Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tonsor #15 -- Where Did Liberalism Go Wrong?


During my five years in Ann Arbor, I awoke every weekday at one minute to six o'clock. The radio was set to come on with the start of the broadcast day at WUOM. Every morning began the same way, with an a cappella rendition of "The Yellow and Blue," Michigan's alma mater. Don't ask me how, but the song astonishingly combined a rousing beer-hall ballad with a haunting monastic chant. Years afterward I would fondly associate the alma mater with my routine of visiting Stephen Tonsor during morning office hours.

It was an Indian summer morning, soft and humid and gauzy, when I decided it was time to ask my graduate advisor where liberalism had gone wrong. On the bus ride from North Campus to Central Campus, I "filled my mind with the subject," as Tonsor liked to say. As an intellectual historian and cultural critic, he identified mostly with Tocqueville and Acton, giants among the liberal conservatives. That, I got. But I needed to untangle the knot in my head and understand where to draw the line between the "liberal conservatives" whom he liked[1] and the "liberalism" as an -ism that he did not. There was overlap to sort out, and I feared that I did not know enough to offer a "gritty stone" for us to have a good conversation. To be honest, I was hoping he would do all the talking. My hope was not disappointed.

Tonsor welcomed me with that expectant note of his and I sat down in the squeaky wooden chair. As he was putting papers away, I noticed for the first time how musty his office smelled, maybe because of the brief return of warm weather. It was redolent of the back rooms of the antiquarian book stores in Ann Arbor that I frequented. Once his papers were filed, he rotated his chair to face me. He was looking through his glasses with that Sphinx-like expression of his. His hands were on his knees. He breathed in little audible puffs.


Since he did not like small talk, I got straight to the intellectual problem I was trying to sort out. "Professor Tonsor, when you speak of the liberal conservative who harnesses the spirit of liberty to the spirit of conservation, it sounds so -- appealing. I think I get it. But there is overlap between the spirit of liberty and liberalism, right? In your writings you've had harsh words for liberalism. So first, in your opinion, how do you draw the line between liberty and liberalism. And second, where did liberalism go wrong?"

Tonsor waggled his head and chuckled. "Do you mean, why did James Burnham call welfare-state liberalism 'the ideology of Western suicide'? Or do you mean: How did our liberal system devolve into the art of running the circus from the monkey cage?[2] Let us count the ways," he said, his eyes growing wider and his right hand gesturing toward the Diag as if that space were a convenient marker for the decline of the West.

"There's a lot of emotional incontinence you will encounter when discussing welfare-state liberalism, especially on a college campus like this one. Its defenders these days are not a happy lot.

"There is controversy over when welfare-state liberalism as an -ism first appeared in the U.S. Some of our friends in the South blame Abraham Lincoln for launching our national government on the path to social engineering. As the Civil War was drawing to a close, Lincoln signed the Freedman's Bureau into law to help the newly freed slaves. While it was geographically restricted and only lasted seven years, this new federal agency was unprecedented in its social reach and it inadvertently generated the script for our future welfare state. On behalf of former slaves who were now refugees throughout the South, it provided relief, dispensed medical care, established schools, and redistributed abandoned lands to the newly freed blacks. It passed from the scene during Reconstruction.

"Historians will argue over whether Lincoln's Freedman's Bureau was the first manifestation of welfare-state liberalism in American. But let's set that aside, because there is much less argument over the identification of progressivism with welfare-state liberalism. Indeed, it seems that welfare-state liberalism's political arc in the U.S. follows Marx's formula: History repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce. Progressivism was liberalism's first performance, in the years before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was its more tragic second performance, in the 1930s. Finally the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were its third and most farcical performance of all, in the 1960s. That's when liberalism as an -ism began to unravel. JFK's make-believe Camelot turned out to be the campy preamble to the hell of Vietnam. And LBJ's Great Society revealed itself to be the reign of the most destructive vulgarian in American history. It was as though Johnson were afflicted with the Midas-touch -- turning everything he encountered not into gold but into garbage.[3]


"But I get ahead of myself. As you know, liberalism has a long, complex history that is not just restricted to its most recent American iteration in the current welfare state. To understand liberalism, one must know the deep, rich soil from which it sprang. And that leads us to explore the geographic and historic conditions of Europe at a very early time.

