There are several possible conservative arguments for the liberal tradition, especially within Anglo-American strains of liberalism. Michael Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a serious account of the type of morality democratic capitalism requires and produces, offers one compelling narrative as to why the American tradition ought to be pursued. Yet, it is an outlier in conservative intellectual history: most of which is either anti-capitalist, or highly critical of capitalism. Furthermore, like many conservative writers, Novak conceptually conflates capitalism, democracy and liberalism.
Popular discussions of cultural Marxism, postmodernism and the alt right have also largely been avoided by conservative liberals. While John Gray, in The Two Faces of Liberalism, has raised excellent points on this subject, his book has only had a secondary impact on Novak. Additionally, polarizing figures like Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro et al., while providing a popularizing source for some of these ideas, are not the most thorough or sharpest critics of liberalism. Attempts at developing a thick conception of liberalism (in the Rawlsian sense), while maintaining the core of classical liberal politics, is the problem for left liberalism. However, progressive movements tend to misunderstand the political genius of liberalism and corrupt the term.
Historical Liberal Conservatism
In its essence, liberalism is a procedural system of governance. Its primary concern is getting the process of statecraft correct, without necessarily calling for specific cultural or religious ends, contrary to many contemporary political movements. This is because the historical roots of liberalism, arguably, began with the Magna Carta, when the nobility was able to secure their rights and privileges against the capricious will of a monarch. This percolated for a few centuries until the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War. That war visited absolute devastation upon Europe. These conflicts ended with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, a great liberal victory in international law, which established the concept of the sovereign nation state, though it also recognized the right of the monarch to determine the religious identification of his or her subjects.
The Treaty of Westphalia established one of the foundations of a possible conservative interpretation of the traditions of liberalization: nationalism. The contemporary association of conservatism with nationalism does not seem to be controversial—but there is a possible redefinition of nationalism that does not include the xenophobia commonly believed to be at the root of conservative nationalism. This ideal type of nationalism—which might be more properly termed localism—was expounded by the twentieth-century Canadian philosopher and nationalist, George Grant. For Grant, specific communities offer unique opportunities to further specific goods. For example, he defends the idea of a Francophone Quebec culture in North America. The Québécois life, for Grant, embodies cultural values that can only be lived out, expressed and understood in that culture. For Grant, this localism is important because of its unique ability to express an aspect of the good and losing it is a cause for lamentation because you lose that substantiation of the good.
Of course, the story of liberalism doesn’t end with the community as tyrant. The Hapsburg Empire enacted the Edict of Tolerance of 1782, over 100 years after the Treaty of Westphalia, at a time when the expectation was that the liege lord’s control over religious affairs was nearly absolute. This edict (very, very) imperfectly expanded religious liberty to Lutherans, Calvinists, Serbian Orthodox and Jews who were Hapsburg citizens. No longer did the state sovereign determine religious affiliation. The edict also opened up previously closed professional and business opportunities that had been legally restricted (especially for Jews). This created the political conditions for one of the foundational tenants of liberalism: religious freedom. Early liberalism, then, began as a response to the religious violence from Reformation and Counter-Reformation forces.
The edict also hinted at two later developments in liberalism. First, that the individual is the most basic political unit because every polity is made up of many individuals. Liberalism gradually became the recognition that—for an individual to flourish—specific freedoms like religion, speech, thought and conscience should be given priority in law and politics. Secondly, that property rights and the free market play a significant part in creating the material conditions which allow individual flourishing. For example, the American and Nordic models of capitalism are both forms of capitalism, but with considerable differences in emphasis, self-understanding and structure. Yet both are legitimate expressions of liberalism. In this conception of liberalism, however, capitalism is a byproduct of liberalism, rather than its core. Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day offers insight into what is meant by a modern liberal democratic nation state.
Contemporary Examples of State Overreach
In three recent cases, adopting liberalism as a process would mitigate political conflict and more fully support thick conceptions of the good within the larger liberal project. These cases also, however, illustrate the dangers of a thick conception of liberalism.
Our first example concerns the province of Ontario, Canada and involves the newly elected majority Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford (brother to the infamous former Toronto mayor Rob Ford), which has rescinded the 2015 sex education program and returned to a model of parental consultation. Meanwhile, Ontario’s sex ed program will revert to its 1998 version, prior to significant technological developments, such as smart phones and social media. This came about in part because of a feeling by some parents that there had not been enough consultation before the 2015 curriculum was adopted. They also raised further issues about the age at which certain topics, such as LGBT relationships and transgenderism, were introduced. A few schools in Toronto saw massive (allegedly as high as 70%) student absence in protest against the new program. These schools appear to have a majority of Muslim students in attendance. A further point of conflict is that Benjamin Levin, Deputy Minister of Education in Ontario’s Liberal government from 2004–07, pled guilty to three counts of child-related pornography in 2013. His name was connected with the development of this new curriculum in the public mind and the optics of that were predictably disastrous. Two additional factors complicate this issue. First, Ontario has two publically funded school boards: a public system and a Roman Catholic one. This arrangement stems from the specifically history of Canada and is constitutionally permitted in Canada (although provinces are not required to have both boards). The 2015 curriculum does not distinguish between the two boards: a factor which has led to some institutional resistance to some of the issues being taught. Secondly, the Ontario teachers’ union has advised their teachers to ignore the Ford government and to teach the 2015 program, despite explicit instructions from the provincial government not to do so. Ontario is still waiting for the political and legal fallout from this decision by the teachers’ union. As of August 4, 2018, the teachers’ union are still challenging this issue in court.
