On February 27th and 28th some twenty scholars, as well as First Things editors and assorted auditors, met to discuss the question of whether liberalism has a future—and what comes after liberalism.
Three essays served as foci for the seminar, and they will be featured in upcoming issues of First Things. Wilfred McClay’s essay, “Liberal Institutions Without Liberal Theories” will appear in the May issue along with responses by Yuval Levin and James Rogers.
Then in our summer double issues (June/July and August/September) we’ll publish David Yeago, “How to be Modern Without Being Liberal,” with responses by Shalom Carmy and Thomas Joseph White, and Patrick Deneen, “Civic Virtues After Liberalism,” with responses by Paul Griffiths and Daniel Mahoney.
I won’t try to summarize this rich body of written material. In any event, you’ll have a chance to read it and draw your own conclusions—if you are a subscriber (and you really should be).
Instead, I want to provide a sense of the substance of what we talked about over the day-and-a-half at the Union League Club in New York. It was a wide-ranging discussion, and an animated one. Here are some highlights.
Should we encourage liberalism to be truer to its claims to sustain a neutral public sphere and procedural justices? Or should we seek to supersede liberalism and replace it with a more substantive public philosophy of the common good? This was a recurring question, with the group divided in its answers.
Most participants criticized the totalitarian tendencies of contemporary liberalism—a parochial disdain for any who disagree with their progressive world-view, aggressive use of state power, and a smothering dictatorship of relativism. Yet half found themselves returning again and again to the achievements of the larger liberal tradition that goes back to Locke and the American Founders. It’s a complex tradition, one often intermixed with religious convictions that provided depth, as well as a conservative strain of caution that restrained the worst excesses of liberal and progressive fantasies about a perfect equality and unlimited freedom. By this way of thinking, American conservatism should follow the tradition of Burke and Tocqueville, which means using theological and moral truths to correct, purify, and restore the liberal tradition.
The other half? They were less sanguine about the future of liberalism. Although solicitous of our constitutional system of government and its affirmation of limited government, this group tended to be pessimistic about the ideological underpinnings of modern liberalism, which tend toward an atomistic individualism. Genuinely liberal institutions, this group tended to argue, echoing thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Pope Benedict, will only survive if re-founded on a robust conception of human flourishing.
Other questions and observations arose. Here are some of them.
• Whatever we may think of the excesses and perversions of liberalism in America, don’t we need major doses of liberalism elsewhere in the world?
• One false conceit of contemporary liberals: they imagine that a secular person is the most likely person to be religiously neutral. In fact, the secular person has a decided interest in secularism, and this works against the interests of religious people, as we see today when liberal elites insist that religion doesn’t belong in the public square.
• Liberalism may once have been a governing philosophy of principle and conviction, but today it is self-consciously a consensus sustain by custom. Richard Rorty theorized the condition of liberalism as “the way we do things.” Non-judgmentalism thus serves to blunt moral criticisms of liberalism: “That fine,” says the liberal when the liberal consensus gets criticized on moral ground, “but it’s only your opinion.” The dictatorship is relativism guards its flanks with vigilance.
• The Civil Rights Movement provides contemporary life-style progressives with a powerful public mythology, one that we see deployed in the campaign for same-sex marriage. It justifies the aggressive use of state power to stamp out “injustice” whatever the contemporary liberal sees it, and the same mythology now encourages liberalism to denounce those who disagree as the modern day bigots of one type or another.
• We must avoid either despair or counter-revolutionary fantasies. Our public philosophy needs to begin with gratitude for what works in our society rather than lament or outrage over what does not work. Progressivism accentuates outrage and a sense of crisis that demands “emergency measures.” Conservatives need to avoid becoming mirror images.
• Globalization deracinates, and liberalism has an answer: an international order of law and bureaucracy that transcends the nation-state. What is the conservative answer?
As the After Liberalism seminar drew to a close on the second day, the group came to a sober realization. Insofar as citizenship is a form of friendship, we need agreement about ultimate ends. Modern pluralism may involve a thin agreement rather than a robust one, and in that sense we need the virtue of tolerance. But all societies require some agreement. No social order can be entirely neutral about moral truth, and thus cannot grant a plenary liberty of conscience to citizens. Some moral truths will predominate—and thus some consciences will be bound and limited.
The recently HHS mandate requiring free contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients and push for same-sex marriage illustrate nicely. For progressives, sexual liberation represents a fundamental achievement, one that frees us from bondage to outmoded moral norms. Women need no longer subordinate sexual satisfaction to the exigencies of pregnancy. Homosexuals need not repress their desire. All of us can enjoy sexual freedom. Today liberals are confident that this view should predominate, and if it takes the power of law to ensure that it does, then so be it. When it comes to traditional sexual morality, conservatives are facing cultural—and legal—dhimmitude.
What is the alternative? The group found itself searching. Yes, there are constitutional limits to the tyranny of the liberal consensus, and, yes, there should be prudential limits if liberalism hopes to govern a pluralistic society. We should appeal to the better angels of liberalism in order to restrain its excesses.
But the deeper battle goes on unabated, or at least so it seemed to me after the seminar. Which moral truth will win out? We can hope that our society settles this question in a civil way, one that refuses the burn the village of our constitutional order in order to save it. But of this I’m certain: there is no neutral way.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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