22 January 2019

Liberalism's Latest Critic (and Why It's Not Quite Enough)

Yoram Hazony, author of  "The Virtue of Nationalism" (2018) (see some earlier posts about Hazony here, here, and here), has given us a "cheat sheet" when it comes to his book in a post at First Things titled Conservative Democracy.  Not a commonly-reference liberal democracy but a conservative one.

The form of democracy we experience throughout the West today finds its immediate roots in the thinkers of 18th century.  Generally known as Liberals, they moved away from the more distinctively Christian past toward Classical Liberalism described by Hazony as
an Enlightenment political tradition descended from the principal political texts of rationalist political philosophers ... By “rationalist,” I mean that this kind of political thought is intended to imitate a mathematical system, which begins with axioms taken to be self-evident and proceeds by supposedly infallible deductions.
So what are Liberalism's axioms? Per Hazony:
  1. The availability and sufficiency of reason (at least for all public purposes).
  2. The free and equal individual ... in all respects.
  3. Obligation arises from choice -- all of life is contractual.
What's wrong with this picture of human, social, and political realty? Quite a bit, actually. 

As Hazony observes, many important aspects of human life--God, God's revelation in the Bible, and the legitimate authority of the family, the traditions of a nation among them--are neither among Liberalism's axioms nor can they be deduced from those axioms. In fact, Liberalism effectively undermines claims of authority from outside its rationalist bubble.

So what's Hazony's alternative to Classical Liberalism's three axioms? In a word, conservatism. But not what passes for "conservative" in the American context, which is Classical Liberalism bent toward individualism (libertarianism) and/or the market as panaceas for the problem of social ordering.

So, to ask the next question, what does Hazony mean by conservatism? A cluster of five principles describe his understanding:
  1. Historical empiricism
  2. Nationalism
  3. Religion
  4. Limited executive power
  5. Individual freedoms
The first principle, historical empiricism, is the antithesis of Liberalism's axiom 1. Instead of a finding its justification in reason abstracted from the historical, cultural, and social life of a people
the authority of government derives from constitutional traditions known, through the long historical experience of a given nation, to offer stability, well-being, and freedom. These are refined through trial and error over many centuries ... Such historical empiricism entails a skeptical standpoint with regard to the divine right of the rulers, the universal rights of man, and all other abstract, universal systems.
Hazony's second and third principles respond to Liberalism's second and third axioms; the warrant for a polity's continued existence comes from within its lived experience, not from an abstract "without." And, by the way, that "within" is fully human, not a deracinated brain on a stick.

The final two principles on Hazony's list, however, overlap with the outworking of Classical Liberalism's axioms. Certainly standing alone his fifth principle would be roundly applauded by libertarians and libertines alike. Hazony's piece explains that the individual freedoms (better, "liberties") identified in conservatism are local and historical: "like all rationalists, liberals are engaged in applying local truths, which hold good under certain conditions, to quite different situations and circumstances where they often go badly wrong." Iraq, anyone? Whatever the case, conservatism's liberties don't come from Olympian pronouncements by five folks wearing black gowns.

Everything Hazony describes in his piece is fundamentally sound. Just read it and see for yourself. But I would like to comment on three problems I see. First, not every religion has been part of a conservative tradition in which Hazony's other four principles abide. As he observes, conservatism has been particularly (albeit not exclusively or perfectly) the gift of 16th and 17th century Protestantism. Similarly, a variety of contemporary expressions of that religion, which were once a dynamic element of conservatism, have themselves drunk the Kool-Aid of Liberalism and have little to offer any contemporary conservative renaissance.

And yet ... yet, isn't there more than a historically successive connection between the insights, values, and traditions of early Protestant conservatism and contemporary Liberalism?  The significant overlap between the conservative tradition's conception of historically-grounded ordered liberty and Liberalism's focus on individual freedom suggests that Liberalism might not be all bad. Liberalism has formed many good things as well as deformed many, many others.

Thus third (in two parts): does Hazony's conservatism have room for the good fruit of Liberalism? And does it have a plausible chance of rooting out Liberalism's pathologies while preserving its blessings?

For an answer to both parts of my question go here to read John Medaille's "Why Anti-Liberalism Fails." I won't try to summarize Medaille's lengthy discussion except to say he agrees that Liberalism has generated good fruit. Yet, to reverse its deforming effects Medaille concludes that it will take a better story. In other words, Liberalism's pathologies cannot simply be eliminated with arguments like Hazony's, cogent as they are. Liberalism's grasp on our affections is so strong and deep that even Hazony's limpid prose fails to make an impression lasting enough and deep enough to reorient the Liberal social imaginary that is continually expanding its grip. Indeed, in my current posting to Delhi I can see that grip inexorably spreading. 

Thus, perhaps overcoming Liberalism with conservatism isn't the full answer. Perhaps, in Medaille's words,
We have to give a new narration which reconnects the Christian values of Liberalism with their Christian roots so that they may gain new life, and can deliver what they promise. And every good story, at least in Christian lands, is really just a retelling of the Gospel story, a record how the images of God play out in history. But no version of that story can be compatible with secularism, and no area of life can escape the story. Alongside the economic and political task, there is the literary task, because culture cannot be reformed without all three. And without this new reformation, the West cannot be saved. In truth, we cannot rid ourselves of Liberalism unless we rid ourselves of Christianity, but neither Liberalism nor Christianity can survive a totalizing secularism. 
Only a story or, rather, the Story ramified through individual and historical stories together with the insights of folks like Hazony and Roger Scruton can alter the imaginary of Liberalism to recover the virtues of conservatism. Can this be done? I must say yes. Will it happen? Stay tuned for the next 50 years.

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