Conservative Liberalism, Liberal Despotism

American conservatives seem stuck with liberalism. We are citizens of the original liberal democracy, so it seems we must be liberal if we wish to preserve our patrimony. But what sort of liberalism constitutes our heritage? Is it that of liberal practices and institutions such as representative government, habeas corpus, and trial by jury? Or that of liberal ideology as it has been variously formulated by John Locke, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and others?

The American Right is divided on this question. Last year’s debates between David French and Sohrab Ahmari illuminated the divide between those who defend the merits of the United States as a classically liberal nation, and those who reject liberal theory, even if they support many liberal practices. For instance, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry urged a conservative understanding of liberalism not as a rigid ideology, but rather as a “set of practices that we have learned, through many centuries of trial and error, are pretty good at promoting human flourishing.” This perspective is mostly compatible with the emerging project of Ahmari and his allies. The task for American conservatism is to protect this heritage of liberal practices, the roots of which go deeper than Enlightenment liberal theorizing, which we should keep at arm’s length.

Read the rest over at Public Discourse.

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