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Classical Illiberals

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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: “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 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.”

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.” Boot, meanwhile, cites past undeclared wars to insist that Congress doesn’t even need to pass a flimsy Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. And when Boot declares the need for an “American empire” 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.

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Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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