Continetti on post-liberal conservatism

Continetti on post-liberal conservatism
At the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti proposes a taxonomy of contemporary American conservatism.  Among the groups he identifies are the “post-liberals.”  What he means by liberalism is not twentieth- and twenty-first century Democratic Party liberalism, but rather the broader liberal political and philosophical tradition that extends back to Locke, informed the American founding, and was incorporated into the “fusionist” program of Buckley/Reagan-style conservatism.  The “post-liberals” are conservatives who think that this broader liberal tradition has become irredeemably corrupt and maybe always has been, and thus judge that the fusionist project of marrying a traditionalist view of morality, family, and religion to the liberal political tradition is incoherent and ought to be abandoned.

Continetti notes that post-liberals are “mainly but not exclusively traditionalist Catholics,” and proposes a test for determining whether someone falls into the category:

One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke.  If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative.  If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

End quote.  Well, if you’ve read my book Locke, then you know that by this criterion, I am pretty clearly a post-liberal.  And frankly, if you look at the world through Aristotelian-Thomistic and/or orthodox Catholic eyes, I think you pretty much have to be some kind of post-liberal.  But what kind, exactly?  Here things are not as simple as Continetti seems to think.

“The liberal ideology calls for careful discernment”

The late Michael Novak, who was no post-liberal, made a useful distinction between liberal institutions on the one hand, and liberal philosophical foundations on the other.  Examples of liberal institutions would be the market economy, limited government and its constitutional constraints, and the rule of law.  There is in fact nothing essentiallyliberal about any of these things, but they have certainly come to be closely associated with the modern liberal political order.  Examples of liberal philosophical foundations would be Locke’s version of social contract theory, Kant’s conception of human civilization as a kingdom of ends, Rawls’s egalitarian theory of justice, and Nozick’s libertarian theory of justice.

Now, someone could accept some version of the liberal institutions in question while rejecting all of the alternative liberal philosophical foundations. 

For example, in my opinion, only someone blinded by ideology could deny the astounding and unequaled power of the market economy to lift human beings out of poverty, or the irrational and impoverishing nature of central planning.  Socialism is idiotic as well as evil, and no one who is unwilling to acknowledge that is to be taken seriously on matters of politics and economics.  At the same time, it is no less ideologically blinkered to deny the corrosive moral and social consequences of modeling all human relations on market transactions between sovereign individuals, or to deny that private financial power poses grave dangers just as governmental power does.  As I argued in my recent Claremont Review of Booksessay on Hayek, liberal individualism undermines the family and national loyalties, which in turn undermines even the preconditions for the stability of the market itself.  And the “woke capitalism” of the modern corporation may turn out to be as insidious a threat to the moral order and to freedom of thought and expression as anything the U.S. government has done.

It is possible to affirm both of these sets of thoughts at once – to acknowledge the achievements of so-called liberal institutions while rejecting any liberal philosophical rationale for these institutions.  The empirical evidence supports the acknowledgement, whereas, for the post-liberal conservative, philosophical consistency requires the rejection.  For, I would argue, you simply cannot marry Catholicism or Thomism to Lockean political philosophy or to Kantianism, much less to Rawlsianism or libertarianism, any more than you can marry them to socialism in any of its noxious varieties. 

An important implication of this is that it is fallacious to suppose that a post-liberal conservative must ipso facto be an authoritarian, as many commenters on the recent dispute between David French and Sohrab Ahmari seem to suppose.  But it is true that the reasons a post-liberal conservative would oppose authoritarianism are likely to reflect prudence as much as, or more than, principle.  For example, a fusionist conservative and a Thomist might agree that it is a bad idea to make adultery a criminal offense.  But for the fusionist, who accepts the fundamental liberal assumptions about the purposes of government, that is because such a policy would be an unjust violation of the individual right to personal liberty, which for the liberal includes even the liberty to make grave moral mistakes.  By contrast, a Thomist would argue instead that while it would not be per se unjust to make adultery illegal, such a policy is very unlikely to do much good in practice and is likely to produce unintended evils as a side effect. 