"One element has been the very geography of Europe, which consists of numerous peninsulas, islands, and mountain ranges that characterize the western extremity of the Eurasian land mass. In previous centuries when only rudimentary military and transportation technology were available, it was difficult for one ruler to establish one polity in a landscape that is so fractured. I am no geographic determinist, but I do believe that the landscape of western Eurasia set the physical stage for the formation of many competing polities, each jealous to preserve its own language, customs, and constitution. This multiplicity characterized Europe, and local sovereignty became the norm. Ancient Greece is a microcosm of what I mean. As Herodotus tells us, there were many hundreds of city-states established on the Balkan Peninsula and the many islands surrounding it. It encouraged seafaring, trade, and exploration to be sure, but also fierce independence to preserve one's local lifeways.

"Another element has been the various traditions of liberty that were instantiated in this fractured geography. Self-government developed organically, though in quite different ways, in ancient Athens, in the republic of ancient Rome, in Italian communes, in the charters of medieval towns, and in medieval England with its Magna Carta, Common Law, and Parliament.

"A third element that made liberalism possible was individualism. In world-historic perspective, our civilization's preoccupation with the individual stands out, in stark contrast to more traditional cultures where the emphasis is on the clan and the tribe; on the authority of the chief, and on cultures with an established peck order that rigidly ranks people by caste and status and keeps them there. Many places in the West evolved away from these traditional arrangements. Two factors were at work. On the one hand, our religious tradition is grounded in the sanctity of the individual who is in the Imago Dei. On the other hand, our humanist tradition celebrates the dignity and strength of the individual who might be modeled on Pericles, Alexander the Great, or Caesar Augustus -- take your pick from Plutarch's Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. In medieval Europe, by the twelfth century, both these traditions became joined, and Christian humanists acquired the concepts, vocabulary, and symbols to explore what it meant to be an individual.[8]

"In its modern iteration, individualism is the political and social philosophy that emphasizes the moral worth of each human being. Protecting and promoting the freedom of the individual are taken to be a central task of the liberal project. But it was not always so. "Individualism" was originally a term of derision, a perjorative used by reactionaries against French Revolutionaries. To the European conservative, individualisme signified a social dissolution, anarchy, and the prioritizing of individual interests to the ruin of the community. Also in the nineteenth century, European philosophers developed the notion of solipsism or extreme egocentrism -- the notion that one's own existence is the only thing that can be known or that is real. Observing America in the 1830s, Tocqueville warned that individualism might well deplete the 'virtues of social life' in the new republic. Since individualism always holds this latent threat, it is problematic for liberalism. It is one source of unraveling.

"A fourth element that makes our civilization unique is its embrace of pluralism, its ability to absorb many different and even contradictory viewpoints within a common culture. The modern age has even tolerated the existence of competing sources of authority, first in Renaissance Italy (when pagan and Christian sources existed alongside each other), then during the Enlightenment (when secular reason existed alongside religious faith).

"The foundation for our pluralistic way of thinking was laid long ago. Its roots can be found in Hellenistic Palestine where Jew and Greek mixed; in pagan Rome and in Christian Rome; in roots that intertwined Mediterranean culture with Germanic culture beginning in the late classical period. For example, when the Romans abandoned Britain, the oral pagan culture of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes came into contact with the Latin Christianity of the literate Romano-Britains and mixed. You see it in medieval Spain, when the Muslim element mixed with the Catholic element. Later, in the thirteenth century, you see it in Thomas Aquinas probing the truth as set out in the documents of more than a half-dozen cultures -- Hebrew, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Roman, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, and Western Christendom. Do you see the pattern? It's not either-or. It's both-and, both-and, both-and. Always additive. The West, you might say, has been intellectually promiscuous. This intellectual promiscuity is really quite remarkable and found nowhere else on the planet to the degree that it is found in our civilization. It's the basis of our studia humanitatis, our humanities. Once you grasp the intellectual pluralism at the root of our modern culture, you will begin to grasp the development of modernity and anticipate the problems it poses to liberalism.

"The -ism's intellectual arc is long, indeed. Leo Strauss argued that liberalism arose among the ancient Greeks, especially in Ionia. It was the freedom of thought which philosophers like Xenophanes claimed against the city. That is to say, it was the intellectuals seeking to free their minds from the common bonds of religion, morality, and tradition.[4] That formulation seems apt today, given the American experience with secular liberalism, which does not seem to be working."


