A re­turn to clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Jonah Gold­berg

The idea hold­ing to­gether the con­ser­va­tive move­ment since the 1960s was called “fu­sion­ism.” The con­cept, which al­ways worked bet­ter as an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple than a philo­soph­i­cal one, was that free­dom and virtue were in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Virtue not freely cho­sen wasn’t vir­tu­ous. Or as Frank Meyer, the fore­most ar­chi­tect of fu­sion­ism, put it: “Truth withers when free­dom dies, how­ever right­eous the au­thor­ity that kills it; and free in­di­vid­u­al­ism un­in­formed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about con­di­tions that pave the way for sur­ren­der to tyranny.”

This idea may have passed its sell-by date.

The in­tel­lec­tual right (like the in­tel­lec­tual left) has al­ways had more in­ter­nal fault lines than out­side ob­servers re­al­ized. These cracks were mostly paved over by op­po­si­tion to com­mu­nism through­out the Cold War, but they started to re-emerge once the Ber­lin Wall fell. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 call to re­vive the “Old Right” vi­sion of eco­nomic pro­tec­tion­ism and so­cially con­ser­va­tive statism was more of a har­bin­ger of the un-fus­ing of fu­sion­ism than was widely ap­pre­ci­ated at the time.

To­day, con­ser­va­tive forces con­cerned with free­dom and virtue are pulling apart. The cat­a­lyst is a sprawl­ing coali­tion of self-de­scribed na­tion­al­ists, Catholic in­te­gral­ists, pro­tec­tion­ists, eco­nomic plan­ners and oth­ers who are in­creas­ingly ral­ly­ing around some­thing called “postlib­eral” con­ser­va­tivism. By “lib­eral,” they don’t mean con­tem­po­rary pro­gres­sivism as rep­re­sented by the Demo­cratic Party. No, they mean clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism, the En­light­en­ment world­view held by the found­ing fa­thers.

What the post-lib­er­als want is hard to sum­ma­rize be­yond gen­er­al­i­ties. They seek a fed­eral gov­ern­ment that cares more about pur­su­ing the “high­est good” than pro­tect­ing the “lib­er­tar­ian” (their word) sys­tem of in­di­vid­ual rights and free mar­kets.

On the other side are more fa­mil­iar con­ser­va­tives who, like Ge­orge Will in his bril­liant new book, “The Con­ser­va­tive Sen­si­bil­ity,” still rally to the ban­ner of clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism and its phi­los­o­phy of nat­u­ral rights and equal­ity un­der the law.

“Amer­i­can con­ser­vatism has a clear mis­sion: It is to con­serve, by ar­tic­u­lat­ing and demon­strat­ing the con­tin­u­ing per­ti­nence of, the founders’ think­ing,” Mr. Will writes.

The match that lighted the cur­rent con­fla­gra­tion was a tweet and then an es­say by Sohrab Ah­mari, the Ira­nian-born op-ed ed­i­tor of the New York Post, who is a pas­sion­ate con­vert to Catholi­cism. Out­raged by an ad for a “Drag Queen Story Hour” at a Sacra­mento-area li­brary, Mr. Ah­mari lashed out not at the event or­ga­niz­ers, but at con­ser­va­tive writer David French for some­how rep­re­sent­ing con­ser­vatism’s fail­ures to pre­vent such moral slip­page in our cul­ture.

Mr. French, for those who don’t know him, is a de­vout Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive who, prior to be­com­ing a full-time writer for Na­tional Re­view, spent most of his ca­reer as a prom­i­nent lit­i­ga­tor fight­ing for re­li­gious lib­erty and free speech on col­lege cam­puses.

Mr. French’s al­lies — in­clud­ing me — saw Mr. Ah­mari’s at­tack in the pages of the jour­nal First Things as a kind of char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion.

His de­scrip­tion of Mr. French as a con­ser­va­tive quis­ling more ea­ger to get along with the left than to fight it bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to the man. Mr. French is an al­most in­ex­pli­ca­ble bo­gey­man for the post-lib­er­als save for the fact that he ob­jects to the win-at-all-costs cru­dity of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Post-lib­er­als like Mr. Ah­mari see Mr. Trump’s pug­na­cious­ness as a key to vic­tory in the cul­ture wars.

L’af­faire French is now in its third week. But this in­tel­lec­tual mud fight re­ally isn’t about ei­ther man. It’s about what con­ser­vatism will mean af­ter Mr. Trump is gone from the scene.

The post-lib­er­als think that En­light­en­ment-based lib­er­al­ism is the disease af­flict­ing so­ci­ety be­cause it has no an­swer for how peo­ple should live. They have a point: It is not a re­li­gion or moral phi­los­o­phy. But it wasn’t meant to be. In­stead, as Na­tional Re­view’s Charles Cooke rightly put it, clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism was a sys­tem de­signed to keep peo­ple of dif­fer­ent re­li­gions from killing each other.

This fram­ing, how­ever, ob­scures the path to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion not just among the bat­tling con­ser­va­tives but in Amer­ica gen­er­ally.

The lib­er­al­ism of the founders fo­cused on free­dom for in­di­vid­u­als — but also en­com­passed in­sti­tu­tions and com­mu­ni­ties. In the early days of the repub­lic, for in­stance, some states had es­tab­lished churches and oth­ers didn’t. What the founders op­posed was a one-size-fits-all ap­proach from the top.

As far as I can tell, the so-called post-lib­er­als now want Wash­ing­ton to dic­tate how we should all pur­sue hap­pi­ness, just so long as it’s from the right. In a coun­try of nearly 330 mil­lion peo­ple, how­ever, it is im­pos­si­ble to de­fine the “high­est good” for ev­ery­body.

Where the post-lib­er­als have a point is that hu­mans are hap­pi­est in com­mu­ni­ties, fam­i­lies and in­sti­tu­tions of faith. The so­lu­tion to the cul­ture wars is to al­low more free­dom for these “lit­tle pla­toons” of civil so­ci­ety from which peo­ple draw a sense of mean­ing and be­long­ing. If Sacra­mento wants Drag Queen Story Hour, so be it. If some other com­mu­nity holds a so­cially con­ser­va­tive ver­sion of the same, that’s fine too.

What Amer­ica needs is less talk of na­tional unity — from the left or the right — and more free­dom to let peo­ple live the way they want to live, not just as in­di­vid­u­als, but as mem­bers of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

We don’t need to move past lib­er­al­ism, we need to re­turn to it.

Jonah Gold­berg is a fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and a se­nior ed­i­tor of Na­tional Re­view. His lat­est book is “The Sui­cide of the West.” Email: gold­bergcol­[email protected]; Twit­ter: @Jon­ahNRO.

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