The Real Failure of Liberal Theory

Conservative critics of “liberalism” are right to identify major flaws in liberal theory. But a deeper appreciation of those flaws should prevent us from blaming the American political tradition for them. Liberal theory is so erroneous that neither the Founders nor any other Americans could ever really put it into practice.

In a recent article, I joined a few other conservatives who have pointed out that contemporary debates over liberalism need to do a better job of distinguishing liberal theory from liberal practice. I argued that we can and should reject what is referred to as liberal theory—Lockean, Kantian, Millian, Rawlsian, or otherwise—while preserving the liberal political institutions that Americans rightly cherish. Everything good about those institutions can be defended without help from liberal theory. And much of what is good in them would have to be thrown out if we ever seriously tried to put the dictates of liberal theory into practice.

In a two-part series today and tomorrow, I wish to clarify why I do not regard the failures of liberal theory as failures of the American political tradition.

What’s Wrong With Liberal Theory

It is very easy to criticize liberal theory. At least in its classic form, it begins by imagining human beings in a state that no one has ever seen them in: parentless, autonomous, free of loyalty to any community, devoid of meaningful obligations to others, aware of nothing worth dying for. From this imaginary state, it deduces a set of strict rules for such humans to follow once they choose to enter a political community. It then claims that these rules are the nonnegotiable, rationally necessary, minimum requirements for real political practice. As I argue at length in my original article, no one has ever seen a country run by these rules or by anything approaching them. Deductive liberal theory, or what I have called liberal ideology, cannot account for many of the most treasured institutions of our liberal political practice.

Liberal ideology has provoked over 300 years’ worth of indignant reactions from conservatives, and deservedly so.

 

Liberal ideology has provoked over three hundred years’ worth of indignant reactions from conservatives, and deservedly so. They have complained about this ideology’s seeming or purported neutrality on disputed questions about the human good—that is, on any moral (and especially religious) opinions that go beyond the minimum requirements of social cohesion. Somehow, this neutrality seems to get deployed only against moral opinions that the liberal theorists in question happen not to share.

In the meantime, all human beings continue to expect that their political community should reflect their own beliefs about the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. So we all continue to use the political and legal process to impose our moral opinions on our fellow citizens. No liberal theorist has tried to imagine for us some alternative history in which the American Revolution, Abolitionism, the labor movement, Prohibition, Progressivism, the New Deal, Civil Rights, the pro-life movement, and the marriage-equality movement (among many others), could all have been advanced by citizens who maintained strict public neutrality on questions of ultimate meaning.

Conservatives have likewise complained about liberal ideology’s demand that our politics should abandon any pursuit of those higher goods that we can allegedly never agree on, and should pursue instead only an ever-increasing supply of those lower goods (life, bodily health, bodily liberty, material wealth) whose goodness no one can deny. This demand is, to start with, a frontal attack on all the economic inefficiencies that make human life livable: from Sunday closing laws to local business ownership to the very existence of many rural communities.

More generally, liberal ideology requires us all to act (in our capacity as citizens) as if we were blind to the true value of the most important social realities and institutions: the two-parent household, the unique mother-child bond, lifelong marital fidelity, divine worship. It prohibits us from enforcing any collective preference for these and other unmeasurable, noneconomic goods—individual dignity, independence of character, proximity to one’s family and place of origin, face-to-face interaction with friends and neighbors—when these pose any obstacle to the ever-increasing growth of the “economic pie” that is supposed to satisfy us all. The view that Oren Cass has recently satirized as “economic pie-ty” finds its classic expression in the fifth chapter of Locke’s Second Treatise.

The things that make life worth living are always relatively weak in the face of the baser human passions. They become even weaker when those passions are fanned and exploited by immensely powerful economic interests that know how to profit from them. Of course, wealthy families by definition have more means to defend themselves against market forces hostile to their flourishing. The poor and middle classes manage to do so only when they can act collectively to put moral restraints on the free market. But liberal theory sets limits on their ability to do precisely that. Liberal ideology demands that our national pursuit of the supposedly noncontroversial, lower goods should be restrained only in the name of other noncontroversial, lower goods.

