Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue


(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

What Is a Classical Liberal to Do?

I have subscribed to NR since the 1970s (after WFB appeared at the University of Michigan Law School) and thus write as a friend.

I enjoy reading Charles C. W. Cooke’s writing. In “The Post-Liberals’ Incoherence” (July 8), he makes a powerful case for “classical liberalism,” including this fundamental tenet: 

Defenders of our classically liberal order such as I contend that its purpose is not to deliver endless victories to one group or another within society, but to create a framework within which people who hold markedly different conceptions of what constitutes the Highest Good can coexist without going to war. In America, this end is achieved in part by our constitutional structure, which is designed to protect the individual and to foster the pluralism that is necessary for peace, and it is achieved in part by the inclusion of democratic elements that ensure that the losing side in any dispute has a chance to win in the future. Ultimately, the classically liberal order places only one condition on participants, and that is they agree not to try to abolish it or to permanently take it over.

Mr. Cooke enters the fray initiated by Sohrab Ahmari in First Things, asking what, precisely, Ahmari and those who agree with him propose to do. Mr. Cooke closes with sound arguments in favor of the system he defends and its capacity to rectify injustices.

While I am not yet persuaded by any of the participants in this important debate, I do have a question for Mr. Cooke and a response to his own question:

If one of the participants (here, the Left) in the political battles does not agree with the “one condition” and emphatically does want to abolish it or permanently take over, what should the response be? Mr. Cooke powerfully defends the institutions of our country and their ability to achieve justice over time, but Mr. Ahmari is correct, is he not, that there are significant threats to this order and its ability to achieve justice? While I hope Mr. Cooke is right, I have profound concerns.

Which brings me to one possible answer to Mr. Cooke’s question about what to do, an approach quite relevant to National Review, despite misgivings about the president’s manifest flaws: support President Trump against his political opponents. If I am correct that the ascendant Left does not agree with the “one condition” and intends its demise, the only practical political alternative is this current president, who, after all, has achieved many significant results.

One of the reasons I am still undecided about the debate Mr. Cooke has so eloquently joined is that there are too many who want to play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules, with one hand tied behind their back (e.g., by being a “Never Trumper”), while their political and cultural opponents lay the groundwork for “the fundamental transformation of the United States of America.” 

If we are going to work within the “classical liberal” framework, then let’s get real about practical politics.

Richard K. Mason
Altadena, Calif.

Editor’s note: Charles C. W. Cooke’s response will appear in the next issue.

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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