From Tucker Carlson v. Jonah Goldberg to Roe v. Wade
The battle over conservatives' attitudes toward Liberty rages on.
The current debate among conservatives over classical liberalism is important. I know, because I have anticipated it, step by step, in my own writings over the past 20 years. I wrote my first book, Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, in 2001 to highlight the 20th century thinker who best examined the tensions between two crucial good things.
- A free, vibrant economy that makes prosperity possible. And:
- The cohesive social institutions, from family to church, that hold a free society together.
Fetter a free economy, and you’re mired in stagnant envy. Then the endless squabble for scraps from a frozen or shrinking pie.
Pour acid on the institutions that infuse liberty with order? Then you’re headed for personal and societal chaos. That quickly leaves millions of voters desperately famished for order. Any order, even that offered by tyrants.
The Greatest Social Philosopher of the 20th Century
Röpke was one of the 20th century’s fiercest champions of freedom. He wrote, paid for, printed, and handed out pamphlets opposing the Nazis as early as 1928. That’s when few even bothered to fear them. He was the first non-Jewish professor the Nazis fired in 1933. Fleeing Germany one step ahead of the Gestapo, he settled eventually in Switzerland. There he wrote powerful books opposing totalitarianism (Nazi or Soviet), which he smuggled into Germany. Read in secret by flashlight at night, they nurtured men like Konrad Adenauer, who’d later form the Christian Democratic movement.
After the war, Röpke convinced the West Germans to defy the Allied authorities (most of them beguiled by socialist central planning). The occupied Germans cast off the Nazi-era wage and price controls that still left their nation starving. The “economic miracle” that resulted saved Europe. Not just from starving in rubble, but from something far worse. From turning in desperation to Communism, as near-majorities of voters were doing from France to Italy.
Röpke poured out columns and books to emphasize just one point: The free market is absolutely necessary, and singularly insufficient. He compared it to a powerful, magnificent modern engine. But it’s one that throws off enormous heat and corrosive waste. Economic freedom, like every other type of personal freedom, is a crucial means to an end. That end is human flourishing, or happiness. Misuse your freedom for long enough, and you will lose it. Either you’ll fall apart on your own, or your neighbors will step in and seize it. Take drugs, for instance. Exercise your “liberty” to addle your brain for long enough, and you’ll end up “freely” sleeping outside on some heat grate. Or else in a cell for the crimes you were no longer free to resist.
Is Capitalism “Just a Tool”?
Jonah Goldberg, in a valuable recent column, takes issue with Tucker Carlson over this very question. He’s angry that Carlson called economic freedom “just a tool.” Goldberg insists that freedom is in fact an end in itself. And he’s right, up to a point. Yes, religious, personal, intellectual, and economic freedom are the best conditions for men. As Röpke wrote, a market economy is the only one worthy of man in his God-given dignity.
But freedom itself, while pricey and precious, is just a tool. It’s one we don’t wish to live without. We can’t be good without liberty. God knew that when he planted Adam and Eve free in the garden. A coerced virtue is no human virtue at all. But choosing the Good is the point. It’s the dinner, while liberty’s the kitchen. No kitchen, no dinner, we can agree. But a kitchen that keeps churning out inedible, toxic platters will end up shuttered. And rightly so.
Heresy Is Simple
None of this is new, of course. These themes virtually obsessed America’s Founding Fathers. Frank Meyer wrestled with them, when he developed Fusionism. But it falls to us in every generation to reforge the thousands of tiny bonds that cleave to the Golden Mean. The truth is complex. Heresies are simple. It’s easy to endorse atomistic autonomy, or paternalistic tyranny. You simply pretend that half the essential questions on the table really don’t matter. It’s like starting a chess game by sweeping off all the black pieces. You “win” each time.
In 2002, I wrote about the dangers of a truncated, ahistorical, ideological version of American, Western freedom. This was in response to the bullying dominance of neoconservatism. As I noted, that school of thought adopted a stripped-down, simplified “Americanism-for-export” suitable for Cold War propaganda against the Soviets. But neoconservatism mistook this miserable Army ration for our national cuisine. Then it expected us to live on the stuff forever at home, and at peace. (My apologies to Jason Jones and all the other Hawaiians who are still in love with Spam.)
