Introduction by Matt McManus
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion … Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.—J. S. Mill, On Liberty
Enlightenment liberalism is arguably the most successful political doctrine in history; though how much of that is down to its intrinsic appeal, and how much to a complex and by no means unequivocally honourable history, is up for debate. At the end of the Cold War what wasn’t up for debate was the legitimacy of liberalism. Having defeated its major rivals, and banished those that remained to radical and fundamentalist fringes, even liberalism’s critics acknowledge that—whatever its flaws—it had proven better than the competition. The unrepentant communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek admitted “we are all Fukuyamists” now, in the sense of accepting that some form of liberal democracy and markets were the future everywhere for everyone. Within liberal states, to the extent one could even talk of genuine political disagreements, it would be between different species of right and left liberalism that agreed on all the essentials but simply disputed what the proper marginal tax rate should be or whether a high or very high level of annual immigration was better for the economy.Yet amazingly, a mere thirty odd years into the “end of history” and liberalism has rarely looked more vulnerable. Starting with the election of Viktor Orbán in 2010 and continuing through the rise (and fall) of populists like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson it became clear that the spectres of nationalism, revanchism and religious identity had by no means been exorcised as thoroughly as liberals believed. While the election of the moderate Joe Biden in 2020 led many liberals to sigh with relief, Trump himself remains a powerful force in American politics and could very well win re-election in 2024. On the other hand, for the first time since the early twentieth century self-proclaimed “Democratic Socialists” like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gained real status and political power in the United States. Since then we’ve seen a reinvigorated labour movement take on and achieve victories against major corporations like Starbucks and Amazon which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
Yoram Hazony is an Israeli philosopher and one of the founders of “National Conservatism” in the United States. He is also the author of The Virtue of Nationalism and more recently Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Ben Burgis is a logician and author of several bestselling books like Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left and Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters. He has been a consistent proponent of democratic socialism, while also criticizing the more illiberal forms of cancel culture and anti-rationalism which can crop up on the left. In Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony argues for a conservatism grounded in “historical empiricism” and respect for tradition, nation and hierarchy. Hazony’s position is critically analysed by Burgis, who argues that a kind of left-Enlightenment project which preserves the best of the liberal tradition while committing us to a deeper concern for the least well off is the way of the future.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article, with a contribution by Yoram Hazony, was published in connection with a then forthcoming live debate. That particular debate has had to be cancelled. We are very sorry for any disappointment this causes, but future Areo Magazine live debates are planned. Please subscribe to our mailing list to stay up to date on developments.
The Enlightenment Paradigm, by Ben Burgis
Yoram Hazony advocates right-wing nationalist politics premised on a philosophical foundation of frank illiberalism. He believes that hierarchy and tribalism are natural and unobjectionable features not just of human life but of human politics and that experiments in forging a more pluralistic and egalitarian social order are doomed to failure.
To put it mildly, I don’t agree with any of that. To list off a couple of my own tribal loyalties: I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and my name is on the masthead of Jacobin magazine. I’ve opposed every war that my country has waged in my lifetime (and I would have opposed almost all the earlier ones too). I’m an old-fashioned enough socialist to take seriously the idea of the international solidarity of the working class—the spirit of, for example, the soldiers in World War I who ignored their respective officers and left their respective trenches to fraternize during the Christmas Truce.
Like my late friend Michael Brooks, I’m a big fan of cosmopolitanism. I roll my eyes when I hear my fellow leftists talk about “cultural appropriation” because I take it for granted that all cultures are the common inheritance of the human race and everyone should feel free to “appropriate” whatever they find meaningful from any of them.
I’m an atheist, but I don’t even want to impose that on anyone. I just want to live in a pluralistic society where everyone’s material needs are met, everyone has a reasonable level of input into the political and economic decisions that touch all of our lives, and we all respect each other’s ability to believe whatever we believe and pursue what John Rawls would call our own individual “life plans.” You want to start a huge family where everyone is raised to follow every rule laid down by the rabbinical scholars in the Schuchan Aruch? No problem. You want to live in a polyamorous Wiccan compound? That’s fine too!
So as a matter of day-to-day politics, I could hardly be further from Yoram. Unsurprisingly, those political conclusions grow out of equally divergent philosophical foundations. I’ve already mentioned John Rawls—to whom we’ll be returning shortly. He and G. A. Cohen are the two twentieth century philosophers who’ve most influenced how I think about the foundations of justice. So if not quite the hyper-rationalist and hyper-individualist liberalism described in Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery, I am definitely operating within the broad parameters of a philosophical liberalism with roots in Enlightenment thought. Even Marx, I’ve argued, was a liberal in that sense.
