Classical Liberalism Must Endure

The right must defend and restore the early modern-era values of classical liberalism, rather than abandoning them just because they have been perverted by the postmodern left.

Classical liberalism is salvageable. The will to salvage it, however, is another issue—and a problem. Rhetorically, we reflexively defend liberal verities such as the rule of law, property rights, privacy rights, and freedom of contract. But when it really counts, we go wobbly. Classical liberalism—or what we today call “libertarianism”—needs adjustments to reemerge as a ruling public philosophy. It also needs reinforcements.

Lately, the some on the right are attempting to redefine their political philosophy as reconstituted authoritarianism with a guiding assumption that liberalism, including the original kind, is heresy against the common good. Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Reihan Salam are among a group of “postliberal” authors on the right who condemn liberalism as tyranny covered by a thin veneer of tolerance. For them, communism is Enlightenment rationalism realized; Lenin is the culmination of Locke. 

In a 2021 essay titled “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism” on the Substack newsletter Postliberal Order, Deneen cited seven liberal principles as the source of conservatism’s habitual defensive crouch: religious liberty, limited government, the inviolability of private institutions, academic freedom, constitutional originalism, free markets, and free speech. “Liberalism,” he wrote, “has become consistently more aggressive in extending each of these features to their logical conclusion—their own contradiction in the form of liberal totalitarianism.” 

Needless to say, I strongly reject this view. And yet, it is undeniable that a type of radicalism resembling liberalism threatens our nation’s existence. America is being retrofitted for a managed race-and-gender-identity regime that, while not Marxist, rejects liberty. Its vaunted “diversity” has nothing to do with diversity of opinion and everything to do with a diversity of demography, subject to a single set of opinions. Our elites are mostly complicit and often enthusiastic participants. 

The unraveling of America, more than a half-century in the making, is accelerating. Many young adults believe George Floyd, a career criminal, was a greater man than George Washington; our per capita national debt now exceeds $100,000; and government at all levels rewards mass illegal immigration. Supporters of this “national reset” often call themselves liberals. But are they? This is certainly not what classical liberal giants such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Montesquieu, Frédéric Bastiat, and John Stuart Mill had in mind. Like conservatism inspired by Edmund Burke, classical liberalism rejects grand schemes to reorganize society along the lines of some predetermined ideology.

Yet our current demographic transformation is such a scheme. Its primary aim is to scrub America and the rest of the West of all traces of “racism,” which is supposedly our original sin. Conservatives who have not forsaken the older liberalism must resist this mental reprogramming on race and immigration. They are the central issues of our time.

On the surface, classical liberalism and
its errant descendant, egalitarian liberalism, are opposites. The former emphasizes individual rights; the latter, social equality. Yet they are similar in that they view reason as the best guide to resolving conflict and creating a workable society. “The liberal emphasis is on a natural harmony in society, not in economic matters alone but also in law and other social institutions,” British political philosopher Norman Barry observed in his book The New Right (1987).

The problem is that nobody is purely rational—not even the Objectivist followers of Ayn Rand. All of us have group loyalties of one form or another. Even the most thoughtful and empathetic among us, consciously or not, will be swayed by social pressure. Yet for many people, especially members of minority races, tribal loyalty is all that matters. Thinking requires independence and exertion, two qualities in perpetual short supply. 

That creates a problem for the liberal state. In theory, liberalism operates on the rule of law. That is, laws should apply equally to one and all, even if they yield unequal group outcomes. In practice, competition for economic and political advantage is fierce and constant. People may employ corrupt, illegal, or unconstitutional means to achieve or maintain advantage, especially come election time. Rational debate, in other words, goes only so far in adjudicating grievances.

Since the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, America’s “equity revolution” has been advancing with few impediments. The result is that much of our population has a stake in coerced income and wealth transfers from groups with “too much” to groups with “too little.” Advocates for this intergroup altruism are skilled in using liberal rhetoric for illiberal ends. Though the stated mission is “justice,” “fairness,” and “equality,” the true mission is wresting power from people they dislike.

