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Classical Illiberals

There is an internal debate swirling within the conservative commentariat as to whether classical liberalism has become unsustainable, touched off by the release of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. And while I’m only partway through Deneen’s book, I would put myself in the “no” camp. Liberalism is a multifarious school of thought, encompassing the individualism of Locke and the utilitarianism of Mill, the subjugation of nature demanded by Bacon and the separation of governing powers established by Madison. Deneen gets much right in diagnosing the modern world’s problems, but the liberalism he blames seems too monolithic, too akin to a time bomb whose culpability in ruining us all isn’t always firmly established.

Still, I am ultimately an American, which means that even more than individual liberty, I’m obsessed with faux displays of bipartisan unity. To that end, I think I’ve stumbled upon something that all of us—ladies and gentlemen; Boomers and Millennials; liberals, progressives, traditionalists, and anarchists—can agree on: whatever classical liberalism is, it isn’t Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin. Boot, the omni-hawkish Washington Post writer, recently penned his umpteenth column exasperating over the Trump presidency in which he reached this conclusion [1]: “I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal, because ‘conservative’ has become practically synonymous with ‘Trump lackey.’” He was promptly hear-heared on Twitter [2] by Jennifer Rubin, the Post’s swivel-eyed anti-Trump blogger, who in a later post equated Boot’s classical liberalism with her own “center-right politics.” [3]

Boot and Rubin sometimes tout their affinity for “markets,” a term aligned with classical liberalism, which espoused free enterprise against Marxism during the Cold War. So maybe that’s the root of their confusion. But to reduce a robust philosophy to an economic buzzword seems a disservice: liberalism’s thinkers—even those we associate more with capitalism like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek—contended with broad concepts of politics, liberty, mankind, and the state. Outgrowths from those ideas abound, but a good meeting point in the classically liberal forest is the “fatal conceit” that Hayek spotted in statist ideologies like socialism, which he defined as the belief “that man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes.” Modern classical liberals thus reject utopian ideas whose delivery mechanism is government. The antecedent here is a view of human nature as untrustworthy and fallen—men can’t bring about their fellows’ salvation and given the power to try they’re likely only to enslave and kill.

Here in America, those tenets of classical liberalism have found expression in the U.S. Constitution, which takes just such a wary view of human nature and sets about constricting potential power centers both inside of government and out. The Constitution is properly read not as a grant of total license to the individual over the state, but as an attempt to rope off all the hypothetical predators of liberty—the tyrannical executive branch and the autonomous standing army, the aspiring monarch and the frothing mob—creating a space in between for free and decent men to thrive. Thus were representatives to be voted into office by the general electorate and senators to be selected by state legislatures, providing outlets to the common man and the aristocratic elite while locally grounding both in their respective congressional districts and states. Thus, too, did the Founders see public virtue as a necessity, lest a demagogue with “talents for low intrigue,” as Hamilton put it, rise too far. The machinery of governance they bequeathed to us is intricate, carefully calibrated and easily unbalanced if its clauses aren’t enforced.

The American classical liberal has an appreciation for this fragility. He’s forever warning about minor and even hypothetical threats to the constitutional order, which he views as further tugs on the Jenga tower that could bring everything else crashing down. Think of Charles C.W. Cooke’s energetic attacks on even marginal gun control measures, lest what he sees as the Second Amendment’s check on federal power be stripped away. Think, too, of the occasional interest by classical liberals in repealing the Seventeenth Amendment, which, by shifting authority over the Senate from state legislatures to the voters, upended America’s federalist structure. Classical liberals can be needlessly economic and legalistic; they tend to consider too little the necessity of virtue and culture within their polity. But at their best, they have a long-term and caretaker understanding of the American system that’s too often lacking amidst the spittle of our “DO SOMETHING!” political discourse.

It should be obvious that none of this is compatible with—just pulling a slip out of a hat here—a never-ending military crusade to democratize the Middle East. “War is the health of the state,” said Randolph Bourne, and forever war is the pathogen that destroys the liberal state. It does this by inflating the executive branch, and suffusing it with a spirit alternatively of fear and glory rather than restraint. Boot and Rubin have not only backed just such a forever war against terrorism; it’s this unflinching and introspection-proofed support that sets them apart even from their erstwhile confreres on the right. Some conservatives at least anguish over a balance between security and constitutional procedure: not these two. For Rubin, lawmakers attempting to reform the NSA’s collection of metadata so it’s congruent with the Fourth Amendment aren’t “serious about national security.” [4] Boot, meanwhile, cites past undeclared wars to insist that Congress doesn’t even need to pass [5] a flimsy Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. And when Boot declares the need for an “American empire” [6] that will remake benighted Afghanistan through “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” Hayek’s fatal conceit glows beneath. Such thinking downgrades everything to wartime urgency; it is the antithesis of the constitutional delicacy espoused by the best of American classical liberalism.

