Dave Rubin’s recent Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason documents the YouTube personality’s intellectual journey from a “Young Turks” firebrand to a self-described “classical liberal” and an unlikely hero of the political right. Rubin hails from what has been termed “the intellectual dark web,” made up of individuals from the left and right who have found themselves on the wrong side of current political whims—most notably in regard to free speech, race theory, or gender politics.
These individuals include Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein, Sam Harris, and Ben Shapiro, all frequent guests on Dave’s wildly successful YouTube channel and podcast, “The Rubin Report.” Rubin prides himself on giving a platform to diverse viewpoints, championing a “classical liberal” perspective he differentiates from the newer “regressive” left.
While Rubin agrees with many of the issues conservatives are most vilified for—free speech, freedom of religion, Second Amendment rights—he continues to term himself a “classical liberal.” In Don’t Burn This Book, Rubin shows us why he and others who have “left the left” still consider themselves liberals, lending itself to a broader conversation about liberal and conservative thought.
Returning to Classical Liberalism
Don’t Burn This Book isn’t a dense treatise. Much of what Rubin is discussing are ideas are both conservatives and liberals have been hashing for centuries. The book isn’t a manual of new ideas, but an entreaty to return to the old ideas of the left before it turned, as Rubin puts it, “regressive.”
Chapter 3, entitled “Think Freely or Die,” spends more than 40 pages outlining a middle ground on hot topics of the day, decrying the vilification of those who hold the slightest different view from current “woke” trends, discussing free speech, Second Amendment issues, abortion, American exceptionalism, immigration, and more.
According to Rubin, today’s liberals, “no longer accept that ‘all men are created equal.’” He writes, “While liberalism aims to produce hard work and pride around a common cause, our new, negative worldview spawns only jealousy and grievance.” By contrast, classical liberalism returns to the roots of liberalism, rejecting authoritarian leftism.
Before his political awakening began, Rubin says he was, “solidly pro-choice,” but has recently begun describing himself as “begrudgingly pro-choice.” While he’s upset with the way the left has “fetishize[d]” abortion, he still supports “the right of women to have an abortion” before the 12th week of pregnancy. However, Dave concedes that the unborn child is a human life and argues, “What may seem to be a logical inconsistency is a well-thought-out position.”
Dave’s reasoning for his position on abortion skews liberal. He says the 12-week cutoff point for abortions is “the optimal compromise between observing the rights of the individual (primarily the mother, then the baby) and the necessary role of public policy, which protects our freedoms in the first place.” Dave ranks the “right” of the mother to “choose” her destiny above the right of the unborn child to live his or her life.
Liberals aren’t immoral, but they typically place individual freedom over other moral considerations. In this case, a woman’s right to free herself of responsibility and the physical and mental toll pregnancy and subsequent motherhood leaves her with trumps the fact that life is sacred. At the same time, Rubin tries to balance this position with the recognition that taking an innocent life is immoral.
In the pro-life debate, conservatives and liberals often talk past each other. Liberals see an individual’s potential for self-actualization infringed upon and nothing else. Conservatives see the murder of a human life and nothing else. Rubin recognizes this classic conflict between the liberal and conservative mind, saying, “My libertarian side says that government should have nothing to with this decision,” Rubin explains, “but my realist [or perhaps his “conservative”] side says the state has a duty to protect the life of the unborn.”
Abortion is not the only aspect where Dave’s classically liberal positions highlight the age-old differences between conservative and liberal thought. Dave, a married gay man, doesn’t see why someone who cares about individual liberty would be against same-sex marriage.
While he tolerates religious positions on the issue, an individual’s right to act in accordance with that position, he makes a too broad sweep over why some of these individuals also believe the government would be remiss in recognizing same-sex marriages as such. But according to the classical liberal tradition, if individual liberty is all that principally matters, then why would anyone care if a same-sex couple “may” marry?
“If you believe in individual rights,” he puts it, “then, great stuff, you’re on the right path.” Rubin’s explanation of the classical liberal, or libertarian, reasoning for gay marriage is woefully simplistic. It’s not that Christians and other religious individuals think their religious beliefs should be foisted upon the rest of the nation, but that up until very recently most agreed that government plays a role in shaping the moral compass of the nation through families.
The idea that the state has a role in protecting moral ends is inherent to conservatism. In the case of abortion, to the conservative this means protecting human life at the expense of a woman’s claimed “right” to choose. In the case of gay marriage, this means protecting a certain model of the family as the most conducive to a virtuous society, at the expense of homosexual couples’ ability to marry.
At Home On the Right
Liberals have often been ridiculed for being “so open minded their brains fall out,” which, while unhelpful as a serious point of political argument, makes a salient point. The liberal tendency is to look to the future and the “new” to such an extent that they forget the roots that have held together Western Civilization for so long. Thankfully, Rubin has the good sense to avoid that pitfall, dedicating a whole chapter to praising American excellence and the values of Western civilization.
As Rubin finds that the left has abandoned “true liberalism,” Rubin, who is by no means a conventional conservative, has found an intellectual home on the right. While the principles of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought aren’t exclusively conservative or liberal (both sides have their bittersweet histories), it’s also no accident conservatives have been the ones doing the conserving of age-old civil liberties.
In Chapter 5, Rubin recounts the story of how conservative radio host Larry Elder changed his mind on “systemic racism” on his YouTube show and podcast “The Rubin Report.” Instead of digging in his heels, Rubin used the interview as an opportunity to open minds, including his own. “[W]hether I liked it or not,” he writes, “this devastatingly embarrassing moment was everything The Rubin Report was meant to be about—pushing personal and political growth through conversation.”
Maybe conservatives could learn from this. Just as liberals tend to look towards the future and the new to the detriment of the tried and true, conservatives’ tendency to focus on what has been rather than what could be, often blinds them from considering differing viewpoints. Rubin and “The Rubin Report” are a testament to how people of goodwill on both sides can stand up for the other side’s right to say what they think, even when they don’t agree.