Whites, males, and heterosexuals are the prime targets; racial minorities, women, and homosexuals are the prime beneficiaries. As passing legislation is time-consuming and often futile, advocates rely heavily on the executive and judicial branches of government to advance their goals, often supported by bellicosity in the streets and on campuses. The readiness with which “powerful” institutions surrender is little short of shocking.

Among corporations, surrendering to diversity, equity, and inclusion demands is now a business strategy. I defy anyone to identify a major American corporation that hasn’t instituted “diversity targets” in its hiring, aiming to achieve an “equitable” percentage of each race and sex in its workforce. Facebook, for example, seeks a five-year, 30 percent increase in the number of “people of color” in leadership positions. McDonald’s wants 35 percent of its employees in leadership roles to be members of “historically underrepresented groups” and 45 percent to be women. Mozilla is committed to doubling the proportion of its black and Hispanic new hires. IBM’s chief executive was recently caught on a video leaked to James O’Keefe demanding the hiring of fewer white males and Asians and more women and other races. AT&T, meanwhile, has committed $3 billion to buy supplies solely from black-owned businesses. These are just a few among many similar examples.

All of this, if indirectly, is a legacy of the moral persuasion of Martin Luther King, Jr. By any measure, MLK was a man of the left, so it is understandable that the left reveres him. Yet, so does the mainstream right. Starved for public approval, establishment conservatives attempt to portray MLK as a noble exception to his divisive successors. 

A good example of the right’s timorousness is conservative media star Ben Shapiro. In his book Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans, he declared, “Only when we learn to cherish the words of Martin Luther King, judging people as individuals, will we truly have the guts to stand up to the race bullies.” Race bullies like Al Sharpton and Ibram X. Kendi and their leftist enablers are no doubt terrified. Perhaps Shapiro is unfamiliar with this passage from King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait

Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.

A more effective brief against liberty and for reparations and racial quotas is hard to imagine.  

In death, King’s dream has been fulfilled. Whites bow on cue before the demands of blacks and other nonwhites. Long-standing immigration laws are barely enforced. The idea that there was a triumphant “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980s is a joke to most people; beyond Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, former Heritage Foundation Fellow Lee Edwards, and a dwindling number of supply-side economists, it’s hard to find anyone today who believes in it. Yes, we helped overturn Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. But back home, we expanded our hybrid of capitalism, socialism, and oligarchy. Call that what you will, but it’s not classical liberalism.

Great Britain has gone a similar route. “Looking back with hindsight, it now seems clear just how limited and short-lived was the success of the Reagan and Thatcher governments in achieving their similar economic and social policy objectives,” noted classical liberal philosopher (and later, Brexit supporter) David Conway in his 1995 book, Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal. “Neither was able to do much to reduce the proportion of gross national product expended by their respective governments.” Even with voters in 2016 rejecting continued European Union membership, Britain is growing more despotic by the year. 

The last 60 years have affirmed the impossibility of multiracial cooperation in one country. Like its rainbow symbol, the dream is colorful, sentimental, and illusory. Forcing whites to endure large numbers of hostile nonwhites in their communities, workplaces, and schools, far from unifying our country, has divided it. The word “diversity,” after all, implies division.  

A “colorblind” society is achievable only in tightly controlled settings where individuals have agreed to suppress their identities for collective survival or victory. Think of a military platoon, a police force, or a football team. In the absence of enforced esprit de corps, racial unity dissipates.

Our unofficial national motto is now “From out of one, many,” which is an inversion of the old one, E pluribus unum, and a rejection of our founding. It must be abandoned. Even in relatively benign form, as in Belgium and Canada, enforced ethnic unity is barely workable. Yet the left, with an almost metaphysical faith, pushes on. Mainstream conservatives, rather than speak truth to power, often respond that racial minorities are victims of “liberal policies.” Such gestures, aside from being useless, delegitimize dissenters. The Old Right paladin and Chronicles columnist, Samuel Francis, worked at The Heritage Foundation during the pre-Reagan years; he wouldn’t last a month there today.

Leftist determination and rightist timidity have entrenched our commitment to serving “marginalized” populations. Resistance means risk-taking. A politician who denounces anti-white quotas can expect ferocious opposition—as recently happened in Michigan to the Republican state representative Josh Schriver. A white employee who complains to his supervisor about the organization’s commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” invites a reprimand or termination. 

