Henry George takes aim at today’s popularization of so-called “Classical Liberalism,” a movement that fails to appreciate that, for true conservatives, economic priorities are always subservient to ensuring social order.
Classical Liberalism seems to be the “in” thing at the moment. One of its main proponents online is Dave Rubin. I like Dave Rubin. He’s brought a level of civil debate back to the public discourse through his YouTube show The Rubin Report that is badly needed. I’ve watched him since October 2015 and have seen him evolve in his thinking. Even though it’s been a one-way dialogue, I’ve also evolved in my thinking and beliefs.
Since partnering with Learn Liberty in 2016, however, his arguments and position have become more dogmatically libertarian. His support for what he sees as Classical Liberalism, and his support for unfettered capitalism, are in my view simply libertarianism given a new, more palatable label. His arguments have some truth in them, but, as a conservative, I also have reservations about the things he now argues for.
In a short animated video from July 10 titled What is a Classical Liberal?, Rubin issues a Classical Liberal manifesto. The video revolves around the idea that a Classical Liberal is someone who believes that, “individual freedom and limited government are the best way for humans to form a free society.” The video concludes by arguing that the most important thing is for each of us to live as, “a free person in a free society based on your own ideas and actions.” Rubin has argued that the election of Trump has opened up space for the discussion of what conservatism now is and has the potential to usher in a more libertarian conservatism.
This elision of conservatism with Classical Liberalism or libertarianism has been put forward by others on the right, including Never-Trumpers like Bill Kristol. But, as Yoram Hazony points out, Classical Liberalism is not conservatism.
As Yoram Hazony argues in his article, liberals are rationalists whose, “aim is to deduce universally valid principles from self-evident axioms, as in mathematics.” As Hazony goes on to say, John Locke—mentioned in Rubin’s video as a key Classical Liberal philosopher—in his Second Treatise on Government asserted that through universal reason, all human beings are receptive to the same political truths, all individuals possess “perfect freedom” and “perfect equality,” and finally that “obligation to political institutions arises only from the consent of the individual.”
I am not denying that there is some truth in what Dave Rubin calls ‘Classical Liberalism’ and its emphasis on individual freedom. It is not freedom as such that I take issue with, but the Classical Liberal’s over-emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy and its economic partner in the unfettered free market. This takes these ideas too far in the direction of a substitute religion with the unattached autonomous individual placed above all else. It is an idea that goes against what it means to be conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke, Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk and others.
First, let’s look at freedom itself. Conservatives believe in freedom, but with caveats. In an essay on Edmund Burke, John Attarian argues that “Liberty derives from Natural Law (that which we perceive to be true from experience in the real world, rather than abstract ideals, and apply through prescription); it is our birthright, forfeited only through irrationality or violence.” Yet liberty is not a license to act according to fickle whims. As Burke says, it is “social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint.”
Therefore, the precondition for liberty is that no individual or group should infringe the liberty of another individual or group. Furthermore, liberty must partner with order at the societal and individual level. Burke, a Christian, appreciated man’s flawed nature and potential for malevolence. He warned that liberty, without a grounding in some sort of transcendent moral order, “is the greatest of all evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition and restraint.”
As a result, liberty can only thrive and be valuable in an ordered society where people share a common morality. To enjoy the benefits of freedom, people need self-control and virtue. Burke argued that “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without … men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” According to Attarian, this practical liberty “requires such social and institutional prerequisites as a government powerful enough to protect it; equitable taxation; an independent judiciary; and ‘a perfect state of legal security’ for the individual in life, person, and property.” Burke wanted a “free government” that would combine “those opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work.”
“Freedom needs boundaries, borders and restraints within which to function in a beneficial way. Freedom without these limits is blind, embodying neither social continuity ‘nor genuine individual’ choice.”
Building on these ideas, Roger Scruton says in The Meaning of Conservatism that freedom is not a phenomenon that appears out of nowhere, and absolute personal autonomy is a myth. It is mediated and guaranteed by institutions, from the family to the state, and is the “consequence of an accepted social arrangement.” Freedom needs boundaries, borders and restraints within which to function in a beneficial way. Freedom without these limits is blind, embodying neither social continuity “nor genuine individual choice,” amounting to “no more than a gesture in a moral vacuum.” Freedom, according to Scruton, “is comprehensible as a social goal only when subordinate to something else, to an organization or arrangement which defines the individual aim. Hence to aim at freedom is at the same time to aim at the constraint which is its precondition.”
As David Brooks argues, Classical Liberals have it the wrong way around: rational individuals did not come together to create order; rather, order comes first, and liberty arises out of that order. Conservatives have always emphasized, “the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.”
Removing the individual from these attachments and constraints is like dropping him in the sea: lots of freedom there, so much that it can drown him. As Brooks says, “Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by pre-rational cords of sympathy and affection.” As Burke observed, we inherit these institutions from those gone before, we conserve them in the present and pass them along to those who come after. This ties society together across time.
