To Sustain the Anglo-American Tradition, Conversation Is Not Enough

In a February 2018 speech to members of the National Sheriff’s Association, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered a brief, improvised tribute to the office of sheriff in the Anglo-American tradition. While some writers leapt to defend the idea of that tradition, many suggested that Sessions’ use of the term was little more than another dog whistle. We might simply take the entire episode to be another manifestation of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but for so many supposedly-highly-educated people in the media to join the chorus demonstrates yet another area of failure in our nation’s civic education. Unless they set out to complicate or outright destroy the idea, scholars in politics and law mostly assume the presence of an Anglo-American tradition, or at least a loose collection of ideas about liberty, justice, and political order that flow from cultural preoccupations shared across the Anglophone world.

Two years ago João Carlos Espada published The Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty: A View From Europe with a different end in mind than most scholars. The book, which is just out in paperback, begins with a European puzzle: Why is it that the English-speaking peoples historically combined a deep love of liberty with a passionate devotion to their political duties, where for the rest of Europe this is so difficult? Espada develops his account of this phenomenon through brief engagements in the thought of 13 authors active from the 18th century to the present.

If this were just a foray into the history of political thought, I suspect the book would not have been very successful at enriching our understanding of the Anglo-American tradition. But what Espada actually offers is implied by his subtitle: a look at his personal journey into a tradition of thinking about politics, one that can be espoused by “conservatives, liberals, and even social-democrats” and that prizes a “non-revolutionary disposition and a common attachment to liberty and personal responsibility.” As such, his “view” is highly idiosyncratic, offering insights into a complex tradition of thought that are a mixture of perceptive analysis and personal observation.

For the most part, Espada unfolds his story in reverse chronological order. Part I offers four chapters centered on people who influenced his intellectual development, and that were most responsible for his exposure to the Anglo-American tradition. He attributes the most decisive influence on his trajectory to his relationship with Karl Popper. But what Popper represents in Espada’s thinking is a skepticism of grand theories, particularly those related to history. Popper excoriated historicism as an attitude “attributing to history a pre-determined sense not susceptible to alteration by individuals.” This is crucial because many rationalistic theories of politics and ideology—the sort of beliefs that aim at transforming the world—rely on an understanding of progress that flows from a version of this historicism. From Popper he also learned to admire Winston Churchill, upon whom a crucial element of the argument of this book rests.

After offering brief appreciations of his other teachers and mentors—Raymond Plant, Ralf Dahrendorf, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb—Espada opens the second part of his book with an eclectic list of five “Cold Warriors” from whom he deepened his worldview and appreciation of the Anglo-American tradition: Raymond Aron, Friedrich Hayek, Isiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, and Leo Strauss. These chapters complicate the story, helping the reader grasp the essential outlines of how the Anglo-American tradition figured in 20th century thought. Espada also offers a tour of what each thinker saw in the Anglo-American tradition and details his own encounter with their ideas.

In Raymond Aron, Espada discovers a logic parallel to Popper’s rejection of historicism. Aron argued that thinkers on the Left all too often assume history has a direction which the elect can discover—and in effect a secular religion that animates lives and frees us from the ordinary rules and procedures of politics. Emphasizing the overlap between the common law tradition and the “grown” institutions and knowledge Hayek defended, we receive a reminder that “liberty is, not only the first value, but also the source and condition of most other values.” Berlin and Oakeshott offer a healthy dose of skepticism about abstractions alongside their own accounts of what defending liberty requires of citizens.

The most suggestive chapter here concerns Strauss, whose critique of relativism takes center stage, and against whose esotericism Espada offers a gentle criticism. He reminds his readers of the crucial role Strauss played in reviving political philosophy, with particular attention to the way Strauss held relativism to threaten liberal democracy. By including Strauss, Espada creates an opportunity to criticize his other Cold Warriors’ lapses into relativism, and to ask whether they offered enough intellectual sustenance with which to defend Anglo-American liberty.