"I date the beginning of the long decline in left-liberal ascendancy that gripped American intellectual and cultural life to an event in 1953. Although Stalin died in March of that year, and although the East Germans tried to throw off their Soviet masters in June of that year, I date the decline from May of 1953, with the publication of a book, by a Michigan man of letters, whose name was Russell Kirk. It was the appearance of The Conservative Mind that caused a shock wave to topple many of the givens in American intellectual life. It caused considerable consternation among liberals.[5] Someday I shall tell you about the curious way in which I came upon that landmark work -- at an elevation of 10,000 feet!

"What I should like to stress now is that, while political liberalism in the U.S. may have been in decline, philosophical and cultural liberalism was not. A single decision of the Warren or Berger court had to potency to undermine centuries of moral tradition.

"What kept American liberalism potent, especially on college campuses in the sixties, was the alliance between those suffering from a nostalgia for the gutter and the Marxists yearning for universal revolution. The alienated intellectuals of the Old Left and their liberal fellow travelers seemed quaint -- they appealed to idealistic youth. They built up a following on elite campuses like this one. The new adherents to the counterculture and the New Left were the able students of people such as Norman O. Brown and C. Wright Mills. Being bright students, they learned to gaze into the metaphysical and political voids their professors had opened up for them. The unreal, psychedelic politics of the age were mirrored by liberal youth stoned out of their minds by chemical and political elixers. All sense of inhibition and limitation was lost, and our campuses transmogrified into cloud-cuckoo-land."[6]

Shaking his head he gestured toward the infamous Diag to drive home his point. "Think of that degenerate, Chef Ra, and the Hash Bash he leads every April Fool's Day -- at high noon. So clever, that one."

Hash Bash on the Diag
I didn't know who the man was, but Tonsor's sarcasm in drawing out "C-h-e-f ... R-a" made me laugh. Apparently he had been a fixture at the Hash Bash since 1972.

Tonsor's next allusion, even if I didn't know what it meant, sounded interesting enough to write down. "I have somewhere said that the unraveling of American liberalism has been the Love-Death music of a dying age written, however, in the style of Offenbach rather than in the style of Wagner."[7]


"But what historic forces made American liberalism unravel?" I persisted, eager to put the arc of liberalism's demise into a coherent narrative.

"Do you want the long version?" he asked.

"Yes" -- my mind was already on the qui vive.

"All right, then. Let's review the evidence of the spirit of liberty going back to the ancient world -- to the Hebrews fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land, and to Odysseus leaving Troy and journeying back to Ithaca. By early modern times, that same liberal spirit aimed to free human beings from certain kinds of oppression. This form of liberty approximates what Sir Isaiah Berlin called, in a famous essay published in 1958, 'negative liberty.' It can be summarized in the various freedom-from's you are familiar with:
  • from physical oppression -- curable disease, preventable hunger, material want, and the like --through capitalistic free markets; 
  • from unjust social customs and straitjacket restraints, through an open and upwardly mobile society;
  • from barriers to their talent and services and products in the marketplace.
  • from political injustice as did, in very different ways, the English, American, and early phase of the French revolutions did; 
  • from social conflict, by supplanting the religious zeal that arose in the Reformations with civic, secular, and materialistic aims on the Dutch model, as Jefferson and Madison proposed; 
  • from arbitrary aesthetic rules, seen in the avant-garde revolt against classicism;
  • from hidebound prejudices, recognizing that a diverse people such as the American nation will have a plurality of viewpoints; and 
  • from spiritual ignorance and restraint, by decentralizing ethical and spiritual authority even when it devolves to the most decentralized unit of all, the individual. 
"Also, historically, the liberal has wanted to free human beings to do certain things. This form of liberty roughly approximates what Berlin called 'positive liberty' and it includes a variety of freedom-to's:
  • to order their freedom as they see fit since as a people they are sovereign;
  • to be able to reproduce one's kind;
  • to be able to think and speak freely in the public square;
  • to elect representatives of their choosing and enjoy self-government under the rule of law;
  • to exercise the First Amendments freedoms -- of religion, the press, assembly, and petition;
  • to have access to an education that will develop their potential;
  • to be able to form and contribute to voluntary organizations in civil society;
  • to buy and sell and contract one's labor in the free marketplace;
  • to advance in an open society as far as their talents and energy and ambition will take them; and 
  • to enjoy and benefit from the proliferating variety of the human condition.
"Don't be fooled by the apparent seamlessness of these lists. As Berlin pointed out, 'negative' and 'positive' liberty can clash with one other in a pluralistic society. For example, if an individual wants to be free from the constraints of religion, how can his wish be reconciled within a community that feels it is free to assert the faith of a supermajority? These values clashed in the famous Supreme Court case, Engel v. Vitale, which was decided in 1962. Henceforward, government-directed prayer in public schools was seen as violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and therefore banned.

