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What’s Wrong With Conservatism/Liberalism?

ISI’s Intercollegiate Review is running a series exploring the question, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong With It, And How Can We Make It Right?”, featuring conservative thinkers answering the question. Here’s what Front Porch Republican and political theory professor Mark T. Mitchell has to say on the topic.

In short, Mark contends that what passes for conservatism today is not really conservative, but its opposite. That is, the enthusiasm self-identified conservatives have for the unrestrained free market, for mobility, for freedom defined as autonomous individualism (i.e., the idea that you are only really free when you are at liberty to do whatever you want to do, versus what you should do), and the eagerness with which conservatives embrace war — all these things work against conservatism, properly understood. We end up less virtuous, less responsible, and less free. What’s the solution?. Here’s Mark:

When we properly conceive of place and limits, our understanding of liberty will be constituted in a way that is both sustainable and liberating. While the autonomous individual seeks absolute freedom but unwittingly promotes the growth of the centralized state, a person deeply committed to a particular place and willing to acknowledge the many ways humans are limited, will, ironically find that liberty emerges in the wake of these commitments. A liberty worthy of human beings is one where individuals act freely in pursuit of goods that can only be realized in the context of a healthy, human-scaled community. In other words, only when human lives are oriented to local communities can a sustainable and rich conception of liberty be secured.

To pay lip service to liberty but to denigrate particular places and to shun limits is to undermine the possibility of liberty itself. Only when those claiming to be conservative re-commit themselves to their places and willingly submit to the limits that are proper to human beings will their pursuit of liberty have a chance of lasting success.

Don’t miss his entire essay, in which he fleshes his argument out. You may want to keep up with the entire Intercollegiate Review series; of which Mark’s essay is the second. Samuel Gregg’s was the first. Here’s the part of Gregg’s piece with which I particularly identified:

This brings me to what I think has to be conservatism’s long-term agenda as well as a central element in any lasting conservative resurgence: the defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization. By this, I mean that unique culture which emerged from the encounter of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, the brilliance of which—if I may be deeply politically-incorrect for a moment—is somewhat harder to discern in other societies. As anathema as this culture may be in the contemporary faculty lounge, this is the tradition that conservatives should be in the business of safeguarding and advocating: not just in opposition to those who deploy violence in the name of a divine un-reason, but also against the obsessive egalitarianism, rank sentimentalism and wild-eyed utopianism of those who live inside the West’s gates but who have long inhabited a different mental universe altogether.

The best minds from whom conservatives continue to draw inspiration, ranging from Edmund Burke and Wilhelm Röpke to Augustine and Alexis de Tocqueville, have always understood that civilizational questions are the ones which ultimately matter. The genius of the West can be expressed in a number of propositions, but among the most prominent are the following: that freedom is to be found in the self-mastery that results from freely choosing to live in the truth rather than lies; that reason includes but encompasses far more than just the empirical sciences; and that in awareness of our fallen nature and the lessons of history we find some of the best defenses against our restless impulse to attempt to construct heaven-on-earth.

Yet as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.

Between Mark’s piece and Gregg’s essay — both of which were excellent — I have nothing original to add. For me, all of it — politics, economics, and the rest — comes down to culture, which is at some fundamental level is all about cult.

Let me put the question to the room, though, in two different ways:

1. If you are conservative, What is wrong with conservatism, and how can we make it right?

2. If you are liberal, What is wrong with liberalism, and how can we make it right?

For this post, I really, really don’t want liberals here to complain about conservatism, and conservatives to crack on liberalism. What’s really valuable and interesting is self-examination, and constructive critique. If you’re going to participate in the thread, please stick to critiquing the political and cultural tradition with which you most identify, and don’t only leave it at a critique, but suggest ways that your side could fix its own problems.

People often don’t read the conditions I lay down for participating in the thread, but I’m really going to be as tough as I can be enforcing this, because it would be easy to derail the thread by getting wound up criticizing one’s opponents. Also, I think it’s important to make at least some attempt at offering a solution to the problem you define. So I will insist on both in the responses. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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