This past week, First Things’ Sohrab Ahmari criticized the strategy and philosophy of National Review’s David French, which has since developed into a general melee over conservatism and its relation to political liberalism.
Good. This is a debate the right should be having, from French’s appeal to classical liberalism to Ben Domenech’s comparison of leftist cultural radicals to the White Walkers in “Game of Thrones” to Charles C.W. Cooke’s complaint that Ahmari and his allies are in thrall to “Deneen-inspired anti-liberalism”—which sounds like a great name for a folk punk band.
There are many aspects to the fight, and they are increasing as it metastasizes (for example, it is probably relevant that Ahmari is a Catholic convert and French is a reformed Protestant). However, the core issues remain clear: Is political liberalism the best we can do and is conservatism therefore just a prudent variety of liberalism?
Although American conservatism rejects modern left-liberalism, it tends to do so in the name of an older understanding of liberalism, rather than in favor of a non-liberal alternative order. American conservatives tend to appeal to classical liberal ideas, rather than some sort of throne-and-altar European-style conservatism.
Furthermore, as liberalism’s defenders note, its foes often struggle to articulate a superior alternative. Some critics, such as Patrick Deneen, only offer tentative hints about what a post-liberal regime would be. In First Things, R.R. Reno suggests the need for something else but does not articulate it. Others, such as the Catholic integralists, theorize about alternatives, but are so far from the mainstream that their ideas are, for now at least, only thought experiments.
Where Does Liberalism Come From?
Liberalism seems to win by default. Conservatives want one sort of liberalism, leftists another, and those questioning liberalism itself have few alternatives to offer. But the alternatives may become more clear if a distinction is made between liberal ideology and liberal practice, with the latter being much more worthy of preservation.
The practices of liberalism—such as representative democracy, rights as a means of adjudicating competing legal claims, the rule of law and trial by jury—have deeper roots than liberal ideology. Liberal practices that limited power and established accountability in government were rooted in a knowledge of the fallibility and weakness of human will and reason.
Practices of liberty originated long before John Locke wrote his celebrated “Two Treatises on Government.” The often mistaken theories of Locke and others were attempts to systematize and justify already existing ideas and practices.
These practices were not derived from Locke’s visions of isolated individuals in an imagined state of nature. Rather, liberal practices were developed for human persons as they are in their true natural state, which is society, beginning with the family. As Aristotle observed, man is by nature a political being, and a man who has no need of others must be either a beast or a god.
We begin life utterly dependent and remain, to some degree, dependent on others throughout our lives. The development and well-being of the individual is dependent upon that which they have not produced, but have inherited and been given. Full human flourishing is communal, not individual.
We are born into something greater than ourselves, with ends beyond our own pleasures and selfish interests. Our personal good is realized through the good of the community, which has as its ends the flourishing of its members. Thus, while there may at times be tension between the common good and the individual good, they are bound together.
Flourishing Does Not Come Through Sheer Individualism
Locke was aware that we need society to achieve full flourishing, yet he discards it in his anthropology; he carefully pruned away the permanence of marriage, family, and nationality. He suggested (wrongly, we now know) that we are born as blank slates, and sought the essence of man in the capacity to alter the world through work, rather than in our capacity for relationships. Liberal ideology is built around a mutilated, unnatural idea of the human person: the sovereign and autonomous individual, who is defined by economic production and consumption to satisfy desire.
Ideological liberalism sought the essence of the human person by stripping away the contingencies of history, culture, and relationships. But we are what we are because of the specificity of our being. The liberal quest to find the universal essence of man ignores the communal reality of human nature and inhibits the recognition of our finitude and fallibility that that is critical to liberalism as practice.
With its fixation on autonomous individuals, liberal ideology offers contracts to mediate in place of the common good it denies. The liberal view of persons as autonomous producers and consumers makes human relationships transactional and contractual and reduces the bonds of a nation to a social contract. But the idea of a contract is not adequate to describe human society and its ends. Thus, Edmund Burke exposed the shallowness of the theorists of the French Revolution by describing the human realities that their idea of a social contract would have to encompass.
Society is, indeed, a contract…but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties…It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world.
Burke took the language of the social contract and made a covenant of it. In contrast to the image of a contract, the idea of a covenant suggests something deeper and more enduring. If property and individual autonomy is the point, then the idea of a contract is adequate to describe society and the state. But if people in their full flourishing are the point, this directs us toward something communal and intergenerational that may be described using the language of covenant.
We may envision our society as a covenant in which the practice of liberal government is a part of attaining both the common good and the individual goods that are inseparable from it. This covenant liberalism is the preservation and renewal of a patrimony, not the implementation of universal and impersonal principles or philosophy. It is an inheritance whose habits are not readily adaptable to all times and places.
Covenant liberalism is not dependent on liberal ideology, which came later than liberal practice. Liberal practices and instructions such as representative government and trial by jury do not require ideological liberalism; indeed, they developed in communal societies.
Covenants and Liberal Practices
Communal ideas are part of the American tradition and were dominant during the Founding era. As Barry Alan Shain has put it, for Americans at the time of the War for Independence, “Individual autonomy, as it is understood today, would have been viewed as inconsistent with human flourishing—in face, it would have been seen as a form of sinful degeneration.”
The idea of a covenant does have religious overtones, including specific theological meanings that have influenced American political history. However, the point of reintroducing the language of a covenant is not to reestablish a Puritan political theory or to support mistaken notions of the country as a Christian nation. Rather, it offers a communal basis for liberal practices, which do not require the atomistic theories of liberal ideology.
Covenant liberalism recognizes that the good of individuals is dependent on and participatory in the common good. Human flourishing and fulfillment require community, not atomistic individualism. If liberal ideology demands policies that are destructive to families and communities, then so much the worse for liberal ideology. Free commerce, for instance, is an instrumental, rather than an intrinsic good. Markets are useful, not sacred.
Political liberalism does not need to be replaced by neo-feudalism, or worldwide Catholic monarchy, or some other unlikely alternative, which is why critics of liberalism are not proposing such. What liberalism does need is to be renewed as a practice ordered toward human flourishing in family and community, rather than a dogmatic ideology premised upon a mutilated vision of the human person as autonomous and sovereign.