Sunday, August 7, 2022

Conserving liberalism

The terms we use to identify political tendencies in American politics — liberal, conservative, radical, right-wing, etc. — are imprecise and often used in ways those who identify with them don't recognize. I for instance, would describe myself as a conservative, but many hearing that would think immediately of followers of Trump, and I am emphatically not one of those. When I use the term I'm thinking more of Burke, or Madison, say, or the political movement associated with National Review and Ronald Reagan. Friday, in a review of a book about John Locke's influence on the Founders and American politics since, Bartain Swaim begins with what "liberalism" (small "l") means and the role of American conservatives in conserving that meaning.
One way to sum up postwar American politics is to say that conservatives try to stop liberals from breaking the liberals’ own rules. The “rules” in this formulation are those of liberalism in the broadest sense: constitutional principles, the rule of law, rights-based protections.

“Liberal” regimes aren’t supposed to impose a particular understanding of the Good on their citizens; they’re meant to ensure local and individual freedoms and enable citizens to figure out what the Good is for themselves. But some liberals—typically the highly educated and privileged sort—tend to forget they are liberals and try to define righteousness for everybody. They do this by reallocating citizens’ wealth according to their own ideals, regulating private economic behavior, dictating to local communities how they should govern themselves, imposing protean codes of correct speech and behavior on everybody else, and so on. Conservatives, in this admittedly biased way of putting it, are there to stop liberals from indulging these illiberal impulses; to remind them, in other words, that they are liberals, not potentates.

Not everyone considered themselves good liberals, of course. On the left, communists, socialists and other radicals of the 20th century rejected liberalism as an invention of capitalism and Cold War ideology. On the right, a confederation of Catholic intellectuals in the 1960s and ’70s sought to burst the bands of liberalism and establish a more overtly moral political order. More recently, the progressive left has largely given up on the idea that everyone, including people whose opinions and customs progressives find loathsome, deserves legal protections. Among conservatives, a group of “postliberal” intellectuals, resolutely traditionalist in religious outlook, have proposed scrapping liberalism altogether by regulating markets and expanding state power in ways that shore up “communitarian” values: i.e., by doing what the political left has been doing for 70 years but in a “conservative” way. .... (Burke in my previous post here)
Barton Swaim, "‘America’s Philosopher’ Review: The Key to John Locke," Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2022.

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