What, exactly, do you want?” Liberal critics put the question to the post-fusionist American right in various ways. At times they ask it earnestly, at times with a sneer, and not infrequently with undisguised contempt. It seems that no political argument can be properly digested unless it comes with policy proposals stippled by bullet points. But the new American right seeks to challenge the philosophical parameters within which wonks allow that we may formulate policy.
For the past two generations, American conservatives have been focused on liberty, first in the fight against communist totalitarianism, then in a more undifferentiated way in our resistance to “regulation.” But today our challenges are different. Our society is fragmented, atomized, and morally disoriented. The new American right seeks to address these crises—and to do so we need a politics of limits, not of individual autonomy and deregulation.
The new right has floated policy proposals, but when it has, critics have reproached it for demanding too little: If these disturbers of the intellectual peace “merely” wish to tweak the social, economic, and cultural mix—to tame Big Tech and tax well-endowed elite universities, to reenact Sunday trading bans, guarantee paid family leave, shield children from LGBT indoctrination, and so forth—then there really is no need to renegotiate first principles. Or so the critics say.
Almost in the same breath, they contend that taming Big Tech, imposing even the slightest financial burdens on supersized endowments, re-legislating a day of rest and worship, or mandating paid leave and other pro-family, pro-worker policies would violate limited-government commitments and flout hallowed market principles. Fighting the sexualization of children or reasserting decency in law, meanwhile, is said to erode free speech, personal and parental autonomy, and local control over public schools and libraries, and otherwise trample on fundamental rights.
These objections to the new right’s supposedly small-beer policy proposals are telling. They expose the necessity of rethinking the guiding principles of American conservatism—a prospect that liberals, of all people, should be prepared to entertain, given their dedication to free and open debate. Yet the merest hint of a challenge to the dominant frame evokes hysteria. Thus, my recent call in these pages for a public square reoriented to “the common good and ultimately the Highest Good” was treated as a call to establish an American Ba’ath Party.
The common good and the highest good are among the bedrock principles of classical and Christian political philosophy. It is a sign of the times that their use now elicits a parade of horribles: the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism. The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality. This truism is asserted even as the critics’ intemperate reactions reveal that the liberal public square is anything but neutral—that it is bathed in its own metaphysics and theology.
Progressive liberals are quite open about their aim: to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the “free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits,” as Pierre Manent has written. Conservative liberals and libertarians share in this view of the highest good: The unfettered life is the best life. Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits.
Our classical and biblical heritage holds a different lesson: that we are not free merely to the degree that we are unregulated, unrestricted, and undisciplined. Rather, true freedom is above all the free affirmation of the personal responsibilities attendant on individual rights. “I shall walk in liberty,” sings the psalmist, “for I have sought thy precepts” (Ps. 119:45). Freedom requires a moral and religious horizon, not just in man’s private sphere, not just at the level of culture and civil society, but also in his collective experience—that is, in the state and the political community.
Critics fret that such talk risks unsettling the peace of modernity and resurrecting “a premodern concept of the higher good.” It was precisely liberalism’s “ability to filter out the old prejudices,” one critic asserted, “that made the peace of the modern world possible.”
That is a cartoonish critique. It reduces millennia of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation to so many “old prejudices.” But it expresses a belief that is common enough: that liberalism has put an end to the religious conflicts of the past and ushered in an unprecedented peace by relegating faith to its proper—that is, private—sphere. To its critics, then, the new American right raises the specter of religious and moral conflicts that will imperil the peaceful freedom of the West.
But the new right begins from a different premise: that a great deal of our peaceful freedom is already lost. The free world doesn’t feel free, because often it isn’t. But this new unfreedom doesn’t arise from a dearth of individual liberties. The modern West is unfree because it is irresponsible, unbounded, unattached.
To be fully human is to accept natural and traditional limits. These two types of limits frequently overlap and reinforce each other, as social norms adapt to nature over time. Overthrowing these limits prevents us from making lifelong commitments and plunges us into sterile decadence. Our consequent dysfunction frequently necessitates restrictions more onerous than any imposed by nature or tradition. The vast administrative state arises in order to regulate societies that have been deregulated by an individualistic liberalism.
More than a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton saw the perils of unmitigated liberalism. The boundaries erected by nature and tradition, he argued, are sources of adventure and freedom. With his usual provocativeness, he argued that the apparently fusty, restrictive structures of the Catholic Church, decried by sundry Christian “reformers” as well as by the disciples of nineteenth-century liberalism and materialism, were in fact guarantors of human freedom and creativity. The limits anchor the wild human impulse toward limitless freedom. They are the anvils on which we hammer out the unique shapes of our lives.