Any aspect of Western thought which wasn’t suitable for export everywhere (perhaps via U.S. invasion, see Iraq) from Turkmenistan to Togo? The neoconservatives sought to censor it. In other words, they turned conservatism into an ideology, a half-baked philosophy with a fully-loaded gun. Can you derive all your policy preferences (ending abortion, preserving traditional marriage, limiting immigration) from an ahistorical, context-free version of John Locke’s principles? No? Then we’ll write them off as bigotry. And purge you from the Party. (The GOP, that is.) Disgust at this narrow agenda fueled the protest of Pat Buchanan and the rise of Donald Trump.
It’s Not Just True, It’s OURS
We value John Locke’s ideas because they suit us and our history. (Our “tolerant Anglo-Protestant culture” as Samuel Huntington wrote.) They were weapons Locke forged in defense of traditional English liberties. They fit our culture because they’re its fruit. Do they make sense as a blueprint for remaking the Middle East? Must we cast off every aspect of Locke’s thought (for instance, his Christianity) that won’t serve that purpose? That’s where we go astray, as Yoram Hazony made clear in his brilliant, truly original book The Virtue of Nationalism.
I’ll never forget the first lecture I heard about Locke’s ideas, at Acton University. I found them moving and thrilling, almost to tears. But not because I found myself saying, “All that is true!” Instead, my eyes got misty as I thought, “All that is ours!” The vigorous defense of religious freedom, of property rights and gun rights … it’s what made America. It’s what makes Texas Texan. What stirred in me wasn’t ideological fervor, but patriotic pride. A healthier impulse, I think.
No, I’m not embracing cultural relativism. There is a universal criterion by which we can judge the actions of Vladimir Putin, Sheik Qaradawi, and Kim Jong Un. But it’s not the “natural rights” philosophy of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. It’s the Natural Law that God wrote on the human heart. That’s what we conservatives must advocate here and abroad. It’s compatible with American small-government (classical) liberalism. But that’s not all it’s compatible with. Many systems of government, and modes of association, can jibe with the Natural Law, perfectly or imperfectly. Many have over the centuries, apart from America. And of course, we ourselves have fallen short, many times. Remember that in 1848, the Habsburg Empire was abolishing serfdom, while the U.S. was extending slavery and extirpating the Indians. Such anomalies ought to humble us, just a little.
Replacing Neocon Hand-Waving with Catholic Sharia
Perhaps the neocon version of classical liberalism is what first repulsed contemporary reactionaries like Patrick Deneen, Catholic Integralists, and other assorted dissidents. They were right to reject “Americanism for Export.” But in sophomoric fashion, they want neither the bathwater nor the baby.
They don’t just reject Lockean liberalism, denatured, as a universal solvent for every institution on earth. No, they also disdain the Anglo-American liberties our Founders (occasionally) cited Locke to defend. They embrace a suffocating paternalism on the model of a Greek polis. Of course on a national scale that would look a lot like … North Korea. That’s a “goal-oriented” society, all right. Everyone does the same gymnastics at the same hour every day. I warned against this violent reaction to neoconservative hackery back in 2013, perceiving the rise of what I’ve since christened “Catholic sharia.”
A Healthy Symbiosis
Thank God, that’s not what Tucker Carlson, or Donald Trump, could possibly have in mind. But the folks at First Things, and some small but influential religious colleges do crave it. Some Catholic sharia advocates like Matthew Walther are trying to hitch their little paddy wagons to Donald Trump’s star. (Others try to hijack the rich, complex, profoundly Anglo-American thought of Russell Kirk to the service of theocratic fantasies.)
Don’t let them get away with it. What Carlson and Trump have in mind is a restoration of an old symbiosis. Namely, a market economy that makes us prosperous, and a cohesive society that keeps us orderly enough so we can stay free. Whether or not we agree on the details of how much protectionism is too much, how much immigration too little…. There’s nothing unprincipled or illiberal about the idea that freedom exists for a purpose beyond itself. Namely, human happiness.
The Double Standard on the Right
Goldberg is wondering why there’s such a violent revolt against the “liberal” principles of Locke and the market economy of Hayek. He needs to look in the mirror. Neoconservatives were never rigorous, uncompromising disciples of such “liberalism.” They always made exceptions, when it suited their priorities. But when social conservatives sought similar exemptions? Leading neocons called them bigots. The double standard was so obvious it was galling. It insulted our intelligence for long enough that we started taking it personally.