Nearly 250 years ago, a group of American dissenters pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in separating themselves from a British king. Separating ourselves from Martin Luther King may prove riskier.

That we must combat the left is indisputable.
Yet the right should not get a free pass for its failure to rise to the challenge.

Many conservatives believe that liberty and tradition naturally reinforce each other. A laissez-faire business culture harmonizes social conflict and fosters conservative beliefs, at least according to “fusionism,” which argues that libertarian economics and social conservatism go hand-in-hand. Yet exceptions to fusionism have become so numerous that they almost constitute the rule. A capitalist, like it or not, is perfectly capable of accumulating great wealth and subsidizing leftist enemies of the principles that create wealth. Jack Dorsey, the multibillionaire cofounder and former chief executive of Twitter (now called X), has donated enormous sums of his own money to avowedly leftist organizations. The same can be said for LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and many other multibillionaires. (Are there any real right-wing multibillionaires? Where are they hiding?)

A corporation is neither inherently right-wing nor left-wing; it is intrinsically profit-seeking. Anticipated returns on investments guide its decisions. If supporting egalitarian causes seems either beneficial or least risky, company management will be apt to play. If a bank’s officers believe an influx of Third World migrants will boost its home mortgage lending, they will look favorably upon open immigration. As Joseph Schumpeter noted, one of the great ironies of capitalism is that its very success eventually turns on itself.

Traditionalism, however, also has its shortcomings. For one thing, it allows little room for individualism, which is the primary source of human creativity. Liberty and individualism are related but different concepts. Whereas liberty establishes a political-economic framework for rights, individualism justifies a person’s desire to express an identity, even if that identity stands in contrast to community and societal norms. Liberty doesn’t necessarily imply nonconformity, but individualism does.  

For that reason, traditionalists, while grudgingly accepting liberty, reject individualism. Often, they preface the word “individualism” with disapproving adjectives—hence, “loose individualism,” “Baby Boomer individualism,” “narcissistic individualism,” “atomized individualism” and “’60s-style individualism.” 

Some critics have sought censorship as a corrective, such as the late jurist Robert Bork. He wrote in 2005 in National Review:

Liberty in America can be enhanced by reinstating, legislatively, restraints upon the direction of our culture and morality. Censorship as an enhancement of liberty may seem paradoxical. Yet it should be obvious, to all but dogmatic First Amendment absolutists, that people forced to live in an increasingly brutalized culture are, in a very real sense, not wholly free.

Bork’s equally influential late colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Irving Kristol, wrote in 1999, “The case for censorship is intellectually powerful but politically impotent.” At least he got the second part right. Fuming at “institutional elites who have imposed their culture on us,” Kristol recommended gestures of private censorship such as banning one’s kids from attending rock concerts. Given the tone of his writing, one needn’t guess that public censorship was his backup plan. 

A nation that censors its people wades into dangerous waters. It is true that a society cannot function under legal or moral anarchy. But operating with a highly subjective definition of harm, professional right-wing scolds view culture more as something to ward off than enjoy. They seem to ignore that official censorship leads to self-censorship. Talk to anyone from China, Iran, or North Korea to confirm this.

I am not by any means a First Amendment absolutist. Some behavior must be excoriated. Antifa and Black Lives Matter street thugs who vandalize businesses, “idealistic” university students who occupy campus offices, and vagrants who turn outdoor spaces into garbage dumps are public threats. But lumping such destroyers in with creators of weird art, music, or ideas is tyranny. 

Censorship is related to the broader topic of social control. Consider the right’s frequent hand-wringing over family dissolution. Maggie Gallagher, William Bennett, Allan Carlson, and other traditionalists argue that divorce should be banned or severely limited. Rarely, if ever, do they entertain the possible negative consequences of handing the state dictatorial power in this realm. Nor, oddly, do they acknowledge that divorce has long been in decline. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the  U.S. Census Bureau shows that the “crude” divorce rate—annual divorces per 1,000 population—fell by more than 55 percent from a peak of 5.3 in 1979 to 2.3 in 2022. The “refined” rate, which takes into account declining marriage rates, yields a similar, if less dramatic, result. From 1979 to 2022, divorces per 1,000 married women fell by about a third from 22.6 to 14.6, a 35 percent decline

America’s divorce “epidemic” is a myth. To the extent young adults are avoiding marriage, it would be more accurate to say, especially among the college-educated, that they are delaying it. Is that bad? Many studies, especially those referencing the work of Nobel economist Gary Becker, show that an early first marriage between those in their early 20s and teenage years is a good predictor of early divorce.  

