Outsiders to Rightworld, and even some insiders, were mystified by the explosion of conservative commentary occasioned by New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari’s attack on our colleague David French. Both men are socially conservative Christian writers. What could occasion such fierce polemics between supporters of each? But perhaps there should have been less surprise: Debating first principles is among the oldest traditions of conservatives.
Younger conservatives may not be familiar with Ideas Have Consequences, the 1948 book in which Richard Weaver — a former socialist who became disillusioned by his technological and centralized mass society — traced “the dissolution of the West” to William of Ockham’s embrace of nominalism in the 14th century. But conservatives of all ages are acquainted with the titular phrase, and the mood of the argument.
The tradition has been revived over the last couple of years, and especially in recent weeks. The current debate is not tightly focused, but its subjects include one of the most fundamental questions of political philosophy: Does liberalism need to be reconsidered or rejected outright? While the conservative debaters have rarely specified what they mean by “liberalism” — that is one reason for the lack of focus — it is clear enough that the critics of liberalism in these exchanges do not mean merely the liberalism of John Rawls, Barack Obama, Howard Dean, and Rachel Maddow. They mean to sweep in libertarians, libertarian conservatives, and classical liberals as well. Some of them even have the Founders and John Locke on their target list.
While the arguments of the critics have sometimes been confused and even noxious, they have also touched on a point — the centrality of virtue and community to the conservative vision and the American project — that the most libertarian-minded conservatives sometimes scant. It is a point especially urgent to remember at a moment of fraying social ties. A toxic individualism, and not just an overweening state, threatens the national welfare. Recognition of that point should not, however, lead to the philosophical and political dead end of rejecting the American constitutional order. On that question, the critics of liberalism have been, at best, unclear.
That may have something to do with the ambiguity of the term “liberalism”: The participants in the debate have not all been arguing about the same thing. It is helpful, then, to start with some rough definitions and distinctions.
Let us take “liberalism” to refer to a set of political ideas held in common by classical liberals, most modern self-described liberals, and most modern conservatives: by, let’s say, the early John Stuart Mill, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. It refers to the ideas that all people have rights that governments should respect and protect, that these rights include the ability to express their views, that the law should aspire to impartiality among persons, that rulers should not possess absolute and arbitrary power, and so forth.
We can then distinguish between a “progressive” and a “conservative” version of liberalism. The former sees liberalism as a set of axioms that were discovered during the Enlightenment and that should govern all of human life. For progressive liberalism, politics consists of working out the implications of liberal principles and acting to conform society to them. Conservative liberalism, on the other hand, thinks of itself as a set of practices that we have learned, through many centuries of trial and error, are pretty good at promoting human flourishing — especially when compared with the available alternatives.
The first kind of liberalism has a totalizing impulse that sets it at odds with religion, nation-states, the family, and civil society generally. The second kind of liberalism, the liberalism of Tocqueville and The Federalist Papers, does not. It tends rather to emphasize the dependence of liberal political practices on pre-liberal or non-liberal cultural inheritances. It views the nation-state as the indispensable, historically evolved home of liberal democracy. It recognizes that liberal institutions and attitudes are rooted in a Western tradition that is intertwined with the history of Judaism and Christianity and the lived experiences of nation-states.
Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine exemplify the difference between the two liberalisms. In his book on the two thinkers, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin writes that what animates the modern Left is “actually a radical form of individualism, moved by much the same passion for justice that Paine had and by much the same desire to free people of the fetters of tradition, religion, and the moral or social expectations of those around him.” By contrast, conservatives draw, or should draw, from “Burke’s focus on the social character of man, from Burke’s thoroughgoing gradualism, and from his innovative liberal alternative to Enlightenment radicalism.”
A conservative liberalism recognizes that liberal institutions are not free-standing, not enough either for a healthy society or even, in the long run, for their own survival. They require a supportive cultural environment that includes a morally grounded citizenry and a robust civil society. But they do not guarantee these goods and in some ways undermine them. They are indispensable, and insufficient. So the work of preservation and renewal, the work of conservative liberals, is never-ending. Liberalism always faces the danger not only of succumbing to its illiberal opponents of various descriptions but of degenerating into its progressive form.