One thing Patrick Deneen unquestionably gets right is that, despite its emphasis on pluralism, what’s today called liberalism has congealed into a stiflingly uniform ideology. This is what I up-cap as “Liberal Democracy” rather than “liberal democracy,” a sort of “Aspen fellows of the world unite!” global materialism that dogmatizes sprawling trade deals, mass immigration, and humanitarian military interventions. It is here—with particular emphasis on that third tenet—that we should place Boot and Rubin. Their political program has produced quagmires abroad that have helped contribute to a $21 trillion national debt. Rubin complains now about her own political homelessness but that’s what happens when you burn down the last house that had you in. Classical liberals should be the next to nail an eviction notice to the neocon door.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Classical Illiberals"

#1 Comment By bayesian On March 6, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

Dear Col. Bacevich,

Thank you for all your service to our polity, as much (IMHO much more) after doffing the uniform as wearing it.

You write:

Modern classical liberals thus reject utopian ideas whose delivery mechanism is government.

I should hope that any liberal worthy of the name would reject utopian ideas delivered through any mechanism whatsoever, religion and (recently) technology being two obvious contenders to that throne in addition to government.

I do agree with you that any host (previously the Republican Party; presently I guess: what? the centrist anti-Trump coalition?) which finds itself plagued with Boot or Rubin should immediately begin a course of strong antihelminthics.

#2 Comment By bayesian On March 6, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

(oops – sorry for confusing you with Col. Bacevich, Mr. Purple – rest of the comment stands)

#3 Comment By Lubyanka Liberals On March 6, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

i>”whatever classical liberalism is, it isn’t Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin”


Look at the photos accompanying this article. Do those look like “classical liberals” to you? In another time and place Boot and Rubin would have been big Commies, what with their enthusiasm for commie style dragnet wiretaps and mass surveillance. They themselves must feel it in their bones – they’re “classical liberals” in the Stasi sense of that term.

That they’re now bidding for the mantle of decent Western European liberals is pretty disgusting, but also amusing, absurd, ridiculous.

#4 Comment By Robert E. On March 6, 2018 @ 11:46 pm

This has always been my fear as a liberal millennial, that the Neoconservatives would effectively worm their way into the hearts of my peers. They see the writing on the wall for the conservative movement and, being the political chameleons they are, want to continue on their destructive foreign policy in whatever the next regime will be.

I’d be happier to see an olive branch from paleo-cons like those at TAC than opportunists like the neoconservatives. But the latter are savvy political players, and the former often just aren’t flexible enough to pick and choose their battles. That’s why I see military interventionism continuing on long into the future without any real opposition. The neoconservatives haven’t lost even once.

#5 Comment By Jones On March 7, 2018 @ 1:18 am

This is an excellent piece. Classical liberalism is a concept that is deservedly attracting a lot of new interest, and I think you nail it. Eloquently. Would love to hear more.

#6 Comment By rubber souls On March 7, 2018 @ 6:47 am

Rubin is best known for her disgusting suggestion a few years ago that “For all intents and purposes, (Bibi) Netanyahu is now the West’s protector ” and that the US has had to rely on Israel for its security. She said this in the midst of a seventeen year-long period in which the US fought multiple bloody Mideast wars while the Israelis sat on their hands and did nothing. They were utterly useless to us. All Netanyahu did was whine for more money and other freebies from the American taxpayer, and lecture us about how “real men go to Teheran” (gag). A coward, a shirker, a bloodsucker – and apparently a criminal fraud, too, if the Israeli police are to be believed.

So Rubin seems to be a pretty creepy character. That said, she’s a well-matched bookend for the equally creepy, alien, and reliably wrong Max Boot.

#7 Comment By Loose Ends On March 7, 2018 @ 7:11 am

In their own way people like Rubin and Boot are more dangerous to America than any number of “Russian meddlers”, and it is depressing that they still enjoy the positions they do after all the bad and likely treacherous advice they have given, all the falsehoods they’ve made or supported.

They can’t fix all that by belatedly capering about in the mantle of “classical liberalism”.

#8 Comment By tz On March 7, 2018 @ 8:58 am

The problem is that the classical liberals have been the ones to politely surrender and retreat on everything, or when they attack, they attack Trump – consider George W Bush, can you find even one criticism of anything Obama or those in his administration (e.g. Clinton) did? Now he is attacking Trump.

The reason there is a “Do Something!” crowd is that when we gave power to the right, they always found excuses to not accomplish anything while the leftward push never stops. McConnell had said “give us the Senate and we’ll repeal Obamacare”. He kept upping the ante and even with the trifecta failed. But they, while doing nothing, will apologize more for slight incivility than funding Planned Parenthood’s Abortion Holocaust which for some reason they are utterly incapable of stopping.

That is the problem. When you can’t accomplish anything you become irrelevant.

#9 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 7, 2018 @ 9:49 am

Always bear in mind that “liberalism” is being used here in the European sense. In American political terminology “capitalism” might be a more appropriate term.

#10 Comment By Brian On March 7, 2018 @ 10:18 am

The “Liberal Democracy” vs. “liberal democracy” distinction is discussed at length in Ryszard Legutko’s “The Demon in Democracy”.

