In a post over at National Review, NR editor Charles C. W. Cooke has joined the chorus of critics castigating Sohrab Ahmari for giving up on liberalism.

Here is the meat of his critique, though you ought to read the whole thing as, whatever else it is doing, Cooke is helpfully articulating a common set of objections to the post-liberals:

The critique offered by the “post-liberal” or illiberal-curious crowd contains a number of fatal flaws. It relentlessly confuses the bones of our political system with the meat that free people put upon them, and thereby becomes both incomprehensibly vague and nigh on impossible to interrogate and find any meaning in. It badly misidentifies its enemy, which leads its progenitors to turn, mistakenly, upon their allies. It is wantonly self-destructive, in that, if followed to its natural conclusion, it would limit, rather than increase, the power of those who advance it.

Cooke complains that the post-liberals confuse liberalism as ideology (which is what we’re all OK condemning, I think?) with liberalism as procedural system. This is not a terribly new critique—Jamie Smith’s entire rebuttal to Patrick Deneen rests on this distinction, for example. But Cooke does make it in a tight, helpful form.

The difficulty is that assertion is not argument. While the distinction sounds nice in theory, it’s hard to sustain it coherently which is why many, including the more moderate post-liberals like Patrick Deneen, reject it. Indeed, as I have noted many times before, you can find T. S. Eliot rejecting it nearly 100 years ago.

In media theory, we have the saying “the medium is the message.” The idea is that you cannot disentangle the mode of communication from the message being communicated. TV as a medium is going to definitionally shape communication in ways that are quite distinct from an in-person speech or a radio broadcast.

Something like the same principle holds in politics. You might say “the procedures are the principles,” or something along those lines. A political society’s idea of the good life is not expressed exclusively in the content of its laws, but in the forms of politics that they endorse and practice. Our procedures are things like a fairly undifferentiated defense of free speech, a commitment to ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ and an attempt to maintain a government that is at least superficially neutral on questions of ultimate meaning. But these ‘procedures’ all, in themselves, carry a certain sort of political philosophy with them which goes well beyond the live and let live ideal that liberalism’s defenders seem to think is the sine qua non of liberalism.1

The American project has been, from its beginning, one of world-making. The ‘procedures’ that define our political norms are themselves designed to promote that work. We fashioned our nation out of the land that opened up before us (once the previous occupants were killed or moved, of course). Ours is a frontier nation and always has been. Our national creed is one of imposing the dreams within one’s own head onto the physical world around us as pioneers of a new world. Once we ran out of land frontier we moved into space and when space became infeasible we pulled back and began to pioneer the one thing that our liberal creed, dating back to Locke, told us we have an absolute right to control: our bodies.2

So we began to fashion our identities and even our bodies according to our ambition and desire. Our political procedures have been defined to protect this right and are actively used to secure it. You cannot neatly separate the two in the way that Cooke’s entire argument presupposes you can.

The procedures of American liberalism are inextricably tied to these sacraments of self-expression that are baked into our nation and have been since the beginning. If you attempted to wrest the procedures from the principles of late modern liberalism, you would find that the procedures themselves would necessarily be transformed, even if they are perhaps salvageable in some alternative form.

If we are to end abortion we must find some way of defining “freedom” in our society that is related to something beyond the individual. The courts, after all, have not been unclear on this point: Justice Kennedy’s paean to liberal individualism was specifically written to address legalized abortion. If we are to address the corruption in our politics, we must find some way of judging and defining “free speech,” by, again, relating it to some greater good. If we are to address something like pornography we must, again, find some way of relating “free speech” to a broader good.

In other words, we must identify some kind of fixed end toward which society ought to move. Yet this is the very thing Cooke and his fellows seem so nervous about doing.

Their reason is somewhat understandable at first. They rightly make the same point about politics that I have made in the past when talking with Catholic friends about their own intra-ecclesial debates. If the trads got their way regarding ecclesial power and authority, it is likely that the first target Pope Francis would identify for the use of his new-found authority would be… western trads. Cooke follows the same argument, noting that a state actually empowered in the way the post-liberals desire would, in our current context, immediately target the post-liberals for marginalization and some form of dhimmitude.

That may be true, of course, but it also is not really the point. Indeed, it is merely to say that politically empowered groups will use their political power to advance their political agenda, which is rather tautological. Power is inextricably baked into the political process. And power isn’t used to prop up value neutral procedures. It is used to pursue specific ends which are often hinted at by the procedures used to advance them.

Those ends in America have always been pioneering, world-making, creating identities, and so on. The argument of the post-liberals is not that we should begin using our political system to pursue certain ends. By definition political systems will use power to pursue certain ends. Our argument is merely that the political system, like other areas of life, ought to be responsive to the claims of the moral law and ordered toward the true ends of human persons.

