In America, most right-leaning pundits espouse some form of “classical liberalism,” a theory that stresses free markets, individual rights, and the inviolability of private property. The more libertarian defenders of this theory stress its individualistic aspects, while the more traditional seek to reconcile it with faith and family. As ingenious and coherent as the various defenses of it may be, classical liberalism has ceased to correspond to reality. It is not so much wrong as obsolete.
When classical liberalism first attained prominence, its key ideas supported and were supported by distinctive forms of economic and social organization. Classical liberalism was the theory; bourgeois individualism was the practice. Business structures such as the partnership, the family firm, and individual entrepreneurship translated the liberal stress on individualism and property rights into economic reality.
Something similar occurred in the domestic sphere, where the nuclear family promoted hard work, thrift, and mobility. It was assumed that childbearing occurred only within marriage, and marriage required the creation of a new, economically independent household. This broad social consensus encouraged industry and thrift. Young people had to labor and save before they could cohabit or have children. The nuclear family also allowed its members (or rather, its heads) to be more mobile and independent than they would have been in a multi-generational household or extended clan.
Classical liberalism drew strength from the country’s dissenting Protestant sects. America’s Puritan settlers, Methodist circuit riders, and Baptist revivalists all shared a mistrust of religious authority and a concomitant reliance on private judgment. As Nathan Hatch and other historians have shown, this Protestant suspicion of clerisies was not limited to a private religious sphere. It fed into politics, where it became perhaps the most powerful support for the individualistic and small-government ideology that still finds a home on the right. Likewise, a religiously motivated stress on sobriety, frugality, and hard work (famously described by Max Weber as the Protestant ethic) formed citizens who conformed to the classical liberal ideal of the enterprising, independent man.
For more than a century, the social forms that supported classical liberalism have been in decline. The most precise description of the change is proffered by James Burnham and other writers on the “managerial revolution,” which has overthrown the bourgeois order just as the bourgeois revolutions overthrew the ancien régime. But many Americans can trace parallel revolutions in their own family histories.
My grandfather, like his father before him, owned and operated a farm. He milked cows, raised hogs, and kept a herd of beef cattle. But by the time I was born, dairy farming had been industrialized. During my boyhood, my grandfather had to give up hog farming, which had been monopolized by massive operations that befouled the air while delivering new efficiencies.
After these changes, economic life no longer supported family life in the same way. Consolidation meant that fewer people possessed property that they could pass on to the next generation. Improvements in machinery lessened the (perhaps always questionable) advantage of having many sons to help run a farm. Industrial farming operations required managerial skill at the top and a host of wage earners at the bottom. They squeezed out the owner-proprietor jack of all trades.
Those with less rural upbringings can tell a similar story. Today, an upper-middle-class person is far less likely to own his own farm, firm, or factory than to receive a salary. Though he makes more money than his blue-collar counterpart, he is nonetheless a wage earner. He does not control productive capital, though he almost certainly has a 401k (which in turn is managed by other salaried professionals).
As Joseph Schumpeter observed, this process is a normal part of the capitalist order: “The perfectly bureaucratized giant industrial unit not only ousts the small or medium-sized firm and ‘expropriates’ its owners, but in the end it also ousts the entrepreneur and expropriates the bourgeoisie as a class.” When this happens, property becomes “dematerialized.” It still exists as a formal legal category, but it has lost much of its substance and meaning. This weakens belief in classical liberal conceits, such as the inviolability of private property:
The capitalist process, by substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls of and the machines in a factory, takes the life out of the idea of property. It loosens the grip that once was so strong—the grip in the sense of the legal right and the actual ability to do as one pleases with one’s own; the grip also in the sense that the holder of the title loses the will to fight, economically, physically, politically, for “his” factory and his control over it, to die if necessary on its steps.
No number of op-eds hymning private property can substitute for the feeling that ownership and control of productive property brings. If every college student in America could be induced to attend a campus event at which a conservative activist praises private property, it would not save them from living in a world in which wealth means shares in an index fund rather than owning one’s own shop or farm.
Along with economic changes have come cultural ones. Forty percent of Americans are now born to single mothers, rather than into nuclear families. Protestantism has lost the predominance it once enjoyed in American culture, weakened by waves of Catholic immigrants, the fundamentalist-modernist crisis, the decline of the mainline, and the rise of the nones.
Instead of promoting the Protestant ethic of hard thrift and work, recent American leaders now tend to undermine it. When terrorists struck the nation on 9/11, President Bush did not call on Americans to make sacrifices. He told them to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” Americans apparently heeded his words: Personal consumption expenditures increased in October 2001. Donald Trump, whose teetotalism and commitment to a family business are typical of the old Protestant bourgeoisie, wholly lacks that class’s rectitude and restraint.
Not all of these changes are lamentable. The bourgeois ethic that long prevailed in America was bound up with a white Protestant establishment that held outsiders (notably blacks, Catholics, and Jews) in contempt. Though liberal ideas are usually presented as universal, they cannot be severed from Anglo-Protestant prejudices. One sees this in recent attacks on less-liberal Catholic writers such as Sohrab Ahmari and Michael Brendan Dougherty. It does not take long for the defenders of classical liberalism to trot out the Black Legend, warning that our liberal inheritance must be protected from these (Catholic) men whose un-American ideas will lead inexorably to backwardness and cruelty. (Unfortunately, many of those who level these attacks are fellow Catholics.) The classical liberals who criticize Trump often accuse him of longing for a return to a Protestant America. But their own ideology reflects a form of the same nostalgia.
Yu Ying-Shih, a Chinese-American historian, has described modern Confucianism as a “wandering soul adrift from its body,” a philosophy torn from the traditional institutions (temples, academies, imperial examinations) that once gave it material form. The ghost of classical liberalism is likewise without a home. Men try to conjure it by funding think tanks, activist groups, and magazines. But even the most lavishly endowed network of non-profits is no substitute for the vanished bourgeois order.
In 1970, Irving Kristol surveyed the decline of provincial American life and its bourgeois form of “republican morality.” He did not suppose that the past could be revived, but he hoped that we might arrive at “a set of values and a conception of democracy that can function as the equivalent” of the old bourgeois morality. Of necessity, this new American ethic will be less bourgeois and individualist, less provincial and Protestant. Perhaps it will draw on our broader classical and Christian inheritance. Or perhaps (as seems more likely) it will be some form of managerial progressivism. Whatever else occurs, we can be reasonably sure that classical liberalism will not come back to life.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.
Image: Bob Dilworth (cropped).