"Late-modern liberalism sometimes asserts negative liberty; sometimes positive liberty. Where it can err is when it takes a good thing -- in this case, the spirit of liberty that resides deep in man -- and disorders it. All modern -isms do that to some extent, of course, but since we live among the liberals, the speck in their eye is what irritates the beam in our own.

Unforgettable classroom teacher: Stephen Tonsor
"Now, you know from your Western civ survey that pluralism arose in the West as a result of many factors. To review:
  • The encounters with 'brave new worlds' -- starting with the Crusades and accelerating in the Age of Exploration -- exposed Europeans to unimagined novelties. Suddenly they found themselves amid exotic cultures, strange lifeways, and fantastic worldviews. Reports of the discoveries excited the imaginations of men, but they also acted like acids upon the culture -- corroding certainties, raising doubts, admitting skepticism, reinforcing relativism, and even suggesting the slide into subjectivism. As Shakespeare has Sebastian say in The Tempest, 'Now I will believe that there are unicorns.' The European could now look beyond his local horizon and see that his was not the only world, that the European lifeway was not the only lifeway available to man. Confronted by the proliferating variety of cultures, thinking Europeans began to ponder the human condition in radically different ways. Carried to the extreme, modern man would embrace the new for its own sake -- what Christopher Booker called 'neophilia.'[9]
  • Burckhardt identified the Italian Renaissance with a new birth of liberty and with the beginning of the modern age. One reason for this bold assertion is that, with the elevation of the Greco-Roman classics, two different sources of authority -- pagan and Catholic -- now coexisted. It is unusual to find a culture with two quite different cosmologies and quite different sources of intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority. In Christendom, these two different sources had often been integrated by clerics, men of letters working in the long tradition of Christian humanism. But sometimes the two sources were not integrated, and during the Renaissance it was a permissible boundary transgression not to do so. Thus the pagan classics would pose an indirect challenge to the dominant Catholic worldview, for now two different types of human excellence presented themselves -- the hero and the saint. This fundamental bifurcation in the view of human excellence also helped give birth to the new individualism which recognized that man had the freedom to choose in what measure he would be a pagan hero, and in what measure a Christian saint.[10]
  • In the Protestant Reformations, the principle of sola scriptura[11] spurred the growth of religious pluralism. It didn't mean to, but it was the unintended consequence. For once this Protestant principle was unleashed, there was no stopping the devolution of authority from one papacy ... to several countries ... to many regions ... to countless congregations ... to numberless individuals. Henceforward who had the authority to say whether my interpretation of scripture was better or worse than yours? Protestantism's inability to determine exactly what Christian orthodoxy was led to the proliferation of denominations in competition with one another. I am told that today there are several thousand Protestant denominations, each justifying its existence on the doctrine of sola scriptura. How ironic that the search for authentic Christianity would result in such chaos! Not surprisingly, this pluralism led to major religious conflicts from 1517 to 1648, wherein Protestants not only battled Catholics, but also one another, to the death. Imagine the ferocity with which Lutherans killed Anabaptists and vice versa. While religious pluralism came to be identified with spiritual fracture, moral anarchy, and Christendom's demise, it nevertheless led, in time, to liberal political settlements and to a chilly social tolerance; also to the emergence of materialistic, pluralistic, secular societies -- even if at the expense of true community. I am, of course, describing America.