Given these profound political and philosophical disagreements, it’s not surprising that my first interaction with Yoram took the form of shots fired across the ideological barricades. Yoram did a video for Prager U laying out his hostility to Enlightenment liberalism. I responded to that video on my podcast and YouTube show Give Them An Argument.
In the normal course of things, it probably would have ended there, but our mutual friend Matt McManus thought we could have a more interesting dialogue if we engaged directly. Both Prager U and my podcast are efforts at presenting big political ideas in an accessible way to a popular audience but two guys with a background in academic philosophy could productively go deeper, Matt thought, in a different format. So I reached out to Yoram, and we ended up having an off-air Zoom conversation quite a well ago.
In the Zoom call, I found Yoram to be both personally likeable and intellectually interesting. We also identified one philosophical point we have in common—a deep appreciation for David Hume.
Even there I suspect that the aspects of Hume we each find most appealing might be very different. I appreciate, for example, Hume’s willingness to make bold arguments against the inherited religious beliefs and social taboos of his tribe. Yoram may have a different perspective there.
Nevertheless, as I think about where I can find a crack in the edifice of Yoram’s belief system to burrow in and make some dialectical points, I’m grateful for that shared interest. Hume looks to me like a promising place to do that—although it’s going to take us a minute to get to him.
Rationalism, Empiricism and Liberal Premises
The version of philosophical liberalism Yoram contrasts with his conservative vision is explicitly rooted in rationalist epistemology. In other words, it assumes that we have more to go on as we try to decipher the world than just what we can glean from experience. We also have an independent faculty of reason that can guide us to the truth if we’re just careful enough about starting with premises we can be sure about and following the arguments wherever they lead. If you have this view about epistemology and you endorse liberal conclusions and you take these conclusions to be shown to you a priori by the light of reason, you can end up with something like the particularly stark and bold version of liberal political philosophy summarized by Yoram.
It’s worth pausing to note, though, that the historical connection between liberalism and rationalism is far thinner and more variable than seems to be suggested by Yoram’s summary of “liberal premises.” The most important rationalist epistemologists don’t seem to have been all that liberal. Leibniz, for example, far from being an advocate of the church/state separation, spent the time he had left over from mathematics and philosophy advocating a grand reconciliation of Catholicism and Protestantism he hoped would become the single state religion of all Europe. (He was also a big advocate of a renewed push for Christian conquest of the Islamic world.)
More importantly, though I don’t deny that many Enlightenment rationalists were liberals, not only was rationalist liberalism not the only kind of liberalism to emerge from the Enlightenment, it’s far from clear to me that it was even the most important kind. Take perhaps the three most important figures in the history of Anglophone liberalism, coincidentally all named John—John Locke, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls.
The first of those Johns would surely be carved into any Mount Rushmore of Enlightenment liberalism. But his face would also appear on the Mount Rushmore of empiricist epistemology. The second John is the author of On Liberty, a book held in almost religious reverence by a certain kind of liberal up to the present, and he was an extremely radical empiricist who thought that even the truths of logic and mathematics were ultimately empirical. Mill is also something like a patron saint of utilitarian morality, and (like his godfather and fellow utilitarian liberal Bentham) his views about politics were derived from his assessments of which social experiments had led to good or bad results in the past.
John Rawls was a product of twentieth-century American academic philosophy and hence was much less of a generalist than his fellow Johns. He may not have expressed any opinions on empiricism and rationalism as global theories of knowledge—a distinction that had in any case been complicated by W. V. O. Quine before Rawls developed his theory of justice. He definitely had a worked-out view of moral epistemology, though, and it could hardly have been more distant from the ultra-confident moral rationalism assumed in Hazony’s summary of liberal premises.
Rawls didn’t think his conception of justice was self-evident or that it followed from some simple transcendent truths easily available to anyone willing to be guided by the light of reason. Instead, he thought the work of moral and political philosophy was to try to hammer out our often messy and even inconsistent jumble of normative intuitions into a state of “reflective equilibrium.” He agreed with Hazony that different tribes, nations, churches and so on tend to develop their own moral and metaphysical worldviews and that it can be difficult to know who’s right—but he drew very different conclusions, believing that for the sake of the co-existence of a number of groups within a pluralistic society it was important that the conception of justice everyone would have to live with was rooted in the “overlapping consensus” of many different worldviews.
This might all seem like philosophical nitpicking but the larger point I’m building up to here isn’t just that liberalism has been historically quite distinct (albeit with plenty of overlap) from “rationalism” in the technical sense of that term. It’s that, moving from the history of philosophy to philosophy itself, the conceptual connection between any general view of the role of reason and the issues in dispute between squishy cosmopolitan pluralists like me and post-liberal nationalists like Yoram is pretty dubious.
