Acton Institute Powerblog

The Virtue of Liberalism

Today, Law & Liberty published the text of my lecture for the Philadelphia Society in October: “Why Economic Nationalism Fails.”

The topic for the panel was “Conservatism and the Coming Economy.” Since I’m not a determinist and doubt my own powers of prediction, I focused on what political economy conservatives ought to support in the future, despite worrying trends in the present:

Conservatives ought to reaffirm the good of economic liberty, both domestically and internationally. Free markets and free trade, sustained by the rule of law and a culture of basic propriety, as Adam Smith outlined, ought to undergird the economic policy of any free and prosperous nation without neglecting the importance of non-state, non-economic spheres, such as religion and family.

The common alternative to economic liberty among conservatives is economic nationalism. So I begin by noting that there are many kinds of nationalism — it is uncharitable to assume that just because people ascribe to the label that they are any one or any particular combination. One must pay attention to what they say in particular.

Regarding religion, I note how free competition between religious groups within the limits of natural law (i.e., religious liberty) has proven more fruitful than state establishment of religion.

Regarding the family, I address some criticisms of the classical liberal tradition, John Locke in particular, from Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen. I am not a Lockean — he has issues, especially with regards to his theology and epistemology — but he’s not what they’ve made him out to be, as anyone with access to Google can discover by reading what he actually wrote:

What is too often omitted by Locke’s critics is that he believed there to be duties between parents and children in a state of nature, that is, apart from any consent and as a matter of natural law. Contrary to Patrick Deneen, who claims classical liberal anthropology views human beings as “nonrelational creatures,” Locke actually believed that we are not self-sufficient, atomistic individuals, but that we are rather, by nature, “drive[n] … into society,” because it is “not good for [us] to be alone,” clearly alluding to Genesis 2:18.

The classical liberal tradition has far more virtue than its critics claim.

There is a lot more detail in the essay, and I invite you to read the whole thing here.


Image credit: Portrait of John Locke by Geoffrey Kneller (1697), Public Domain

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.