The American situation is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado. Briefly, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Philips, refuses to bake specialty cakes for a variety of occasions, such as same sex marriage, erotic or lewd needs and for Halloween. He allows anyone to buy previously made confections, but he considers it an abridgement of his artistic freedom and constitutional free speech rights to bake specialty cakes for these occasions. A gay couple attempted to order a custom cake and he refused—offering them any other cake in the store. They sued him for discrimination. They won in the lower courts, but the United State’s Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed animus towards Jack Philips’ religious beliefs, which invalidated the religious neutrality of the Commission. A second complaint has now been filed against Mr. Philips because he refused to bake a custom cake for a transgender transition party. It is likely that this second complaint was targeted punishment against the owner.
The final issue stems from British Columbia, Canada, home of Trinity Western University, a private evangelical Christian university. TWU had a mandatory community covenant that every student had to sign, whereby they agreed to a code of conduct that included things such as no alcohol consumption, pornography use or extramarital sex. For Trinity Western, marriage was defined as between one man and one woman. This has caused their graduates to have accreditation issues in teaching and law societies. In 1995, the BC College of Teachers alleged that, because of the nature of this agreement, all graduates from Trinity would discriminate against gay students. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there was no evidence that Trinity graduates discriminated against gay students and that the College of Teachers “erroneously concluded that equality of rights on the basis of sexual orientation trump freedom of religion and association.”
However, in 2018, after Trinity Western attempted to establish a new Christian law school with the same binding covenant, multiple provincial law societies—including the Ontario bar, the largest legal market in Canada—refused to accredit their graduates. The case also went to the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled that “In our respectful view, the [law societies’] decision not to accredit Trinity Western University’s proposed law school represents a proportionate balance between the limitation on the Charter right at issue and the statutory objectives the [law societies] sought to pursue.” Trinity has put their plans of opening a law school on hold and have recently made the community covenant voluntary.
Who Is the Real Enemy?
These three situations encapsulate the changing relationships between cultural norms, religious freedom and the state. The latter two cases deal with the same conflict: religious rights versus sexual freedom. The trend in the US and Canada is for LGBT and anti-discrimination laws to supplant associational and religious rights as civil priorities, once they reach the courts. Even though Masterpiece won in the Supreme Court, the case was won not on the merits of the claim, but because of the Commission’s obvious bias and hostility towards Philips’ religious beliefs. This has allowed a second suit based on the same essential grounds to move forward. In this case, the court case appears to be entirely punitive. All sides involved have descended to relying on the courts for a resolution. A small oligarchy of people in robes have become the de facto masters of our social and political relations.
In his book The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk offers a fine intellectual history of Anglo-American conservatism. He suggests that conservatism is based on a concreteness of lived experience. It has deep roots in historical developments and communal relationships that develop organically. All the various factors that input into culture and influence how it develops have created a multitude of distinct social networks, all of which contribute to who and what individual people become. Family, class, socioeconomics, religion, language and other criteria both bind and distinguish us. This does not make such categories automatically good—but, even when they cause suffering, goodness and beauty can be found within these conceptions of identity.
Ultimately, liberal conservatism emphasizes existing networks of personal relationships—which are what make us human. Unlike other forms of liberalism, in which people are blank slates and free will (choice) determines who you are, conservatives believe that right action (goodness) is how an individual becomes free. The unfettered will can be as tyrannical and slavish as any external power and perhaps more insidious.
Current and Future Threats to Liberalism
The threats to this conception of liberalism are many. From the three illustrations above, we can see that North American society likes to legislate and use the force of law to determine our relationships. While the law is an important aspect of community life, by necessity it is also abstract, impersonal and imprecise. It is backed by force and legitimized through the vast capabilities of state violence. What does it know of love, forgiveness, or mercy? The law is often cruel and harsh and discriminates against racial minorities and the poor. And the law is also about the exercise of power: which can be both vicious and as capricious as the Greek gods. These perennial problems with the uses and abuses of power should cause every thoughtful commentator to be suspicious of power-based solutions.
The fetishization of power has culminated in the current Hegelian attempts to create a monolithic state, showing that the desire for control, for conformity to the general will, is ever-present. Individual conscience and religious dissent have both been sacrificed at the altar of the spirit of this present age. A significant factor in this is that technology and science have penetrated our conceptions of the self and both are held as authorities (if not the authority) on societal questions. Liberalism has become subservient to technocrats and to the technological civilization that has empowered them. The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century were no accident and they could happen again if we are not careful.
The line of post-war conservative criticism can be traced through a variety of writers. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, George Grant’s English-Speaking Justice, Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Neil Postman’s Technopoly, Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Robert P. George’s Making Men Moral have been influential in this line of thought. The two most recent books that should be highlighted are The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher and Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, both published in 2016. All these works explore the various difficulties facing contemporary American and Canadian liberalism: ranging from corporate misbehavior, technological changes, educational problems and state overreach into private affairs to environmental degradation, economic inequality and lack of freedom of conscience. In fact, Grant and MacIntyre are much more comfortable with the Old Left’s economic policy than with free market thinkers like Hayek or Friedman. This makes them harder to dismiss as opponents because they have many of the same concerns as much of the Left. It’s why liberalism is vital as a political language. Our tolerance and our stable political culture depend on it.