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American liberalism and the prospects for American reconstruction

Here’s a talk I gave on June 2, 2007 as a member of a panel at the annual meeting of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters (a new organization for conservative scholars):

We’ve all been talking today about where we are and what to do about it. I’ve been asked to sketch those issues with an emphasis on American liberalism.

American liberalism

It’s hard to discuss liberalism in America because we’re in the middle of it and because liberalism takes so many different forms.

In a broad sense, we’ve been a liberal society for a very long time, and in that sense liberalism is mostly a good thing.

In its good sense, liberalism is a political tendency that’s against arbitrary power and emphasizes freedom, equality, discussion, reason and law. It also promotes institutions in line with those things, like division of powers and limited and representative government.

All that seems well and good, and it’s difficult for an American to reject. We’re all liberals in some sense.

Of course, we also know that liberalism can take forms that aren’t so good. In its less acceptable and unfortunately more advanced forms its meaning changes.

Specifically, in the name of opposing arbitrary power it comes to favor it. In order to restrain particular decisionmakers, and prevent local oppression, it says we have to have a super decisionmaker somewhere who controls everything so no one can oppress anybody, with oppression defined more and more broadly.

So as liberalism advances, clarifies its principles, and makes them absolute it redefines freedom, equality, discussion, reason, law and so on to mean something very different from what they have usually been thought to mean.

As supreme principle

At bottom, the problem is that the principles of freedom and equality don’t have the substance to be the basis of social life by themselves. Free to do what? Equal in what respect? Abstract principles don’t tell us anything definite, so liberalism ends up with no goal but itself. Instead of freedom we get the cause of freedom as a supreme social goal. The result is that freedom becomes freedom to be liberal and equality means liberal principles must apply to everything equally.

It follows that

  • Freedom and equality come to mean that there has to be a superpower that controls everything and is answerable to nobody. Otherwise there’ll be local oppression.
  • All social arrangements that can’t be strictly rationalized on liberal lines, like traditional religion and the family, have to be abolished. Otherwise you have centers of social power that violate freedom and equality. That’s social injustice.
  • Rule of law comes to means that everything has to be judicialized and bureaucratized, because otherwise there will be power somewhere that is unexamined, unsupervised, discretionary, and presumptively arbitrary and discriminatory.
  • Limited government comes to mean government that is forbidden to act at odds with equal freedom. The demands of equal freedom keep growing, so limited government ends up looking very much like unlimited government. It can’t ally itself with discrimination, for example, by giving discriminatory decisions the support of the law, so it has to root out all kinds of discrimination everywhere.
  • Free speech comes to mean that nobody can say anything that makes anyone else less able to say something, which means that the only speech allowable is speech that supports liberalism, for example speech that confronts and undermines nonliberal things like traditional moral understandings.
  • Private property and free enterprise change into a demand that government provide security, prosperity and opportunity. That’s called “Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends,” individual autonomy through all-powerful government. Eminent domain law shows the situation. Government can take your property and give it to whoever seems likely to use it most efficiently. There’s really no basic principle of private property, just one of overall administration in the interests of efficiency.

As principle of reason and moderation

So substantive liberalism, liberalism which tries to be an ultumate principle, is not a good thing. It turns freedom and equality into principles that are overreaching and in fact tyrannical.

Free government means government that doesn’t run everything. That means that grand principles have to be applied in a limited way. Liberalism simply as the demand for equal freedom can’t do that except as a temporary practical concession. It’s too simple, abstract, and universally applicable to limit itself.

For liberalism to be more limited, less imperialistic, and less self-destructive, it has to be an attribute of a social order based on other things.

As such an attribute, liberalism may prefer freedom and equality, but it accepts basic attachments and loyalties that are needed by any society, especially a free one. For example, it accepts

  • Stable functional family life. That’s obviously not free or equal. It means some are born rich and some poor. Children get treated differently from parents, and husbands differently from wives. A reliable and functional system requires division of responsibilities, so people don’t get treated the same.
  • Historical loyalties, which by nature aren’t shared with everyone. Different peoples have different connections and different histories.
  • Attachments to particular cultural standards. What can you expect of people? What do you owe them? Universal principles aren’t enough to make the answers definite.
  • The distinction between “us” and “them,” which is needed for loyalties and standards to be definite and authoritative.
  • Finally, liberalism as an attribute accepts the ultimate religious orientation that’s needed for free public life. Politics can’t be limited without a common sense that there are things that are more important than politics. That sense of things is inevitably religious.

Prospects for reconstruction

Reconstructing the American order requires limiting equal freedom in some way and putting it in its place. The American political order is now routinely viewed as an enormous promissory note on which we are perpetually obligated to make ever greater payments through ever greater extensions of equal freedom. That way lies tyranny.

