The following speech was delivered by Michael Knowles at the University of Wisconsin — Superior on Thursday, April 13.
Thank you so much for having me! It’s a pleasure to be here at UW — Superior. Thank you to YAF as always for hosting. Thank you to the Logan family for sponsoring this lecture series. And thank you to UW — Superior for scheduling this lecture before the total collapse of our economy and the official outbreak of World War III. I’m glad we could fit this one in.
Things are looking a little rough out there. Aren’t they? Bank runs, record-high inflation, spiking crime, presidential indictments, the dissolution of our borders, the collapse of our education system, castrated children, the first major conflict in Europe in 75 years, and an impending showdown in the Pacific over Taiwan that would herald an actual world war. It’s amazing how bad things can get in just a couple years. During the last administration, we had a booming economy and global stability — we even got peace in the Middle East! Now, it’s all gone to pot.
Many people are marveling over just how bad a president this president has been. Many people seem surprised that he could get just about everything wrong. I am not surprised. In my experience, politicians almost never get just one or two things wrong. As far as I can tell, when politicians get things wrong, they tend to get lots of things wrong. And they tend to get them very wrong. It would be stranger if Joe Biden were a mediocre president. If he held absurd views on one or two subjects but reasonable views on the rest. If he, let’s say, supported transing the kids but defended marriage against redefinition. That would be strange. If he were incompetent at handling the war in Ukraine but skilled at diplomacy over Taiwan. That would be unusual. Politicians’ views and behaviors tend to be coherent.
I know that I’m probably the first person in history to accuse Joe Biden of coherence. I’m not saying his views or even his words make sense. They don’t make sense in light of reality. But they do make sense relative to one another. There is a kind of consistency to, not just his, but to all liberal views, even if it doesn’t always seem so on the surface. On the surface, it seems absurd that liberals support abortion but oppose the death penalty. They reject the right of the civil authority to punish criminals, but they support the arbitrary murder of innocent babies. Conservatives take the opposite view: We tend to support capital punishment but oppose infanticide. So are we all just hypocrites?
No. In fact, neither side is hypocritical. Both sides are following their respective premises to their logical conclusions. Conservatives tend to believe that justice derives from the objective moral order, which human beings naturally perceive through our conscience and to which we are accountable whether we like it or not. And justice, which means rendering to each and to all what belongs to them, impels us to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. The two impulses derive from the same premise that man can only be said to have rights at all because he is made in the image and likeness of God. And therefore, whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. No hypocrisy at all. The two go hand in hand.
The same goes for the liberal position. Liberals support abortion and oppose the death penalty because liberals tend to deny any obligation to an objective moral order. They are liberals. They seek “liberation,” ultimately, from all constraints, be they political, traditional, familial, moral, and now even biological. Many of them deny that the moral order even exists. Most of them deny that we can know much about it if it does exist. And even if we could know something about the moral order, liberals claim a right to defy it because their highest political goal is not justice but rather liberation and the endless expansion of individual autonomy.
Babies in the womb are alive and human — even abortion defenders, when they’re being honest, will admit as much. But they are an impediment to their mothers’ autonomy. And, as babies in the womb, like babies outside the womb, are not autonomous themselves, as they do not possess what liberals consider to be this most important human feature — self-determination — the liberals see no problem killing them. Criminals, on the other hand, are autonomous — the abuse of their autonomy is what makes them criminals — so liberals feel uneasy executing them or even imprisoning them. Hence, the recent liberal campaigns to “defund the police” and to “abolish prisons.”
The same thinking extends to euthanasia, which is a euphemism for clinical procedures that run the gamut from assisted suicide to outright murder, as we saw in the Netherlands a few years ago when a doctor killed an old woman against her will while her family held her down. “Euthanasia” means “good death,” which is ironic because for most of our civilization’s history, people have considered murder and suicide to be the very worst deaths. Traditionally, when Westerners prayed for a “good death,” they meant a natural death with plenty of warning so that they could prepare their souls for judgment. Today, when liberals lobby for a “good death,” they mean precisely the opposite. They mean intentional killing that corrupts both the body and the soul by occurring in the commission of a serious sin.
Conservatives oppose assisted suicide because we consider suicide an offense against not only the civil law, which in most places today still prohibits suicide, but also against the natural law and God, the author of the natural law. We oppose assisted suicide because it is the ultimate expression of despair that we believe could impel the sick and elderly to kill themselves for fear of being a burden to their families. Liberals tend to support assisted suicide because they view it alternately as the maximal expression of individual autonomy for those people who consciously choose it or as the final remedy for those people, such as dementia patients, for example, who no longer can choose anything at all and who therefore, according to the liberal view, have lost what most makes them human.
So, who’s right? We’ve got a consistent conservative view and a consistent liberal view. Do we just agree to disagree? Not if we’re going to have a country. If we’re going to have a country, we need laws. And if we’re going to have laws, we need to come to some conclusions about what’s right and wrong, especially on matters of life and death. So how do we decide who’s right?
