Post-Liberal America

R. R. Reno March 31, 2021 - Understanding America
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In my Catholic corner of the world, a surprising number of people are talking about “integralism.” The term comes from nineteenth and twentieth century French debates about the relation of the Church to the state. The liberal and secularist forces insisted that the Church should have no power over civic affairs. Traditionally minded Catholics argued that the truths of the Catholic faith should guide and govern the political life of the nation. According to this way of thinking, civil authority may be distinct from ecclesiastical authority, but the two should work together as a single whole. Thus integralism, from the Latin integrare, “to make whole.”

By my reading, today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

John Rawls was a particularly powerful spokesman for a purely formal conception of civic life, one concerned with protecting basic rights and establishing a just distribution of utilities rather than adjudicating between “comprehensive doctrines.” Isaiah Berlin was perhaps more influential. He insisted that the irreducible pluralism of substantive values means we can never achieve an “integral” politics. Berlin also succeeded in convincing many that “positive liberty” (the freedom made possible by pursuit of the highest good) tends toward authoritarianism. It’s best, he argued, to be satisfied with liberal minimalism.

Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman reinforced Rawls and Berlin. The two economists argued that market relations are agnostic about the highest good, and thus are thus well-suited to a liberal society that wishes to accord the greatest freedom to individuals to define their own needs and choose their own priorities in life rather than having them imposed by society as a whole.

But the Rawls-Berlin-Hayek-Friedman consensus is breaking down. Left-wing critics have long argued that liberal societies dominated by free markets form citizens as deeply as do traditional societies. The Frankfurt School theorists were particularly adept at detailing this dynamic. C.B. Macpherson laid out the soul craft of liberalism in A Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962). Right-wing critics such as Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver played the same tunes in different keys. Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) framed the political-cultural issues of our time in ways that energized conservative engagements with Aristotle, which has led to a revival of Catholic anti-liberalism.

These and other criticisms of economic and political liberalism are gaining a wider audience. There are historical reasons for this. The financial crisis of 2008 required massive federal bailouts. This exposed the political scaffolding holding up the free-market system. Liberalism (and liberals) has been unable to temper the cultural-political battles between conservatives and progressives. Woke revolutionaries on the left insist that liberalism’s commitment to procedural neutrality makes it insufficiently activist and thus complicit with injustices such as racism and patriarchy. Liberalism’s inability to restrain (or even oppose) woke revolutionaries encourages young conservatives to conclude that it is either impotent or secretly (or not so secretly) in league with the most extreme forms of progressivism.

The 2020 Bostock decision epitomizes the collapsing liberal consensus in the United States. By cleaving to objective and neutral judicial standards, originalism promises to ensure constitutional stability in times of dramatic social change. This appeals to conservatives who wish to preserve the liberal framework of American public life. But Justice Gorsuch’s opinion joined originalism to the most radical aspects of the sexual revolution, undermining that judicial philosophy’s claim to anchor our Constitution in something deeper and more stable that today’s cultural battles.

As an American conservative, I want to sustain our liberal traditions rather than overturn them. This sets me against rigorous forms of Catholic integralism. But a body politic is not a machine. It grows, mutates, and decays.

Today, mainstream center-left intellectuals and public figures openly describe the Senate procedures as racist, argue that we must get rid of the electoral college, and wish to confer statehood with a partisan intent not seen since the antebellum battle over slavery. Furthermore, progressives have thoroughly politicized the rule of law, so much so that it is not unimaginable that by decade’s end conservative cultural politics will be deemed illegal, just as they have become functionally prohibited at many universities.

In short, our liberal traditions require bipartisan support in order to frame political life and its contestations. But it’s not clear that they have the support of the left, or even the center left, which means that we may already be moving toward a post-liberal polity, whether I want or not.

Integralism gains adherents today, because people on the right, especially young people, sense an erosion of the liberal consensus that borders on collapse. Woke revolutionaries on the left also sense this erosion, which is why they are pressing for results rather than procedures.

I’m a conservative, which means I’m not in a hurry for things to change. But a conservative must be a reality-sensitive. In my travels and conversations, I’m seeing a shift in how religious and social conservatives are thinking. There is little appetite for “anti-liberalism.” But old loyalties are fading and notions such as integralism seem to fire the imaginations of some. This is perhaps to be expected. As political realities leave liberalism behind, our discourse and debate will become increasingly post-liberal.