Rightist animosity toward Hollywood is another example of lazy thinking mated to authoritarianism. Most conservatives have no idea how films are conceived, produced, or marketed. More to the point, they don’t care. A whimsical Wes Anderson farce is just as morally suspect as a dark, brooding Paul Thomas Anderson drama. Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh may as well be the same person. Their primary desire is transforming movie studios into Red State agitprop factories, or “changing the narrative,” as the Breitbart types say. These people want control.

Know this about movie directors: They are intensely individualistic. Put ten of them in a room, and you’ll get ten different opinions about what a film should say or look like. They often clash with studio heads for artistic control. And they resent being pressed into duty as ideological functionaries in a “culture war.” There is no unified “Hollywood agenda.”

That said, traditionalists do get critical things right, such as opposing homosexual marriage. Few developments are more radical and at cross-purposes with human nature than legalizing such unions. Marriage is a government-sanctioned privilege, not a right. The Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which forced all states to recognize same-sex marriages, was a rebuke to millennia of evolutionary and learned experience.

Traditionalists also rightly oppose transgenderism. Something has gone awry when a nation bows to the demands of males who insist they are females and females who insist they are males. Sexuality is a biological reality, not subjective feeling. Yet many corporations, including Amazon, AT&T, Master Card, and United Airlines, support their employees’ right to “transition.” Several states, including California and Michigan, have enacted legislation to protect a person’s right to seek gender transition therapy.

That traditionalism and classical liberalism fitfully overlap suggests possibilities for a coalition. But it will take tough-minded leaders to make that happen.

The late British parliamentarian Enoch Powell should be an inspiration for any potential coalition leader. Powell was supportive of free enterprise. More importantly, he understood that migration from primitive societies would be disastrous for England. He eloquently and presciently explained in his 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech that countries cannot be microcosms for the world and expect to survive. Powell’s own Conservative Party rebuked him for expressing that insight, but time has shown him the wiser. His predictions have been ahead of schedule.

Though hardly eloquent, Trump made the right enemies: people who believe that we should invite the world for the sake of social equality, racial diversity, and cheap labor. 

America’s closest thing to Enoch Powell today is Donald Trump. Though hardly eloquent, Trump made the right enemies: people who believe that we should invite the world for the sake of social equality, racial diversity, and cheap labor. His current presidential campaign, waged in the face of vindictive prosecutors and judges bent on bankrupting and imprisoning him, is a testimony to his courage.

But if elected, how effective would he be? The last time around, Trump didn’t drain the swamp; the swamp drained him. The courts overturned virtually every immigration-related executive order he issued. And, on occasion, he not only refrained from battling the left, but tried to outdo them. For example, during his 2020 reelection campaign he proposed a $500 billion “Platinum Plan” to benefit black communities solely. One can only imagine the pork barrel corruption that would have ensued had Congress enacted that futile racial ploy.

Donald Trump’s base of support is loyal but not large enough to elect him. Without a large swing vote, he’s going nowhere.

“The evil man is the child grown strong,” observed Thomas Hobbes. Though Hobbes was no classical liberal, his wisdom applies here. Our founders valued liberty but also feared childlike mob passions. Constitutional checks and balances provide insurance against that. Mobs don’t think; they advance. It is not the job of political leaders, right or left, to lead them.

Classical liberalism, like traditionalism, aims to protect civilization from war and other forms of destruction. As such, it must play a central role in defining our polity. Old Right sociologist Robert Nisbet, in Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (1982), explained the need to strike a balance: 

Without the sacred core there can be no true culture of any kind; but without the catalyzing effect of challenge or dissent, there can only be orthodoxy and passivity of mind. This is a principle of dialectics and also of cultural dynamics. There must be action but there also must be reaction; sacred tradition but challenge to tradition; conventionality but revolt.

These words should serve as a guide for framing all issues.

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