Difficulty limiting liberalism

In America we’ve limited equal freedom in the past in various ways, but the difficulty is that we’ve been reluctant to define just what we were doing and why. The rhetoric has been freedom, equality and the individual, and limitations have gone without saying. We’ve had an informal religious establishment, for example, but it was kept informal. That approach doesn’t work forever.

Reverence for the past

We’ve also tried to preserve limitations on liberalism through respect for particular traditions, and through reverence for the founders and national symbols like the Constitution. Freedom and equality meant what they they meant to the great men of the past, the founders for example. They meant the American Way. That limited their further development and so left room for other nonliberal principles.

That kind of purely conservative approach, based solely on habits, memories and symbols rather than principles, is helpful but has its problems. Americans believe in progress, so an appeal to the specific things we have always done or the founders did can only go so far. Not everything was perfect in the past, and modeling what you do on what great men have done doesn’t tell you what to do about new situations or for that matter the problems they left unsolved.

Also, who are the great men to idolize? Different versions of conservatism take different stages of the American order as a standard. Some favor Thomas Jefferson, some Abraham Lincoln, and some neoconservatives now favor MLK, who gets presented as a great American and conservative symbol of patriotism, hard work, the colorblind society and the merit standard.

Transcendent principle

For a guiding orientation you need something higher and less strictly concrete than historical examples. You need principles that can take precedence over equal freedom. The question then is how you go about defining those principles, a highest political good for example, what they are going to be, and how you get people to accept them.

Any such effort faces obvious difficulties. It’s not an accident that such things have been left unstated in America.

There’s the problem of rationality. Modern natural science gives people their ideal of what’s rational today. It’s value-free, it’s tested and demonstrable, and it’s often counter-intuitive, so you have to trust the experts.

That kind of rationality can’t tell you what’s good, it just tells you how to get what you want, with the suggestion that all “values” must simply be personal preferences. It’s also inconsistent with self-government, since it relies so much on experts. Maximizing satisfaction of preferences through a basically technological organization of life—which is what equal freedom mostly comes down to today—becomes the only rational social good.

Another problem is that social relations have largely been reconstructed on technological lines:

  • Economic production is industrialized. The family is no longer a unit of production. Nor is the local community.
  • So is everything else. Culture is commercial or bureaucratic. Pop culture is crudely commercial, high culture is bureaucratic. That’s what foundation, corporate and government support for the arts means.
  • Education is also commercial and bureaucratic. It’s not induction into a tradition, it’s training to be a a careerist and consumer, and to be PC.

A final difficulty for serious conservatives is that equal freedom functions as a religion. People believe in it as a highest principle, and view anything else as irrational, oppressive and violent. If you’re “extremist” or “divisive”—that’s what they say instead of “heretical” or “schismatic”—you have to be destroyed before you plunge us all into hell.


So things look bad, but that means there’s lots of room on the upside.

The victory of the other side makes them stupid, especially since their views leave out so much reality. You can see that in things like PC and “zero tolerance.” The Larry Summers situation shows the effects of PC in what’s considered our leading institution of education and scholarship.

More basically, our advantage is that the truth will out. Life must go on, liberalism increasingly applies to everything, and it’s hard to live happily or reasonably as a liberal. Liberalism doesn’t take enough life into account. The future belongs to people with children, for example, and liberalism doesn’t fit well with family life. Liberals don’t have children.

If established views don’t support life, people will look for something else. To put the issue in marketing terms, there’s a big gap in the intellectual products now generally available. What’s on offer is superficially plausible—it’s flashy—and it claims to solve all problems, but it really doesn’t work.

One thing we can do that needs to be done is work to clarify the situations and fill the gap. Many of those here are doing just that. The problems that have led us to our present situation are as basic as the definition of what’s rational and what’s good, and they pervade all society, so the response has to be equally basic and comprehensive. That’s what we are here for. It’s a struggle, but that’s what life is about.


Left/liberalism seems all-powerful, but it leaves out too much so it can’t last forever. We can’t expect fast results from our efforts, and the future is unpredictable in its specifics, but we have good reason to be confident in the ultimate outcome. Basic issues cannot be suppressed forever, and they can reassert themselves very quickly when the wind changes.

We need to take the long view. Liberal society has fundamental problems, and the question is what there will be to pick up the pieces left by its ultimate disintegration. The more the issues have been thought through the better. The fall of communism in Russia has meant mafia rule and collapse of life expectancies. I hope things don’t go so far in America, and that we can do better when liberalism falls apart. One of our tasks is to prepare for that day.