  • During the course of the long Scientific Revolution, a series of paradigm shifts radically altered the West's vision away from a geocentric cosmos ordered in a great chain of being. Copernicus demolished Ptolemaic astronomy, Newton demolished Aristotelian physics, Darwin demolished the Mosaic chain of being, and Freud demolished Augustinian psychology. Henceforward, the sciences would become yet a third locus of authority, alongside the pagan classics of antiquity and Christianity's sacred scripture and tradition. But it was not an authority that relied on written texts. No, nature herself now provided the "texts." Science took nature as its sacred text and subjected the world to constant rereading and revision, based on observational methods. Nothing seemed stable anymore. In fact, it was posited that there was a plurality of realities, a plurality of worlds. In contrast to the medieval mind with its naive faith in one great chain of being, the modern mind confronted a dizzying succession of paradigms about reality -- from Newton to Einstein to Heisenberg to Bohr. No science texts were canonical; no thing was fixed; in philosophy becoming supplanted being; and relativism, the absolute. The very structure of the West's scientific revolutions seemed to confirm pluralism.[12]
  • As you know, it's the purpose of History 416 to understand the astonishingly rapid succession of worldviews that has developed -- from the Jesuits' disputatio to the secular Enlightenment, when the philosophes developed sophisticated arguments for variety in unity so long as the glue in that unity was reason. It did not take long before rationalism and empiricism were challenged by the counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism, which in turn were challenged by Positivism, and on and on it goes. So we intellectual historians can demonstrate quite convincingly that our modern age is a cacophony of -isms. Our civilization is quite promiscuous in its willingness to entertain new suitors. We should not be surprised that many of the offspring are less than beautiful --"
All of a sudden with startling rudeness Tonsor's desk phone rang, interrupting his remarkable soliloquy. It's the first time I saw him react to a phone ringing. His reddening face betrayed irritation, and he looked at the black contraption as though it were a mischievous jack-in-the-box. If the window had been open, I am sure he would have pitched the thing down onto the Diag below. To my surprise he ignored the ringing, sort of. While he wouldn't pick up the receiver, he couldn't resist going on a tear about what a nuisance the modern telephone is: "Before you arrived, I got a call from a swindler trying to sell me land in Arizona. I dislike arid climates intensely. Keeping plants alive with a little dab of water after the heat of the day has exhausted them is not my idea of a happy occupation.[13] As for the telephone, H. L. Mencken got it right when he said the telephone is the greatest boon to bores ever invented!" Tonsor drew out "b-o-o-n to b-o-r-e-s" for effect. He slapped his knees and rocked into his next sentence.