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
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Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

Corporate-Sponsored Censorship

Parler, the alternative to Twitter, is being strangled by the tech giants. Apple and Google removed the app from their app stores. Amazon removed the company from its web-hosting service. These companies claim these actions serve the public interest.

Family and Freedom

R. R. Reno February 11, 2021 - Understanding America
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In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in every generation. Shoring up the family is a crucial element in this process. It’s worth meditating on why this is the case. How, exactly, do strong families contribute to a culture of freedom?

Against a view of freedom as mere liberation from external fetters, in an oft-quoted passage, Edmund Burke wrote, “Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions form their fetters.” He was expressing the classical view of freedom. We are only free insofar as we are in command of our souls, which is to say, we are free to the degree that we are virtuous. We can de-criminalize heroin (as they have in Oregon), and in that respect, everyone will enjoy an increase in freedom. But the heroin addict is the opposite of free. Although unhindered by government, he is in bondage to his addiction.

Without a doubt, the family serves as the primary school for virtue, and in that sense nurtures freedom. Mother, father, siblings, and relatives weave a web of interdiction, encouragement, and role models for children as they grow up. Family lore about the wayward uncle who has made missteps offers a cautionary lesson. Achievements celebrated establish standards to live up to. 

We too often think of virtue in strictly moral terms. But there’s a psycho-social dimension as well. A close family can feel suffocating, true, but it roots us, and the anchoring power of family life plays an important role in sustaining a culture of freedom. 

As John Stuart Mill recognized, the social consensus, not the power of government, infiltrates every aspect of life. How we are expected to behave is often felt as more of a constraint than how we are required to behave. To the power of the social consensus, we can add the modern phenomena of advertising and mass media, which seduces, cajoles, and propagandizes. In this environment, the first act of freedom is often one of resistance—saying “no” when so many others are saying “yes.” 

Put another way: freedom requires the ability to go against the current. As a country song puts it: “You gotta stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” For most of us, our families provide the ability to stand strong. “I wasn’t raised to do that kind of thing.” We don’t want to do something that would bring shame or dishonor to our families, or to the memories of those long dead. For many, this sentiment is the most stable and reliable foundation of freedom.

Burke (and the Founders) understood that a society can sustain political freedom only if it is populated by people capable of self-government. There is an obvious aspect to this observation. A vicious, un-disciplined population requires extensive legal and bureaucratic intervention to control their destructive tendencies. But there is another, less obvious but perhaps more important aspect. Government is always subject to capture by special interests. The powerful have every incentive to expand their privileges, which they do by intimidation and seduction. Therefore, a free society requires a substantial body of citizens who will not cower before threats and cannot be bought by bribes. Again, freedom requires the capacity to say “no.” 

The stiff spine and incorruptible spirit are captured by the slogan on the Gadsden flag: “Don’t tread on me.” The coiled snake on the flag implies the threat of retaliation. If provoked by oppression, a free man will rise up in resistance. We should not underestimate the role this threat plays in a free society. It tempers elite arrogance and deters their overreaching. 

A spirit of independence is not likely to flourish among atomized individuals from fragmented families who have been cast into a hyper-competitive marketplace and are bombarded by advertising and benumbed by puerile entertainment. John Locke recognized that the security of property plays an important role in a free society. People need to feel economically secure in order to speak up for their interests and fend off those who wish to suborn them. But property is more than accumulated wealth. If we are fortunate, we also receive a cultural inheritance. This inheritance is most richly elaborated in family life, which fuses history and heritage to our most intimate relations and powerful emotional bonds.

There are other political benefits provided by strong families. Marriage should be understood as a peace treaty in the war between the sexes. For children, the cooperation of a mother and father for the sake of the greater good of the family is their primeval experience of “civic-mindedness.” Family life provides a template for thinking politically, which is to say thinking about the good of the body politic taken as a whole rather than envisioning civic life as an aggregation of individual claims. 

A well-functioning family can encourage a good work ethic, good manners, and personal responsibility, virtues that make individuals cooperative and productive members of society. But this contribution is often over-sold. I’ve met individuals whose family tradition is less Puritanical and more Mediterranean in ways that often dismay those who champion the work ethic. I count this a blessing. There’s little freedom in a society of relentless striving for wealth and success untempered by festivity. Never underestimate the role of joy in sustaining freedom.

And there are some families (often of Celtic origin, as well as African American) that inculcate skeptical and even combative attitudes toward official representatives of established authority. This can lead to anti-social behavior at times. But it’s a mentality that buttresses our culture of freedom. As Mark Twain understood, Huck Finn’s truancy is part of his very American personality, one that is not afraid to break ranks when ranks need to be broken.

