I am grateful to David B. Frisk, John O. McGinnis, Matthew Mitchell, and Richard Samuelson for their generous and thoughtful replies to my Liberty Forum essay. Speaking broadly, we agree that the American Right is in a bad way. We also think it would be a mistake to abandon classical liberal commitments to constitutional government, the distinction between public and private spheres, and free markets. The question is how best to promote them.
David Frisk focuses his attention on the unpolitical character of classical liberalism, at least in the version I presented. He suggests that squeamishness about the use of power renders classical liberals “passive.” While intellectual activities like writing books and delivering speeches creates a flattering appearance of intellectual coherence and moral superiority, it provides little defense against managerial encroachment. Frisk predicts that
if somehow the Right becomes dominated by classical liberal anti-politicism such as Goldman admires, shunting aside the Trumpian reactionaries and their desire for power, don’t expect to see big government stopped short of strangling our society and economy. Perhaps, in that case, the classical liberals should let the reactionaries do their supposed dirty work for them.
I have few objections to Frisk’s critique of “anti-politicism.” That is why I described classical liberalism as a basically elite phenomenon that has struggled to attract popular support or make effective use of power. In order to create a viable American conservatism, classical liberalism had to be infused with the emotional energy and political realism that characterize reaction. As I tried to show, this dynamic tension was not only about balancing different factions within the conservative movement. It also occurred within the minds of conservative intellectuals, who had to develop their own strategies for combining principle and pragmatism.
Unless it can be channeled through procedures and institutions—what Tocqueville called “forms”—and elevated by philosophical reflection, however, reaction can become destructive of ordered liberty. My worry is that the Trump phenomenon is cutting the reactionary impulse loose from these restraints. By now we can see that we have a President who makes little reference to classical liberal principles in his public statements; the real problem, though, is that he openly admires authoritarian rulers and regimes and, wittingly or unwittingly, has adopted some of their characteristic strategies, including dark accusations of conspiracies against him, interference with law enforcement and intelligence agencies that are supposed to be insulated from political influence, and reliance on a closed circle of family members and courtiers.
It is difficult to defend these predilections on their merits, which is why Trump’s supporters often resort to tu quoque arguments (which are not necessarily false). Yet a politically savvy conservative—or “active classical liberal,” as Frisk would have it—might say they were a price worth paying to secure some worthy goals. Quoting Frank Meyer, Frisk notes that “To forget long-range principle is to be opportunistic, but to ‘renounce the short range’ is to be abstract, utopian, aridly ideological.”
This is a sound piece of conservative wisdom. But we might also recall what Meyer had to say at a moment when conservatives were flirting with support for former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Meyer wrote in 1967 that:
there are others dangers to conservatism and to the civilization conservatives are defending than the Liberal [i.e. “Progressive”] Establishment, and . . . to fight Liberalism without guarding against these dangers runs the risk of ending in a situation as bad or worse than our present one.
Meyer acknowledged that Wallace took “positions parallel to conservatism” on some issues, but insisted that his populism, “couched in the rhetoric of incitement of the masses and contempt for the intellect in all its manifestations, is radically alien to conservatism.” So it is, I fear, with Trump and a party that seems determined to follow his lead.
John O. McGinnis agrees with me that much of the best in modern conservatism is derived from classical liberalism, but argues that I mischaracterize that tradition. He writes:
It is true that classical liberalism is a philosophy born of the Enlightenment, and those who think of the philosophers that era as simple enthusiasts of reason may see classical liberalism through that prism. But to me what is striking about many Enlightenment philosophers is their focus on the weakness of human reasoning . . . the difference between liberalism of the Right and liberalism of the Left is that the former respects tradition as a safeguard in light of the mistakes of abstract reasoning that people in politics are led, whether through ignorance or passion, to make.
That way of distinguishing between classical or, as we might say, conservative liberalism and Progressive liberalism seems right to me. But I do not think it is inconsistent with anything I wrote in the essay. Classical liberalism does not mean that we can understand ourselves, articulate the moral law, or determine the right forms of social order a priori. But it does presume that we are capable of scrutinizing experience to determine with fair accuracy what is likely to “work for us.”
