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Why Conservatism Defends the Liberal Order
American conservatism is unlike conservatism almost anywhere else in the world, because the root of it has traditionally been the conservation of the Constitution's liberal order.
Is virtue an artificial quality? Are humans constructs? Is the state synonymous with society? Is conservatism compatible with Lockean and Hobbesian liberalism? Today, many conservatives are signaling a departure from, or at least a reconsideration of, classical liberalism. The growing belief is that since a liberal political order does not put a heavy hand on the scale of public and private virtue, it, therefore, assures its absence. I don't see it this way.
Firstly, in consideration of the value of liberalism, it's vital to separate Hobbes and Locke. While Hobbes introduces the idea of the social contract, Locke argues for an entirely different purpose and genesis of that contract.
Hobbes characterized the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" and describes the social contract as a surrender of rights to obtain security. His view of responsible government was the Leviathan state, an empowered, centralized regime that honored the social contract by establishing order and staving off chaos, ruin, and despair.
Locke's view took a far more positive view of both the state of nature and human nature (while having a much more negative view of the natural virtues of government). Where Hobbes saw only chaos and despair, Locke saw the laws of nature and humanity's natural disposition as social creatures capable of cooperation, selflessness, and, yes, virtue. Hobbes saw the possibility of unity and established peace through central authority. But, Locke saw the potential for abuse and replacing the rule of law by the rule of will, and sought ways to avoid it.
The Lockean social contract is quite different than its Hobbesian predecessor. Locke's view entails a natural evolution of cooperation where individuals voluntarily band together, not only for self-preservation and security but to secure for a community, a society, natural freedom. For, while individuals experienced maximum freedom in the state of nature when left alone, it was perpetually threatened by the baser realities of human nature as others exercised their maximum freedom towards the subversion of others.
In a Hobbesian society, individuals surrender their rights to gain security and become bound to a society defined by the state. A Lockean society circumscribes rights into a framework of law. In such a society, rights are preserved and strengthened amongst a people characterized by voluntary human cooperation and interaction protected by a government of limited authority.
So, from the perspective of Lockean liberalism, society was not the result of government; government was the result of society. Virtue and cooperation don't exist because government enables the construction of individuals, crafting policy that alters them from their brutish state of nature. Government, and society before it, exist because individuals can choose to listen to the better angels of their nature.
I am a conservative who defends America's liberal order because my observation of human nature suggests that virtue can only truly exist when individuals choose it freely. I am a conservative who supports America's liberal order because my observation of history suggests that government has failed miserably time and time again when it has attempted to dictate a view of the good life. I am a conservative and a classical liberal because I take the view that the best path to human thriving, a good and just society, and the development of virtue is to allow individuals to interact, cooperate, and develop society, not as a government project, but as a human project. In such a project, the rule of law exists to hedge in the baser instincts of humanity, and little more, so that the better angels of our nature can thrive.
As we have seen develop in our own country, when government becomes a project of human progress instead of simply one of human liberty, it becomes the MacGuffin of a human tragedy that plays out in dramatic and predictable ways as different factions with different notions of the good life fight tooth and nail for the power to pull the levers of government in their favor.
The history of humanity has been a cycle of tyranny and anarchy. Virtue can thrive in neither. The only tool we have at our disposal that has enabled human society to avoid both is liberalism. It follows that human virtue can only exist in a society that secures individual liberty. Freedom and virtue are not enemies. They are mutually dependent and reciprocal.
But this is not to say that virtue in the halls of government is not a concern. A free society ultimately can only be maintained when a virtuous society chooses a certain level of virtuous people to lead it. There is a consequence on society when its government becomes led and populated by people lacking virtue themselves.
But once again, we have a chicken or the egg question. In my view, when you have a representative government, it will end up representing the people. So, a lack of public virtue and civic virtue in the halls of government suggests a lack of these things in the body of the people.
Creating a just society and assuring "government by the best" is the ultimate political question and goes back to Plato. Liberal democracy and republicanism provide no guarantee to these things. The best they can do is establish a baseline where the people are free to choose virtue and choose virtuous leaders. What liberalism gives us is the ability to stand for virtue, cultivate virtue, and define virtue through the exercise of independent action and voluntary organization.
As a Latter-day Saint, I can go about championing my views of religion, morality, and virtue without fear that my views are different from what the state sanctions, as can a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a humanist. The question of virtue and truth becomes a question of reason, natural law, and, dare I say, metaphysics within a free marketplace of ideas. It is allowed to manifest itself through the natural course of unfettered human interaction instead of being a question of policy, power, and force of will.
If we live in an unvirtuous time, if we are shocked by the lack of virtue in our leaders, and if this lack of public, civic, and private virtue compounds the damage we are witnessing in the moral well-being of society, then what we need isn't government policy that alters the liberal order. We need a great awakening in the hearts of the people, something unlikely to occur without the liberal order.
As I see it, the problem is that while in America we have a liberal order and liberal processes of government, we no longer have a healthy liberal society. Over the last one hundred years, Americans have unmoored themselves from thinking liberally, and now we think of the state and society as synonymous.
People's religion has become politics. Their prophets are the demagogues who capture the essence of their fears. The gospel they follow is one of power, conflict, and control. Virtue has become a passing thought for many, one they actively discard as an impediment to victory.
The prospect of another great awakening is presently unlikely. This isn't because the liberal order fails to push things in a proper direction. It's because the absence of a predominantly liberal culture and the slow degradation of the liberal order over the last hundred years precludes the people from stepping away from constant wall-to-wall political anxiety. The centrality of government and politics in the minds of Americans keeps them from engaging, cooperating, and growing organically as human beings instead of as 24/7/365 political activists with axes to grind and power to fight for.
Instead of questioning the relevance of liberalism in modern society, conservatism should be reacquainting itself with its timelessness and reasserting its perennial importance in American society.