The so-titled recent essay (here) by Yoram Hazony, president of the Jerusalem-based Herzl Institute, poses this question and sheds considerable light on the answer. To prematurely cut to the chase, Hazony argues that modern conservatives and classical liberals have recently drifted apart in many significant ways. In the sequel I attempt to summarize the main points of Hazony’s essay.
- Conservative unity is broken beyond Trump, who is the effect and not the cause of the break-up.
- Principal break-up causes: increasingly rigid ideology since the Cold War’s end, and failed attempts to spread democracy (e.g. to Iraq) that has disappointed the broader conservative public.
- Krauthammer’s 1989 ‘Universal Dominion’ laid the basis for America’s super-sovereignty bringing peace and prosperity to the world, at the cost of its own sovereignty and “the notion of sovereignty in general.” W Kristol and R Kagan agreed in 1996 by proposing an American “benevolent hegemony” having “preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain.” All this because “the US knows best” and has an “obligation to ensure that every nation was coaxed, maybe even coerced, into adopting its principles.”
- This ‘dominion’ foreign policy has had and continues to have problems: other nations don’t want it, and such a Hegelian world doesn’t square with America’s political traditions (of which conservatives see themselves as champions) that promote empiricism through a “an unceasing process of trial and error.”
- Original conservatives – e.g. Burke and Hamilton – believed that “different political arrangements would be fitting for different nations”, an essential part of Westphalianism. Our Constitution reflects that in the tenets it embodies from the Anglo-American traditions brought by our colonists.
- Attempts at transplanting Anglo-American political institutions in other countries have failed because their own political traditions simply could not support them. This includes Germany, France, Italy which have not been able support stable representative governments, and finally found it beneficial to cede to a European Union which has a definite “democracy deficit”.
- The contradictions of “universal dominion” made some post-Cold War conservatives shift to calling themselves “classical liberals”. Today this is abetted by Speaker Ryan and W Kristol.
- The liberal tradition “descends from Hobbes and Locke, who were not empiricists (per the American conservative tradition) but rationalists: Their aim was to deduce universally valid political principles from self-evident axioms, as in mathematics.” From such assumptions Locke produced a political doctrine that “must hold good in all times and places.”
- ‘Classical liberalism’ came into use after FDR, in order to distinguish the laissez-faire liberals of old from the new welfare state liberals (i.e. big government collectivists).
- Classical liberals, in the tradition of Hobbes and Locke, believe their prescriptions “can speak authoritatively to the political needs of every human society, everywhere.” On the other hand, conservatives are empiricists and want to learn from experience what holds societies together, experience that has shown that ‘one size fits all’ political organizations, including their own, don’t work everywhere. In the Anglo-American societies they believe that such institutions as the “independent national-state, biblical religion, and the family” form the glue that sustains.
- Von Mises and Hayek were classical liberals whose economic theories lapped over into political governance. They and theirs also believed that their teachings not only were ubiquitous, but also by logical extension implied a (classical liberal) “world super-state” or global government. Specifically, Hayek wrote, “The abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law is a necessary complement and the logical consummation of the (classical) liberal program.”
- Classical liberalism therefore “provides an ideological basis for an American universal dominion.” (This is where I part company with the comprehensive litany of classical liberalism – economic behavior yes, global governance no.)
- Hazony observes that “students who grow up reading these brilliant writers develop an excellent grasp of how an economy works. But they are often marvelously ignorant about much else, having no clue why a flourishing state requires a cohesive nation, or how such bonds are established through family and religious ties.”
- Conservatives “see foreign civilizations as powerfully motivated—for bad reasons as well as good ones—to fight the dissolution of their way of life and the imposition of American values.” They “recognize that large-scale assimilation can happen only when both sides are highly motivated to see it through. When that motivation is weak or absent, conservatives see an unassimilated migration, resulting in chronic mutual hatred and violence, as a perfectly plausible outcome.” (This is why establishing democracy in places like Egypt and Iraq looks doable to classical liberals, and is not supported by conservatives.)
- Classical liberalism and conservatism, distinct and at odds since the Enlightenment, were “fused” (WF Buckley’s term) during the 20th century in their fight against the collectivist ideologies of Nazism and communism. This lasted until things started unravelling after Fall of the Wall when classical liberalism’s ‘dominion’ became the dominant agenda “not only among American Republicans and British Tories but even among center-left politicians such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.”
- Dominion didn’t work with Russia, China, and most of Islam that have rejected the “new world order” which was to “bring liberalism to their countries.”
- Two great failures Hazony attributes to classical liberalism are the recent Great Recession and the disintegration of the American family. With that he asks, “…whether classical liberalism has the resources to answer any political question outside the economic sphere.”
- In sum, Hazony attributes Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise as “the direct result of a quarter-century of classical-liberal hegemony over the parties of the right. Neither Mr. Trump nor the Brexiteers were necessarily seeking a conservative revival. But in placing a renewed nationalism at the center of their politics, they shattered classical liberalism’s grip, paving the way for a return to empiricist conservatism. Once you start trying to understand politics by learning from experience rather than by deducing your views from 17th-century rationalist dogma, you never know what you may end up discovering.”
Lots of food for thought here as to how those on the right situate themselves in this spectrum between classical liberalism and conservatism. According to my lights, as I have puzzled about this over the years, I am somewhere in what I call the conservetarian middle. I subscribe to the economic prescriptions of the classical liberals starting with Adam Smith and Frederic Bastiat, and progressing on to the Austrian school of Von Mises and Von Hayek that morphed into the Chicago School of Henry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson) and Milton Friedman (and Hayek) – for me it is indeed a rich smorgasbord. On the political and geo-strategic side, I take from the American conservative movement – our democratic republic is unique to our culture, and not necessarily exportable. Nevertheless, our Anglo-American culture has produced the model form of governance for organizing a prosperous, culturally semi-cohesive society (that is now rapidly fraying). And this form may be profitably copied and modified by other cultures as they see fit, but at least for the last two centuries the world has an empirically demonstrated stake in the ground, as an existential starting point that works. Finally, it is critical that America remain as a world hegemon, not to enforce its template on other peoples, but as the best guarantor of the Westphalian world order of independent and sovereign nation-states.