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A Death in the Family

Sunday Night Journal — December 3, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (1)

This is part one not because I have a grand plan but because I know I will have more to say about this topic than I can say tonight. A single more lengthy and more organized essay is probably called for, but that isn’t likely to get done anytime soon, and I want to talk about this now. It has to do with an exasperating subject: the definition of socio-political labels and categories, something I’ve been pretty uninterested in for a while, but which has gotten my attention again.

Courtesy of ISI Books, I have been reading a review copy of their new Solzhenitsyn Reader, and reading it with great and growing interest. I’d never read Solzhenitsyn apart from the famous Harvard address of 1978, although, like an awful lot of people old enough to have been buying books in the ‘70s, I have that paperback of The Gulag Archipelago which was then as ubiquitous as it was unread. Right off, in the introduction, I found these observations from the editors (Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney):

To begin with, it is necessary to recognize that the defense of human liberty and dignity is not exhausted by the categories of late modernity....Solzhenitsyn’s alternative to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness” has never been a romantic communal or theocratic society, rather a free one where individual rights are limited by “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”….Solzhenitsyn is a partisan of “liberty under God” against the pernicious illusion that men can build a world that defers to no limits above the autonomous human will….Solzhenitsyn is, in truth, a liberal conservative who wants to temper the one-sided modern preoccupation with individual freedom with a salutary reminder of the moral ends that ought to inform responsible human choice.

Ah, that’s me, I thought. Then circumstances kept me away from the book for several days, and I found myself unable to remember: did they say “liberal conservative” or “conservative liberal”? The second didn’t seem right. Why not? What is the difference?

To make “liberal” the noun and “conservative” the adjective implies that “liberal” is the core principle. But liberalism as a philosophy is not something a Christian can maintain. The two broad categories into which political ideas in our time are divided, however unsatisfactorily, are, at their most internally consistent, the party of religion and the party of skepticism. Conservatism is generally committed to a core religious metaphysic, at the least to a sense that there are eternal truths to which human thought and behavior must conform, and that the good life, for nations as well as for individuals, consists in working out that relationship. Pure classical liberalism—the liberalism of John Stuart Mill—is the philosophy of the always-open question, attempting to take its view of the development of society from the physical sciences: yesterday we believed such-and-such, which we now know to have been false; today we believe its negation, and that is progress, which is good. (The obvious next item in the sequence, that tomorrow we may understand today’s certainty to have been utterly misguided, is generally not given much attention, especially in the political realm—liberalism in practice takes the always-open question as implying an always-expanding personal freedom, and the possibility that progress might involve a return to what we believed the day before yesterday is not entertained.)

So a Christian is not, by definition, a philosophical liberal, and the phrase for the Christian Solzhenitsyn, as well as for me—the Christian who wants to preserve what is good and healthy in modernity, which is of course deeply involved with liberalism—must be “liberal conservative.”

The question immediately presents itself: “isn’t this the same thing as neo-conservatism?” Well, perhaps, but I think the term neo-conservative, denoting, in the famous phrase, a liberal mugged by reality, ought to refer to one who remains at heart a philosophical liberal. The Catholic neo-conservatives—notably the Nogelhaus, as I like to call the prominent trio of Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus—would not fit this strict definition. It might be said that “neo-conservative” is now less useful as descriptive nomenclature than as the name of a party, a party to which the Nogelhaus certainly belongs.

In fact I don’t know that I have that much disagreement with the Catholic neo-conservatives (to continue to use the conventional term) in principle, based on their stated ideas alone (to the extent that I’m familiar with them, which is not all that great) and ignoring the widely held view that they’re up to something sinister which they’re hiding. Like them, I want very much to preserve liberal institutions, chiefly republican government and the republican concepts of citizenship, ordered liberty, and religious toleration as we have known them for much of the past couple of hundred years; in short, I want to conserve the genuine achievements of liberalism. (How much the existence of these institutions really owes, historically speaking, to liberalism, and how much to Christianity, is a question I’ll leave to historians, noting only that it certainly owes something, and something fairly substantial, to liberalism.)

My main argument with the Catholic neo-conservatives concerns their failure to see the real nature of corporate capitalism. They see its undeniable power as an engine of material achievement, but at best give insufficient attention to the fact that in principle it honors no principle. I don’t mean that most businessmen are personally unprincipled or dishonest—I don’t think they are—but that the system itself, as actually understood and practiced, is one straightforward thing: an engine for generating profit. It has no means within it to distinguish a licit from an illicit line of trade. Conservatives are only slowly waking up to the fact that large corporations are the enemies of much that they hold dear, considerably more dangerous today than utopian socialism: it is to the corporation’s advantage, at least in the short term, that citizens should be replaced by consumers, the more malleable, suggestible, and passive the better. Moreover, corporate capitalism as we know it is, in the long run, inimical to the widespread possession of meaningful private property, as distributists have been arguing for decades. “Liberty under God” must include taming the corporate as well as the individual appetite, and as far as I know the neo-conservatives have had little or nothing to say about this.

The irony of liberalism the philosophy is that it leads to the death of liberal institutions. The conservative liberal, if there is such a thing, is ill-equipped to save them. It may distress him that the Holiday Inn, once a symbol of bland Americanism, now offers pornographic movies, but he will feel himself obliged to tolerate every new phase of the slide into squalor. It takes a liberal conservative to give liberal institutions a set of principles that can resolve the contradiction and upon which those institutions can endure.

“Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.” –Bob Dylan



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