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The post-liberal Right: The good, the bad, and the perplexing

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This article first appeared on March 2, 2020, in Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute, and was republished with permission.

Since 2016, much of the American Right has been preoccupied with the liberalism wars. Whether they question aspects of the American Founding, express strong doubts about free markets or press for more assertive roles for the state, post-liberals believe that the ideas variously called “classical liberalism,” “modern conservatism,” or simply “liberalism” have exercised too strong a hold on the non-Left in America for too long.

Just as the word “liberalism” means different things to different people, post-liberal opinions are not a monolithic whole. Not all self-described national conservatives, for instance, are market skeptics; many post-liberals have no interest in integralism; some who reject military adventurism don’t oppose free trade.

That said, there is enough consistency of position on display among post-liberal conservatives to assess their analyses of America’s challenges and their proposals for change. What we discover is an amalgam of good insights, significant deficiencies, and some very serious problems.

The Good

Let’s start with some of the post-liberal emphases that are, in my view, spot-on. The first are those that call into question the goals and modus operandi of supranational bodies like the European Union.

Today’s supranational political schemes have little to do with shoring up the West against Communist aggression or with simply promoting trade. More than ever, projects like the EU are about rule by an unaccountable political and technocratic class, who have little time either for anyone who values local and national ties or for those who regard the notion of a borderless world as a naïve fantasy.

The philosophical outlook that informs these efforts is a Kantian liberalism that, in the name of de-politicizing society to achieve eternal peace, pulverizes anyone who disputes this agenda. As the drama before and after the Brexit referendum illustrates, there is little that contemporary supranationalists won’t do to try and derail efforts to wind back these projects.

During and after the Cold War, many American conservatives viewed supranational organizations like the EU as benign ways of creating greater political stability and economic prosperity. Post-liberals, however, have forced us to recognize how many supranational endeavors have become threats to liberty and the idea of popular consent. Post-liberals have insisted rather upon national sovereignty as the basic building block of international order.

Post-liberals have also drawn attention to two related issues that affect America’s relationship with the world. One concerns immigration. Members of the Right have always held divergent views about immigration. But what post-liberals have stressed is the corrosion of the rule of law that is central to America’s present immigration mess.

In the past, many conservatives shrugged their shoulders at this aspect of the immigration dispute, often because they were concerned about America’s ability to meet its labor market needs. But while there is plenty to debate about immigration, the need for coherent and enforced migration laws should not be up for discussion, not least because disrespect for law in one area invariably bleeds into other spheres.

The second issue concerns foreign policy. From the Republic’s beginning, many Americans have expressed strong doubts about the United States’ involving itself in extended military actions abroad. After 1989, however, many on the Right maintained that America’s unique superpower status meant that it had to assume a more activist role in international relations that went beyond containment strategies. Some of this was undergirded by the conviction that the habits and institutions of free societies can, with enough American prodding and investment, eventually take root in any culture. Why not, the argument went, accelerate an apparently inevitable end of history?

Many post-liberals have underscored the hard fact that some cultures are not especially amenable to free societies, because they are dominated by political, tribal, and religious patterns that don’t prioritize reason, liberty, or the rule of law. Judging from recent American efforts in the Middle East, post-liberals have a point when they say that efforts to spread institutions of freedom in these cultures have failed and are not worth the cost in American resources and lives.

Lastly, post-liberal conservatives have underlined the Left’s relentless pursuit of its Gramscian agenda inside the United States. This goes far beyond the Obama administration’s assault on religious liberty. Post-liberals have focused on the Left’s comprehensive effort to capture as many culture-forming institutions in America as they can. That includes communities, such as corporate America, that were once considered somewhat resistant to such indoctrination. Post-liberals have pointed out some conservatives’ tepid response to, and often outright disinterest in, these challenges.

The post-liberals are not the first on the Right to raise the questions outlined above: Many pre-2016 conservatives, for instance, understood and tried to resist the Left’s Gramscian strategy, or expressed skepticism about nation-building efforts. Nonetheless, post-liberal conservatives have refocused attention on these topics, highlighted the lip service that many conservatives were giving such issues and spurred conservatives to speak about these questions more directly and consistently.

The Bad

What, then, are post-liberalism’s main deficiencies? Some of the most obvious concern economics. While not everyone on the post-liberal Right is a market skeptic, many are. One sees this skepticism in post-liberals’ advocacy for positions, such as industrial policy and protectionism, that are conventionally associated with economic nationalism.

I won’t rehearse all the critiques of economic nationalism. They are legion and, I would argue, compelling. But it is worth noting that, when many post-liberals advocate for these policies, they are consistently long on rhetoric and short on facts. We hear, for instance, the constant refrain that “America is de-industrializing.” This simply isn’t true. The nature of manufacturing is changing, but it is far from disappearing from America’s economy.

Nor is it clear that post-liberal market skeptics understand some of the basic premises of the case for economic freedom. On occasion, they have actually misstated something as elemental to the workings of free trade as the idea of comparative advantage.

The same post-liberals also appear unwilling to acknowledge the numerous examples of postwar economic nationalism’s colossal failures in countries ranging from Japan to France. Likewise, those who push economic nationalism appear to have nothing to say about the fact that such measures facilitate rampant cronyism and empower many of the very same political elites that, post-liberals believe, have sold America out.

