Don’t miss Hadley Arkes’ response, “Classical Liberalism against Relativism.”

Writing in the Catholic Herald, Matthew Schmitz says that “classical liberals paved the way for white nationalists” and deserve part of the blame for the rise of their repellent ideology. It is hard to imagine a philosophy more at odds with white nationalism than classical liberalism (you know, Abraham Lincoln and all men are created equal?), and so Schmitz’s claim seems highly implausible. What arguments might he have?

Schmitz begins from “the most remarkable fact” that classical liberals and white nationalists are in “absolute agreement” about “the value of free speech.” Now, this is not a remarkable fact but a remarkably odd assertion. It’s what someone might say if very few people accepted the doctrine in question, so that finding two distinct groups of people who held it would invite further inquiry. But freedom of speech is not a peculiar doctrine held by only few people; it’s a commonplace doctrine held by almost everyone. If believing in free speech makes classical liberals responsible for the rise of white nationalism, then they are no more to blame than, say, the Quakers. Still, there are some people who don’t believe in free speech, and among them are the white nationalists. No matter what they say when not in power, their record when in power is one of ruthlessly suppressing dissent (think Nazi Germany, the Confederate States of America, or apartheid-era South Africa). Schmitz’s “remarkable fact” is thus neither remarkable nor even a fact.

“It is important to note this agreement,” Schmitz continues, “because many classical liberals have assumed that the way to defeat white nationalists is to double-down on freedom: free trade, free speech, free love.” Really? As a classical liberal, I strongly support free trade, but I have never dreamed it could help defeat white nationalism. How would that work? Do we put home-grown white nationalists out of business by importing some cheaper racist ideology from China? I know for a fact that Adam Smith never suggested this. As to free love, classical liberals do not as a rule favor it, and I myself am opposed to it. I concede that, if rampant fornication retarded white nationalism, this would be a point in its favor, but I hereby go on record as opposing fornication, regardless of its effects on the white nationalist movement. Moreover, I am pretty sure that fornicators do not fornicate in order to curtail white nationalism.

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The Remedy for Bad Speech Is Good Speech

Schmitz has a point about free speech, however; for classical liberals do hold that the remedy for bad speech is good speech, and thus that the way to defeat white nationalists is to argue them down in the public square. But Schmitz doubts this will work, and he chastises classical liberals for thinking that, “in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ (unlike in real markets) bad currency somehow will not drive out good.” Schmitz alludes to Gresham’s Law, but he misunderstands it in at least three separate ways (see this paper by Robert Mundell); and, properly understood, it is not particularly relevant. I suspect that Schmitz is rejecting a doctrine that he thinks derives from Holmes, Mill, and Milton, but it actually goes back to Aristotle. He said in the Rhetoric that “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites,” and so, if false and unjust ideas defeat true and just ones, “the defeat must be due to the speakers themselves, and they must be blamed accordingly.” The ultimate reason for this is that the human intellect is naturally oriented to the true and the good; hence, anyone arguing for the true and the good should always be able to prevail in fair debate over someone peddling falsehoods and evil doctrines.

Not seeing this, Schmitz says that “to defeat white nationalists, conservatives must become less liberal.” So should we restrict freedom of speech and suppress white-nationalist doctrines by force? That would definitely be less liberal, and although foreign to the American tradition, laws against so-called “hate speech” are common in Europe. I have argued at Public Discourse that such laws are dangerous and wrong, but if Schmitz favors legal restrictions on political speech, he could also say that, by opposing efforts to have the police haul their speakers off to jail, classical liberals have, in a certain sense, contributed to the rise of the white nationalists. Of course, while perfectly true, this claim is also comically trivial. We may as well blame the Amish for the rise of Keynesian economics.

Call “Evil Evil and Good Good”

But Schmitz never mentions hate-speech or similar laws, and freedom of speech as a legal or constitutional right has nothing to do with his argument. Rather, according to Schmitz, defeating the white nationalists is up to private parties—other conservatives—who must call “evil evil and good good.” For, “only a conservativism that praises restraint and discretion will have the weapons to fight” white nationalists, and “only a conservativism that abjures ‘viewpoint neutrality’ will be able to side with truth against lies.” This throws the argument into utter confusion. When the classical liberals said the remedy for bad speech was good speech, Schmitz insisted this was inadequate. Schmitz’s own remedy, however, is for conservatives to denounce evil and lies and praise goodness and truth—in other words, to engage in more good speech. Why can’t classical liberals denounce white nationalism as well as Schmitz can?

The answer is that by supporting free speech classical liberals have “rendered the conservative movement unwilling and unable to call evil evil and good good.” Apparently, Schmitz thinks it’s rhetorically impossible to say, “I disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire never actually said those words, but the fact that so many people think he did rather gives the lie to Schmitz’s position. Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union has defended the right of Klansmen to march in public, but no one thinks this means the ACLU supports racism. Indeed, supporting free speech means nothing unless you support free speech for those with whom you disagree.

