In the End of Liberalism and in his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen joins some other conservatives today in lumping classical liberalism and modern liberalism together as both contributing to the acid bath that is dissolving important institutions like the family that are essential to human flourishing. This move is wrong analytically, consequentially, and tactically. Analytically, because classical liberalism is concerned with protecting the individual against state power, not protecting him against social influences it dislikes, as is modern liberalism. Consequentially, because the classical liberalism, unlike modern liberalism, protects the ability of people to act together and precommit to institutions, like the church, that are the essential foundation for modern conservatism. Tactically, because after the decline of the throne and altar provided by a state, conservatives do not have sufficient power to govern without being in coalition with classical liberals.
It is modern liberalism, not classical liberalism, that blurs the distinction between the state and society. For instance, modern liberalism is concerned about using the state to enforce equality, because it worries that substantial levels of inequality will make people too subservient to the rich, a social norm it dislikes. It is hostile to religious influence in the social world because that influence too can make it harder to for people to find their true selves. Even the family can be too confining. But classical liberalism essentially leaves people alone and subject to social influences so long as those with influence do not act with force or fraud. Indeed, one of the great insights of classical liberalism — one that has been formalized by public choice — is that the attempt to cabin the social influences in order to enforce a social order more to one’s liking aggrandizes the state.
And this analysis makes a consequential difference, because it suggests that the basic institutions of America are compatible with maintaining the structures that conservatives believe necessary for human flourishing. As I have argued before, our Constitution is essentially a classical liberal document friendly to joint as well as individual action. It permits people to create their own voluntary associations, like churches, in which people can prosper together. It even permits individual states to make democratic tradeoffs between license and liberty, but within a framework that permits relatively easy exit from governmental power that grows tyrannical though the free movement of people in a continental republic.
Finally, classical liberals share many of the concerns of conservatives about how the state operates today, precisely because it is crushing voluntary associations and replacing traditional institutions, like the family with state power. Take the social welfare state. The idea of many modern liberals is to make the state the entity with which an individual has the most important and enduring relationship. The infamous “Life of Julia” video put out by the 2012 Obama campaign captured that vision.
Not only do classical liberals oppose these efforts, they want to permit a family to make their own values more paramount in shaping the young. That objective as much as improving human capital lies behind the various policies to create more choice in K-12 education, which now reflects values chosen by a statist educational establishment. Conservatives need classical liberals as much as classical liberals need conservatives to pursue this political program. There is a lot of work for this alliance to do to contain modern liberalism and little prospect of doing so if either group treats the other as a political enemy.
John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.