fbpx

Conservatives Should Not Lump Classical Liberals with Modern Liberals

In the End of Liberalism and in his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen joins some other conservatives today in lumping classical liberalism and modern liberalism together as both contributing to the acid bath that is dissolving important institutions like the family that are essential to human flourishing. This move is wrong analytically, consequentially, and tactically. Analytically, because classical liberalism is concerned with protecting the individual against state power, not protecting him against social influences it dislikes, as is modern liberalism. Consequentially, because the classical liberalism, unlike modern liberalism, protects the ability of people to act together and precommit to institutions, like the church, that are the essential foundation for modern conservatism. Tactically, because after the decline of the throne and altar provided by a state, conservatives do not have sufficient power to govern without being in coalition with classical liberals.

It is modern liberalism, not classical liberalism, that blurs the distinction between the state and society. For instance, modern liberalism is concerned about using the state to enforce equality, because it worries that substantial levels of inequality will make people too subservient to the rich, a social norm it dislikes. It is hostile to religious influence in the social world because that influence too can make it harder to for people to find their true selves. Even the family can be too confining. But classical liberalism essentially leaves people alone and subject to social influences so long as those with influence do not act with force or fraud. Indeed, one of the great insights of classical liberalism — one that has been formalized by public choice — is that the attempt to cabin the social influences in order to enforce a social order more to one’s liking aggrandizes the state.

And this analysis makes a consequential difference, because it suggests that the basic institutions of America are compatible with maintaining the structures that conservatives believe necessary for human flourishing. As I have argued before, our Constitution is essentially a classical liberal document friendly to joint as well as individual action. It permits people to create their own voluntary associations, like churches, in which people can prosper together. It even permits individual states to make democratic tradeoffs between license and liberty, but within a framework that permits relatively easy exit from governmental power that grows tyrannical though the free movement of people in a continental republic.

Finally, classical liberals share many of the concerns of conservatives about how the state operates today, precisely because it is crushing voluntary associations and replacing traditional institutions, like the family with state power. Take the social welfare state. The idea of many modern liberals is to make the state the entity with which an individual has the most important and enduring relationship. The infamous “Life of Julia” video put out by the 2012 Obama campaign captured that vision.

Not only do classical liberals oppose these efforts, they want to permit a family to make their own values more paramount in shaping the young. That objective as much as improving human capital lies behind the various policies to create more choice in K-12 education, which now reflects values chosen by a statist educational establishment. Conservatives need classical liberals as much as classical liberals need conservatives to pursue this political program. There is a lot of work for this alliance to do to contain modern liberalism and little prospect of doing so if either group treats the other as a political enemy.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on January 12, 2018 at 09:32:18 am

[…] Read more[…] […]

read full comment
Image of Conservatives Should Not Lump Classical Liberals with Modern Liberals | Top 100 Blog Review
Conservatives Should Not Lump Classical Liberals with Modern Liberals | Top 100 Blog Review
on January 12, 2018 at 09:53:15 am

On the other hand one could say that modern liberals are only reverting to the roots that they share with classical liberalism in the Presbyterian faction of the Long Parliament.

The similarities between the Presbyterian faction between 1645-49 and modern liberals is often quite striking in matters concerning censorship of the press and individual speech, enforced conformity to the state religion and their special affection for oligarchies.

read full comment
Image of EK
EK
on January 12, 2018 at 10:15:04 am

Conceptually, liberalism is synonymous with emancipation of the individual from traditional social relations. The classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries was institutionalized as "bourgeois values" (itself now (still) a pejorative as Amy Wax discovered). But it was that institutionalization that was the hybrid of individual freedom plus commitment to individual-transcending values and communities that represents the "classical liberalism" McGinnis cites. The concept itself does not contain that limitation inherently (no "hitherto shalt thou come but no further"). Left unchecked by another, equally powerful concept, liberalism keeps on emancipating the individual from all social relations: from all theistic religion per se, from family, until the State is all that's left. One good emancipation (from subjugation to the temporal power of the Catholic Church and from its doctrinal restraints on commerce; from rigid and life-long social stratification according to birth status) deserves another, right (from church per se, from family per se, from gender per se). The French Revolution was a liberal, bourgeois revolution, where the acid-like nature of the liberal concept kept eating away at the social fabric until it was artificially and with much violence brought to a halt.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on January 12, 2018 at 10:51:54 am