The immediate causes of the current debate are of course nearer to hand than either Burke or Paine. The election of Donald Trump unsettled existing political alignments and broadened views of what is politically possible. The rise of nationalist movements of the right in other countries — and especially in Hungary, where Viktor Orban explicitly differentiates his brand of conservatism from liberal democracy — has further prodded American conservatives to consider the extent to which we are, or should be, liberals.
The discussion reached a boil when First Things, the religious-conservative journal, published Ahmari’s denunciation of David French. Ahmari wrote that French’s classical liberalism, with its emphasis on neutral principles such as free speech and freedom of religion and its hostility to government action, leaves traditionalists without effective defense against today’s aggressive cultural Left.
Other conservative writers took up Ahmari’s side but followed different branches of the argument. Because French is much more critical of Trump than Ahmari is, many of the follow-on arguments concerned the president’s record and French’s writings about him. Others wrote about the degree of hostility we should direct toward the Left. Still others largely abandoned Ahmari’s particular criticisms of French to take up the case against liberalism — and those who had already been making that case were naturally pleased to see a version of it achieve such notoriety.
Most of these arguments would have profited from attention to the distinction between conservative and progressive versions. Parts of Ahmari’s essay read like a broadside against liberalism even in its broadest view. But Ahmari later remarked that he still considers himself a sort of liberal, and other parts of his essay — the strongest parts — read like a brief for a conservative liberalism over a progressive one. Even those parts of the essay were weakened, however, by his adducing French, bizarrely, as an example of the latter.
The later commentary has sometimes added to the confusion. In particular, French’s commitment to the “neutral principles” of free speech and due process has been distorted. The principles are indeed neutral in the important sense that they apply to people regardless of whether they are deeply mistaken, immoral, etc. Supporters as well as opponents of same-sex marriage or nuclear weapons or monarchy should be able to speak their minds without any penalty from the government; blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, deserve fair legal procedures; atheists as well as Baptists should generally be free to act according to their conscience, and their degree of freedom should not turn on the government’s judgment of their theology.
It does not follow, and French has never said, that government or society must be neutral with respect to the common good. It does not follow, and French has never said, that fair procedures are enough to produce a just and thriving society, or that conservatives should confine themselves to ensuring that procedures are fair, or that government can never take action to promote sound character or strengthen important institutions. Yet he has been taken to be affirming all these propositions and more.
French can take comfort in being in august company. Conservative critics of liberalism have a tendency to flatten liberalism by exaggerating the progressive elements of its history and discounting the conservative ones. Thus Locke stands accused by the anti-liberal Patrick Deneen of being a mere extension of Thomas Hobbes, among many other sins. Just as Hobbes elevated individual autonomy and rejected the natural order, so supposedly did Locke (and by extension, so did the Founders). The anti-liberals of the Right trace nearly everything they dislike about the contemporary national condition to this kind of philosophical error. It is as though Federalist No. 10 had led inevitably to demands that bakers make cakes celebrating gender transitions.
In a careful and persuasive reply to Deneen in the Catholic Social Science Review, Paul R. DeHart points out that both Locke and the Founders rejected Hobbes’s theory of unbounded sovereignty and his underlying metaphysics. “The founders and framers,” he notes in a summary of his argument, “affirmed the necessity of consent for political authority and obligation. But they also situated the necessity of consent in the context of a morally and metaphysically realist natural law, maintained that an objective good of the whole constitutes the final end of political association, and described liberty as subjection to the law of nature and the government of God.”
Joe Loconte of King’s College notes that, contrary to their critics, Locke and the Founders did care about the ends for which people used their freedoms and about duty. In Locke’s Second Treatise, he wrote that men and women were “all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business.” In A Letter concerning Toleration, Locke wrote of a pluralistic society: “Charity, bounty, and liberality must be added to it. This the Gospel enjoins, this reason directs, and this that natural fellowship we are born into requires of us.”
Yes, Madison believed that the “religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” But freedom of conscience was tightly connected to the duty that it enabled people to fulfill. “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.”