Certainly, there is every chance that we could pursue bad ends. But to act as if our opponents beginning to use power toward bad ends would be new or disruptive to a previous procedurally secured peace is a fiction. Certainly it would be news to African Americans and Native Americans.

Politics will always use power to advance certain ends. The question is merely how that power will be used. And in America it has frequently been used in evil and destructive ways. The project of the post-liberals is not an abandonment of a procedural order that is agnostic to virtue, for such a thing does not actually exist. Rather, it is an attempt to direct that order to true goods.

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  1. One key point to keep in mind here is that we can and almost certainly should distinguish between what the founders meant by these principles and what the principles have come to mean today. I’m still thinking through the problem, but my phrasing above is intentionally careful: an undifferentiated commitment to free speech that has no concern for the life of the community or the telos of individual or society should be condemned. But it does not follow from that that “free speech” is always and everwhere a bad principle. It does, however, need to be related to a broader set of political goods.
  2. Sorry, I’m feeling the need to footnote here because I want to at least head nod toward complicating factors without watching the essay become bloated and unwieldy: What I’m really describing above is Stegner’s “boomers” rather than “all Americans always and everywhere.” But generally speaking the boomers set the direction of the country and the stickers do their best to hold on but almost always with little success.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • Glad to see your response to this. I found the title of Cooke’s piece annoying as nowhere does the article actually demonstrate that post-liberalism is incoherent. Wrong? Mabye, but not incoherent. Usually I would chalk this up to the editor giving a catchy title to something the writer didn’t quite intend, but then I think Cooke runs the editing at NRO so that excuse won’t do.

    On this point:

    It relentlessly confuses the bones of our political system with the meat that free people put upon them, and thereby becomes both incomprehensibly vague and nigh on impossible to interrogate and find any meaning in.

    I suspect that Cooke is right with respect to Deneen’s thesis (and, with apologies, to some of what I’ve seen from your latest book In Search of the Common Good, but I just got it yesterday and have only had the chance to read a little more than halfway). You rightly note that “assertion is not argument” and this is the second thing that annoyed me about Cooke’s piece: it’s mainly a string of assertions. (Though in my experience many online mags want a word count that often make arguing about fundamental issues difficult.)

    But that assertion is not argument is also what I was thinking as I read Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. I take it that post-liberal critiques of liberalism can be coherently developed in many different ways. At the broadest level we might distinguish between strong post-liberal theses (SPT) and weak post-liberal theses (WPT). And I take it that Deneen and MacIntyre (and yourself, from what I can tell so far from your book) develop different SPTs. MacIntyre’s argument, to simplify, is that liberalism is grounded in an anthropology that can provide us with no rational political, ethical discourse. Deneen’s argument is that the logic of liberalism is the destruction of all social bonds (30) and a war against nature (34) just as such. (I won’t try to summarize your case before finishing the book and giving it more thought.)

    What all SPTs have in common is the idea that there is some inherent flaw in liberalism that makes its failure inevitable. But while Deneen shows how it’s possible to move from A to B to C, where A is some starting point in enlightenment philosophy like individual property rights and C is some end point like the destruction of all social bonds, he does almost nothing to show that C is entailed by A, such that everyone starting from A must end up by force of logic at C. What ends up happening is a lot of assertion–like liberalism is “driven by the imperative of replacing all nonliberal forms of support” (62)–without the necessary argument.

    Now you defend the broad idea that liberal “‘procedures’ all, in themselves, carry a certain sort of political philosophy with them which goes well beyond the live and let live ideal that liberalism’s defenders seem to think is the sine qua non of liberalism” and at that broad level I agree with you. And I agree with you and Deneen (5) that liberalism tends to hide its ideology and bias (like Rawls’ veil of ignorance). I just don’t think it carries with it the fine-grained philosophy Deneen want’s to saddle it with (e.g., it is the destruction of all social bonds).

    Thus, when you say

    “You cannot neatly separate the two in the way that Cooke’s entire argument presupposes you can.”

    I think it is this fine-grained critique that Cooke has in mind and, if I’m correct that this is what he has in mind, then I have to agree with him and say that it is up to the post-liberals to demonstrate how the sort of individualism in America’s founding entails the destruction of all social bonds. If you ask me to explain how it doesn’t entail the destruction of all social bonds maybe I could just point to Charles Taylor’s analysis which seems more measured and on target (A Secular Age, 211)?

    (Again, I don’t mean to say that all post-liberals agree with Deneen on this point or that it is itself a necessary part to being post-liberal. I don’t think either of those things. Part of the problem currently in the post-liberal vs liberal discourse is the failure to distinguish exactly what and who the targets are.)

    It is at the following point that I think Deneen’s SPT shows its weakness against something like MacIntyre’s SPT:

    If we are to end abortion we must find some way of defining “freedom” in our society that is related to something beyond the individual. The courts, after all, have not been unclear on this point: Justice Kennedy’s paean to liberal individualism was specifically written to address legalized abortion.