That’s a harsh assertion. Let me prove it. Say that you follow, strictly, libertarian principles of freedom of contract and freedom of association. So what would you make of anti-discrimination laws? Why of course, you’d reject them, as Barry Goldwater did. Now, I agree with the neocons that we need some laws of that kind. But they are exceptions to classical liberalism. There is nothing, literally nothing, in secular classical liberalism to justify forcing one person to hire or rent to another, on pain of imprisonment. If libertarian “freedom” is all that matters, then we should be free to self-segregate.
But the Civil Rights movement, driven largely by a Christian notion of equality before God, convinced us to limit such freedom. Why? For the sake of the common good. And that’s fine with me, as it is with Jonah. Oh yes, and another support for outlawing discrimination comes from British Common Law precedents (that is, Tradition). Not, I’ll note, from the pages of Ludwig von Mises or even the great Frederic Bastiat.
Nor have I seen Mr. Goldberg leading the charge to repeal other state interventions that contravene classical liberalism, such the military draft or the Social Security system. Certainly not with the vigor he brings to the clash with Tucker Carlson over tariffs. When a true-believing anarcho-capitalist such as Tom Woods or Jeff Tucker, on the other hand, dissents from Trump and Tucker … I fully respect that, even if on existential issues (such as immigration) I disagree.
Social Engineering, or the Common Good?
Why call it “social engineering” (as Goldberg called Carlson’s proposals) when Christians want to limit the freedom of contract to preserve traditional marriage? Or populists want to boost domestic wages, to save a healthy American middle class and boost one-earner families? Or conservatives want to prevent America being Balkanized by language and religion? All of a sudden, “pragmatic” thinkers like Goldberg sound like libertarian purists.
Our current “mainstream” political spectrum combines the worst aspects of libertarian atomism and the socialist anthill.
They start warning of how infringements of our absolute, “liberal” freedoms are steps on the road to serfdom. But absent a real God who loves us, natural rights are a happy fiction. A noble lie. Is Darwinian materialism true? Then Darwinian eugenics might follow. We must leave that to the scientists to hash out. But there are no morals, really, so there’s no moral objection. We’re equal before God or not at all. The “liberalism” that Goldberg so treasures? It’s symbiotic, even parasitical on Jewish/Christian Revelation. Refuse the claims of Natural Law, natural communities, and national sentiments? Then you’re left with a ideological pyramid whose foundations are empty air. A “likely story” that elites can repeat to each other behind the gates of their subdivisions, praying to “the Universe” that the barbarians never come to storm the gates.
America the Dystopia
We all know the dangerous extremes to which religious integralism can lead us. (Read up on 17th century Spain or 21st century Iran, in case you’re curious.) No country has even tried to establish the child-abandoning anarchy that Murray Rothbard deduced from liberal principles. But there’s another dystopia out there. It’s not just thinkable or possible. It is real. We live in it. Our current “mainstream” political spectrum combines the worst aspects of libertarian atomism and the socialist anthill. As I wrote here last year:
Collectivism ensures that somebody else pays the price for our narcissistic choices. A welfare state will feed those kids we fathered and forgot. It will provide us rehab, when our hedonism hits bottom. When we can’t find a job it will take care of us. When we’re old it will give us a comfortable retirement. By promising all this, it renders economically superfluous the bonds of family, church, and community. Those are things that our souls deeply need. But it’s easy for us to miss that, until it’s too late.
We often, and rightly, point to the staggering death toll of Communism. It’s 110 million, according to scholar R.J. Rummel. But what’s the death toll of our current, incoherent mishmash of nanny-state liberalism? I calculated it in 2017, here at The Stream:
American principles, while truer than most, can also be abused and applied to evil ends. [I]sn’t that exactly what happened when our judicial elites declared that our Constitution enshrined the right to abortion? That central to our right of liberty is the right to make up the meaning of the universe exactly as we wish to? (See Casey v. Planned Parenthood.) …
You and I might rightly say that these are false inferences from our principles, but they are currently the official governing philosophy of the United States legal system. Stripped by judicial intellectuals of their tolerant, Protestant Christian context (the “originalist” reading of the Constitution that Justice Scalia insisted on), our founding principles can prove very dangerous indeed; they were fatal to almost 60 million unborn American children.