Are We All Liberals Now?

June 10, 2009

Are We All Liberals Now?

Kevin Gutzman, citing leftist historian Louis Hartz”€™ The Liberal Tradition in America, first informed Takimag readers that liberalism is the only political tradition in the United States, and that this was a “€œgood thing.”€ Gutzman then restated his thesis over Chris Kopff’s objections, even noting that he was a student of Mel Bradford as he argued again that America’s sole political tradition is “€œLockean”€ and “€œegalitarian.”€ But the question remains: Are Americans doomed to be Lockeans?

Such an assertion would have stunned Russell Kirk, to whose masterpiece The Conservative Mind Hartz’s book was widely seen as a response.  It would also have drawn an objection from James Burnham, whose Suicide of the West not only famously described liberalism as “€œthe ideology of western suicide”€ but also identified countervailing tendencies shared, at least in part, by millions of Americans.  Mel Bradford, too, would have been shocked, as made clear in his famous article “€œThe Heresy of Equality.”€

Bradford, in particular, is worth revisiting here.  His article begins by noting that “€œEquality as a moral or political imperative, pursued as an end in itself . . . is the antonym of every legitimate conservative principle.”€  While noting “€œthe spectre of Locke,”€ whom Bradford agrees was “€œan authority to some of the revolutionary gentlemen, but read loosely”€ and in light of earlier Whig writers, he asserts that “€œEdmund Burke is our best guide to the main-line of Whig thought:  not Locke or Paine, or even Harrington, but Burke.”€  Burke, of course, was skeptical of abstract philosophical principles, a defender of tradition, and a vehement opponent of the French Revolution, as a result of which many English Whigs”€”the “€œOld Whigs”€ with whom Bradford identified himself”€”became Tories. Even though Gutzman tells us that “€œKopff’s invocation of [Willmoore] Kendall and [George] Carey really will not do,”€ Bradford writes, “€œKendall and Carey do define the true American political tradition as both conservative and hostile to Equality.”€  Professor Gutzman will have to forgive those of us who chose to rely upon the teacher rather than the student.

Although Gutzman notes that the concepts of Left and Right derive from the French Revolution, he fails to note that many Americans who favored our Revolution felt a Burkean revulsion for the French Revolution, including Alexander Hamilton, who saw the French Revolution as threatening what Hamilton frankly termed “€œChristian civilization,”€ a civilization of which America has always been a part. Even apart from the enormous significance of “€œChristian civilization”€ to America, large chapters in American history cannot be explained by recourse to Lockean precepts. Our bloodiest conflict was defined at least in part by a Northern desire to impose Union rule on the South and a Southern desire to defend a hierarchical society, including the practice of slavery.  From the earliest days, Americans”€™ imaginations were captured by the frontier, the expansion of which had more in common with the remedy advocated by Burnham in Suicide of the West“€””€œthe pre-liberal conviction that Western civilization … is both different from and superior in quality to other civilizations and non-civilizations”€”€”than anything dreamed of by Locke’s intellectual heirs.

Nor have such non-Lockean passions died down. The ability of the Republican Party to control the White House for all but twelve years from 1968 through 2008 rested in significant part on the GOP’s ability to attract voters opposed to the many social and cultural upheavals wrought in the name of egalitarianism since the 1960s.  George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 because he carried my home state of Ohio on the basis of his social conservatism, and the GOP was helped in many states that year by widespread opposition to the prospect of “€œgay marriage.”€  Whatever else may be said about such opposition, it would be hard for anyone to characterize it as springing from a sense that “€œgay marriage”€ violates “€œour Lockean precept.”€

The Left would love to limit political contests to issues that fit within a “€œLockean consensus,”€ with elections decided solely on the basis of whether voters prefer an economic policy informed by classical liberal, libertarian principles or an economic policy informed by social democratic principles, because such a contest would leave conservative voters, and conservative ideas, out in the cold.  It would also pave the way for the continued drift of America to the left.  As Bradford noted in his article, “€œhue and cry over equality of opportunity and equal rights leads, a fortiori, to a final demand for equality of condition.”€ Sam Francis made the same point:  “€œNor is it surprising that the political left is enchanted by this redefinition of the right in universalist terms, since the redefinition promises a right that is philosophically indistinguishable from the left itself, a right that can sooner or later (probably sooner) be pushed to the same political conclusions that the left has reached from the same premises, at which point there will be no serious opposition to the left and its dominance at all.”€ 

As a practical matter, Lockean liberalism is both an unsuccessful and uneven opponent of modern leftism. Parties founded on classical liberal ideas tend, over time, to become parties of the contemporary left, as happened to both the Democratic Party in the United States and the Liberal Party in England, which was eclipsed by the Labour Party even though the Liberal Party had embraced social security legislation under Herbert Asquith and Lloyd George. Rather than seeing a fundamental conflict between classical liberalism and contemporary leftism, many on the Left have seen a continuity, just as Louis Hartz argued that the New Deal was consistent with the Democratic Party’s past and German socialist Eduard Bernstein, according to Thomas Fleming, “€œunderstood that socialism, rather than being in conflict with basic liberal principles, could be seen as an extension of them.  Liberals had worked to end restrictions imposed by religion and aristocracy. What remained was to end the oppression based on wealth, and this could only be done by gradual and democratic means.”€

Those who follow the dictum of Locke’s philosophical successor, John Stuart Mill, that “€œthe despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement”€ are, at best, uneven defenders of such prime targets of contemporary leftists as the family, tradition, and religion. Indeed, many of those who claim to draw on the Lockean liberal tradition, such as the prolific libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson and the editors of Reason magazine, are unremittingly hostile to traditional morality.

If Lockean liberals are uneven opponents of cultural Marxism, they are full-fledged allies in the Marxist war against the nation-state. Marx and Engels saw free trade as the first step toward the elimination of the nation-state, a view shared by liberal thinker Frederic Bastiat, who wrote that free trade would lead to the “€œpeaceful, ecumenical, and indissoluble union of the peoples of the world.”€ Friedrich Hayek, too, shared the classical liberal aversion to national borders: “€œIt is neither necessary nor desirable that national boundaries should mark sharp differences in standards of living, that membership of a national group should entitle [it] to a share of the cake altogether different from that in which members of other groups share.”€ In practical terms, America is being subjected to free trade and mass immigration, despite the skepticism of the general populace, because the heirs of both Marx and Hayek are in agreement that national borders are artificial and undesirable. If the American right allows itself to be defined by a “€œLockean consensus,”€ America’s submersion into globalism is only a matter of time.

There is a final problem with arguing that our only political tradition is Lockean.  Whittaker Chambers asked of Kirk’s Conservative Mind:  “Would you charge the beach at Tarawa for that conservative position?”€  Chambers”€™ question is less a criticism of Kirk than a profound observation of the fact that what generally causes men to fight is not the abstract, but the concrete.  This is certainly true of combat, where many have noted that the greatest motivator for men at war ends up being the desire to defend the comrades with whom they are fighting. It is no less true of politics, where conservative-minded people are often motivated by a desire to defend their own families, their own communities, their own traditions, and their own ways of life. Not all such defenses deserve support. But a conservatism worthy of the name should respect these motives, not look askance at them because they cannot be fit into a supposed “€œLockean consensus.”€

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