Thomas Jefferson imaged that America’s freedom depended upon the predominance of the yeoman farmer whose economic self-sufficiency and robust sense of self-worth outweighed the wealth and self-regard of the powerful few. In the twentieth century, the skilled wage earner replaced the yeoman farmer. In his heyday was during the salad years of the twentieth century. His regular salary could sustain a family in relative prosperity. This capacity for economic independence needs to be restored. But we need also to renew the moral and spiritual foundations of middle class self-worth—home and hearth, the family.

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

Corporate-Sponsored Censorship

Parler, the alternative to Twitter, is being strangled by the tech giants. Apple and Google removed the app from their app stores. Amazon removed the company from its web-hosting service. These companies claim these actions serve the public interest.

Unity in Dread

R. R. Reno January 27, 2021 - Understanding America
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Post-Liberal America
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Corporate-Sponsored Censorship

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

Yet I’ve found myself returning to the question of unity. If one surveys the news and listens to politicians, opinion writers, and other oracles, one sees that there is a strange unity in our disunity. Many articulate forebodings about the future. Read More…

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Corporate-Sponsored Censorship

Parler, the alternative to Twitter, is being strangled by the tech giants. Apple and Google removed the app from their app stores. Amazon removed the company from its web-hosting service. These companies claim these actions serve the public interest.

Corporate-Sponsored Censorship

R. R. Reno January 11, 2021 - Understanding America
Shawn Collins – flicker.com
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Parler, the alternative to Twitter, is being strangled by the tech giants. Apple and Google removed the app from their app stores. Amazon removed the company from its web-hosting service. These companies claim these actions serve the public interest.

Whatever one thinks of last week’s events, this action in concert marks a milestone. In recent years, the private sector has adopted more activist stances with respect to partisan political issues. But here we’re witnessing the privatization of a fundamental political function: Determining the proper balance between free speech and public safety. Read More…

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

The Trump Apocalypse

R. R. Reno December 30, 2020 - Understanding America
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In popular parlance an “apocalypse” means an epic disaster. As a simple transliteration of Greek (apocalypsis) the literal meaning is more pedestrian: “uncovering,” or to use a fancier word, “revelation.” But one understands the popular sense, for it is often unsettling (or worse) when the true nature of things is revealed. This is the case in last book of the New Testament, which bears the name Apocalypse.

The Trump phenomenon—his ability to gain the loyalty of core Republican voters, his defeat of Hillary Clinton, the endless uproar during his years in the White House, and the coalition of voters that almost gave him a second term—has been apocalyptic. To this day, our political establishment regards his impact as a disaster. And rightly so, for Trump has revealed unsettling truths about twenty-first-century America that most would prefer to remain covered up and hidden. Read More…

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

The Once and Future Republican Orthodoxy

Wells King October 23, 2020 - Understanding America
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The American Enterprise Institute has just released a new white paper that defends the CARES Act against arguments from the right. Contra deficit hawks and libertarians in Congress, Jay Cost argues that recent deficit-financed economic stimulus falls squarely within the “parameters of Republican orthodoxy on economic conservatism.” It’s an orthodoxy with origins not in libertarian economic treatises but in the ambitious policy agendas of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay.

Cost outlines this “distinctively Republican” understanding of political economy from the Early Republic through the late twentieth century and provides welcome depth to the case we made in “Rebooting the American System” when American Compass launched. Libertarian economics, in Cost’s telling, “has never been the dominant understanding of the Republican Party.” Instead, the party’s economic policy has been guided by a core commitment to American business interests and a la Hamilton and Clay to channeling private industry in support of the national interest. The GOP’s policies evolved beyond the tariffs and “internal improvements” of the American System to accommodate to changing needs of American businesses, but its basic commitment to the “flourishing of well-directed private enterprise” remained unchanged.

But if the Republican Party’s vision of political economy is so thoroughly Hamiltonian, how does Cost explain the free-market fundamentalism that afflicts the conservative mind? He concedes:

Generally, Republicans have quite often lost sight of who was supposed to lead whom. Hamilton and Clay envisioned prudent statesmen using public policy to direct business toward socially beneficial ends. In practice, Republican leaders have often been content to be led instead of leading.

