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Liberalism: The Great Anti-Tradition

It may have rejected traditional authorities of church and state, but it has put other authorities in their place.

The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism, and the Crisis of Freedom, Mark T. Mitchell, University of Notre Dame Press, 340 pages

Writing in 1955, Russell Kirk cited the German thinker Carl J. Friedrich to the effect that “[T]o all intents and purposes, the United States is today a highly traditional society, in the sense that arguments from tradition carry a great deal of conviction.” Few would agree now, or at least not in the way Kirk intended. What defines much of American popular discourse today, among elites especially, is a conviction that appeals from authority not only have little resonance but also that tradition itself is suspect. Or to be more specific, reliance on tradition for any authoritative position that would restrict or limit individual freedom is almost completely out of bounds. In other words, tradition can be discussed only where it has no authority. Thus, we see attacks on institutions and practices—the Boy Scouts, Catholic schools, gender-specific sports—that are seen to embody “traditions” that are not inclusive.

Tradition is one way, we are told, that conservatives differ from liberals. Conservatives wish to conserve something; liberals, supposedly, do not. Indeed, liberalism is the great anti-tradition. But too often conservatives are left to mount only an attenuated defense of tradition; they seek to show liberals that some practice or tradition is in accord with “reason” and therefore sensible to retain, or that submitting to a tradition is more useful or advantageous than not. But this ultimately is no defense of tradition at all. It values tradition only insofar as it meets the standard of some other metric, such as utility, or it assumes the liberal separation of tradition from “reason” as valid, when it is not.

In that same essay, Kirk distinguished between tradition and ideology. “Individualism” or “democracy” in the abstract, he thought, could not form a tradition. Although Kirk’s rejection of ideology is controversial in some conservative circles, in general he meant an overarching system that purported to give answers to all earthly problems, typically imposed by a self-selected political elite. Traditions, in contrast, “are not abstractions; they are particular beliefs and customs closely related to private life and faith. The American Republic has its traditions, and so has the Cambodian Kingdom; but traditions are not created by political authority, and ought not to be debased into party slogans.”

Because traditions are not ideological, there could be several kinds within a political community. In America, the bulk of traditions come from the Christian religion and our British heritage, though there are pockets of French and Spanish traditions as well. “These traditions are very numerous, and some are in conflict with others,” Kirk said, “yet, provisionally, we may take for examples of American traditions such received opinions as the following: belief in a spiritual order which in some fashion governs our mundane order; belief in political self government; belief in the importance to human persons of certain natural private rights; belief in the value of marriage and the family.”

Now that may all be well and good, but how do we know when a tradition should change, and how do we determine how people should think about and defend traditions? The recent debate over Confederate statues and monuments is one example. Some conservatives argued for them to be kept as a recognition of history, but others argued they did not represent the best of our traditions—better to have monuments to the Underground Railroad and its heroes, for example. This major study from Mark T. Mitchell is titled The Limits of Liberalism, but one of its main themes is how we can think about tradition, because one of the things that has become clear from the body of conservative thought is that we are tradition-making animals.


We are, in George Scialabba’s words, “situated beings” living in a particular place and time with family and economic circumstances that shape us. Even when we are thrust into an unfamiliar situation, we take our traditions with us and seek to recover them, or to adapt them, in order that we may retain them. An example based on historical precedent is the TV series Deadwood. Deadwood was an actual town in South Dakota which for a brief period was “without law,” since the law of no state nor of the U.S. Constitution applied to it. Yet it mimicked—at some points less well than others—the traditions its inhabitants brought from elsewhere.

Mitchell recognizes that “an errant account of tradition may entail an errant account of knowing, which in turn may give birth to social and political maladies.” One kind of errant account of tradition is evident in liberalism. The liberal person is an autonomous self whose ultimate goal is liberation from every idea and restraint except for the idea that restraint is unacceptable. Mitchell writes that the first stage of liberalism still relied on the Christian, traditional society in which it lived. But the second stage of liberalism, which he defines as beginning in the late 18th century, threw off even these restraints:

First wave liberalism, because it relied (despite its explicit claims) on resources rooted in tradition, entailed a general agreement about substantive goods, including some notion of the good life, both individually and corporately. Second wave liberalism is characterized by an increasingly explicit and energetic reaction of any claim to a universal, substantive good. What matters in second wave liberalism is merely a procedural framework that creates the maximal space for individuals to determine their own good.

And because there are no just limits to liberal autonomy, second-wave liberalism furthers what Mitchell calls cosmopolitanism, “the ideal of the autonomous chooser combined with a cosmopolitan impulse that seeks to eradicate differences, even as it celebrates the unconstrained choices of individuals.” Note that this description encompasses certain forms of free-market absolutism as well as liberalism. In their underlying assumptions about tradition, the Democratic Socialists of America and Silicon Valley global capitalists are not so different. Liberalism in this second stage, though theoretically cohesive, is as a practical matter unstable. Because it disregards the validity of common traditions that should shape our conduct, it has no limiting principle.

The bulk of the book examines three of the most astute interpreters of tradition: Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Polanyi. Oakeshott developed a sophisticated defense of tradition, one made notable because it dispensed with any appeal to religious faith or natural law as a grounding of any particular tradition—or as Oakeshott later called it, “practice.” The lack of any sure baseline for when we can distinguish a good tradition from a bad one therefore opens Oakeshott up to criticism that he is simply a partisan of the status quo. But this would be unfair. According to Mitchell, Oakeshott was attempting to explain the conditions of how we think. Liberal critics think of the mind as a neutral instrument that is applied to a problem; for Oakeshott, “when an innovation is needed one simply cannot find a solution outside of what is available. And what is available constitutes one’s tradition.”