To be sure, there are also going to be issues on which the post-liberal conservative is bound to insist on holding a paternalistic line as far as possible, where many fusionists are now willing to cave in – for example, on questions about drug legalization, censorship of pornography, the push for transgender rights, and so on.  If you think that is “authoritarian,” then you are committed to saying that pretty much all human civilizations before about 20 minutes ago were authoritarian – and have, I submit, drunk very deeply indeed of the liberal individualist Kool-Aid.

Now, exactly how ought institutions like the market to be informed by a non-liberal philosophy such as Thomism?  What sorts of specific policies would result?  How far should government go in shoring up the moral order, and how far is it even realistic for it to go in the sorry circumstances we now find ourselves in?  Those are complicated questions that call for the phronesis of a good statesman as much as they call for theorizing.  My own view is that the right theoretical principles are those worked out by Thomist moral and political philosophers in the mid twentieth century under the influence of thinkers like Aristotle, Aquinas, and Bellarmine and the encyclicals of popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, and which are reflected in the manuals of the day.

The point for the moment, though, is just to emphasize that it is a false choice to suppose that one must either follow the fusionist in endorsing some brand of liberalism, or go in for some kind of authoritarianism.  Pope Paul VI had his faults, but spoke wisely when he said that “the liberal ideology calls for careful discernment.”  What he meant is that the good ends that liberals rightly seek to achieve – he cites “economic efficiency,” “personal initiative,” “the defense of the individual against the increasingly overwhelming hold of organizations,” and “a reaction against the totalitarian tendencies of political powers” – must be disentangled from the bad philosophical assumptions that liberals typically deploy in defense of these good ends.  The insinuation that one must accept philosophical liberalism in order to achieve these ends is itself one of the rhetorical tricks of the liberal ideologue’s trade.

Keep political philosophy depoliticized

That brings me to some other remarks from Continetti.  He writes:

What the post-liberals seem to call for is the use of government to recapture society from the left.  How precisely they intend to accomplish this has been left undefined…

Another question is whether the post-liberal project is sustainable in the first place.  The post-liberals… may have over-interpreted the results of the 2016 election.  Trump is many things, but it is safe to say that he is not an integralist.  Prominent online and in my Twitter feed, the post-liberals might also misjudge their overall numbers

A conservatism that does not incorporate the ideas of freedom and civil and religious liberty that imprinted America at its birth not only would be unrecognizable to William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan.  Americans themselves would find it alien and unappealing.

End quote.  Speaking just for myself, I haven’t much idea in the first place what a “post-liberal project” is supposed to look like, if that is meant to refer to some sort of practical political program with a set of detailed policy proposals, an electoral strategy, and so on.  And like Continetti, I don’t think recent U.S. politics gives much ground for optimism about such a project, however it would be spelled out.  The reason I favor a variation on what Continetti calls “post-liberal conservatism” is because I think it is true, not because I think it promises a winning party platform.  I understand, of course, that Continetti is a writer on politics (and a good one), for whom questions of what is likely to secure electoral success and legislative victories are of special interest.  But questions about what is actually true are, I humbly submit, not entirely unimportant. 

If anything, Continetti understates the grounds for pessimism about the prospects for a post-liberal conservative politics.  For contemporary Western society is radically out of step with the basic premises to which the post-liberal conservative is committed.  Indeed, I would say that liberalism is a Christian heresy and one that seems now to be approaching its full metastasization.  I would say that it is the moral and political component of the broader heresy of modernism, which is at high tide and sweeping all before it, the flood now having penetrated deeply into even the innermost parts of the Church.  It is like Arianism both in its breathtaking reach and in its longevity.  It is worse than Arianism in its depravity.  Its god is the self – the sovereign individual of the liberal, and the subjective religious consciousness of the theological modernist – and in seeking to conform reality to the self rather than the self to reality, it tends toward subjectivism, relativism, fideism, voluntarism, and other forms of irrationalism.  And there is no limit to the further errors that might follow upon such tendencies.  That is why, as Pope Pius X said, modernism is the “synthesis of all heresies.” 