As they brace themselves for a possible Biden administration and as born-again Tea Party conservatives wait in the wings, it will be incumbent on Republican statesmen not to abdicate their responsibility, to lead and not be led. The GOP may be an “imperfect vessel” for Hamiltonian political economy, but it is the best vessel nonetheless. It is encouraging to see broadening recognition by conservatives of its importance to our nation’s past and to our future liberty and prosperity.

Wells King
Wells King is the former research director at American Compass.
@wellscking
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Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

Seven Deadly Political Sins

R. R. Reno October 19, 2020 - Understanding America
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Self-examination is a useful exercise. I’m grateful to Henry Olsen, Micah Meadowcroft, Josh Hammer, and Michael Lind (in a cognate posting) for their reflection on the sins of the American right. I’d like to add my voice to this collective mea culpa. As a sometime theology professor, I’ll key my observations to the classical list of seven deadly sins. Read More…

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

From Freedom to Solidarity on the American Right

R. R. Reno September 29, 2020 - Understanding America
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Campaign books are not written for the ages. But they can be telltales. A New Catholic Moment: Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good is a good example. It indicates a shift away from freedom as the leading motif on the American right and toward solidarity.

The book was put together by CatholicVote.org, an organization devoted to mobilizing support for the re-election of Donald Trump. It reiterates social conservative themes: opposition to abortion, defense of the family and religious liberty, and concerns about woke aggression.

These issues have been emphasized in many elections. Karl Rove schemed to get defense of marriage amendments on the ballots of many states in 2004 in order to increase turnout among social conservatives and thus bolster George W. Bush’s reelection chances. For decades, Republican candidates have promised to appoint judges who “respect that constitution as written,” a coded way of signaling opposition to Roe v. Wade. During the Obama administration, denouncing threats to religious liberty became the preferred way to energize the religious conservatives.

But there is something new in Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good. Read More…

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

The Limits of Principle

R. R. Reno September 23, 2020 - Conservative Economics
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Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s death roiled an already unsettled the political scene. A pitched battle is underway over who will succeed her and when.

David French urges Republicans to stand on principle. He sketches a way forward that has Trump nominating a replacement before the election. The Senate will then hold hearing but refrain from voting until after November 3. If Trump wins, a Republican majority in the Senate will vote to confirm. If he loses, French has Biden promising not to pursue a court-packing strategy once in office, and in exchange Mitch McConnell will not pursue a lame duck confirmation, keeping the seat open for Biden to appoint his own choice.

Perhaps this course of action is wisest. Others have adopted this view as a path toward sustaining what is left of the bi-partisan consensus about the importance of maintaining the integrity of our institutions. But the proposal reflects prudential judgments (as Adam White, who holds a similar view, recognizes). It is not an application of principle.

One of the foundational principles of leadership is to preserve the realm. This has obvious relevance in our polarized situation. We sense that the social contract in American is fraying. Pitched battles over Supreme Court Justices are evidence of the weakening of civic friendship, the trust that one’s political adversaries are, at the end of the day, pulling in the same direction, even if pursuing quite different policies.

Many urge courses of action that will best fend off further rancor and more polarization. This is a noble ambition. But the way forward is always complicated.

Consider an analogy from diplomacy. The promotion of peace is a core principle. It often requires concessions and efforts to meet halfway in the face of differences. There are times, however, when concessions amount to appeasement. In such a situation avoidance of conflict can lead to greater, more destructive conflicts down the road. Thus, the principle (promote peace) leave open the question of whether to make concessions or respond forcefully and risk open conflict.

Another important observation: Political give-and-take is intrinsically complex, and the outcomes are unpredictable. In the case of Justice Ginsburg’s replacement, the appointment of a conservative jurist will outrage liberals. (This will be as true if confirmation comes in October, December, or February 2021.) The anger will stem from the fact that since the Warren era, liberal have presumed that the Supreme Court is “their” institution. Any change in “ownership” is therefore a violation of “constitutional norms,” at least as liberals view it. Such a claim is not baseless. A Court with a substantial majority skeptical of key elements of postwar constitutional law (Roe v. Wade, for example) will have the power to change those norms.

This liberal anger may lead to efforts to enlarge the Court (court packing). But a consequence of this strategy may be the diminishment of the Supreme Court’s nearly sacred authority over American public life. Is that such a bad thing? Diminution might stimulate Congress to recover legislative initiative. It might lead to greater judicial federalism. And this might be the best way toward a more stable bipartisan peace treaty, not appeasement of partisan fury in the present moment.