As a general rule, one judges a tree by its fruit. The fruit of the liberal view is a policy according to which we can kill innocent babies whenever we please, we can kill the sick and the elderly whenever we please, but we cannot kill even the very worst criminals after they’ve been convicted of their crimes. The fruit of the conservative view is a policy that says we can’t murder babies, we can’t murder Granny, and the state in certain instances can execute the very worst convicted criminals. Which view seems more reasonable to you? One does not need an advanced degree in moral philosophy or political science to know which set of policies is right.
The conservative view, at least on this set of issues, is consistent with moral reality and, just as important for our purposes tonight, is internally consistent. This consistency holds true even for issues that seem to have little to do with each other. I remember once, when I was an undergraduate, Ann Coulter came to visit campus. And, since there were about five conservatives in my class, a small group of us got to meet with her before her speech, and a debate broke out between the pro-life conservatives and those of us — I’m sorry to have to count myself among this group — who were squishier in our wayward youth. It was a debate between the real, consistent conservatives and those of us who were inconsistent — “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” — and didn’t care about the so-called social issues.
Ann gave us some great advice. She said, even if you don’t care about abortion, even if you don’t care about social issues, even if all you care about is cutting taxes, and you have a choice between a pro-life Republican and a pro-abortion Republican, you should always choose the pro-life Republican — he’ll cut your taxes more. That’s a profound observation.
If someone doesn’t recognize the right to life — the fundamental right on which all of the others depend — he’s going to have a flimsier commitment to other rights such as the property rights that pertain to debates over taxation. Political parties do not arrive at their positions on issues in isolation. Practical policy positions derive from premises about deeper issues: who we are, why we’re here, how we know it, and what we’re supposed to do. This is why politicians toe the party line. Sometimes they’re bullied into certain positions because of the private interests of donors. But generally, politicians toe the party line — parties that have lines to toe at all — because certain policies are consistent with one another.
Voters are not quite as consistent. There are a large number of voters in the country whose views don’t make sense — the sort of the people who voted for Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016, then Biden in 2020. Those are incoherent choices to make. (Though I suppose Biden voters can’t be blamed for their choices since many of them were dead at the time they voted.)
Voters are sometimes incoherent on policy matters too. I’m talking about the people who support a ban on “assault weapons,” which are used in a tiny fraction of murders each year, but who otherwise oppose gun control laws that would regulate the guns used in virtually all of the murders each year. I’m not mocking these people. In the case of the Obama/Trump voter, I’m more than happy to welcome anyone we can get to support our side. And people are busy, and people have other interests, and not everyone spends all day thinking about political philosophy. But the political incoherence that defines these “independent” or centrist voters mostly disappears at the upper levels of politics. At the level of the parties, the platforms are generally consistent.
This is why the perennial clamor to upend our two-party system is so fanciful and misguided. It’s why candidates who endeavor to bridge the partisan divide — I’m thinking of Andrew Yang in 2020 or the disastrous presidential campaign of Mike Bloomberg — never seem to go anywhere. They don’t go anywhere because they don’t make sense, so people don’t support them.
The one exception to this rule might be Trump, whose campaign upended decades of Republican orthodoxy, specifically on trade and foreign policy. But Trump’s outsider campaign is unique in that it represented not a revolution but a return to tradition. Trump defied the prevailing GOP orthodoxy on free trade, but it was free trade itself that was the aberration in Republican politics. The Republican Party was founded on economic protection against free trade. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, declared, “Give us a protective tariff, and we will have the greatest nation on earth.”
We could fill a whole lecture on how and why free trade came to dominate GOP economic policy in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, but for our purposes tonight it suffices to point out that Trump triumphed by returning to a much more traditional and, as far as I’m concerned, coherent policy position, not by concocting a new one or adopting the policies of the liberals.
Trump’s other heresy against recent GOP orthodoxy came in the realm of foreign policy, in which arena he advocated restraint after Republicans had spent the first decade of the new millennium on a crusade to remake the Middle East and spread liberal democracy around the globe. Here again, though, Trump’s outsider approach represented a return to traditional conservative policy from Lincoln all the way through Reagan, after which time the Bushes pursued a policy of foreign intervention that, in the case of the latter Bush, was downright Wilsonian.
So what does all this mean for us practically? It means conservatives will never win by trying to meet liberals in the middle. If you stand in the middle of the road, you will be hit by a truck. If you try to meet in the middle on an issue such as abortion, you will end up literally splitting the baby, which does no good to anyone. Speaking of Reagan, the only way forward in our increasingly tense cold, cultural civil war can be summed up in the Gipper’s four words: we win, they lose.
