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HAMMER: A Limited Defense Of Sohrab Ahmari’s Assault On ‘Conservative Liberalism’

By  Josh Hammer

Sohrab Ahmari, the ex-Commentary Magazine writer, New York Post op-ed editor, and a lead draftsman of a recent First Things social conservative manifesto entitled, “Against the Dead Consensus,” recently issued a short tweet thread against what might alternately be called “libertarian conservatism,” “conservative liberalism,” or perhaps merely classical liberalism. In the tweet thread, Ahmari engaged in a bit of friendly fire with his choice of synecdoche for the human personification of the over-arching intellectual problem: National Review senior writer and longtime First Amendment attorney David French.

Yesterday, Ahmari returned to First Things to pen a short essay elaborating on the problem, as Ahmari sees it: “Against David French-ism.”

I have a great deal of respect for both Ahmari, an incisive thinker with an admirable hostility to the entrapments of sclerotic groupthink, and for French, a stirring legal defender par excellence of discriminated on-campus student activists. I have some notable disagreements with French, including but hardly limited to whether we intend to pull the lever for Donald Trump in 2020, but I am uninterested in the specific nature of the symbolic figurehead that Ahmari has chosen as the recipient of his assault. French has already had many conservatives rise to his defense on Twitter, and he is also more than capable of defending himself.

The more interesting subject, thereby holding firmly aside any amorphous trace of ad hominem censure, is the substance of Ahmari’s essay. We ought to carefully consider whether Ahmari is correct to rail against “David French-ism” — which is synonymous with libertarian conservatism, conservative liberalism, or classical liberalism.

To an extent, Ahmari is on very solid ground.

It is true that, in the distinctly American tradition, conservatism cannot and will not ever be separated from what the GOP establishment praetorian guard at The Wall Street Journal editorial board refers to as “free markets and free people, the principles, if you will, marked in the watershed year of 1776 by Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations.'” And to be sure, I have long been sympathetic to the argument that free enterprise is inherently moral insofar as it merely connects freedom of labor, freedom of contract, and private property protection to the right to liberty of which our Declaration of Independence speaks. Our structurally durable written Constitution secures the truths promulgated in the Declaration. After all, for Lincoln, the republic’s greatest statesman, the Constitution was but an encompassing “frame of silver” for the Declaration’s underlying “apple of gold.”

But America, contrary to the musings of many obstinate classical liberals, “neoconservatives,” and Lockean purists, is (much) more than a mere product of post-European Enlightenment political theory. America, in effect, is both an abstract philosophical notion and a concrete nation that is home to a distinct people, formed at a peculiar point in Western history under unique circumstances. Andrew Breitbart famously averred that politics is downstream of culture, but so too is our Anglo-American legal and constitutional tradition also ultimately downstream of culture. Consider the musings of political theorist — and arch-foe of a more classical liberalism-infused form of “conservatism” — Yoram Hazony on the ultimate utility of the First Amendment:

Culture and tradition, in other words, are truly paramount and hierarchically rank above all other political and intellectual concerns. If America were to completely lose its culture and unique Anglo-American tradition, therefore, it would naturally follow that the lofty promises of the Declaration and the structural ingenuities of the Constitution alike would be rendered all but meaningless.

If cultural appreciation and national tradition are paramount, then an inordinate classical liberal-inspired faith in the “live and let live” mentality fostered by John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” and which Ahmari places in his direct crosshairs, should strike us as misguided. The classical liberalism of Mill, by which a free people collectively agree to let other factions and tribes live amicably within their Tocquevillian mediating institutions of the civil society, is furthermore necessarily dependent on a people collectively agreeing to do precisely that. In a society in which leftist culture warriors are increasingly unhinged and foaming-at-the-mouth in their zeal to quash religious and moral conservatives from the public square and to more generally lambast even the most anodyne of right-of-center beliefs as vestigial bigotry wholly unfit for inclusion in polite society, it seems that the remedy for the present dilemma is less Mill and more Edmund Burke.

Enter Ahmari. If culture and tradition take precedence above all — indeed, if they are viewed as necessary prerequisites for a proper federalism-inspired ultimate restoration of “live and let live” amicability that classical liberals so ardently desire — then the possibility of using the levers of political power to gently nudge the culture and begin the process of retaking the variegated cultural and societal institutions that the Left has so ruthlessly vanquished ought to strike us as not wholly foreign. Here is Ahmari’s formulation of the problem with “conservative liberalism”:

Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality. That horror is a corollary to its autonomy-maximizing impulse.

It is the “use of public power to advance the common good,” so long as that public power is properly constrained within the legal ambit of sound constitutionalism, that conservatives ought to be discussing in earnest. Here is how I phrased it here at The Daily Wire in January:

We can be unabashed nationalists, as long as we are very careful about what we mean by “nationalist.” And while we ought to always retain a default presumption in favor of the wonders of free-market capitalism — which is not just an inherently moral extension of natural liberty but has also tangibly eradicated more real, inflation-adjusted poverty than any other economic system in the history of mankind — we also ought to be open to rethinking outmoded orthodoxies whose abolition might help incrementally improve our metastasizing crisis of societal rot and a widening cultural chasm between the classes. …

If conservatives can channel their “virtuous” fealty to nationalism and promote policies that galvanize a moral spark for a disaggregated citizenry that begin to heal the wounds of our bitterly fractious politics, that is one possible distillation of the future of the conservative movement.

What these policies might resemble, in concrete terms, will be the source of ongoing debate. Some conservatives, such as freshman Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and the fine folks at the Claremont Institute, have trained their eyes on the perils posed by our Silicon Valley tech overlords. Others, such as Roger Scruton and Inez Feltscher Stepman, focus on combatting and undoing a monolithic and repressive leftist culture that dominates our institutions of higher education.

The undermining of the leftist takeover of the vast array of societal and cultural institutions — from Silicon Valley to Hollywood to the academy — would be a fine place for policymakers to start. Legally treat Facebook as a publisher, and not as a platform. Defund the Ivy League and cease any and all taxpayer support for the leftist indoctrination scam that is higher education today. Begin to turn back the post-Immigration and Nationality Act legal immigration consensus of flooding Fortune 500 companies with cheap labor whilst ignoring a metastasizing assimilation crisis and the commencement of second-tier labor classes.

To be sure, going full Tucker Carlson ought to be a non-starter. But there is a prudent middle ground here. And so long as proposed policy prescriptions fall within the ambit of constitutional governance, there is no need for “conservative liberalism,” as Ahmari defines it, to impulsively fret about a “great horror of the state [and] traditional authority.” While it is true that ends do not always justify means, it is also true that there is no inherent dignity in unilaterally disarming and prostrating oneself before the crushing blows of an irredentist cultural foe.

Again, the key is prudence. Intellectual humility and ad hoc, case-by-case assessment is what is called for.

Begin to take back the cultural institutions that are upstream of our political and legal order. Do not be irrationally afraid to gently use the levers of political power to nudge the society and culture toward a rediscovery of a salutary common weal. It is only upon a Burkean restoration of that common weal, after all, that we may ever again see a return to the Mill-inspired “live and let live” society that “conservative liberalism” preaches.

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