David Leonhardt at the New York Times was right on cue. After Ginsburg’s death, he floated the idea that lifetime tenure for federal judges might not be the greatest idea. Perhaps we need limited terms or mandatory retirement at a certain age. I favor lifetime tenure, but that’s not my point. What’s interesting is that, faced with a potential supermajority of conservative jurists, a spokesman for the liberal establishment is entertaining ideas that reduce the present power of the judiciary. Again, is this a bad thing?

I believe that one of the powerful forces driving polarization has been the Supreme Court’s usurpation of legislative authority. It has eroded democratic accountability. Moreover, I believe that our political culture is in an uproar because our leadership class has become arrogant and unaccountable. The judiciary is an unabashedly elite branch of government (and rightly so, to my mind). Degrading the Supreme Court’s authority is not, therefore, the worst outcome. It might rebalance our political culture in a more democratic direction.

My point in these musings is not to assert that I am correct and those urging Senate restraint are wrong. I simply wish to clarify the very limited role of “principle” in assessing the wisdom of one or another course of action, not just in this matter, but in nearly all policy debates.

There are two threats to good governance. One is technocratic. This view insists that political questions are scientific and technical. But this is not true. Today’s political climate is hot because we’re fighting over what kind of country we want to have. That fight is properly political, not technocratic. It turns on deep intuitions about human flourishing, not expertise.

The other threat calls for a “principled politics.” This approach escapes the uncertainty of prudential judgment by demanding that we must “stand on principle.” There are principles in civic life. They fall under the rubric of justice. But those principles frame our general ends (and stipulate what cannot be done). They rarely dictate what should be done.

For example, “limited government” is not a principle. It is an all-things-considered judgment that restraints on government power conduce to the flourishing of freedom. Like federalism, deregulation, and other political objectives, a commitment to limited government may be wise—and that’s the point. The test is whether it conduces to the ends we seek.

Assessing a course of action requires judgments of prudence, not “standing on principle.” The use of government power to break up monopoly power, restrain oligarchic interests, and address other threats represent important examples of when the general commitment to limited government does not serve the greater end of sustaining a culture of freedom.

We are living in a time of political disruption. Now more than ever we need to debate what courses of action will best promote the common good. This debate involves principles, not the least of which is our duty to promote the common good rather than private goods. Doing so requires technocratic expertise. But a good part of what we need to figure out (including how to navigate judicial appointments) concerns judgments about possibilities, consequences, effectiveness, and repercussions—the always difficult, fallible, and unavoidable uses of prudence in politics.

R. R. Reno
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.
Recommended Reading
Post-Liberal America

Today’s upsurge in Catholic integralism is a one of the many signs of growing dissatisfaction with liberalism’s efforts to keep metaphysics out of public life.

Family and Freedom

In his introduction to the “Home Building” forum on American Compass, Oren Cass opens by drawing upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that the American culture of freedom must be renewed in Read more…

Unity in Dread

“Unity is the path forward.” That was the leitmotif of Joe Biden inaugural address. It’s easy to be skeptical about such appeals, given how divided our country has become. And easier still to be cynical, given the flurry of executive orders immediately after his inauguration, many of which intensified rather than moderated battles over morality and culture.

Yoram Hazony’s Liberal Nationalism

Aaron Sibarium August 31, 2020 - Understanding America
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In a previous post, I used the term “synthetic nationalism” to describe what is increasingly the default premise of many conservative nationalists—or, in their words, of many national conservatives. The premise is that restrictions on immigration, tariffs on foreign imports, a more restrained foreign policy, and other “nationalist” measures don’t just help America, but ultimately the world, such that our interests never conflict with global ones. Drawing on his recent remarks to American Compass, I argued that Missouri Senator Josh Hawley plays into this premise when he casts slave labor abroad as a barrier to employment at home. It’s not—and by pretending otherwise, Hawley indulges a distinctly American delusion: that our interests always correspond to our ideals.

In response, a few of my friends and former colleagues accused me of being uncharitable to the Senator. He’s a politician, not a political theorist, they pointed out—is it really fair to take him so literally? Maybe not; taking politicians at their word is generally ill-advised. 

But synthetic nationalism is as much an intellectual tendency as it is a political one. And its most forceful articulation comes not from Hawley, but from the conservative impresario who invited him to speak at a conference of self-proclaimed nationalists last year.