To see that point, let’s go ahead and make the pretty reasonable assumption that—to the extent that this is a dispute about what form of social organization will have good or bad consequences—that issue is best resolved by taking a hard look at what’s happened in the slow frustrating process of trial and error that’s played out throughout human history. Note that “to the extent” caveat. It’s going to be important. But it would be pretty unreasonable to deny that there’s any extent to which that’s what we’re arguing about, and I’m perfectly happy to grant the point about evidence slowly emerging from a series of messy historical experiments.
Note, by the way, that this is not a claim about the intentions of any given historical actor. You don’t have to believe that any particular arrangement was instituted with the intention of leading to greater human flourishing to believe that in practice the profusion of social forms that have existed at various points in history give us a wide variety of experimental evidence about what leads to greater or lesser amounts of human flourishing.
As I’ve already mentioned, this is very much how John Stuart Mill saw things. So, for that matter, did Karl Marx, who loathed class society precisely because he thought the subordination of slaves, serfs, peasants and proletarians to ruling classes had severely inhibited human flourishing, and whose vision of the future was based less on an a priori conception of what a just society would look like than on the thoroughly empirical claim that existing society was, at long last, pregnant with a more desirable alternative.
Nor do we have to go back to Mill or Marx to find figures who draw very un-Hazony-esque conclusions from this methodology. Your average contemporary European liberal who finds the resurgence of reactionary nationalism from Trump to Brexit and Orban utterly repugnant, for example, believes that:
- The European Union deserves support precisely because it was a wildly successful experiment, promoting prosperity and preventing major European wars all the way from World War II in 1945 to the outbreak of a major war outside the Eurozone in 2022.
- The separation of religion from the public sphere, whether a clean separation on the American model or the de facto separation of European countries where a state church enjoys taxpayer subsidies and a few residual ceremonial functions but where e.g. a Jew being the head of state in a Christian nation is no big deal, has led to unfathomably better results than the previous entanglement of church and state, and this is a good reason to think the same model would be preferable for the citizens of nations that still suffer from such entanglement.
- Freedom of movement for migrants and refugees has been shown to lead to less human suffering than more restrictive arrangements.
- Free trade has been shown to lead to greater levels of prosperity than protectionism.
- Letting gay and trans people live as they please even at very young ages has been empirically shown to lead to more people having better lives.
… and so on. I have differences with this typical Euro-liberal on trade policy and I feel at least a lot more ambivalent than she does about the virtues and vices of the EU (hint: I’m writing this in a hotel room in Greece), but that’s not the point. The point is that the methodology which typically inspires this familiar package of views is far closer to Hazony’s than to his description of the ultra-rationalist methodology of liberalism.
Even a socialist like me concedes that it’s rational to fear wild economic leaps into the unknown, which is why I like to base my pro-socialist arguments on gathering evidence from what’s worked well under capitalism and thinking about how these elements could be recombined in a different system.
So why do conservative-nationalist, conventionally liberal and far more radical thinkers come to such different conclusions about how to evaluate the result of societies’ experiments? Do they just keep coming to dramatically different factual beliefs?
That’s certainly part of the answer. Even when we’re strictly in the business of evaluating empirical evidence, we’re all prisoners of different starting points, different habits of mind and so on that subtly lead us to different places. But there’s a much deeper problem here—one that finally takes us to Hume.
How do we evaluate the results of the experiments? What, in principle, counts as failure or success?
I used the vague term “flourishing” above as a way of temporarily sidestepping this issue but the plain fact is that political disagreements pretty routinely emerge from disagreements not only about facts but about values. We disagree about abortion not just because we disagree about the stage of foetal brain development at which consciousness begins to emerge but because we disagree about whether bodily autonomy is important enough to outweigh the imperative to protect new life. We disagree about the minimum wage not just because we disagree about whether minimum wage hikes lead to increased unemployment—which could after all be counteracted with federal jobs programmes—but because we disagree about whether the right of struggling small businessmen to stay in business outweighs the right of the worker to make a living wage. We disagree about whether to scale back immigration not just because we disagree about whether the influx of new immigrants threatens to change the ethnic composition of the country but because we disagree about whether “the ethnic composition of the country” is the kind of thing that actually matters.
In order to decide whether some social experiment is a success or failure, we need to decide which goals we care about in the first place. That’s a question of values and as David Hume rightly emphasized, those can never be derived solely from values. “Is” premises can help you get to an “ought” conclusion, but they always require the aid of “ought” premises to get you all the way there.
