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Liberty and equality are the uncontested “values” of the modern world. They have been paid lip service to by all the parties, including the Communists, who did so much to smother them in the course of the twentieth century (hence the ubiquitous “people’s republics” that brought untold misery to a third of the globe). Some have even argued that we have arrived at the “end of history,” that the political problem has been solved in principle through the universal affirmation (and the eventual realization) of democratic liberty and equality. Democracy, forevermore, will be the only game in town.

“Progressive” thought is defined by the view that liberty and equality are unproblematic, and that the great task before democratic peoples is to maximize them, to make the world ever more “democratic” and egalitarian. The solution to the problems of democracy is said to be more democracy, as the philosopher John Dewey, famously proclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century. True democracy must move to the left, becoming ever more inclusive, tolerant, egalitarian, and relativistic. To realize the democratic ideal, we must reject antiquated truths and insist on extreme equality and unlimited personal choice (think “the right to choose” or the self-reinvention central to “gender theory”). In this view, there is no such thing as loving democracy (or liberty and equality) too much.

What could possibly be wrong with such an uncompromising commitment to the “democratic” ideal? To begin with, progressivism (and extreme libertarianism) forgets the goods, habits, and traditions that make a free society cohere. Elsewhere, I have called them the “conservative foundations of the liberal order.” These goods—healthy family life, a moral code rooted in religion and natural law, prudent and far-seeing statesmanship, the rule of law, a respect for legitimate institutions, love of truth—were largely taken for granted by the Founders of the American Republic. As the philosopher Michael Polyani put it in the 1960s, the best of the liberal tradition, including the American Founding, presupposed an “authoritative traditional framework” that could protect, nourish, and inform “the new self-determination of man.” Liberalism, properly understood, presupposes the continuity of civilization. It undermines itself if it demands “liberation” from all moral restraints.

At its best, liberalism must include a self-consciously conservative dimension. Rational self-mastery and the freedom to choose, goods cherished by liberals and conservatives alike, do not mean that individuals are radically independent, that they are completely sovereign over themselves and the world. Progressivism is that crucial moment when liberalism succumbs to an ethic of absolute autonomy when it liberates human beings from an order of nature or justice above the human will. It is that moment when liberalism subverts itself by negating the goods that truly allow it to flourish.

51lExARIGoLConservative-minded liberals have always appreciated the essential fragility of civilized order. As the great French political philosopher Montesquieu (widely cited by the American Founders of all stripes) already saw in the middle of the eighteenth century, the principles of democracy can become “corrupted,” and a “well-regulated” democracy can degenerate into a regime of ”extreme equality.” In such a regime, liberty becomes license. Democracy can lose its soul when it “exaggerates” its principles, when it forgets the legitimate place of hierarchy, authority, and truth within their own spheres. As Dominique Schnapper argues in a brilliant new study inspired by Montesquieu’s insight (The Democratic Spirit of Law), in an “extreme democracy” equality risks becoming indiscriminate egalitarianism, the defense of novelty risks giving rise to the “temptation of the unlimited,” and healthy skepticism risks decaying into “absolute relativism.” As another contemporary French thinker, Pierre Manent, has put it, “To love democracy well it is necessary to love it moderately.”

As Manent shows, in the nineteenth century this insight was adopted and developed in wonderfully suggestive ways by the most astute student of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Like the American Founders, Tocqueville understood the “consent of the governed” to be a precious political achievement, a hedge against tyranny and an essential element of self-government. There was no more eloquent partisan than Tocqueville of what he himself called “liberty under God and the laws.” At the same time, he saw the danger of applying the perfectly admirable political principle of consent, of choice, to every aspect of life. Authority is essential if homo democraticus is not to succumb to a soul-destroying nihilism or new forms of tyranny. The family, churches, the armed forces, and the universities should not be endlessly democratized or subjected to social engineering. Democracy needs “extra-democratic” institutions to flourish.

In addition, Tocqueville emphasized that there are limits built into the human condition. Democratic men and women must not hesitate to respect the truth, the moral law, and the free institutions and rule of law that they craft for themselves. Autonomy is not an end in itself. Men are not gods. We are not free to choose anything and everything. This faith in human omnipotence is one of the great illusions of democratic man. Religion, and the best secular wisdom, remind democratic man of the necessary place of limits in a life well-lived. As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn always insisted, lovers of liberty must not jettison “the golden key” of voluntary self-limitation. It is essential for our liberty—and our souls.

bible-SunlightAs we rewrite the millennial-old institution of marriage by judicial fiat, ignoring nature, tradition, and biology, not to mention the sacred traditions of the West, we risk giving way to the vice that the ancients called hubris. The most fashionable intellectual currents in our universities teach contempt for authority and confuse freedom with a perfectly arbitrary cultural and moral relativism, all in the name of democratic values. We need to return to the good sense of the Founders and to the even deeper wisdom of Tocqueville. Recovering a sense of limits and law and a respect for old wisdom is necessary for true liberty to flourish. How can human beings choose wisely if there are no ends and purposes guiding the exercise of freedom? “Liberty under God and the laws” is the only liberty worthy of human beings. For that, we need a renewed intellectual and political appreciation of “the conservative foundations of the liberal order.” One of the tasks of liberal education is to teach us that our liberty, however precious, is not absolute and must ultimately bow before the truth of things.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2016).

