Joseph Shaw over at LMS Chairman has posted a four part-critique of the conservative response to the Eich affair (and related incidents) titled “Why Conservatives Are Wrong.” Whereas Jeffery Tucker attacked conservative libertarians from the left, complaining about their “brutalism” in their assertion of their rights to live according to traditional and natural values, Shaw attacks from the right, following the general outline of the illiberal critique of the foundations of American political thought. A serious critique deserves a serious response, which is what I hope to provide here from a classical liberal perspective.
At the outset it is worth highlighting that Shaw, myself, and I imagine many of us on both sides of the “America is good/America sucks” divide share many common concerns and basic moral values. This is not a battle between left-wing “liberal” Catholics and orthodox “conservative” Catholics; it is a strategic and perhaps philosophical dispute between two groups that share a set of values and commitments to authentic Church doctrine and the natural moral law. Our most important point of agreement is that neither of us are “progressives”; we do not view history as a linear ascent to some utopian future in which fallen man has been redeemed by his own self-righteous awakening. We, political traditionalists and classical liberals both, ground ourselves in “self-evident truths” that do not change with the direction of the winds and in our belief in the superiority of reason to the irrational and fickle demands of the mob.
In part one of his critique, Shaw notes that the main conservative response has been to point out left-liberal hypocrisy. Freedom of speech is a basic liberal tenant, after all, and therefore the condemnation of Eich by the angry left is inconsistent with its liberalism – or so we believe. Not according to Shaw:
It is not the case that liberalism has turned on itself or betrayed itself or given way to fascism or anything like that. What has happened is perfectly coherent, and is easily explained.
But does Shaw’s explanation really work? This is one of those disputes in which I can’t be entirely sure of the extent to which our disagreement is semantic or truly substantive. Here is his explanation of liberalism’s foundations, for instance:
The basic principles of justice in a liberal state obviously overlap with common sense – we can all agree that you mustn’t go round killing people for fun and so on – but the underlying principles are actually incompatible with the Christian revelation, and even the classical tradition. Plato said that we should be careful to desire the right things. St Paul told us that we have desires in us which lead to hell. These views are rejected by the liberal state.
I intend to get the heart of the problem that I believe permeates all four blog posts: what truly counts as “liberal” and what the self-proclaimed “liberals” actually are. This is not a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. By Shaw’s own understanding, liberals allegedly reject the idea that there are right things to desire, or that wrong desires can have dire consequences. And yet this is clearly not how the persecutors of traditional Christians on college campuses and in the media behave or speak. These alleged “liberals”, perhaps at a slower pace than people who are explicit about their religious orientation, do have a vision of how people ought to be, what they ought to desire, and what the consequences are for failing to carry out these imperatives. How can anyone live in a society in which things like this happen and fail to see it?
In Shaw’s version of history, it was “just a matter of time” before the liberals of yesterday became today’s fanatics. This is because in his view, the liberal state espouses tolerance, which means that it will be forced to reject and persecute those who are intolerant. And yet I would hardly be the first to point out that tolerance has always meant a willingness to co-exist with people and ideas that one dislikes. Shaw paints American social conservatives as the “intolerant” group facing down a hostile group of people who are devoted to the idea of tolerance. This is simply false. Don’t take my word for it. Here is Eliel Cruz, a gay activist leader on a college campus (doesn’t get more authentic than that):
Tolerance is the ability or willingness to tolerate something one may not agree with. It’s an allowable amount of variation from the normative of an individual person. It is the capability to “put up with” something or in this case someone…. So to answer the question my friend asked me, “Is tolerance good enough?” Tolerance is just not good enough.
Tolerance is in fact a liberal virtue, Shaw and I would agree to that much – but it is not a virtue of the modern radical left. This brings me to another important point: nowhere does Shaw discuss the intellectual trend that has influenced cultural politics far moreso than liberalism in the 20th and 21st centuries, and that is Marxism. No ideology could be more opposed to the individualist assumptions behind liberalism, and no ideology has a greater influence on college campuses and in radical activist movements. Even if today’s campus radicals are not classical Marxists, they’re steeped in the rhetoric, philosophy, methodology and activism of egalitarian collectivism. The semantic if not philosophical lines are somewhat blurry in Western countries perhaps due to our strong liberal heritage, but in places such as Russia and China where there is no liberal tradition, the hostility between Marxism and liberalism is quite open, clear and strong. The old liberals didn’t follow liberalism to some logical conclusion; they became Marxists of some variety, usually the Gramsican variety, when they realized that liberalism wasn’t going to provide them with the utopia they desired.