At this point Schmitz mentions a Public Discourse article of mine in which I said that Harvard University was right not to ban a Black Mass that a student group proposed to hold (after being roundly criticized, the group canceled the event—an example of good speech triumphing over bad). I argued that, when people are empowered to decide which speech will be allowed and which suppressed, they always make a lot of mistakes, and their mistakes inevitably skew in favor of permitting the expression of ideas congenial to themselves and suppressing contrary ideas. Hence, everyone is better off in the long run if we allow a lot of bad speech to make sure good speech is heard too. The underlying principle applies whenever Type I errors (false positives) are much more costly than Type II errors (false negatives); it grounds Blackstone’s ratio (“it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”), and it goes back at least as far as the parable of the wheat and the tares.

Free Speech Doesn’t Entail Subjectivism

But “underlying these very un-conservative arguments,” Schmitz detects “an assumption that we cannot and should not distinguish between good and evil,” in other words, a form of moral subjectivism. Since classical liberals expressly reject moral subjectivism, Schmitz must mean that arguments like mine imply moral subjectivism, even if classical liberals have failed to recognize this. To make good on this claim, Schmitz must show that the classical liberal argument for freedom of speech does not go through without assuming moral subjectivism. Now, the standard argument is that, although some ideas are good and others are bad, empowering fallible human beings to decide which ideas may be expressed and which shall be suppressed is so susceptible to abuse that we are better off in the long run allowing almost all ideas to be expressed. On its face, this argument expressly acknowledges a distinction between good and evil. Does Schmitz have some explanation as to why, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this argument actually requires moral subjectivism as a suppressed premise?

If he does, he never mentions it. Schmitz asserts, but he doesn’t argue, and what he asserts without argument, anyone else may deny without argument. Still, I suspect I know why Schmitz goes wrong here: without crediting him, Schmitz is borrowing from Hadley Arkes, who thinks that some of the Supreme Court’s free-speech jurisprudence implies a form of moral relativism. I have argued here at Public Discourse that Arkes is wrong about this, and Justice Alito has rejected Arkes’s reading of the relevant cases; but even if Arkes is right, Schmitz misunderstands what Arkes is saying. Arkes is criticizing some recent cases that limit the government’s right to refuse to register trademarks that use either extremely insulting language akin to fighting-words (see Arkes on Matal v. Tam) or profane language of the four-letter-word variety (see Arkes on Iancu v. Brunetti). Arkes does not think that non-insulting, non-profane reasoned discourse, no matter how immoral the positions advocated, may be suppressed. Hence, Arkes recognizes the right of the white nationalists to make their case, provided that they do so with arguments and not insults or profanity (he mentions Mein Kampf as an example). He thus does not think that affirming that right implies moral relativism. If Schmitz is lifting an argument from Arkes, Arkes is not saying what Schmitz thinks he is.

What’s Really Going On Here?

So Schmitz has done nothing to show that classical liberals deserve some of the blame for the rise of white nationalism, which, as I noted above, is a ludicrous idea from any historical perspective. So what’s really going on here? The answer is that Schmitz is one of these bold young conservatives who think that the older generation of classical liberals have failed (Just look at the state of the world!) and conservatism needs new leadership. Now, if anyone can point out a better way for conservatives, I say let him do so. Unsurprisingly, however, the younger conservatives are discovering that formulating a positive program different from that of their elders is very difficult (their manifesto, for example, contains not a single concrete proposal). They thus seem to be concentrating on criticizing the older generation. Schmitz’s article is an extreme example of this—extreme because it attempts to associate classical liberals with an odious ideology like white nationalism, which, it must be said, is a low thing to do.

Schmitz and his friends likely want no advice from me, but I shall offer them some anyway: if you really must attack other conservatives, take the time to figure out what they actually said and why, and interpret them charitably, the way you would wish to be interpreted. You owe this even to your enemies, but other conservatives are not your enemies but your friends. After that, have some definite arguments. To hell with freedom of speech is not an argument, and neither is lifting a line from Hadley Arkes. If you just bash older conservatives, you risk sounding petulant and juvenile, and I know you’re better than that.

Much better than criticizing others would be working out some concrete policy proposals that have a realistic chance of being adopted. Think long and hard about what the Federalist Society has accomplished with textualism and originalism, what Hadley Arkes has accomplished with partial-birth abortion laws, or what David Forte is trying to do with heartbeat laws. Repealing the First Amendment, on the other hand, is unrealistic, and Catholic integralism is so far beyond unrealistic as to be fundamentally unserious. When you think through the issues in a disciplined way, you will likely find that the classical liberals have usually been right. But who knows? Maybe we’re not, and maybe you’ll work out something better. If you are going to do so, however, you will need to work a lot harder than you currently are.