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More on conservative liberalism

Another column by Stanley Kurtz lays out in more detail the conservative liberalism that I noted a few days ago. In That Other War: Where the moral debates are, post-Bennett-gate, he proposes that “we are living in a moral universe consisting of three broad groups: religious traditionalists, social liberals, and a balancing and relatively secular group in the middle.” He insists that all three groups are necessary—religious traditionalists, because society needs binding standards to hold it together, social liberals, because they stand for the freedom that is our good as individuals, and the middle group to balance and negotiate the conflicting demands of the others. He also says that the division will be an enduring one, because life inevitably begins with family and dependency, but it is now carried on in adulthood amidst the impersonality of city, market, and bureaucracy.

Kurtz puts himself in his middle group, and claims his position is not far from the traditionalist one. Nonetheless, in his principles he’s decisively on the liberal side. He’s in the middle in the same sense a theocrat is in the middle who recognizes that radical attempts to enforce divine law comprehensively backfire so some space must be left for individual choice. A true middle-of-the-roader wouldn’t systematically subordinate either side to the other. He would try to solve conflicts by reference to considerations of general public benefit both sides recognize. In contrast, Kurtz treats religion and moral tradition instrumentally, as things to be valued within limits because they serve purposes, like providing a stable setting for raising children, that liberals themselves recognize as socially essential. He treats individual freedom of choice as an ultimate good, one worth pursuing for its own sake and worth the sacrifice of other goods that are recognized more universally. For example, acceptance of the practice of cohabitation damages the quality and stability of relations between the sexes—Kurtz says he agrees with William Bennett on the point. Nonetheless, he supports it because it increases freedom. He thus favors standards that sacrifice the success of a practice—male-female bonding—on its own terms, and its contribution to human well-being, to the individual freedom of those participating. That is the mark of someone who is fundamentally an ideological liberal.

Kurtz says that we’re in a long-term situation in which the libs will oppose the trads, with neither side winning, so his middle position is the practical one that will enable life to go forward. It’s no doubt true today, as always, that a middle position is needed. It is doubtful, though, that moral authority can be treated as a sort of social policy designed to safeguard a conception of freedom that rejects innner standards. My disagreement with Kurtz may have to do with a difference in starting point. He takes the success and continuity of the American regime for granted, notes current conditions and trends, and infers its future moral trajectory. I look at a regime that has come to recognize no good higher than the arbitrary freedom of the individual to do as he chooses, decide it can’t last, and look for something else. Time will tell who is right.