Because of this irrationalism, the liberal and modernist personality tends to be dominated by appetite, and by sexual appetite in particular, since the pleasures associated with it are the most intense.  But he also has a special hostility to the natural purpose of sex – marital commitment, children, and family – because that imposes the most stringent obligations on the self.  The family is also the fundamental social unit, and thus the model for all other social obligations, such as those entailed by ties of nationality.  Hence it is inevitable that the liberal and modernist personality will seek to reshape the family, and through it all social order, to conform to his desires.  Woke socialism is the last stop on the train ride that begins with radical individualism.

Some readers will no doubt find all of that overwrought, to say the least.  The point, however, is that it is a diagnosis that is hard to avoid if one begins with the sorts of premises to which post-liberal conservatives are typically committed.  And it entails that an ambitious near-future post-liberal conservative political program is probably not feasible, precisely because, as Continetti says, there simply are not enough voters who still sympathize with that view of the world.  In the short term, it seems to me, the post-liberal conservative will have to settle for rearguard actions, piecemeal and often only temporary victories, uneasy alliances with other conservatives, and in general a strategy of muddling through that can hope at best to take the edge off the worst excesses of late stage liberalism. 

Where he must be ambitious is in working for the long term revival of Western civilization.  For the average person, that means committing oneself firmly to a countercultural way of life – to religious orthodoxy, to having large families, and to preserving the social and cultural inheritance of the past the best one can at the local level, Benedict Option style.  For the intellectual, it means working to revive the classical (Platonic, Aristotelian, Scholastic) tradition in Western thought, and showing how it is not only in no way incompatible with, but provides a surer foundation for, the good things that modernity has produced (such as modern science, limited constitutional government, and the market economy).

The good news the post-liberal conservative can give the fusionist is that rejecting liberal philosophical foundations does not entail rejecting these good things, even if it does mean interpreting or modifying them in ways that the fusionist might not like.  The bad news is that philosophical liberalism has so eaten away at the moral foundations of Western society that these good things too are threatened along with everything else.

But like the Church, the post-liberal conservative must think in centuries.  Arianism did eventually disappear, so thoroughly that in hindsight it is difficult to recall what all the fuss was about.  And in the long run liberalism too will disappear, because it is now so deeply contra naturam that its ultimate collapse is inevitable.  Future generations will look back and marvel that such a freak show ever existed.  What remains to be determined is how much damage it will leave behind it, and how far it will go in persecuting those who resist its ever more extreme permutations.  

Now, the dim prospects for short term post-liberal conservative political success can be turned into an advantage.  Short term political calculation can make it difficult to think wisely about matters of political philosophy – and has done so with too many contemporary American conservatives, who trim the sails at the level of theory because of what they see in the polls and the ballot box.  That is part of the reason so many of them have chucked out the traditionalist side of fusionism, and more or less become libertarians rather than genuine conservatives. 

It is easier to resist such temptations when you have no illusions in the first place that your ideas are likely to have much electoral success.  You can depoliticizepolitical philosophy in the sense of focusing on inquiring into what is actually true, without being distracted by questions about what will play well with voters or be conducive to forming political alliances.  And in the long run, when implementation becomes more feasible, it is also likelier to be successful, because the theory will have been worked out more rigorously. 

Here, ironically, the post-liberal conservative can learn something from the founders of fusionist conservatism.  Whittaker Chambers famously thought that, by becoming a conservative, he’d joined the losing side.  Hayek knew he was a dinosaur, and that to try to revive 19th century style classical liberalism in the 1940s and 1950s was an ambition of Jurassic Park proportions.  Buckley made National Review a journal of ideas precisely by attracting disaffected intellectuals like James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk.  They were all free to think and write seriously precisely because they were in the political wilderness.  As a result, when the electoral prospects for fusionist conservatism finally did became brighter, there were substantive and well-developed ideas to implement.

Sometimes, when you have less to win, you also have less to lose.  That affords a kind of liberty that the post-liberal conservative can enthusiastically embrace.

Related posts:

Hayek’s tragic capitalism
Socialism versus the family
Liberty, equality, fraternity?
Cardinal virtues and counterfeit virtues
Poverty no, inequality si
The conservative critique of libertarianism
Conservatism, populism, and snobbery

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