Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order:
Defending Democracy Against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends

by Daniel J. Mahoney
ISI, 240 pages, $26.95

How do you moderate and preserve a liberal order? The question is not an easy one, because the principle of equal freedom tends to destroy the substantive goods that make any social order worth having and, eventually, the order itself. Daniel J. Mahoney, a political philosopher at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, has written a wide-ranging and illuminating book to explore the possible answers.

Mahoney’s discussion, which often is more historical and biographical than analytical, proceeds by presenting a series of figures who have exemplified or opposed the tendency to push liberal principles to self-destructive extremes. On the one side Mahoney discusses the 1968 generation and various terrorists; on the other he speaks of his heroes”such men as Tocqueville, Churchill, de Gaulle, Solzhenitsyn, and Raymond Aron.

Liberalism tends toward dissolution because it tries to be self-sustaining but is not. It seeks to base itself on a few strictly rational principles, with a conception of justice that depends solely on freedom and equality and is impartial with respect to substantive beliefs about human flourishing. The result is that it can answer particular questions about freedom and equality only in an ad hoc fashion that often sinks simply into expressions of preference, and thus into the exercise of power rather than argument.

The problem is that people understand and deal with particulars by reference to substantive views of the good. We want to be free and equal, but with regard to what? Today’s liberals believe freedom is a simple good when it comes to sexuality but endorse coercion to discourage smoking. Again, liberals prefer economic equality but accept the credential-driven hierarchies that characterize bureaucratic institutions. Such judgments about permissible limitations on freedom and equality are difficult to explain on liberal terms, although many try, with appeals to utility and the harm principle.

For such reasons, as Mahoney notes, “the genuine promise of the modern world cannot be actualized on the basis of the untenable principles of theoretical modernity.” Liberalism, for the general good and its own preservation, must accept limitation by nonliberal principles and traditions capable of sustaining a substantive view of social order.

For Mahoney the most likely way to do this is through what the French call “conservative liberalism,” a view that accepts freedom and equality as fundamental ideals of a just public order but limits them by other goods and authorities. For example, the life of the mind has intrinsic value that leads conservative liberals to accept unequal results and special privileges for educational institutions, even though free and equal access remains a goal.

In spite of the strength of liberal theory in American public life, legislators usually have recognized the need to stabilize and secure liberalism by accepting the limiting authority of inherited institutions and social norms such as marriage and religious tradition. That approach creates obvious tensions. Cultural critics reduce inherited traditions and conceptions of the transcendent to social constructs, and it is hard for liberals to accept them as authoritative”or to resist the temptation to reengineer institutions such as marriage to suit liberal principles.

There seems to be no resolution to such problems, especially in a post-1968 world of unconstrained liberalism. As the author notes, 1968 was a “crucial turning point when modern democracy lost understanding of civilized liberty as a precious inheritance to be preserved.” As a result, “the noble modern aspiration to uphold the liberty and dignity of all human beings” became disconnected “from those goods that gave it substance and moral and spiritual depth.” In other words, in the past fifty years the secular West has decisively rejected traditional and transcendent restraints on liberalism and, thus, Mahoney’s conservative liberalism.

This outcome cannot be altogether surprising. Conservative liberalism too easily slides into a utilitarian view of traditions and transcendent commitments: They are not intrinsically binding goods but merely social capital someone has judged useful for the achievement of liberal goals. As a result they tend to lose authority, and freedom and equality quickly achieve command over traditional social practices and forms of life. The history of progressive education provides a case study.

Mahoney does not present the situation so starkly. Hope springs eternal: History is not preordained. Like many, Mahoney is inclined to view America as friendlier to the conservative liberal project than Europe. Just as the British and Continental Enlightenments seem to differ, American and European liberalism seem to function in different ways, with the American version providing more scope for the conservative impulse.

Perhaps, but trends suggest otherwise. The Anglo-Saxon heritage has not kept Britain from going the way of Europe generally, and it seems all too likely that America will follow the same trajectory. After all, we are part of the same civilization, and our governing elites are increasingly international in outlook. Populist tendencies have slowed the progress of liberalism to its logical conclusion in the United States. Populism, however, can never serve as a governing philosophy, especially in a complex society dominated by big, bureaucratic institutions that must be managed, if at all, with the aid of nuance and compromise.

When considered in their historical sequence, even Mahoney’s great heroes Tocqueville, Churchill, and Aron suggest that pure liberalism will triumph. Each was a conservative liberal in his own way, endorsing appropriate restrictions on liberalism, but each proposed restrictions that were progressively less tangible and more abstract.

Tocqueville accepted the end of L’Ancien Régime , but wanted “freedom under God and the law.” Mahoney emphasizes that phrase, but neither Churchill nor Aron had much use for it. Churchill appealed to Christian civilization not because he was religious (he was, as Mahoney notes, “a pagan through and through”), but because he wanted to maintain the continuity of his own society. For Churchill it was not God but “the settled customs of the people” that exercise authority over an essentially liberal polity.

Aron, Sartre’s friend and a self-described “dejudaized Jew,” relied on realism and moderation as general dispositions, thus taking the process of abstraction several steps further. In opposition to nihilism and utopianism, he proposed a third way based on an appeal to a “spiritual mission of humanity” that involved conscience and moral responsibility but no apparent substantive content. Mahoney presents Aron as a model for our time, perhaps because some degree of moderation and realism might survive in an antihistorical and radically secular post-1968 world. It is difficult, however, to see how realism and respect for a variety of goods can yield definite results without substantive agreement as to the nature of reality and the good. Aron perhaps recognized as much, for he became increasingly pessimistic after the 1960s.

What to do? Mahoney “aims to articulate a thoughtful defense of a conservative-minded liberalism.” The goal is certainly understandable, and ideals of freedom and equality will no doubt have an important role to play in our political future. But Mahoney fails to give a satisfactory account of conservative liberalism. He points out lessons to be drawn from the figures he discusses, but his approach lacks conceptual clarity. For example, he constantly speaks of democracy but rarely distinguishes it from liberalism, even though the two are quite different and often opposed, as the current judicial politics of sexual liberation demonstrate.

Perhaps it is impossible to give a satisfactory account of conservative liberalism. The adjective, however rhetorically appealing and rich in historical connotation, will always be overwhelmed by the substantive, especially one as relentlessly theoretical as liberalism. To counter the demands of a dominant, aggressive, and destructive theory, a clear alternative is needed, not simply efforts to moderate its effects.

The attempt to make equality and freedom the highest standards leads to neither freedom nor equality. It should give way to an effort to put recognition of more substantive goods at the center of politics. We need a political theory that recognizes that freedom, equality, and the liberal virtue of accommodation among differing views are needed; but those theoretical principles of liberalism cannot ground the social order and, indeed, become meaningless and destructive when put first.

Conservative liberalism continues to be liberalism. A change in emphasis is needed, and liberal conservatism offers a much more promising theoretical alternative. Such a view would be liberal in some ways, as it must if it is to be more than a reactionary fantasy. But the liberalism would be governed by a more fundamental conservatism”by a way of thinking tied to tradition and basing itself on an authoritative, substantive understanding of the good for man. Only through some such view can what is best in liberalism”the concern for “the liberty and dignity of every human being””be preserved now and in the future.

James Kalb is a lawyer and author of The Tyranny of Liberalism .