In Espada’s rendering, none of these five Cold Warriors offers a full appreciation of the Anglo-American tradition—or more importantly, the challenge of defending what is true about it in the present day. With the possible exception of Strauss and Aron, each of his thinkers deploys an abiding skepticism to critique modernist, socialist, or illiberal views of politics and economics. While each appropriated elements of the Anglo-American tradition, all of them remained unwilling to commit to defending a comprehensive view of the political order, instead opting for conversation, philosophy, or economics as their primary ordering principle. And all of them offer lessons about how the tendencies in 20th century thought toward critique rather than grander, more constructive ideas left us adrift.

Perhaps this is why in Espada’s third major section, he turns at greater length to three champions of the Anglo-American tradition—Edmund Burke, James Madison, and Alexis de Tocqueville—as well as one virulent opponent of it, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While the sections on Madison, Rousseau, and Tocqueville offer perceptive sketches, Espada offers the opinion that until Churchill, Burke was the author and statesman who best expressed “the exceptionalism of the political culture of the English-speaking peoples.” In part, this is because Burke unsystematically attempted to convey what it meant to defend an entire political and moral culture, not just limiting himself to formal—and largely critical—views like Berlin’s negative liberty or Hayek’s presentation of how our limited knowledge should shape our politics and economy. Espada draws from Burke a broad conclusion about the Anglo-American tradition:

In other words, what we now call liberal democracy has emerged in the Anglosphere as a natural outgrowth of existing, law-abiding and moral-abiding ways of life. For this reason, liberal democracy amongst the English-speaking peoples has naturally been associated with an ethos of duty – which, as Burke pointed out, is not and should not be deduced from will. For this reason, too, liberal democracy in the Anglosphere has been tremendously stable. And this is also why the English-speaking peoples have always been the first to rise in defense of their cherished liberties – their way of life.

He ends the book by pointing to Winston Churchill as Burke’s principal successor in defense of the Anglo-American tradition, and in elaborating systematically some of the lessons one might draw from the tradition. Most of these are valuable and apt statements of political moderation and opposition to ideology.

The trouble comes when Espada attempts to suggest sources for renewal. Rather than turning to the messy world of politics required to practically defend liberty—the one in which Churchill, Burke, Madison, and Tocqueville operated—Espada’s effort remains locked into the categories his Cold Warriors offered up for political guidance, particularly those found in Hayek, Oakeshott, and Berlin. And so, Espada concludes with an emphasis on human fallibility, irrationality, and non-foundational thinking rather than on more positive, action-oriented virtues.

This creates a somewhat paradoxical argument. In a section deeply indebted to Oakeshott and Himmelfarb’s thinking, Espada suggests that a politics driven by conversation will retain a “pluralist ethical consensus,” one driven by a good-natured toleration and willingness to compromise. He suggests the central component of this, and the one most deeply defended by both Churchill and Burke, was a culture of “gentlemanship.” By this, Espada means “the gentleman’s code of conduct,” a code “certainly inspired by Christianity . . . flexible and ambiguous enough to accommodate different shades and above all a conversation among shades.” The honor code to which he alludes did grow in a broadly Christian culture, but its aristocratic lineage poses the real challenge. Espada has little to say about the positive political virtues that give rise to gentlemanly conduct, and his exemplars of honorable Anglophone culture—Burke and Churchill—also lived in a culture of deference, stability, and hierarchy that gave sustenance to the code.

Tocqueville is a safer guide to understanding honor-bound politics, and here it is surprising that Espada misses the ways that equality erodes codes of gentlemanly conduct and honor by breaking down the stable civic and social bonds in which such manners and mores grow. He correctly questions—as Strauss did—whether we can return to any kind of classical natural right, but by implicitly calling for a renewed attention to a set of aristocratic virtues in an egalitarian time, he misses that the most likely source of “gentlemanship” is actually the appreciation for imperfection and defense of natural law that Christian belief provides.

Read in this light, Espada’s autobiographical study of the Anglo-American tradition seems elegiac, at least from a European perspective. On the other hand, appreciating these thinkers as he does serves as a reminder that no matter what the crisis, the West has been there before. This is a book that shows, despite itself, that conversation is not enough.