I’m not throwing red meat to the base here. Well, that’s not true: I’m always throwing red meat to the base. But I’m doing so because that is the only coherent, viable strategy. You’ve probably noticed that over the last 50 years, conservatives have lost pretty much everything: our border, our economy, our schools, increasingly our national language, marriage, even the women’s bathroom. We’ve lost on almost every count with two exceptions: guns and abortion.
Those are the two issues on which conservatives have managed to hold our ground and even to gain some ground again. Coincidentally, those are also the only two issues on which conservatives have spoken in clear, stark, coherent moral terms. It turns out that logic is persuasive. It turns out that the people are more intelligent than many of our elites give them credit for. And when the people are presented with logic and a clear moral vision, it resonates with them.
This is why it is not only cowardly but also extremely foolish of conservatives to cede ground to the libs. I see this especially on the issue of marriage. Many otherwise conservative people will say, “Oh, we’ve got to give up the marriage issue. We lost the debate. Just move on.” Move on to what? Marriage is the fundamental political institution. It’s the basic building block of society. If we give up on marriage, we might as well give up on politics. Also, we didn’t lose any debate. We consistently won the marriage debate. When marriage was put up to a vote by the people, including in states as liberal as California, we won. And then Anthony Kennedy channeled his inner Romantic poet on the Supreme Court bench and declared the Constitution had actually secretly redefined marriage some 240 years before anyone noticed.
But regardless of what Anthony Kennedy believes, or what anyone else believes for that matter, marriage is the union of a husband and wife for the sake of the generation and education of children. That isn’t hateful. It isn’t “phobic.” It doesn’t mean you “hate gay people” or want to harm people who are a little light in the loafers or whatever. It’s just a social fact. The union of two men or two women is simply not the same thing as marriage. If it were the same thing, that would mean there is no meaningful difference between men and women. And if there’s no meaningful difference between men and women, then conservatives have no basis for opposing any number of other liberal policies, including the issue everyone is constantly talking about these days: transgenderism. If men and women are pretty much the same, then why can’t a man become a woman?
And then, by the way, if we accept transgenderism, there’s no coherent way to limit transgenderism to adults because transgenderism is either true or false. If it’s true, and men really can secretly be women, then we should trans kids before they go through puberty and are more firmly “trapped” in the “wrong” body. If transgenderism is false, then we shouldn’t butcher anybody, and we certainly shouldn’t let men into the ladies’ room.
If the libs are wrong, they can’t be somewhat wrong. If the libs are wrong, they must be wrong about pretty much everything because their wrongness on policy would derive from wrongness on basic facts of human nature and public life. Is man fundamentally an individual or a social creature? Aristotle, Aquinas, and pretty much every smart person throughout all Western history have said we’re social, the political animal, made to live in society. Liberals, from the “classical” liberals through modern progressives, say we’re fundamentally individual, defined by our entitlement to do as we please rather than our natural obligations to God, country, and family. Which is it?
Speaking of God, do our rights come from God — are they fixed in an objective moral order — or are our rights mere expressions of preference and constructs of our imagination? Statesmen from antiquity through the American Founding Fathers said the former; modern liberals say the latter. If God is the author of our rights, then the task of legislators is primarily one of interpretation — translating eternal principles of justice into the language of contemporary civil law. If man’s imagination is the source of our rights, then the task of legislators is “activism.” Which is it?
If politics is grounded in the interpretation and application of objective truths in public life, then we must subject our will to our intellect and suppress disordered inclinations that are contrary to reason and human flourishing. If politics is mere “activism,” then the will reigns supreme, intellect be damned, and people can claim a “right” to do anything at all, even if it’s contrary to reason, their own good, and the good of society. People could claim a “right” to hard drugs, to butchering their bodies, even to suicide.
Is politics ordered to the common good, as the conservatives and all great statesmen through and including the Founding Fathers have believed? Or is politics, as the liberals believe, merely concerned with protecting the perceived private interests of individuals, either separately or within the context of a collective? Do we, like Saint Paul, praise charity as a virtue and the most important among all the virtues; or do we, like the liberals, exalt the supposed virtue of selfishness?
These are not idle conversation-starters for freshman bull sessions and philosophy class debates. These are urgent questions that will determine how we and our children and our whole nation will live. And they will be answered one way or the other. Our increasingly cold, cultural civil war does not concern the most efficient way to get the good ends we all desire. Those days are gone. Liberalism has eroded the cultural inheritance and civilizational resources that once limited our political squabbles.
Today, we are engaged in a debate over the most fundamental aspects of our politics: who we are, why we’re here, how we know, and what we’re doing. The liberals have most of the power, and the liberals are wrong about everything, which is an unfortunate combination of events because political circumstances, as we can all see in just the past two years, can degrade very quickly. Which is why it has never been more important for the people on the right side of things to rouse the intellect to know what’s right and to summon the will to right the ship of state before it’s too late.
Thank you very much.