Chesterton made a theological case, but his insight is not unique to the Christianity and Catholicism he championed. Classical figures such as Aristotle recognized that freedom flourishes insofar as we are educated in virtue. We can argue about what constitutes true virtue, just as we can argue about the highest good. But the discernment and support of fitting limits and humane social norms must be a first principle of any conservatism worthy of the name. Without it, conservatism cannot resist liberalism’s false promise of freedom without limits.
We need to wake up to twenty-first-century reality. In many dimensions of human life, the loss of barriers has dehumanized the Western experience and sapped its freedom and vitality.
The sexual revolution is an example. We are much less disciplined by moral regulations and cultural norms today than we were a few decades ago. But relaxing modesty norms and other taboos hasn’t yielded sexual equality. Rather, it has empowered caddish men and invited backlashes, most recently #MeToo. The backlashes have wrought rigid new norms, now explicitly legal, often applied retrospectively and without regard for such niceties as due process. We are much less culturally regulated in intimate matters today—but we are subject to minute regulation by political correctness.
Few are willing to say in public that sexual liberation has its downsides. Populism, by contrast, has forced a reckoning with the free-market fundamentalism of the past few decades. That fundamentalism has made the right powerless to prevent the rise of a tech oligarchy that seeks to reshape not just how and how much people work, but how and how much they think—while draping itself in the banner of multicultural and sexual-liberationist “virtue.” The same free-market fundamentalism has blinded us to the ways in which globalization has undermined the social contract for high-school-educated Americans, giving them an ever lower place in the transformed economy of the twenty-first century.
Thus we come to our present moment. For professionals in tech, finance, and certain “creative” professions, life is good (though not untouched by various liberal pathologies). For many others, daily existence is characterized by “delirium,” as Daniel McCarthy has written—by “feverish uncertainty about whether in midlife one will have to become an Amazon deliveryman or a Walmart greeter.” Parents worry about their children. Will they be tech-company winners or endlessly indebted gig workers? The prospect of winning does not mitigate the pervasive uncertainty.
This uncertainty is endemic to an unrestrained liberal order. Our culture prescribes no templates for life, thus opening up greater scope for personal choice at the cost of a predictable life trajectory. Will someone get married? Have children? These have become entirely open questions—and for just this reason, finding a stable basis on which to answer them seems more and more elusive. In economic life, creative destruction has generated great wealth, especially for the innovative classes. But the downsides are increasingly evident. Even well-educated, talented young people find the hyper-competitive marketplace hard to endure, which is why so many fall for misguided socialist promises. This ideological seduction is a political sign of the correlation between limitless freedom and the all-encompassing state.
A kind of paralysis, accompanied by intense but often meaningless virtual activity, is the typical psychological experience of our time. Great sacrifices—that is, great acts of freedom—require the psychological comfort that comes of knowing one stands on solid ground, with a clear path stretching behind (from the past) and extending ahead (into the future). That path is the ordered continuity of tradition.
Many young people across the West lack such security, because liberal societies are marked by accelerating disruptions and discontinuities. And so the precipitous decline in our marriage and birth rates should surprise no one. Yes, plenty of men and women still make commitments: They get married, have children, serve their communities, and so on. But they do so in spite of, and with little help from, our liberal-technocratic arrangement. At every step, disorder menaces families and communities.
Conservative liberalism is helpless in the face of these dynamics. No less than progressive liberalism, the conservative variant is wedded to the quest for greater individual autonomy for its own sake. To be sure, the conservative movement often clings to certain pre-liberal habits, institutions, and beliefs, but over the last two decades it has come to deny them any substantive primacy in the public square. The mainstream right and left have merged. The left emphasizes moral autonomy, while the right emphasizes market freedoms. For both, the highest end of politics is the pursuit of autonomy and care for the procedures that maximize autonomy.
The conservative migration to an exclusive emphasis on liberty has allowed progressives to frame the conservative “values” as a species of private bias. If our dominant public philosophies are oriented only to autonomy, then any limit, whether based in moral truth or the common good, will be labeled irrational bigotry or atavistic theocracy. At best, the feckless conservative liberal shouts, “This far, but no farther!” as one cherished ideal after another falls to the idol of freedom without limits. At worst, the conservative liberal declares with George Will that, actually, the task of conservatism today is to help people accommodate themselves to ceaseless disruption.
