The real problems start with the masks we wear for each other.
Why I’m Not a Liberal
Should conservatives think of themselves as classical liberals? In his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, George Will will have American conservatives only as “the custodians of the classical liberal tradition.” In Will’s telling, the alternative visions for the Right involve squalid worship of blood and soil. But this is an incomplete picture.
Because conservatism grew up as a hesitation in the liberal tradition, and because traditional conservatives and classical liberals find themselves allied so closely against progressivism and socialism, their vocabulary and self-conception are almost conjoined. Untangling them can almost sound like a riddle: A classical liberal believes man is free until the law touches him. A conservative believes he is free because the law guards him. A classical liberal guards his rights to do what he wants, a conservative protects his right to do what he must. One is a partisan of natural rights, the other of natural law. Often enough classical liberals, like Will, accept the label “conservative” proudly. And as a conservative, I still want to be thought of as possessing the virtue of liberality. The adjective suits some of us fine, but not the noun. I’m liberal, but not “a liberal.” This is not a new revelation to me in the Trump era, nor is it in service to some grand transformation of the American order, which has liberal and non-liberal elements.
We can define classical conservatism against its liberal counterpart. The classical conservative is more mindful of lived experience than of theory, is more zealous for the common goods we share than for the aggregate goods the market distributes, and sees our pre-liberal inheritance as the only source for preserving and renewing America’s liberal arrangements. Instead of getting our understanding of freedom from John Locke and his liberal theory, a classical conservative might look to Edmund Burke, or draw from a biblical worldview.
Conservatives tend to be most favorable to liberalism when it is given to us as Thomas Jefferson presented it, as the culmination and codification of the common-law tradition, as the ancient liberty of freeborn men, threatened by the engorged political authorities of modern absolute kings or tyrannical parliaments. A conservative may be deeply sympathetic to liberalism; its appeal and success are rooted in man’s desire that the law and his will should be reconciled, that an orderly and free society will arise spontaneously. But Enlightenment liberalism is not just the sum of the best medieval thinking; it is also a self-conscious break with that tradition.
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