The Corner

The Culture War and Liberaltarianism

One area I wish Will and I had explored more than we did, though we did discuss it a bit, is the issue of culture. Somewhere in our discussion, I raise the point that most people don’t subscribe to their political views out of a serious and deep understanding of political philosophy and policy. They believe what they believe because that’s how they were raised, not just by their parents but by their society. The constitution may be an intellectual backstop against tyranny, but the first line of defense is the heart and conscience of the average American. Ours is a democratic and constitutional culture and the social capital imbedded in culture is often far more valuable than written law. The importance of this insight is no less formidible because it is so widely recognized, from Burke and Hayek to de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington and countless others.

Will wouldn’t disagree with that. Where we could have a fruitful argument, however, is the degree to which modern progressivism is at war with the culture of liberty, how much of our social capital is it willing to throw out as antiquated ballast? For example, as Will and I discussed, he’s an atheist who doesn’t like religion. Well, as he concedes, religion produces (or is associated with) all sorts of social goods he likes. Can you throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Anyway, one point I didn’t raise during this part of the conversation is Charles Kesler’s critique of Samuel Huntington. Huntington very much subscribed to the view that our culture of liberty and pluralism is the real source of our liberty and pluralism. He refers to it as The Creed. He worried that liberals were taking the creed too far. In short, he was worried that liberals had such open minds their brains fell out.

Kesler objected to this formulation. He argued that liberals didn’t merely take The Creed too far but had in fact declared war on it. Here’s Kesler:

Modern liberalism, beginning in the Progressive era, has done its best to strip natural rights and the Constitution out of the American creed. By emptying it of its proper moral content, thinkers and politicians like Woodrow Wilson prepared the creed to be filled by subsequent generations, who could pour their contemporary values into it and thus keep it in tune with the times. The “living constitution,” as the new view of things came to be called, transformed the creed, once based on timeless or universal principles, into an evolving doctrine; turned it, in effect, into culture, which could be adjusted and reinterpreted in accordance with history’s imperatives. Alternatively, one could say that 20th-century liberals turned their open-ended form of culturalism into a new American creed, the multicultural creed, which they have few scruples now about imposing on republican America, diversity be damned.

To his credit, Huntington abhors this development. Unfortunately, his Anglo-Protestant culturalism, like any merely cultural conservatism, is no match for its liberal opponents. He persists in thinking of liberals as devotees of the old American creed who push its universal principles too far, who rely on reason to the exclusion of a strong national culture. When they abjured individualism and natural rights decades ago, however, liberals broke with that creed, and did so proudly. When they abandoned nature as the ground of right, liberals broke as well with reason, understood as a natural capacity for seeking truth, in favor of reason as a servant of culture, history, fate, power, and finally nothingness. In short, Huntington fails to grasp that latter-day liberals attack American culture because they reject the American creed, around which that culture has formed and developed from the very beginning.

I think there’s considerable merit to Kesler’s point. Political correctness, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, various kinds of environmentalism etc., I would argue (and have argued) are in fact an effort to create a rival culture to traditional culture. It seems to me that liberaltarianism seeks, in no small way, to be part of this rival culture while keeping its sanity on economic questions. Indeed, Will is quite open about how he’s really a very liberal guy who simply understands that free markets deliver a liberal society better than the alternatives.

Anyway, the question for liberaltarians is whether such a novel and fabricated culture can not only promote liberty but defend it as well. And if the answer is no in whole or in part, do they want to be intellectual midwives to a fabricated culture that doesn’t revere what they hold dear?

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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