Liberalism within Limits

By Lawler, Peter Augustine | The American Conservative, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Liberalism within Limits


Lawler, Peter Augustine, The American Conservative


Liberalism Within Limits [The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy Against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends, Daniel J. Mahoney, ISI Books, 240 pages]

THIS EXCEPTIONALLY eloquent book has a very precise title. Liberal governments and societies need, in order to be secured, conservative foundations. This insight Mahoney defends from the point of view of Uberai statesmen, including liberals who write like statesmen. His guides are Alexis de Tocqueville, Winston Churchill, Raymond Aron, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Mahoney knows more about these great Europeans than anyone else these days, and his thoughtful and endlessly detailed appreciation for what they accomplished is also unrivaled. He employs them judiciously - minimizing their differences on the issues such as the truth of Christianity - in the service of his own singular message: magnanimous displays of political leadership are themselves one conservative foundation, but only one of many.

For the statesman, freedom is for thinking prudently in light of what we can't help but really know, and for protecting the dignified liberty of persons - who are citizens but more than citizens - from tyrannical forces. For the pure democrat, freedom of choice is simply an end in itself. The statesman sees that a society that is pro-choice on everything - one, for example, that regards having and raising babies and military service as nothing more than optional lifestyles - can't defend itself for more than a moment against the hardnosed preferences of its enemies.

So, Mahoney goes on, prudent liberals such as Aron and the unusually astute American political scientist James Ceaser have always been stuck with dealing with liberalism's intractable sustainabUity issues. For Ceaser and some other Straussian public philosophers, those issues aren't foundational - liberalism has a true grounding in the natural-rights teaching of the Declaration of Independence. But liberalism still needs the help of national loyalty, the family, and religion; reason or our natural freedom, as they say, needs the support of convention

Thinking of oneself as a citizen or a parent or a creature isn't really liberal, but those non-individualistic self-understandings can be configured by statesmanship to balance liberty with sustainability. The bottom line, from this Declaration-ofIndependence view, is maximum protection of natural rights. Liberal prudence means employing conservative means to achieve the liberal end. That liberal end, as Mahoney reveals in his criticism of the rhetoric of President George W, Bush, is universal. Declaration-grounded liberal democracy becomes the form of government that should prevail everywhere and at all times. America becomes, in a way, the best regime or what should be the real goal of all human striving.

But President Bush and his advisors actually didn't imagine the American nation absorbing that whole world. Universal principles should animate particular nations; only the nation is capable of generating the institutions and virtues that can perpetuate genuine self-government. Bush was less imperialistic than the pretensions of the European Union. Today's idea of Europe, as the French political philosopher Pierre Manent - another one of Mahoney's guides - observes, is based on a post-political or post-national fantasy. The intention is to diminish political loyalty and replace statesmen and citizens with meddlesome administrators and contented dependents. That's why Mahoney says Europe is farther down the path to pure democracy - the road to soft despotism - than America

Mahoney's own nuanced position is still Uberai and yet far more fundamentally critical of liberalism. He agrees with TocqueviUe and Solzhenitsyn that political devotion can't be captured by the allegedly exhaustive Lockean categories of contract and consent. Liberalism's tendency is to use those categories to empty life of its moral contents, and those contents must be regarded as more foundational than liberal natural rights.

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