Underpinning all this is the economism that informs so many post-liberals’ explanation of America’s social woes. America’s re-opening to global trade that began in 1947, we are told, has contributed mightily to the decimation of entire regions. It has allegedly undermined the economies of local communities and shipped jobs overseas, thereby helping to fuel social dysfunctionalities like family breakdown, drug-abuse, etc.

I have real questions about the cause-and-effect logic that informs these claims. While America’s overall tariff level is low, significant sectors of America’s economy continue to enjoy high levels of protection. Federal subsidies to industry have actually increased overall since 1959. But more importantly, contemporary social pathologies surely owe little to tariff reductions and more to factors such as the Sexual Revolution and the self-destruction of American religion—especially of mainline Protestantism and large swaths of Catholicism and Judaism.

It’s true that free markets bring pressures to innovate, compete more efficiently, and adapt technologically. But they also facilitate economic growth, help keep long-term unemployment down, make more goods accessible to more people at lower prices, and incentivize individuals, communities, and nations to discover and recalibrate their comparative advantages. We ought to value such things rather than underrate their significance.

Free-market thinkers whose thought has shaped the American Right, such as F. A. Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke, never denied that markets introduce stresses into daily life with which not everyone is well-equipped to cope. Helping those individuals, preferably through mechanisms of civil society, should be a priority. But we should also acknowledge the massive economic and social dysfunctionalities associated with widespread state economic interventionism. These range from the high inflation and unemployment bequeathed by postwar Keynesianism, to the devastation of once-stable communities and the growth of unaccountable bureaucracies associated with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Post-liberals are curiously quiet about these facts.

The Perplexing

Many post-liberals’ economic nationalism reflects their considerable faith in the state to remedy problems in many spheres of life. Law is not, of course, neutral. It inevitably shapes the culture in which it exists. In many instances, as thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas would affirm, the law ought to be doing so. There are also certain roles that can only be performed by government.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to hesitate before turning to the state as the primary means to address numerous difficulties. That’s partly because, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, strong families and intermediate associations are invariably more effective at combating any number of social problems than bureaucrats are.

But another reason for caution is that many post-liberals forget that the Right will not always be in charge. Entrenching limits on the Left’s ability to use the state to engage in widespread social engineering is a worthy goal. Endowing the government with new powers that could easily be turned against conservatives and what they consider important is quite another matter.

The other perplexing aspect of much post-liberal thought is the critique, offered by some of its leading lights, of the American Founding’s underlying philosophical premises. There are no flawless political and constitutional settlements; but some post-liberals seem so wedded to their argument that the American Experiment was fatally defective from the beginning, that they often trivialize or ignore some important facts that call into question the veracity of this particular post-liberal narrative.

In this regard, John Locke is a major target of post-liberal commentators. Locke’s thought is not without its problems, but to claim that there is a more or less straight line between Locke and drag-queen hour at the local children’s library is rather a stretch.

The post-liberal suggestion that America was always going to end up conflating liberty and libertinism strikes me as implausible. Most of the Founding generation spoke as much of virtue as they did of liberty. Scholars like Mark David Hall have illustrated that most of them were deeply informed by orthodox religious sensibilities. Some of the philosophies that drive expressions of nihilism in the United States today, such as voluntarism and Epicureanism, were around long before the Americas were even discovered. Indeed, many of the ideas that have contributed to our current situation, whether late nineteenth-century progressivism or the 1960s liberationist movements, explicitly reject the American Experiment’s core principles—not their fulfillment.

These problems with the post-liberal account of American decline matter because erroneous diagnoses invariably produce defective responses. Even more disconcerting is that some post-liberals have seemingly prioritized the telling of their narrative over accuracy. Conservatives should not be mimicking the habits of the Left, for whom the pursuit of ends is regularly invoked to rationalize suspect means.

No One Is above Critique

None of what I have argued is to suggest that the issues that animate the liberalism wars are somehow beyond debate. The set of ideas called “modern conservatism” or “classical liberalism” has never been static. Nor is it possible or desirable for everyone on the right to have complete uniformity of opinion about everything.

Some questions that post-liberals pose have spurred other conservatives to get beyond pat answers and to develop stronger arguments for their positions. Post-liberals have additionally forced many on the Right to acknowledge that they have been too confident in their ideas’ accessibility, appeal, and public acceptance. They have also reminded conservatives that the line between acting civilly toward those with whom we disagree, and placating a Left that regards Western civilization as one long history of oppression, can be awfully thin. To that extent, post-liberal critiques have helped conservatives to grasp that the formulations and rhetoric that they deployed between 1980 and the early 2000s simply don’t resonate in the way they once did.

For all that, many post-liberals are too inclined to brush aside inconvenient facts and too quick to entertain proposals that have track records of demonstrated failure. They have also articulated political and historical narratives that, on closer examination, simply don’t add up. No movement of ideas is perfect. The post-liberal Right, however, should stop giving its own formulaic responses to the many questions that are being posed to it. Truth is what should matter for any conservative, not ideology.

Samuel Gregg

is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.