    And, again, this is where Cooke seems to me to be right: the argument that abortion is permissible because of liberal individualism only works on the assumption that the unborn are not individuals–but it is no part of the liberal thesis that the unborn are not individuals! So Deneen’s SPT can’t get traction here whereas MacIntyre’s can: the problem is that liberalism has undercut any basis for adjudicating competing claims.

    I think the rest of what you say is exactly right and I have other problems with Cooke’s piece. While he lands some punches on Ahmari and Deneen, I don’t think it succeeds against a MacIntyrian critique or post-liberalism just as such.

  • BWF

    There is a suggestion: for future articles on post/anti-liberalism, it might be a good idea to critique (or at least recognize) defenses of liberalism from advocates of left-liberalism (aka “Big L Liberalism”). Usually on Mere Orthodoxy, whenever defenses of liberalism are addressed, they are almost always from conservatives like Cooke or French. This is OK as far as it goes, but it seems to be taking place in a world where left-liberalism isn’t defended seriously… which is not any world that I know of.

    Matthew Sitman’s “Liberalism and the Catholic Left” is definitely a good starting point.

  • David Moser

    I’d argue Cooke’s point still stands. Post-liberals have yet to provide a solution to the problems they diagnose that is free of coercion. Does a solution involve imposing power on non-Christians to “orient them to true goods”? Does the US need an Emperor Leo III, who can impose that vision of the Highest Good to reorder us to that good, as he sees it? I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but I want to know what the post-liberals like Ahmari are looking for.

    But to orient human beings to the highest good is not the role of government on a classical Protestant two-kingdoms model. To orient human beings to the good is the goal of the church and its worship, along with the power of the keys to bind and loose. The government has the role of regulating human commerce and worldly affairs like this.

    I’m not sure your history is quite right either. The American project was not a “world-making” project per se, even if it has had these consequences. Rather, the American project was the attempt to order a religiously pluralistic society procedurally to allow the freedom of each individual to pursue his or her own religious ends without harm from others. John Adams held that the success of this order depended upon thriving religious communities and the virtue of its citizens. I read Adams as holding to this classical two-kingdoms model, and I still think this is a fundamentally good thing, insofar as we live in a religiously diverse world. We can’t fault the procedural model of government for the failure of the citizens to be virtuous.

    Perhaps the order and its procedures Adams helped create had the unintended effect of shaping its citizens in undesirable ways. But tracing a genealogy from Locke to the contemporary Left is not sufficient to explain our situation that the post-liberals decry. I’d argue material considerations, primarily the increase of our wealth, has a lot to do with it. I don’t think the post-liberal narrative decline suffices to give us solutions, either – at least, it hasn’t yet.

  • hoosier_bob

    The argument for illiberalism seems to fail precisely in its assumption that some kind of top-down authoritarian system is inevitable.

    Procedural liberalism operates on the assumption of dispersed authority, where no central entity has the power to exercise coercion to a substantial degree. Our current implementation of liberalism has departed somewhat from that principle. But the departure does not prove that liberalism is faulty any more than Nazism proves that illiberalism is faulty. Frankly, I’m not interested in a government that’s seeking to direct me towards “true ends,” as I have no confidence that its leaders can consistently divine what those ends are. Thus, liberalism allows for a degree of social experimentation, whereby we can understand which practices may be more true than others. Liberalism creates the space in which natural selection can play itself out.

    Also, I see no reason why banning abortion at all stages of gestation serves as some kind of litmus test. In looking at abortion, it’s not hard to see that there are two competing rights: the right of the woman to exercise control over what happens to her body; and the right of the developing fetus to the same. It is a matter of political judgment to determine when the latter outweighs the former. But when one calls for banning abortion at all stages of gestation, one is implicitly saying that women have no right to exercise control over what happens to their bodies. Such calls implicitly reduce women to being no more than the chattel of their fathers, husbands, boyfriends, and rapists. But I see no reason why liberalism ought to be condemned merely because it confers onto women a dignity beyond that of mere chattel.

    Yes, liberalism embraces the dignity of all humans, even if they are not straight, white, Christian men. I recognize that such an assertion is radical to many. But criticisms of liberalism, whether they say it or not, are inherently criticisms of a system that confers equal dignity on all human life.

    • The argument for illiberalism seems to fail precisely in its assumption that some kind of top-down authoritarian system is inevitable.

      This isn’t the argument. In fact all of them seem to think top-down authority is a problem of the liberal society. MacIntyre gives a great argument for why bureaucratic expertise is practically impossible. Deneen laments the growing statism, seeing it as a sort of ironic invetable result of our radical individualism, and calls for more self-governance. Meador laments the power grab of the Christian right, identifying it as one of the problems.