#11 Comment By Mark Thomason On March 7, 2018 @ 12:33 pm

“Markets” when they say it means unfettered, unregulated capital run amok. There is only one side to their market, the wealthy serving themselves. They side with those who sign their checks.

#12 Comment By KDM On March 7, 2018 @ 1:00 pm

This is one of the best articles re: classical liberalism I’ve read in a long long while. Coincidentally I’ve just started listening to the audiobook The Fatal Conceit by FA Hayek and your definition is spot-on.

I’ve also just finished reading Skin in the Game by Nicholas Nassim Taleb where-in he skewers the Neocons and literally calls some of them out by name (i.e. Max Boot, Bill Kristol and the usual suspects). Arm chair pundits who have never served in the military nor have their kids and they’ve all been so wrong all of the time. They have NO SKIN IN THE GAME, so when their policy advice and their fervent psychotic blood thirst gets thousands upon thousands of humans killed, they pay absolutely no price. And yet they are always always invited on the freaking political shows for punditocracy or whatever it is they wax on about.

Why doesn’t the progressive Twitter mob go after and attack these guys? Why don’t the vicious Antifa types go after the real danger?

#13 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On March 7, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

I can’t get incensed enough about Max Boot to satirize him, but the very annoying Jennifer Rubin is a different matter.

RUBIN stands for Ridiculous Unrivaled Bezos-Idiotized Ninny.

#14 Comment By DWSWesVirginny On March 7, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

I may get a drubbing for this, but while Max Boot is a citizen of the United States, he is not a “little a” American. He’s an immigrant–one gifted in rhetoric and writing to be sure–but doesn’t grasp the spirit of America. Coming from the former Soviet Union, that spirit is something he may have gleaned a bit about from his studies but his blood isn’t in the soil, so to speak. Hence, like a lot of children of recent immigrants, he doesn’t grasp what it’s like to have a sense of self sufficiency and “don’t tread on me.” I say this not to put such people down. In fact, it is to the same of us who do have our blood sown, that we no longer take the time to make sure immigrants and their children are imbued with the same spirit. Surely, we can do better here.

#15 Comment By doug On March 7, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

The Fatal Conceit, a fine work. I’m reminded of Robespierre’s arc. What’s a little excess in order to liberate? OK, more than a little. Such is the path Lord Acton outlined.

#16 Comment By Taras 77 On March 7, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

From comment above: rubber souls:

“So Rubin seems to be a pretty creepy character. That said, she’s a well-matched bookend for the equally creepy, alien, and reliably wrong Max Boot.”

I could not agree moire!. Just trying to read, infrequently, their commentary is more than alarming-what do these people do for what for logic-it is not in my understanding.

#17 Comment By Clyde Schechter On March 7, 2018 @ 9:22 pm

“Why doesn’t the progressive Twitter mob go after and attack these guys? Why don’t the vicious Antifa types go after the real danger?”

That’s a really good question!

I think the answer is Obama/Clinton (both Clintons). From the perspective of foreign policy, the GW Bush administration was an extension of trigger-happy Bill Clinton’s, and Obama’s perpetuated the Bush wars, too, with the guiding hand of Hilary Clinton. The Democratic party is up to its eyeballs in war criminals–it isn’t just Bush and Cheney and their crew. The fact is that the neocons have dominated foreign policy since at least the Reagan administration.

While I don’t think we should confuse the Democratic Party with the Left, there is enough overlap between them that what would otherwise, I think, be a chorus of hostility from the Left towards neocons has been drastically muted, and basically comes only from the far left wing (in which I count myself).

#18 Comment By Arleigh Quinn On March 8, 2018 @ 8:08 am

“In fact, it is to the same of us who do have our blood sown, that we no longer take the time to make sure immigrants and their children are imbued with the same spirit. Surely, we can do better here.”

Not sure who is being blamed here–traditionally, public school teachers have been tasked with Americanizing the children of immigrants.

#19 Comment By phree On March 8, 2018 @ 10:29 am

I find the semantics on political labels somewhat humorous, but sad. The right has spent decades turning “liberal” into a curse word, and now the left is doing the same with “conservative.” So, now we come up with new labels “progressive” and “classical liberal.” Those who would divide us will do the same thing to those labels, so new labels will be needed. What we need is for people to stand against hate and division, and for basic principles, labels be damned.

#20 Comment By Colm J On March 12, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

I thought “classical liberals” were supposed to be educated? Max Boot obviously knows next to zero about the history of the British Empire if he thinks “self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets” provided leadership in Afghanistan: The British were defeated in Afghanistan.

Like KDM I too find it intriguing that Antifa never go after the Neocons – ever! Yet Neocon wars kill more non-whites in a day than the Klan managed in 150 years.

#21 Comment By blackhorse On March 13, 2018 @ 7:38 am

Fwiw, Rubin led the cheers fro Romney ’12 and Boot (Savage Wars for Peace) was hooh-ah on the Iraq Occupation.

ps “Do those look like “classical liberals” to you?” What IS a classical liberal supposed to look like?