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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- 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.
- 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.