Now, let’s look at the emphasis on the autonomous individual’s place in the free market. Freedom is good, but like anything, too much of a good thing—in this case, individualism—can be harmful. Unlike increasing numbers of my age group, I am not entirely against free market and free enterprise, given their ability to lift so many people out of poverty. I am also not blind to the fact that socialism, the main ‘alternative,’ has been a disaster of genocidal proportions.
However, taken to excess, the emphasis on free markets can destroy the very conditions that gave rise to them in the first place, as Daniel Bell argued in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. It’s not that capitalism should be curtailed beyond reason. We should show restraint, and we should not fetishize commodities; not everything should be open to market forces. One could, therefore, say that conservatives are “reluctant capitalists.”
One of these was Irving Kristol, who in Capitalism Today argued that the dynamic forces of capitalism acted like a solvent on social ties, creating atomized individuals lost in a sea of infinite choice and personal freedom devoid of meaning, which leads to desperation and nihilism. Meanwhile, Russell Kirk believed that Burkean conservatism was directly opposed to unrestrained capitalism and the concomitant ideology of individualism.
In response to Ayn Rand’s objectivism, which is predicated on the canonization of selfishness and contempt of altruism under the guise of rational self-interest, he argued that, “we flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.” Because of capitalism’s capacity to dissolve social bonds through the ever-greater needs of the market, one becomes a “social atom, starved for most emotions except envy and ennui, severed from true family-life and reduced to mere household-life … old landmarks buried, his old faiths dissipated.”
It seems to be, as George Will put it, that there are two choices: “One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former.”
The emphasis on the inherent good of capitalism above all is a cold-hearted, harsh philosophy that places economic growth at the summit of society’s value hierarchy, leaving people unattached from the bonds of community and subject to the winds and vicissitudes of market forces, the inherent sanctity of the human spirit eroded by the market, transforming the subject into an economic widget. Ironically, Adam Smith, one of the core Classical Liberal thinkers in Rubin’s video, did not just concern himself with economics, let alone ‘rational self-interest.’ As Richard Aldous says in his review of Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, while it is true that The Wealth of Nations formed the starting point for what became today’s economy, Smith saw his other less known work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as more important.
In it, he developed the idea of the ‘impartial spectator,’ the part of ourselves that enables us to “assess our own thoughts, feelings and actions and to pass judgment on their moral worth.” For Smith, the ability to perceive ourselves externally, as others see us, is invaluable because it creates the sympathetic feelings between bonded souls that are the basis of community. Ultimately, this implies a responsibility for others beyond the self that will inevitably restrain freedom. This argument, diametrically opposed to the Classical Liberal worldview that values individual freedom and autonomy above all else, is conveniently overlooked by those pushing Classical Liberalism.
It is because of the effects of the exclusive emphasis on the autonomous individual and his or her role in the unrestrained free market that voters chose populists like Trump, because they sensed that his brand of politics was rooted—albeit crudely—in a sense of place and belonging. His language on trade and financial affairs suggested an intuition that the social order was seriously frayed.
“This hyper-individualism, I would argue, is directly responsible for spawning the regressive identity politics of immutable group characteristics we see today; people need something to hold onto, and when everything that once supported them has been degraded beyond recognition or memory, tribes of race and ethnicity easily fill the void.”
Today, the phenomenon threatening the sacred spaces that nurture our ordered liberty is no longer just the state, but also a radical individualism that leads to a reactionary seeking for tribal community, a seeking born out of fear rather than affection. This is the argument of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed: Liberalism, having succeeded in raising the individual above all else, leaves him exposed and vulnerable, the loss of mediating institutions leads to an ever-expanding leviathan state that fills the void once filled by community. This hyper-individualism, I would argue, is directly responsible for spawning the regressive identity politics of immutable group characteristics we see today; people need something to hold onto, and when everything that once supported them has been degraded beyond recognition or memory, tribes of race and ethnicity easily fill the void.
In every political ecosystem, there is an essential tension between the individual and the commons. Politics is the forum for negotiating that tension, something that Jordan Peterson has articulated for the modern world. The Classical Liberal emphasis on the primacy of the autonomous individual that prizes freedom above all else leads to the loosening of bonds of fellowship and community, leading to atomization and isolation. Meanwhile, too much emphasis on the conservative desire for order and community can lead to stagnation. What is needed is a dialogue between the two worldviews so that the right balance can be found. At bottom, the conservative approach to individual freedom and autonomy I’ve laid out can be summarized as “yes, but,” as opposed to the Classical Liberal “yes, and.” This “yes, but” approach can offer a meaningful point between the crushing conformity of the socialist Left and the radical individualism of the Classical Liberal/Libertarians, something needed more than ever today.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.