There are genuine differences between the progressive liberal and the conservative liberal, of course. They typically emphasize different zones of autonomy. The right puts greater stock in market freedom and constitutional protections for individual liberty, whereas the left is exercised by identity representation that requires the power of government to knock down impediments to affirmations of personal choice. The right claims to guard freedoms, whereas the left insists that we must take affirmative action, as it were, to ensure true freedom. Many, if not most, of our disputes can be mapped onto these two configurations, both of which treat freedom without limits as the highest good.
Pick any issue, and chances are you will notice the familiar pattern:
As marijuana is legalized, conservative liberals will argue that the market should distribute the proceeds impartially. Everyone should have the freedom to be market players, either as buyers or as sellers. Those who object to marijuana use will be told that they are free not to use pot. Meanwhile, the progressive liberals will insist that market freedom is not true freedom, given the injustices already present in our system. They will argue for licensing preferences to give a leg up to growers in minority communities. Perhaps some will argue for subsidies so that low-income people have the same freedom to use pot legally as do the well-off, rather than being forced into the black market.
Conservatives and progressives alike decry children’s addiction to digital screens, but when the chips are down, the former safeguard tech monopolies (price stability for consumers!), while the latter press the firms to hire more minority executives. And one can imagine a heated debate over sex robots in the not-too-distant future. Conservative liberals will urge individual states to enact pro-business tax cuts to help attract sex robot–manufacturing jobs to economically depressed regions, while progressive liberals will publish op-eds lamenting the fact that the robots themselves don’t reflect the full spectrum of the nation’s diversity (along lines of race, gender, disability status, etc.). And so on ad infinitum.
Neither side can accept the limits that sustain true freedom.
On the progressive left, the disdain for limits is nakedly apparent, as leading Democrats struggle to explain why a nation needs borders or why abortions shouldn’t be carried out postpartum. But the liberal right isn’t much better off. As people across the West register their discontent with a limitless world, conservative liberals insist that their commitment to autonomy above all overrides the old “faith and family” concerns. They join with the left to denounce right-of-center voters as racist and crypto-fascist.
Today, hardline conservative liberals treat any substantive claim about the ends of politics or the necessity of traditional limits as “tribalism.” Any political idea or form other than absolute rights-of-man universalism strikes them as suspect. They sweep Aristotle and Aquinas into the same basket of obscurantist deplorables as Francisco Franco and Marshal Pétain. These responses show that liberalism, unchecked by a substantive politics of human flourishing and the common good, is a totalizing ideology. It isn’t the new critics of liberal order who are painting liberalism into this extremist corner—but liberals themselves.
It is hard to imagine twenty-first-century liberals backing down, even as their increasing rigidity undermines liberal norms and habits of mind. As I write, Americans are reeling from a pair of mass shootings, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left thirty-one people dead and scores more wounded. Nearly every social indicator suggests Western polities badly need limits—the most fundamental of which concerns the inviolable sanctity of innocent life. If we are to have a genuinely free society, then this and other limits must arise from a reasonable account of the true ends of man and the true ends of political community. Insofar as the decadent liberalism of our time forbids these accounts as “theocratic,” it undermines freedom.
Advancing a substantive account of the true ends of man and of the political community should be the first priority of conservatism today. The new American right doesn’t ask: How would this or that development promote or impede individual autonomy? Rather, it asks whether or not a new development allows man to participate in common goods proper to family, polity, and the religious community. It asks how to sustain the things we share in common as Americans, not the liberties we can enjoy in private.
Giving wide leeway to individual actors may turn out to be the best way to serve the common good in many instances. Our American tradition prizes liberty. But after too many decades of liberty without ends, freedom without limits, in many situations the new right must re-erect lost barriers. We need to restore the balance between liberty and responsibility, between personal freedom and an awareness of what freedom is for.
Populist and conservative-nationalist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are testing out a new politics of this kind, however inchoately or imperfectly. In the present moment, the new right’s most urgent priority is to resist efforts by liberals, both progressive and conservative, to oppose by underhanded procedural means the desire voters are expressing for a politics of the common good. In the long term, however, restoring Western freedom requires us to shore up a moral culture capable of inspiring a sense of responsibility, to rebind liberty to legitimate authority, to return the individual to his place as a member of the political community.
In this effort, we do well to remind our fellow citizens of the most fundamental limit of all: Man is made for more than this world, and his final destiny is in the hands of the Almighty.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post.