Classical liberals believe in nondiscrimination and desegregation, Modern liberals believe in forced integration and affirmative action.

read full comment
Image of Bakke's Lament
Bakke's Lament
on January 12, 2018 at 10:55:32 am

Deneen is confusing "Progressivism" with liberalism, a mistake made commonplace by routine misuse of the word "liberal" to describe "Progressive" ideology. A brief quotation from Deneen's "The End of Liberalism" makes clear his confusion and his errors:

"Liberal philosophy begins with the belief that humans are by nature free and independent. Liberal theory posits that this imaginary condition helps to reveal human nature prior to the conventions of human society, it establishes the aspirational norm for humans in society, and it becomes the main aim and of government and society to establish the conditions for the realisation of such liberated creatures. A vast and encroaching political and social architecture is required to establish the conditions for such liberated people, freeing them from bonds of family, community, church, culture, and nation."

This is wrong as to classical liberalism and, more importantly, it is wrong as to the origins of American liberty. The Founders were not classical liberals. Rather they were defenders of their right, by tradition and heritage, of English liberty believing as they did that humans by nature's God are intended and Englishmen by birth were entitled to be free and independent. The Founders did not believe that humans are "by nature free and independent." Rousseau thought that, not Madison or Hamilton or the political philosophers and jurists on whom they relied.

But, whether classical liberals or defenders of Anglo-American liberty, neither is responsible in any way, as Deneen argues, for the notions; 1) that "the main aim of government and society (is) to establish the conditions for the realisation of such liberated creatures." and 2) that a "vast and encroaching political and social architecture is required to establish the conditions for such liberated people, freeing them from bonds of family, community, church, culture, and nation."

Those nasty propositions are the ideology of American "Progressivism" and European Marxism and Soviet Leninism. They are foundational tenets of the modern Democrat Party.They are anathema to, not the beliefs of, "liberalism" or of constitutional conservatism, both of which share the foundational belief (not ideology) that man by nature's God is intended and Americans by their English heritage and by their Founding of law and liberty are by right entitled to free.

Finally, I must disagree with Professor McGinnis' assertions 1) that there is a significant dispute between "classical liberals" and conservatives and 2) that "(c)onservatives need classical liberals as much as classical liberals need conservatives..." As to the former, I ask: "Where is the evidence of significant disagreement?" "Who are these classical liberals of which you speak?" At age 73 I have not heard, seen or read of one since Herbert Hoover. There are none in the Democrat Party (and he would have disagreed with me about him.) There is no "Classical Liberal Party" anywhere. I am aware of no classical liberal scholar on any college campus. But if I could find one I would not disagree with him on anything (except, perhaps, that Trump is a far better choice than Hillary?)

As to the latter assertion, that "conseratives need classical liberals," I would ask: "If there are any classical liberals, how could they help conservatism or Trump populism fight the civil war in which America is engaged?

read full comment
Image of timothy
timothy
on January 14, 2018 at 17:35:11 pm

Bordieu in La Noblesse de l'Etat demonstrates that pre-revolutionary social fabric was arguably not brought entirely to a halt but survived to various degrees in subsequent governing styles/structures. Like Bordieu or not otherwise, he offered a fecond and well-developed argument here. Macron's new emphasis on more accessible and responsible government is fresh step that strengthens some freedoms while providing more opportunities.

read full comment
Image of Jayne
Jayne
on January 14, 2018 at 20:43:26 pm

Timothy

Cheers for your comment. It was a better read than the article.

read full comment
Image of Jay
Jay
on January 16, 2018 at 12:20:33 pm

The problem with the notion of individual liberalism, is that it fails to recognize that man exists in relationship because Love exists in relationship. The erroneous notion that private morality and public morality can exist in opposition to one another and are not complementary, has resulted in grievous error in both Faith and reason.
Only The True God, The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, Declares what is Good.

Our Salvational History has revealed what can be known through both Faith and reason; apart from The True God, all roads lead eventually to tyranny and oppression.

Only The Truth of Love can set us free and lead us to Salvation.
The error of The Enlightment, was the erroneous notion that man's reasoning could trump God's.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on December 31, 2019 at 08:59:05 am

[…] with liberty and respect for tradition. It is hardly clear that whatever its philosophical merits, of which I am doubtful, that this can be a winning […]

read full comment
Image of The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism
The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.