"I think I was speaking of the modern age as an age of promiscuity. Promiscuity, of course, is disordered love. What did liberalism disorder but the love of liberty?

"Again, we must distinguish between the spirit of liberty in man's nature and the -ism that grew out of the modern project. When liberalism arose as a modern ideology, it often took something good in the nature of man -- in this case, the spirit of freedom -- and disordered it. This tendency to disorder liberty has gone hand-in-hand with numerous intellectual errors.
  • One of liberalism's chief errors is its simple-minded attachment to the Enlightenment. Liberalism, you see, fancies that it has outgrown the Middle Ages and Christendom, which it regards as two sizes too small and quite out of fashion. It is this bias against Christendom and the Middle Ages that betrays the invincible ignorance of our liberal friends -- and their intolerance toward many of the religious roots of our civilization.
  • For instance, although modern liberalism is correct to recognize that our civilization is pluralistic, it is foolish to cast off our older philosophical and faith traditions that seek to order the things we value. Liberalism fancies itself to be value neutral -- it provides no way to order the goods in our lives. Yet a hierarchy of value is what we crave. Our nature is not made just to wander aimlessly from good to good to good. That is a false liberty that leads to anomie and despair. Rather it is our nature to seek out a map, search out a destination, and set a direction that we are confident will take us to a better place. How does the undiscriminating liberal, who breezily accepts a pluralistic world, discern what is better? Truly, when the liberal eschews Aristotle's final causes and dodges absolutes, he does violence to man's intelligence. The task is to find ways of ordering values that most people can accept.
  • Another example, this one along different lines. Liberalism often takes credit for the West's first constitutions. It is shockingly ignorant to assert that the modern constitution owes its origin to the Enlightenment. The roots of constitutional government go back to the Middle Ages. Magna Carta, the charter of English liberties, was actually the outcome of a conservative revolt among the barons to force King John to recognize their traditional rights as Englishmen. They were reasserting the root principle of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, that the monarch was as subject to the rule of law as all other men were. Also there were a number of medieval communes, little republics whose charters defended the liberties of free men. From your reading of the Federalist Papers, you know that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with these medieval Italian communes. Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and others have argued that the American Founding was in a significance sense a revolution prevented, not made, since the Founders were contending with London to restore their ancient rights as Englishmen.
  • Also many liberals assume that rights came out of the modern political tradition. Wrong again. Perhaps they have not read key medieval authors like Thomas Aquinas who wrote extensively on natural rights, or become familiar with groundbreaking documents like the Charter of the Forests, which was actually a conservative law in that it limited the king and restored his subjects' traditional access to woodlands for their livelihood.[14] Nor, apparently, have they heard of the right of asylum and the right of sanctuary, whereby any church afforded protection for combatants, refugees, and fugitives, especially in time of war.
  • You have heard me say that freedom is not freedom unless it is ordered. These apparent opposites -- freedom and order -- need one another to work. Sometimes our liberal friends forget the experience of the species. They embrace liberty without a proper regard for what it takes to sustain the freedoms we enjoy. The challenge every generation must face is how to keep liberty from devolving into private licentiousness and its cousin, social anarchy. An apprehension of the natural law, faith, morals -- these are the permanent things that are needed to help us order our lives so that we are fit to live with each other in relative peace. The order in the soul is conducive to the order in society, and vice versa. Value-neutral liberalism does not have a good answer to that.
  • Yet another intellectual error that liberals fall into is to forget that all modern free societies give rise to both a party of innovation and a party of conservation. Both-and. Each gives expression to the permanent things in human nature -- innovation which is the drive to better the human condition; and conservation which is the instinct to treasure what is good. We are motivated by both, and in a free society reform comes out of the perennial tension between these two oppositional drives. Innovation and conservation need each other because they correspond to the fact that each of us, individually, contains multitudes, so it is no surprise that society does, too. And yet, by the late 1940s and early 1950s -- after five terms of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman -- the liberal elite in our nation grew smug and didn't think they needed a conservative intellectual movement to push against. It was liberalism's arrogance -- as witnessed in people like Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- that it had no need for conservative ordering and restraint. 
Lord Acton instructs us otherwise: 'Don't let us utter too much evil of party writers, for we owe them much. If not honest, they are helpful, as the advocates aid the judge.'"[15]
At this observation I wrote a note to myself: For the most part in this conversation, I was witnessing Tonsor perform as a liberal conservative using his hermeneutic of dynamic tension. But in 1987, did he also advocate the need of conservatives for a robust liberal intellectual movement to push against?

"Now, to understand the genesis of this -ism, you might consult a liberal historian like Arthur M. Schlesinger, who wrote a brief history that explains what liberals are about." Tonsor got up, dug deep into a bookcase, and handed me a dusty paperback called The Vital Center. "It's not very good in its treatment of conservatism, which is confoundingly weak, but at least it takes you inside the riddles of the liberal mind around 1948, when liberalism reached its apogee."

Suddenly the phone rang again. Still standing, Tonsor picked up the receiver, slammed it back down, and impatiently shook he head as if he wanted to utter an expletive -- but I never knew him to utter expletives.