But at its best, tradition reflects not just epistemology but anthropology. Customary social practices reflect what we think a human being is, and whether there are practices that hinder or further personal flourishing (within, in some contexts, a common good). For this, Mitchell turns to MacIntyre. In his writings, MacIntyre considers how we can judge among traditions—something that was not explicitly part of Oakeshott’s account. MacIntyre thinks that, although we are all bound by our specific traditions, those traditions may nevertheless partially reflect and give access to truths beyond any one tradition. It is that commonality in objective truth that makes development within, and communication between, cultures possible. MacIntyre thus tries to answer the main challenges to his account of tradition: from the Enlightenment partisans who believe there is some universally applicable truth that can crush all customs and traditions to the postmoderns who deride MacIntyre’s search for any universal reality. But the MacIntyrean process of judgment is not easy, because it involves having to learn another tradition from the ground up.

Polanyi contributes for Mitchell a theory of knowing, or “tacit knowledge,” since not all valuable knowledge is articulable in logical precepts. Like MacIntyre and Oakeshott, Polanyi does not really think a “tradition-less” position is possible, but what is possible is knowledge of an objective reality. He develops a theory of knowing that relies on what Mitchell calls a fiduciary relationship: to know something, we must submit to the authority of someone who already knows that thing. In other words, there is an element of conscious participation in the knowledge we are obtaining because otherwise—if the truth were just presented to us without our assent to understanding—we would not be able to understand it, a process Polanyi describes as objectivism leading to nihilism.


So far, so good. Mitchell has written a deep and compelling account of the school of thought that defends tradition. It will long be a resource for conservatives and others who want to understand how tradition can represent an alternative to modern rationality that both recognizes objective truth and our personal rootedness, which paradoxically is what gives us the means to understand that truth. It furthers the project that Kirk and others initiated. We are tradition-minded beings, despite the Enlightenment delusion, and our rationality is tied up with our historical and cultural situations.

If that was where Mitchell ended, the book would be useful but little more. What makes it of real value is that Mitchell knows this analysis is not enough, for conservatives have heard this all before. The question is not how we can explain tradition in a world without tradition. As Mitchell explains, there was always within liberalism—in its first or second phases—an illiberalism, which is itself a tradition. This illiberal liberalism has developed even as it was throwing off older traditions in the name of liberation. The question is what to do with the liberal tradition that has already developed. This is made more complicated by the very fact that we are swimming in that liberal tradition—that is what we know, in an Oakeshottian sense. As Mitchell acknowledges, the theme of liberation—from the Puritans to the abolitionists—is deeply woven into the American character.

Mitchell discusses this in his chapter entitled “The Incoherence of Liberalism and the Response of Tradition.” Liberalism, in Rousseau’s phrase, will force us to be free. We can choose whatever we want except that which questions liberalism. And that means, as we have seen, that contemporary liberalism is very comfortable with punitive measures against those actors (Christian bakers, for example) who choose goods contrary to it. Liberalism has its liturgical calendar and its eschatology, its saints and demons, and it has developed customs and traditions from this that are recognizable lineaments of a kind of tradition. Liberalism may have rejected traditional authorities of church and state, but it has put other authorities in their place. The conservative lament that liberalism is only “procedural” in its rejection of tradition is incorrect, largely for the reasons Mitchell adumbrates.

Several strategies therefore present themselves. One is MacIntyrean. Conservatives must learn the liberal tradition as it exists now, not simply as many think of it—as a poor offshoot of Western Christendom. Those seeking to defend tradition must then infiltrate its institutions and shift them in a non-liberal direction when warranted and able. Law professor Adrian Vermeule has proposed something similar in light of liberalism’s dominance. With Polanyi, we must also participate in our traditions and seek ways to express the universals in ways that both liberalism and tradition can understand. Only then can we start to recover a way back to tradition.

And that brings us back to Kirk. The frustrating thing about most conservative discussions of tradition is that for a topic that is so place- and context-specific, there are too few analytical discussions of what those traditions might be. Simply to tell liberals that their cosmopolitanism does not take into account the irreducibly local and personal nature of human relationships, or that one should submit to those knowing more about a practice than you, will persuade few people. In part, this is because Mitchell is right: liberals have their own traditions, so this line of critique is not that effective. Similarly, there is surely a hierarchy of traditions that deserve more conservative reflection on their interrelationship and reliance on one another. Our tradition of public recognition of the divine, for example, is more important than my grandmother’s tradition of cooking fish on Christmas Eve. The World Series is an important cultural moment in our national tradition, but not more important than, say, our tradition of an impartial jury of one’s peers, and so on.

For Kirk, as the quote above demonstrates, traditions in the private sphere were just as important if not more so than political ones. He saw an organic and real connection between tending your own garden and the development of virtue, between public holidays and self-government. How we spend our time locally dictates what we care about nationally. More important, his own life was a paean to rootedness, which makes his work all the more attractive. Mitchell recognizes this need too and develops somewhat in this direction, but this is not such an instruction manual. Therefore, this book needs to be read alongside the work he and others have done with the website Front Porch Republic, where more concrete examples of lived tradition are discussed.

Perhaps what is needed instead is a reverse MacIntyrean strategy. Conservatives need to “translate” liberalism so that they can better explain its failings—something Mitchell does well. But conservatives also need to persuade liberals to translate conservatism. To do that, conservatives need to find potentially sympathetic interlocutors (such as Scialabba) and live lives that spark interest from those inclined to disdain tradition.  

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.