Egalitarian collectivists do not care in the least about the individual and his rights. The struggle for “gay marriage” has to be put forward in liberal individualist terms because most Americans recognize the validity of arguments presented in such terms; the reality is that it follows the same basic trajectory as communism, second-wave feminism, and racial identity politics. It is the destruction of the bourgeois liberal order that these groups aim for, and the reconstruction of society on egalitarian and collectivist grounds. It was because, among other reasons, the bourgeois liberal order was unwilling and unable to rid humanity of the “oppressive shackles” traditional religion, marriage and family that it was not and is not considered adequate by communist revolutionaries or their naïve proxies on college campuses. Marx may have thought that capitalism was destroying faith and family (while the communists would finish it off), but today’s neo-Marxists insist that capitalism perpetuates the traditional institutions and social roles that they hate with all of their passion. On this point we agree. Thge bourgeois liberal order depends upon faith and family to sustain individuals as it is immoral and outside of the contractual obligation of the classically liberal state to provide such sustenance, whether it is spiritual or material.
Therefore I hope that it will become clear that for the same reasons that “tolerance is not enough”, the “liberal state” is also not enough for these people. Returning to the specific issue of homosexuality, it is an undeniable fact that under existing laws in states without legalized “gay marriage”, two people of the same sex can, through a series of contractual arrangements, establish a de facto marriage. It is also an undeniable fact that the majority of American conservatives are tolerant by the true definition of the word, preferring to mind their own business, neither asking nor wishing to be told about other people’s sexuality or personal living arrangements. Few were clinging to the old and rarely enforced anti-sodomy statutes. Here you had the essence of liberalism already in place, with the state upholding and respecting free contracts between individuals and the majority of the populace rightfully holding that the private affairs of fellow citizens were not for them to decide. This is where Shaw really gets it wrong, too. For instance, he writes:
Yes, it is simple, it is coherent, it is consistent. To allow conservatives to attack the gay lifestyle would be inconsistent with the liberal project in just the same way, and for the same reason, as allowing people to beat up gays in bars. Everyone is protected equally: everyone can pursue their own conception of the good as long as they don’t stop anyone else doing the same thing.
Conservative disapproval of homosexual lifestyles, even publicly, doesn’t “stop” anyone from doing anything, and there is nothing consistent about this argument from a classical liberal point of view. This is self-evident, and it is amazing that Shaw and other illiberals can’t see it. The drive to silence conservative dissent is not about realizing a liberal goal, but rather an egalitarian collectivist goal. The proof is in the pudding, as it were, precisely because “verbal attacks” are quite obviously not the equivalent of beating up gays in bars. Sticks and stones break bones. Words don’t. For liberalism, that actually makes a substantive and important difference. For egalitarian collectivism, it makes no difference. Thought crimes will inevitably lead to real crimes, “hate speech” will lead to violence, sex jokes will lead to rape; these are commonplaces among these types of people.
The “marriage equality” movement is a sham and a fraud for the same broad and general reasons: no one was legally oppressed or denied any basic right – the state’s refusal to recognize anything other than a union between a man and a woman a “marriage” had the same exact legal and political effects on single people, non-married heterosexual couples, siblings and friends who share their lives together, etc. We never saw them marching in the streets. Of course there was a cultural prestige gap, with one arrangement getting special recognition and tax benefits while no others did, and maybe a case could be made for the abolishing of tax privileges, but that’s about it. Many white Americans allowed themselves to be sold a phony story about oppression because of the guilt they feel about the actual past mistreatment of blacks and fear of perpetuating the same mistakes again. That phony story is now being used to further the much older goal of yesterday’s radical egalitarian collectivists, which is the marginalization of traditional religion and particularly the hated bastion of aristocracy, patriarchy, and hierarchy of every sort: the Catholic Church. And yet they haven’t quite succeeded yet, arguably because the vast majority of Americans are old-fashioned liberals who recognize that egalitarian collectivism is not authentic liberalism (and, by the way, that voluntary societies of aristocrats, patriarchs, clerics and so on are perfectly acceptable).
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide: are the people hounding Eich and others like him authentic representatives of an intellectual tradition that espouses individualism and tolerance? Or are they better viewed as representatives of a violent, totalitarian and collectivist tradition that has often declared individualist and tolerant liberalism an enemy to be vanquished as “progress” marches on?
I also have to take issue with Shaw’s insistence that an appeal to liberal ideology is a flawed strategy. All he has to offer in its place are some Papal ideas about what constitutes good government. How these ideas – however sound they may be – could be imposed on non-Catholic nations, or even Catholic nations in which the vast majority of the people have no interest in a confessional state, he, like all other anti-liberals, leaves unsaid. He might reply that he, like the others, is just an idea man. Even if we can’t get rid of the liberal state in practice, we can critique it. I may as well suggest an equally fanciful notion then: what if we eradicated Marxism from the college campuses, the media, the churches, the unions, and the government bureaucracy and got back to “pure” liberalism? Neither of these things will happen. But we do have a conservative movement in this country that, even if it believed in liberalism inconsistently – and to be clear I don’t believe it does – is still willing to take social and political action on behalf of the victims of totalitarian injustice. That to me is something worth appreciating, even if one feels compelled to critique.