As I hope becomes clear in what follows, this isn’t a nitpicky pedantic point about logic. It cuts to the heart of Hazony’s project. The parameters of experimental success can’t themselves be derived from experimental evidence. When we reason about what those parameters should be we aren’t reasoning about how the world is. We’re reasoning about what we care about. And when that distinction is firmly in place, most of what Yoram writes about history will prove to have nothing much to do with the most important issues in dispute between him and the liberals.
Facts, Values and Contracts
Hazony’s rationalist liberals believe that all men are “perfectly free and equal by nature” and that government “arises” from a social contract between them while the conservative premises he endorses include men being “born into families, tribes and nations” and government arising from the building blocks. Both descriptions are shot through with is/ought ambiguity.
Let’s back up and think about the “free and equal” part. Putting aside the “perfectly” flourish, what does it mean for people to be “free and equal” by “nature”? One thing that statements like this could mean and often have meant to those who have talked this way is that institutions that treat people unequally or deny them freedom are to that extent unjust. “By nature” can be a way of saying that our moral rights against social inequality and unfreedom are “natural” rights—i.e., rather than such rights being granted by some institution, one of the standards we should use to judge any institution is how well they honour such rights.
If this is how “free and equal by nature” talk is understood, though, much of the apparent conflict between the liberal and conservative premises disappears. Are we “born” into hierarchical arrangements in the sense that when we come into this world we find ourselves entangled in them without anyone asking our say-so? Sure. And such arrangements can be judged and found wanting if they fail to respect natural rights. There’s no conflict between being born into families, tribes and nations—even families, tribes and nations that violate the principles of freedom and inequality—and being “by nature” equal and free. There can’t be, given that the first of these is an “is” claim and the second is an “ought.” To generate a conflict, Hazony would have to add an “ought” principle connecting the two.
Nor can it be assumed that every case of being born into hierarchically structured arrangements is a case of being born into an arrangement that violates our rights. For example, even most anarchists concede that childhood is a phase of life in which people don’t have the capacity for full autonomy and that it’s entirely appropriate for parents to act as benevolent guardians of our interests. Some of our moral rights, like some of our legal rights, only emerge with adulthood.
Nor have most liberals been anarchists—which brings us to the social contract. Saying that government or political obligation “arises” from a contract “entered into” for rational reasons sounds like an “is” claim about real history. If read this way, Hazony is surely right that it didn’t happen this way. But that’s not what any of the contract theorists I’m familiar with seem to have had in mind.
I want to be careful here, because the metaphor of society as one big contract is capable of being read in so many ways that any sweeping claim about social contract views in general is vulnerable to counterexamples. “What about this contract theorist, who means something completely different?”
The crudest reading of the contract metaphor reminds me of the Windows CD-ROMs that were sent through the mail when I was a young man—if you ripped open the package, you were agreeing to the terms of service. By living in society and enjoying its protections, the thinking goes, you’re agreeing to live according to its rules.
I don’t find this version of contract theory terribly plausible. Hazony and I agree, for example, that the civil rights protestors who got themselves arrested by staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters were on the right side of history. (I’m confused about how Hazony thinks this fits in with the overall shape of his views—why, by his lights, weren’t white Southerners who resisted civil rights acting appropriately in prioritizing the traditions of their own “tribe”?—but let’s put that aside for now.) The protestors lived in a society and enjoyed at least some of its protections but they were right to work for social change by systematically violating unjust laws.
A more plausible—and, it’s worth noting, more common—alternative way of understanding the contract metaphor is to ground our thinking about which social institutions deserve to be promoted by thinking not about how those institutions “arose” historically or even the mere fact that living under them is preferable to living in a state of nature but about whether we would agree to them in a particular set of hypothetical circumstances. The most sophisticated version of this line of thought comes in the work of John Rawls, who thought that the basic institutions of a society are just if and only if we would agree to them from the “original position”—a hypothetical where we know everything there is to know about sociology and economics and the rest but we’re behind a “veil of ignorance” about what our own position would be in the society we are designing. You wouldn’t know what sort of family or tribe you were being born into and—if we’re talking about a global society here—you wouldn’t know which nation either. Thus, for example, you wouldn’t endorse a set of institutions in which the dominant tribe treated a minority tribe as second-class citizens or worse for the simple reason that you might end up being born into the “wrong” tribe.
Hazony’s own frequent talk of families, tribes and nations involving ties of “mutual loyalty” gives off a suspiciously contract-y whiff, but I’m unsure how seriously to take that whiff. Is the idea that, for example, the lower classes of a society only owe loyalty to the institutions that govern them if their rulers display sufficient loyalty to them? If so, the size of the resulting loophole in Hazony’s defence of hierarchy, nation and tradition is pretty staggering.