In Federalist No. 57, Madison invokes the common good: “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
The tendency on the part of most post-liberal writers to eschew necessary distinctions is compounded by an unwillingness even to attempt to spell out their alternative vision.
The few half-hearted gestures toward policy proposals point toward a populist economics. In an interview in Vox, Ahmari said an example of his ideal order is working mothers’ not having to return to work eight weeks after giving birth. The editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, plugged pro-family tax policy, “industrial policies” to raise wages, the break-up of Big Tech, taxing university and foundation endowments, and curtailing the tax-deductible donations of billionaires.
Outside of the merits of these ideas, it’s worth nothing that there’s been a robust intra-conservative debate about policies such as paid family leave, a child tax credit, and wage subsidies for going on ten years now, and none of the post-liberals to this point have made any meaningful contribution to it. Besides which, condemning the liberal order because you want, say, a larger earned-income tax credit is rather over-saucing the goose.
The overall vagueness of the post-liberals leaves it an open question what they want. Some of the current critics of liberalism may harbor no desire to repudiate Madison, or free elections and an impartial judiciary. They merely believe that conservatism has been too influenced by libertarianism and wish to pull the two some distance apart. That kind of intramural argument on the right has a history coterminous with that of the modern conservative movement. Conservatism has never simply been Milton Friedman’s libertarianism or even Frank Meyer’s fusionism. It has always had room for Russell Kirk as well.
And, for that matter, for Irving Kristol. What many of the post-liberals seem to be groping toward is Irving Kristol’s attitude of, as the title of one of his collections had it, two cheers for capitalism. Kristol acknowledged the many benefits of capitalism, but also realized that it had weaknesses, namely its lack of a lofty vision of the good life and its tendency to undermine the cultural supports upon which it depends. Yet no one, including Kristol, ever thought Kristol was a post-liberal, let alone illiberal.
Conservatives who merely want a rebalancing of our commitments — whether because our circumstances demand a less libertarian response than those of the Reagan era did, or because we have forgotten some of what Kristol knew — should perhaps avoid creating the impression they are engaged in a larger and potentially more menacing project.
Liberalism and Catholicism have, to say no more, a complicated history. Many of the anti-liberals of the Right seek to set them in opposition again. So it is worth noting that Catholics have come to the defense of liberal institutions while acknowledging their limits. The eminent Catholic conservative writer George Weigel observes that John Courtney Murray, Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI all believed that the institutions of liberal democracy “were dependent on a moral and cultural foundation those liberal institutions could not generate. Democracy was not a machine that could run by itself. It took a critical mass of mechanics — mature citizens — to operate the machinery of democracy so that politics helped advance individual human flourishing and social solidarity.”
They were nonetheless liberals in the sense that they
were also convinced that there was no plausible, real-world alternative to the institutions of liberal democracy for those interested in a humane future. Monarchy, benign or otherwise, was done, and only nostalgics indulged in fantasies of altar-and-throne restoration. Various 20th-century authoritarianisms had produced either social, economic, and cultural stagnation or genocidal mass violence. Thus the real-world option — the real-world imperative — was the hard work of building and maintaining the moral and cultural foundations essential to the liberal democratic political project, while playing good defense against the temptation of the modern democratic state to impede that reconstruction by using its coercive power to impose on everyone a dumbed-down notion of freedom as personal willfulness or “choice.”
On a more mundane note, Weigel adds that the collaboration that is necessary among social conservatives becomes impossible “when those who should be allies trade smarts for snark, or go to DEFCON 1 and hurl rhetorical nukes into the blogosphere at the first whiff of disagreement.”
Passionate disagreements over small causes are a professional hazard of intellectuals, and the conservative tradition of disputation exacerbates that tendency by staying in the realm of abstraction. Today’s conservative critics of liberalism sometimes attempt to make a virtue of lacking much of a specific program. They want conservatives to reorient their thinking, not just to reshuffle their agenda. But without having a firmer sense of what the critics have in mind, the rest of us will not be able to attain a clear view of what’s at stake in their critique, where we can work together on common goals — and, not least, the extent to which we are allies.
In his attack on David French, Ahmari concludes that to recognize the enmity of the Left “is its own kind of moral duty.” The same can be said about knowing who your friends are.