I think the Constitution makes sense only if we accept this presumption. As Greg Weiner recently argued in Modern Age, the structure of the Constitution is based largely on experience, whether acquired directly or from the study of history. Yet those urging ratification appealed to the faculties of “reason and choice,” which Publius juxtaposed to “accident and force.” If the Framers had relied on reason alone, the proposed Constitution might have looked very different. If, at the other extreme, they believed reason had no place in politics, they would not have submitted their handiwork to an unprecedented process of public scrutiny and deliberation.
McGinnis cites David Hume as a key source for the resistance of classical liberalism to abstract rationalism. That may be true, but reflects just one dimension of Hume’s influence. On the Continent, Hume provided political inspiration and philosophical justification to seminal reactionaries including Joseph de Maistre. Again, classical liberalism and reaction turn out to be more closely intertwined than we often realize.
Do any of these somewhat academic observations matter when so many functions of government have been absorbed by the administrative state? Matthew Mitchell attempts to cheer us up, identifying several ways in which America is more free today than it was 50 years ago. Some of the gains he spoke of seem more important than others. But the extension of civil and economic rights to blacks, the deregulation of transportation, and the radical decentralization of communications—these indeed are a powerful antidote to nostalgia for an ostensible golden age.
In addition to challenging the reactionary decline narrative, Mitchell points out that advances in freedom aren’t necessarily the result of a coherent strategy. Politicians tend to adopt ideas from intellectuals opportunistically rather than on principle. And the entrepreneurs who transform markets are usually trying to make money rather than making a point. So perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about the crack-up on the Right. In the long run, things will probably turn out okay.
I agree with Mitchell that, to borrow a phrase from the late Peter Lawler, things are always getting both better and worse. Nevertheless, I cannot entirely share his optimism. For many of us, increasing freedom as consumers has not been matched by a growing sense of control over our lives. The flipside of the low prices and convenient service provide by Uber, for example, is the “gig economy” in which part-time, freelance, or otherwise precarious jobs replace stable employment.
Promises to make America great again appeal less to outright impoverishment than to sentiments of displacement and alienation that economic changes encourage. In order to prevent those promises from turning into futile attempts to turn back the clock, conservatives and libertarians who take inspiration from classical liberalism need to address the real concerns of those with whom they resonate. I don’t think that’s an impossible task. But it does require a shift in attention from cutting taxes for the rich to fighting rent-seeking and removing bureaucratic obstacles to growth.
The consequences of not shouldering this task could be disastrous. Richard Samuelson is not wrong when he suggests that “Goldman worries that Trump, or perhaps Trumpism, represents the creation of an identity-politics America.” At least since the civil rights movement mutated into black power, Progressives have encouraged blacks, native Americans, Latinos, and Asians to regard themselves as members of distinct cultures requiring special affirmation and protection. The Trump phenomenon seems to encourage whites, who will soon enough be a minority, to draw a similar conclusion. Although the evidence for this conclusion is anecdotal—Confederate flags at rallies, troubling statements in focus groups, and the like—that does not make it less disturbing.
Trump does not say that he is practicing white identity politics and almost certainly doesn’t believe it. As Samuelson observes, his inaugural address included a powerful reminder of “that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all the salute the same great American flag.” And I agree with Samuelson that “conservatives of all stripes” can “support assimilation, and a more philo-patriotic course of history and civic education in our schools.” Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, the classical liberal tradition is not incompatible with nationalism and in some applications presupposes it.
But there are also limits to the degree of consensus that we can expect to reach by means of education and legislation. It is not accidental that Trump’s paean to national unity is also a tribute to the military, in which unit cohesion is a matter of life and death. Classical liberalism emerged historically from the attempt to figure out how people who are divided by serious disagreements and opposing interests can live together in peace and security. This old and comparatively modest goal is not to be disdained.