Which are the hierarchical societies where those on top haven’t engaged in pretty appalling disregard of the interests of the people on the bottom, exactly? In fact, a moment’s reflection should tell us that the only practically realistic way to even approximate truly mutual loyalty between lower and higher ends of power structures would be to achieve thoroughgoing democratic accountability for those on top, but presumably Hazony can’t go there. A version of his view that granted that the only plausible candidates for political legitimacy were structures that ensured the consent of the governed, the resulting view would look suspiciously like … well … liberalism!
Facts, Values and National Conservatism
At any rate, much of the rest of what Hazony says doesn’t really fit with a reading of his conservative premises that carefully distinguishes “is” from “ought.” He tells us, for example, that tribes can come together to become nations “by conquest or voluntarily, or by some combination of the two.” True enough as a historical claim. But the only scenario in which this takes place Hazony discusses is one where the tribes are coming together for the sake of mutual defence against a common threat. This is very far from being the only reason that nations incorporate new territories but using it as the only example makes the is/ought problem here less obvious—as well as making “nations” seem like far more organic entities than they truly are.
While ethno-linguistic collective identities certainly existed even in the ancient world, national identities in the modern sense are typically the results of Enlightenment-era or later projects of homogenization that in practice marched hand-in-hand with the spread of liberal ideas—indeed, as Hazony’s fellow illiberal Sohrab Ahmari emphasizes, as recently as the mid-nineteenth century the guardians of the established order thought of liberalism and nationalism as twin subversive ideologies.
During the very early stages of the French Revolution, it was symbolically important for the still-reigning King Louis to be given the title of “the King of the French.” The idea of “the French” as a distinct entity from “subjects of the French King” was, well, revolutionary at the time. And even the existence of a well-defined French language, as opposed to a hodgepodge of local dialects that, for example, shaded into Italian as you got closer to the Franco-Italian border, was the product of a conscious political project. Did that have much of anything to do with defence against external enemies? Sort of—although they were enemies in that case primarily because of the reaction of the rest of Europe to the Revolution.
I’m sceptical that the word “tribe” is a helpful one in understanding the project of modern national formation, but let’s put that aside for now and assume that it’s well defined and clearly applicable. Hazony speaks of tribal obligations transferring to national ones. Given that his paradigm case is of tribes coming together (perhaps against the wills of some of them) for the sake of common interests, this sounds like a claim that whatever obligation was properly owed to a tribe is rightly transferred to the nation. But what about, say, a previously independent group being conquered and culturally assimilated out of pure lust for land and power by a stronger group? As a matter of historical fact, people in the assimilated group will as a general rule start to feel a sense of political obligation to the nation they find themselves part of but there’s no ”mutual loyalties” contract-ish story here that looks like a justification.
In general, I don’t doubt for a second that Yoram is right that people very often (indeed, in the vast majority of cases) feel some sense of obligation to their nation or to various in-groups that could be loosely thought of as “tribes” or both. He’s surely also right that attempts at amassing “honour” or “prestige” for nations have something to do with the behaviour of nations on the world stage. But the question being kept just off-frame, which represents the real heart of his disagreement with liberals, is very simply: Is that a good thing?
Hazony thinks the Iraq War had something to do with liberal universalism. I don’t deny that liberal universalist rhetoric was used to justify it, though I would point out that such rhetoric was also used (far less disingenuously in my view) in the global anti-war movement. But as we’re having this discussion the world is closer to the brink of global thermonuclear obliteration than it’s been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, due to a war started by an openly illiberal right-wing nationalist regime for reasons that I don’t think even Yoram Hazony could blame on liberalism. Not to put too fine a point on it, Vladimir Putin seems to consider himself to be engaged in a competition for national honour and prestige and that seems to have quite a bit to do with his actions. I have to say that I’m not well disposed toward any value system that would classify that as a positive experimental result.
Hazony says that rationalist liberals believe that liberalism will continue to spread and nationalism will fade away but they’re wrong. Fine—maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong but either way what does it have to do with the merits of either liberalism or rationalism?
It could be both true that nationalism will always be with us and that it’s profoundly harmful—like a virus that we need to remain eternally vigilant about since it never stops circulating through the human population. Similarly, justice, briefly achieved, could be lost forever.
I don’t think so. I’m cautiously optimistic about the prospects of achieving a more humane society, although I grant that there are ugly features of human nature and we should never be too complacent about the permanence of justice. However certain we can be that it can endure, though, it’s worth fighting to achieve for as long as we can.