      Granted, I’m not quite sure how their economic ideas can comfortably align with this, but this is the area I’m most sketchy on and would like to see more details.

      Procedural liberalism operates on the assumption of dispersed authority, where no central entity has the power to exercise coercion to a substantial degree.

      Deneen offers an argument in his book that it’s inevitable result is a government that intrudes more and more into our lives. I’m not sold on the *inevitable* bit, but he at least sketches a way in which we can see how our government got to where it is. (He also has an argument that the system was actually designed for the federal government to replace the relevance of local governments… but I’m entirely uncertain as to its merits.) Anyway, you can check out his book Why Liberalism Failed if you’re interested in the details.

      But the departure does not prove that liberalism is faulty any more than Nazism proves that illiberalism is faulty.

      This is a good point. Personally, I might want to argue that the system has built within it a certain instability with nothing to stabilize it once it starts to teeter. But MacIntyre and Deneen offer specific arguments (and they are somewhat different) as to why liberalism is faulty–they don’t just point to the current “crisis” and say “Gee, must be an inherent flaw!” And they all argue that their idea is more in line with our metaphysical/anthropological/spiritual reality.

      Frankly, I’m not interested in a government that’s seeking to direct me towards “true ends,” as I have no confidence that its leaders can consistently divine what those ends are.

      But one of the points Jake Meador mentions in this very article is that government (liberal, post-liberal, or illiberal) will and must have some conception of the good or those goods which are most worthy of being protected. The idea of it being nothing more than a neutral platform is just a facade. Deneen also builds an argument for this.

      Thus, liberalism allows for a degree of social experimentation, whereby we can understand which practices may be more true than others.

      This “experimentation” to discover the best or what is the good is what MacIntyre basically suggests in After Virtue when he defines the good as, in part, our search for the good. Deneen discourages trying to start off by building some grand theory before we try to live out our practices in local communities. You may find that you agree with the post-liberals on more than you thought.

      I won’t bother commenting on the rest.

      • hoosier_bob

        Deneen May lament statism. Even so, all he does is offer an alternative form of statism. Frankly, I’m with CS Lewis. I’d rather live under a robber baron than under a Christian zealot. But dispersed authority is better.

  • TellMeNo

    “In other words, we must identify some kind of fixed end toward which society ought to move. ”
    How?
    Who gets to define the “fixed end toward which society ought to move”?
    What if most people don’t agree with your “fixed end”?
    How do you get people who don’t agree to go along with your idea of a “fixed end”?
    Yes, liberalism does have an unfortunate tendency to work itself out of a job. It has many weaknesses. But I don’t think illiberalism would be better. Until I hear SOMEONE say something practical that makes actual sense on the ground, I can’t get on board. My questions above are honest questions. Will anyone answer them/

    • How?

      MacIntyre, Deneen, and Meador all suggest starting locally and working through civil society. Meador actually gives the most detailed path forward, IIRC, and that which is the most obviously informed by Christian principles. For example, he not only suggests sabbath keeping, but gives us a fairly detailed picture of what he is suggesting. See part 3 in general and chapter 6 specifically on the sabbath in his book In Search of the Common Good.

      Who gets to define the “fixed end toward which society ought to move”? What if most people don’t agree with your “fixed end”?

      None of the post-liberals, that I’m aware of, are under the illusion that this is a top-down project or that it will, can, or should drag along a society that doesn’t agree with it. (With the caveat that there are probably a lot of post-liberals online that I’m unaware of. But let’s take take the three I mention as the best representatives and steel man the argument.)

      But I don’t think illiberalism would be better.

      Just a quick note on terminology: ‘illiberalism’ was adopted pretty early in the Ahmari/French debate by NRO people (at least that’s where I first heard it), but then abandoned for “post-liberalism”. This latter term is the better one for a couple reasons. One, Deneen himself uses it in his book (without the hyphen). Second, ‘illiberalism’ has more pejorative connotations. Third, ‘illiberalism’ is a broader term.

      Until I hear SOMEONE say something practical that makes actual sense on the ground, I can’t get on board.

      Since the immediate project offered by post-liberals (or the best representatives of them) happens to be the same as that which has been offered by classical liberals (i.e., Jonah Goldberg, Tim Carney)–civil society–then you might discover that you are already be on board! Or at least in regards to the immediate project, if not the long-term vision.

      • TellMeNo

        It sounds like all you’re saying is that Christians should just live like Christians and perhaps society will be persuaded by a faithful Christian witness. And by the way, I think the possibilities for just that scenario are really exciting.
        Liberalism depends on persuading the culture and then the rule of law proceeds from a culture that is persuaded that certain things are good for society. So I guess I’m not really following what the “post-liberals” would change. This is to agree somewhat with your last paragraph.

    • hoosier_bob

      Straight, white, Christian men like Jake and Donald Trump get to decide. Where have you been?