Trying to Make Sense of National or Classical Conservatism

Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review makes a strong case that liberalism, in its classical, Lockian sense, is antithetical to a Christian and conservative vision of society. A government and society dedicated to protecting an individual’s right to do whatever, as long as that practice does not infringe on anyone else’s rights to do what they want, inevitably tends towards elevating a set of “neutral” values as good and treating any divergence from those values as social deviancy. Liberalism does not create a world where a multi-value society flourishes, but inevitably demands that all members of that society become liberal. I have written about this in the past as it relates to abortion and Satanism.

Dougherty argues for a vision of classical conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk as an alternative to liberalism. While Dougherty does not mention National Conservatism, he is responding on the movement’s behalf to George F. Will’s conservative defense of classical liberalism. National Conservatism as a movement had a very public gathering in July (Brad Littlejohn at Mere Orthodoxy and Emma Green at The Atlantic had good writeups on the conference and movement) and has elicited a lot of conservative criticism of the classical liberal variety. Bret Stephens in The New York Times compared it to the serfdom warned against by Friedrich Hayek, with Will calling the movement “Elizabeth Warren conservatism.” Missouri Senator Josh Hawley (a fellow presbyterian!) is the political expression of the movement, but his proposed legislation has been rebuked on classical liberal grounds even by Dougherty’s National Review colleague David French as part of the “Republican Daddy State.”

I am not sure what to make of this debate. On the one hand, the critiques of Stephens and Will seem to be going after the weakest versions of the National Conservatism. On the other, their critiques, along with French’s, demonstrate the biggest problem with National Conservatism and Dougherty’s understanding of classical conservatism: the specific proposals in this ideology do seem to embrace an illiberal version of society, that is, a society where freedom is not a given and determining the way to the social good is driven by the government, not the people. Alan Jacobs summarized French’s take on Hawley’s bill this way, “Is it a proper function of government to rescue the citizenry from their own stupidity? That is, can plain old collective dumbassery become a social crisis sufficiently severe that government has the right, and perhaps the obligation, to intervene? French says No; Senator Josh Hawley says Yes.” Stephens’ and Will’s criticisms of National Conservatism are simply engaging with this question on a bigger scale, and saying the movement is just a conservative veneer over liberal fascism.

And I think that’s the problem of application of a classical conservative political model in a liberal society: how can you have a classically conservative society and government without replacing hallmarks of the liberal order (democracy, constitutional protections of liberty [e.g. the first amendment], property rights, free markets, equality regardless of race, etc…) with an unrestrained government? You might be able to, but answering that question is necessary if a classical conservatism is ever to take hold in America. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, all sorts of social systems have been tried, and classical liberalism is the worst, except all the others. Classical conservatism needs to demonstrate that it can better than liberalism, not only avoid liberalism’s faults.