December 2, 2005

CONSERVATIVE LIBERALISM (via Matt Scofield with thanks to James Panero):

Living with liberalism : a review of Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity by Daniel J. Mahoney (Robert Kraynak, December 2005, New Criterion)

When reflecting on the political options available to us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I often say to myself with a certain resignation, “Liberalism—it’s all we’ve got.” What I mean, of course, is that for anyone in the modern world who wants a sane and decent political order, the only realistic choice is liberalism in the classic sense—a regime dedicated to individual liberty based on democratic institutions (liberal democracy, in other words), with a social order shaped by mass culture and an economy driven by industrial and technological progress. Those who reject this order entirely—utopian dreamers, nostalgic reactionaries, anarchists—may get credit for defiant courage, but they usually wind up doing more harm than good. We are left with little choice but to live with liberalism and to make it as noble and as just as we can. [...]

[Daniel J. Mahoney, professor of political science at Assumption College] argues for something called “conservative liberalism,” which he finds in the political thought of such seemingly disparate figures as Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Charles de Gaulle, Raymond Aron, Aurel Kolnai, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Pierre Manent, and now Bertrand de Jouvenel. Mahoney’s thesis is that these figures are genuine lovers of liberty, but they are not “liberals” in the sense of embracing the philosophical liberalism of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, J. S. Mill, John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin, or John Rawls. Conservative liberals reject philosophical Liberalism because it fosters the “illusions of modernity”—a notion of autonomy which admits no higher authority than the human will (“the self-sovereignty of man”) as well as blind worship of progress that destabilizes society, undermines virtue, and tempts modern man with utopian ideologies that lead to totalitarian systems of government.

Instead of following progressive liberalism, conservative liberals draw upon pre-modern sources, such as classical philosophy (with its ideas of virtue, the common good, and natural right), Christianity (with its ideas of natural law, the social nature of man, and original sin), and ancient institutions (such as common law, corporate bodies, and social hierarchies). This gives their liberalism a conservative foundation. It means following Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Edmund Burke rather than Locke or Kant; it usually includes a deep sympathy for the politics of the Greek polis, the Roman Republic, and Christian monarchies. But, as realists, conservative liberals acknowledge that classical and medieval politics cannot be restored in the modern world. And, as moralists, they see that the modern experiment in liberty and self-government has the positive effect of enhancing human dignity as well as providing an opening (even in the midst of mass culture) for transcendent longings for eternity. At its practical best, conservative liberalism promotes ordered liberty under God and establishes constitutional safeguards against tyranny. It shows that a regime of liberty based on traditional morality and classical-Christian culture is an achievement we can be proud of, rather than merely defensive about, as trustees of Western civilization.


No one has made the case of conservative liberalism better than Professor Kraynak himself, in his own book. But this review is quite the best thing you'll read this month and just one more reason why the New Criterion is invaluable.


Posted by Orrin Judd at December 2, 2005 10:55 AM
Comments

So oj: which are you: "utopian dreamers, nostalgic reactionaries, anarchists"

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 2, 2005 9:07 PM

But, as realists, conservative liberals acknowledge that classical and medieval politics cannot be restored in the modern world. And, as moralists, they see that the modern experiment in liberty and self-government has the positive effect of enhancing human dignity as well as providing an opening (even in the midst of mass culture) for transcendent longings for eternity.

From a practical standpoint, how does conservative liberalism offer anythimg unique, except in it's theoretical underpinnings? There is nothing structurally different. It doesn't offer any means for ensuring virtue on the part of citizens, it seems to be just a hopeful wish that citizens can do so.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 2, 2005 9:28 PM

Robert S:

A liberal.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2005 1:21 AM

Robert D:

The basis of your society, for one.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2005 1:23 AM

Robert: anything that makes liberalism less millenarian is a good thing. That there are some self-professed liberals who are grappling with the ideas of unintended consequences and diminishing returns is a good thing. And once they have grappled, if they arrive at the same destination classical ethics reached 2400 years ago, then that's also a good thing. It's a feature, not a bug.

Posted by: joe shropshire at December 3, 2005 4:32 PM

OJ: When did you concede that "classical and medieval politics cannot be restored in the modern world."

Posted by: David Cohen at December 3, 2005 5:58 PM

David:

That's why you think I'm a liberal--the past was better than the present, but I have no illusions we can go back to even the 1920s, nevermind the 1720s. The Third Way will suffice in our degraded state.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2005 8:29 PM
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