fact, utterly indispensable. The very existence of thousands of left and right-liberal professors who are willing to supplement work in their disciplines with a courageous call for a true marketplace of ideas on campus make it more likely that thousands more will be able to walk the trail that they blaze.

Note as always the symbiotic relationship between liberty and responsibility. Win the liberty and then exercise that liberty virtuously and courageously. I’ve never met a classical liberal who is only a classical liberal. Each person has an idea for the policies a liberal state should pursue or the religious (or secular) values that a person should live by. The Christian classical liberal values liberty and uses it to speak eternal truths. I’ll take that vision of the good to any audience of young people, anywhere, with great confidence that it can transform any human heart.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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