Perhaps we can indeed prove that two-parent families reduce the crime rate, or that workers addicted to drugs will end up generating less profit for their employers. And perhaps these proofs, bereft of moral and religious support, will still win the political battle to maintain old-fashioned legal restraints on the strong and socially destructive human passions. Or perhaps not. What is clear is that liberal ideology requires our most precious social practices and institutions to defend themselves in public with one hand tied behind their back, while a growing economy offers their opponents brass knuckles and ever-increasing doses of steroids.

It is not surprising that, as Pankaj Mishra has argued, liberal theory has always appealed especially to intellectuals—who are, almost by definition, underpaid cosmopolitan introverts aspiring to membership in the aristocracy. And one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that this ideology is particularly well suited to the creation of a working class enslaved to vice and misery amid constantly rising material prosperity. (Conservatives ought to give the grassroots Left more credit for its traditional awareness of these problems, especially since strict Marxist theory would have been nearly as blind to them as liberal theory is.)

For decades now, some of the worst aspects of liberal theory have gained increasing dominance over Euro-American legal and educational institutions. These are indeed ideas with consequences. I strongly favor fighting both the ideas and their consequences.

Must Americans Be Liberal Theorists?

Some conservatives, of whom the most prominent is now Patrick Deneen, regard these recent and partial victories for liberal theory as a sign that the American liberal political tradition is now “becoming fully itself.” I am unable to follow this argument. It is true that liberal theorists since Locke have always put themselves forward as authoritative interpreters of the liberal practice that antedates them. But I do not see why we should grant them this honor.

As far as I understand today’s “postliberal” conservatives, they are moved primarily by irritation at their well-funded brethren on the Right who trace every flaw in our politics to a deviation from our Founding principles.

As far as I understand today’s “postliberal” conservatives, they are moved primarily by irritation at their well-funded brethren on the Right who trace every flaw in our politics to a deviation from our Founding principles. “Postliberals” argue instead that much of what is wrong in contemporary politics in fact follows logically from the Lockeanism of the Founders, who built worse than they knew. Since our current social-political maladies are symptoms of an underlying and fatal sickness in our own political tradition, we should not look to that tradition for any adequate remedy.

This bleak reading of our political tradition can resemble a parody of Straussian exegesis: it attributes enormous importance to a few ambiguous phrases that are supposed to reveal the secret heart of the text, and it dismisses all contrary evidence as merely exoteric. This may be a valid way to decode a philosophical work written under the threat of persecution, but it is certainly no way to read a centuries-old political tradition comprising hundreds of thinkers and millions of their constituents. The American Founders, like every generation of Americans since, held many different and conflicting intellectual commitments. For each Founding-era statement or phrase that might seem to anticipate NAFTA or Abington v. Schempp, I can find five that explicitly say the opposite. What would entitle us to say that the one, and not the other, represents the true America?

One plausible answer presents itself. The average member of today’s educated elite does fervently believe that only a selected few of the Founders’ commitments represent the true America. He or she considers it perfectly obvious that protective tariffs, school prayer, the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples, and other such vestiges of pre-liberal barbarism are as un-American as slavery itself. And “postliberal” conservatives, being intellectuals, tend to live and work surrounded by such elites. It is very frustrating to find oneself unable to defend one’s moral commitments in terms comprehensible to one’s friends and neighbors. It may even be tempting to throw in the towel and concede that today’s elite consensus is intellectually impregnable, that it does in fact represent the logical deduction from Founding principles that one’s peers sincerely believe it to be.

But contemporary bien-pensant opinion is itself hardly a masterpiece of logic. Our opinion leaders vacillate between relativism and aggressive moralism, as for example when we see glorified promiscuity shot through with #MeToo neopuritanism. Gay marriage was advanced with a libertarian live-and-let-live shrug at the same time that its legal status was claimed as a valuable sign of society-wide moral affirmation. Gender identity is now supposed to be simultaneously immutable and fluid, and while girls can of course wear construction hats, boys who wear dresses probably need surgery. The “rules-based international order” is the best thing that ever happened to American interests, but our politicians are immoral if they privilege American interests ahead of that order. Marginalized voices should always receive special attention, unless they hail from flyover country.