Yoram Hazony, whose 2018 The Virtue of Nationalism the president is said to have read, claims to be a critic of classical liberalism. He prefers Burke to Locke, the concrete to the abstract, the particular to the universal. Like Hawley, he is a staunch sovereigntist, mistrustful of multilateralism and contemptuous of cosmopolitans. Unlike Hawley, however, Hazony is a philosopher rather than a Congressman, which means he should be fair game for philosophical analysis. 

Such an analysis yields two surprising results: Not only is Hazony a synthetic nationalist, in the sense that he elides trade-offs between our welfare and the world’s; he is also a classical liberal—and his liberalism is more universalizing, more quixotic and ambitious, than anything his cosmopolitan opponents have dreamt up. This synthetic, classically liberal nationalism can be distilled to a single line from Hazony’s magnum opus: 

[T]he world is governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.

Read that sentence again, and pay particular attention to its grammar. The subject is not the nation but the world; national independence is consigned to the dependent clause, where it functions as a means (nationalism) to an end (world harmony), which can be achieved without violating principles of sovereignty and self-determination. Hazony enjoins nations to pursue their own interests, yes … because these pursuits help everyone in the long run. While other passages in The Virtue of Nationalism suggest that the nation-state has some intrinsic value, some cultural good we should conserve, the book’s primary project is to defend nationalism as a just and stable way of governing the globe—a pathway to perpetual peace, or, if that’s too pie-in-the-sky, then at least the best of all possible words. 

And what guarantees this Kantian progression? None other than the invisible hand. 

By “cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests”—in other words, by competing with each other—nations magically arrive at the “best” overall outcome “without interference.” This is just a scaled up schematic of free-market liberalism, repackaged as a theory of geopolitics. Instead of sovereign, self-determining individuals, you have sovereign, self-determining nations; instead of a spontaneous order held together by market interactions, you have a world order held together by multipolarity. Instead of “big government,” you have Brussels—both bloated, both bureaucratic, both bad, and both threatening to supplant the system piecemeal. Like classical liberalism, synthetic nationalism defines itself in opposition to an invidious “interference.” If people/nations are free to “chart their own independent course,” all of them will (eventually) benefit, more so than they would have under any alternative regime. 

But—also like classical liberalism—Hazony’s invisible hand assumes that each agent in the system will pursue its interests and its interests only, such that system-wide benefits emerge in the absence of any supranational structure. Just how how they emerge is never explained, and the evidence for their existence is scant. Hazony dismisses apparent counterexamples—ethnic conflict in the Balkans, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the Scramble for Africa, World Wars I and II—as negations of nationalism insofar as they transgressed national bounds, a conceptual sleight-of-hand that approaches outright mendacity. Though he claims to be an “empiricist,” grounding his arguments in careful study of the past, Hazony’s project ultimately rests on blind, ahistorical faith, no less than the liberal triumphalism it purports to transcend. 

The same cannot be said of internationalists, who posit a perfectly concrete mechanism—international institutions—to achieve their goals. These visible hands are clumsy and hamfisted; they have certainly dropped the ball more than once. But they do have the virtue of being visible and thus assessable. Hazony’s system does not. 

What it does have are all the defects of classical liberalism: the utopianism, the unfalsifiability, the selfishness, and yes, even the homogenizing impulse. Just as the market presupposes a particular kind of person—rational, autonomous, egoistic—Hazony presupposes a particular kind of nation—religious, autarkic, self-interested—to the exclusion of all others. Most obviously, he excludes the United States, which has always understood itself in messainic, hyper-universalist terms. So although Hazony claims to value cultural diversity, his project assumes that every nation is (or wants to be) like Israel—and that every exception risks global unrest. If “the world is governed best when nations … pursu[e] their own interests without interference,” it is presumably governed worse when nations care about interests other than their own. Since caring about others’ interests has always been part of American messianism, it follows that our national tradition is antithetical to a well-ordered world—that in order to be who we are, we must stop being ourselves. 

Like classical liberalism, then, synthetic nationalism is inherently contradictory. It prizes diversity, yet demands sameness. It claims to be empirical, yet rests on faith. It values order, yet abhors orderers. It promises benevolence, yet presumes selfishness. By its own account, it is a universal scheme for governing the world. Yet as Hazony himself suggests, universalism invites imperialism—particularly when it is not self-aware.

I don’t mind if the Right becomes more nationalistic. But I do hope it avoids The Virtue of Nationalism’s vices.

Aaron Sibarium
Aaron Sibarium is an editor at the Washington Free Beacon.
@aaronsibarium
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