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4 replies to this post
  1. I’m wary even of a so called “principled liberalism (even in the original sense of the term ‘liberal’),” and I think that our present situation is the pretty well inevitable result of such a view of liberty come to term. The relation between liberty and authority and tradition needs to be intrinsic and organic, not just a reliance on what is left over from the past, united in an unstable equilibrium (which seems to be what a so called “conservative liberalism” comes down to in the end) for in such a situation one will end up triumphing over the other, you can’t have it both ways. But at least as you point out in your article some of the original liberals saw what could come about if equality and democracy became absolute values.

    And I do not think that being a good American involves any kind of commitment to liberalism as it might perhaps be alleged. The French Revolution was about liberalism, the American War of Independence, while it involved a lot of liberals, was not fought originally to establish liberal principles, but to maintain ancient historically granted liberties (even if their applicability in this case was debatable). It was not therefore properly a “revolution.” We can see where the increasing embrace of the values of the French Revolution has led Europe, and where it is leading the United Nations. We as Americans need to not fall into the same trap.

  2. There is one positive and enduring aspect even in the present wilderness:

    To my mind, none of the teachings on the American founding actually focus on the revolutionary aspect of the American Revolution, only on the construction of a democratic republic. Citizens read the Federalist Papers more often than Washington’s Doctrine of Revolution (which of course does not even exist).

    By this I mean that (as far as I know), there is no preoccupation, even amongst the most radical liberal progressives (let alone conservatives) with revolutionary war strategy or theories of revolution. The American revolution was indeed less a revolution and more a war for independence waged by pre-existing relatively self-governing political bodies in the form of British colonies and for what Americans learn is principly the theory of liberal democracy, not the theory of revolution. Americans by and large are not preoccupied with revolutionary theory.

    The great weakness of Communism was that it saw in the state a temporary means with which to execute revolutiomary doctrine. Communist revolution overthrew the state in order to continue their revolution through it – at least in theory. However the nature of the state is order, authority and power. It cannot serve true revolution, and to attempt to make it do so is either to betray the revolution or weaken the state. This was true in real Communist states where the struggle between authority and revolution became embedded within the party.

    Americans, no matter how far they depart from the Founding, will never be more interested in revolution, they have always been interested in the process of government.

    Lastly, while I do not deny the gist of the comment regarding People’s Republics, the European People’s republics were quite different in principle from the Soviet Republics. The Soviet republics were true creatures of Communist ideologies. The People’s Republics were ad hoc constructions erected in haste due to the pressing strategic concerns of The Great Patriotic War. Their nature was subservient to geopolitics, less to Communist ideology. This is why so many Communists from People’s Republics felt disheartened. To them, not joining the Soviet Union meant remaining in regression.

  3. The problem with democracy is that it became a superstition. It is literally a cult nowadays. There is no public debate that would allow any kind of critique of this form of governance. That is why it is a slippery slope. And why is that any criticism of democratic procedure is being considered the great sin against humanity? Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the ideal socio-political environment for establishment of communism is a social democracy. The ensemble of tools used to bring it to the end is known to us under the names of political correctness, identity politics, deconstruction, semiotics, multiculturalism and so forth. Their task is to blur the real end progressives aim at. These are the ways to mold mentality of ordinary people into the state of homo sovieticus. I should know it well – I am Polish and though I was born the year the communism receded from Poland (just as an ideology, Poland is to this day dominated by the post communist personel pulling the strings on the political scene and in economic matters) I am deeply familiar with and experience to this day what the homo sovieticus mentality means and how it corrupts the society’s soul. It is observable that in western countries the mentality resembles more and more the homo sovieticus state of mind and its condition of soulessness.
    There is no reason in this commentary to name or quote many visionary thinkers who foresaw the route democracy will inevitably take. Not because of their deterministic spenglerian view of history but because ideas have consequences as Richard M. Weaver asserted. Well, just to name the few: Plato, Aristotle, Burckhardt, Chesterton, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Lord Acton, Ames, Cortes, Nietzsche, de Constant, Proudhon – all the more important that these are not uniquely conservative thinkers which makes the argument against democracy even more compelling.

    Well, democracy does not stand for any values that are dear to a man. Whether it is private property, freedom of speech, religious freedom, you name it – none of them are by definition most secure in democracy. Democratic procedure can take them away by a populist vote leaving us with a mere caricature of these values and it will be still a democracy. Since demos can outvote anything, it is reasonable to say that it does not distinguish between good and evil per se. It – therefore – does not care about the truth. Nor does it perplex itself with the idea of universal beauty and pretty much about the universality of any other value. There is no objectivity at all. And that is the essence of democracy.  Thus, no, we should not love democracy. We should love freedom and as the great Alexis de Tocqueville once said: Despotism … appears to me peculiar to be dreaded in democratic ages. I should have loved freedom, I believe at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it.

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