The opinions of our governing class remain as incoherent an amalgam as those of any other ruling class in human history. They cannot then be a logical consequence of Founding-era liberalism, nor indeed a logical consequence of anything.

Those opinions do however contain clear echoes of liberal ideologies—the same ideologies that have acquired such influence over the educational institutions that shape the souls of our elites. Liberal theory has always claimed to be both popular and intellectually rigorous, that is, to know the true interests of uneducated voters better than they themselves do. And with its universal view of justice, based on purported neutrality about the good, liberal theory ends up mowing down so many actual people’s conceptions of the good that it can hardly avoid some vacillation between relativism and aggressive moralism.

For example, according to Rawls, the government may not impose any traditional or inherited moral views—except the ones that just happen to have produced the postwar-intellectual-American-egalitarian moral intuitions on which his whole theory is based. For Mill, a government neutral on the definition of human excellence is the only way to promote genuine human excellence. According to Locke’s explicit claim, a government promotes true Christianity when it refrains from promoting Christianity or any other religion.

How Liberal Theory “Failed”

Locke himself, at least, saw these problems quite clearly. If every liberal theorist has aspired to craft a logically rigorous theory of politics, Locke arguably has the strongest claim to have actually done so. And the Founders’ highly selective borrowings from him have given him pride of place in American postliberals’ attacks on our political tradition. It is therefore worth emphasizing that not a single American politician, from Ben Franklin to Dan Crenshaw, has ever thought or acted like a consistent Lockean. To paraphrase Chesterton, Lockean liberalism has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found impossible and left untried.

The Lockean citizen is happy to maintain strict divorce laws that bind him to his loveless marriage, since he knows that as he gets older, he will at least enjoy the safety from crime that comes from his neighbors’ having been raised in stable, two-parent households. He regards the choice between addiction and sobriety as an individual decision to which no one can tell you the “right” answer, but he will nonetheless maintain tough drug laws lest the economy falter for lack of sober workers. He will make a dollar by any means not prohibited by law, but he wants the law to maintain strict market controls that protect the nation’s military and economic superiority against foreign competitors. He regards his fellow citizens’ well-being as the best means to his own well-being, no more and no less.

The Lockean citizen views “conscience” as the mere quirky opinion of any individual. He has no respect for the “conscientious scruples” that Washington told us “should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness” in our fellow citizens, and he will gladly exercise prior restraint on the profession of any religion whose doctrines appear to undermine civil obedience. But he will also outlaw atheism because it undermines public oaths. He believes his nation’s army has the right to massacre prisoners of war but not to administer defeated territories.

If this all sounds unhuman, that is because it is. Liberal theory at its most consistent requires human beings to be something other than they are. Real human beings who do try to put it into practice are compelled to do so selectively, moving closer to it in some respects while stepping back from it in others. Our Civil Rights Act moved us away from federalism and thus closer to Lockean national sovereignty, but only by putting un-Lockean restrictions on free economic activity. Our marriage laws have shifted from promoting the Protestant heterosexual couple bound more or less for life under God’s law, to the postmodern any-sex couple receiving public validation of their mutual love for as long as that love lasts—without ever pausing at the Lockean heterosexual couple bound to pool child-rearing resources for a period determined by their original marriage contract.

Attempts to put liberal theory into practice continue to produce very bad outcomes, much like attempts to put Marxist theory into practice. But Marxism did not “fail” in 1991. Marxism failed in 1848. If that was not sufficiently clear, it failed even more visibly in 1917 and every year since. Marxist theory could never be put into practice, because it required human beings to be something other than they are. The true failure of liberal theory is seen, not in the bad consequences when our elites attempt to live up to its dictates, but in their ongoing and unavoidable failure to live up to those dictates despite all attempts.

At least a few of our Founding-era elites surely did think they were better students of Locke than they actually were. But it would be grossly inaccurate to characterize the entire American Founding as a consistent attempt to put liberal theory into practice. One can therefore reject liberal theory without rejecting our political tradition; one simply has to prefer some elements of that tradition over others, as every American eventually does. What that means concretely is the subject of tomorrow’s article.

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