"Liberalism," Tonsor resumed with determination, "originally had the noble goal of protecting and promoting the freedom of the individual. The conundrum is this: Although government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, does government itself pose a threat to liberty? Lord Acton, for instance, saw the necessity of a system that gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power. Alas, liberalism has experienced mission creep. Over the decades it has transmogrified into a succession of grotesque caricatures of itself, each manifesting its own peculiar errors. Let's review them.
  • First came the old liberals who were devoted to -- liberty.[16] Their classical liberalism sought to protect the freedom of the individual. Originally it was associated with the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century. Once the idea caught hold, the laissez-faire marketplace revealed itself to be a huge improvement over the mercantile system it replaced, what with its extensive government controls and its assumption that wealth is a zero-sum game. In a mercantile economy, the only way to increase one's portion of a static pie is through colonization, exploitation, and war. Classical liberalism, by contrast, seeks to enlarge the pie by growing the economy. One cannot overstate what capitalism wrought: nothing less than the most revolutionary force in human history since the Neolithic Revolution.
Now, free-market economists have taught us valuable lessons -- that there is no such thing as a free lunch, that the profit motive works, that free trade spreads wealth. As I like to say, the free market does a better job fulfilling man's material wants than any other system -- by far. If people want more food, then the free market will provide. But what if they want more pornography? Well, their free market system will give them as much as they can stand. Of course, therein lies the danger. Classical liberals fall into error when they overlook, wink at, or excuse the abuse of liberty. Just because an action is legal does not make it moral. Freedom needs virtue. For freedom without virtue is no freedom at all. Rather we descend into the anarchy of the jungle where might makes right. 
The American and British experience with the free marketplace has for the most part been benign because it developed hand-in-hand with periodic great awakenings among the people. These religious revivals tempered our antisocial passions -- greed, selfishness, drunkenness, lust, ruthless ambition -- at the exact moments when our economy was growing faster than any in world history. The nexus of a growing economy and the great awakenings is one of the happy accidents of history. 
Classical liberals also fall into error when they assume that human beings are merely Homo economicus. I find myself bemused that so many of my free-market friends do not bother to read Book 5 of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. After hundreds of pages explaining and praising the free market in books 1-4, Smith in Book 5 warns against the tendency of the modern industrial economy to reduce men to cogs in a machine, thereby stripping them of their dignity. That's why he defends the role of government, public education, and other services to foster the creation of a humane economy. Wilhelm Rรถpke, in A Humane Economy, offers an important corrective to seeing man merely as Homo economicus. I have some experience with it. Back in 1948-'49, I lived in the Zurich he describes.
On a related note I should add that, since the early 1960s, I've thought that our education system must do a better job teaching young people that the for-profit sector has a huge impact on the health of the other two sectors, governmental and philanthropic. If the economy is strong, and the tax structure is good, then money will flow into the public treasury and into civil society. Government can then pay for its services without accruing debt, and philanthropic organizations can fulfill their mission to improve the human condition. Alas, it seems that entrepreneurs are almost always vilified by our education system. 
  • After classical liberalism came assertive state liberalism. (It has also been called 'moderate state intervention,' 'quantitative liberalism' by Arthur Schlesinger, and the 'social market economy' by the Germans.) We have already seen how the exigencies of the Civil War led to the creation of the Freedman's Bureau, which was one of the first manifestations of assertive state liberalism. But something else was at work, too, and it is not difficult to understand why this phase of liberalism began to replace the older classical liberalism that prevailed from the late eighteen century to the late nineteenth century. The effects of the Industrial Revolution hadn't been fully realized. Yet the Industrial Revolution grew spectacularly as a result of the laissez-faire marketplace, a marketplace that ironically did not seem up to the task of alleviating the suffering caused by its own growth. Even America's robust civil society seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the needs that arose in the periodic panics that occurred after the Civil War -- the depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, foremost among them. 
No doubt about it: Industrialization and urbanization spread wealth and created an ever growing upper class and middle class. But they also, periodically, spread what the Marxists call immiseration. As the plight of the working classes pricked the conscience of the nation, usually during cyclical economic downturns, the ideology of progressivism arose. The rationale of progressivism was to counter big business with big government. The influence of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and a bevy of Muckrakers made Washington a more active player in the society and economy. The regulatory state with its alphabet agencies was established to protect workers and consumers. Interestingly, it corresponds to the administrative state that Tocqueville had prophesied would diminish Americans' freedom because no one elected all these new regulators to make the rules we would live by. A degree of social engineering also became a goal of assertive state liberalism. Progressive taxation transferred wealth from the rich to the poor, thereby achieving a modicum of economic leveling and establishing the welfare state. 
Already by the end of the nineteenth century, British and American liberalism were beginning to flirt with collectivism.[17] As a result of this flirtation, assertive state liberalism took a great leap forward in 1913 with the progressive income tax; then grew even more in FDR's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, and LBJ's Great Society. While transferring money from the rich to the poor may have made reformers feel better, it did not address a raft of underlying pathologies: the breakdown of the family, high dropout rates in schools, unwanted pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, the erosion of communities. Nor did assertive state liberalism anticipate the extent to which government would become its own self-serving Leviathan. What's wrong with that picture: government lobbying for itself? The consequences have been doleful. It's not just the deficits that mount when we expect too much of government and spend money like reckless teenagers on a spree using Dad's credit card. It's the cynical policy of throwing money at the underclass to keep them quiet. That's not true compassion. One of my former students, Marvin Olasky, who was formerly an atheist and Marxist, is doing important work that shows that civil society is much better than the government at delivering basic social services to those in need.
I should note that Franklin Roosevelt successfully renamed classical liberals -- those who opposed the New Deal regulations of the economy on behalf of the less fortunate -- "conservatives." Nineteenth-century liberalism thereby became identified with twentieth-century conservatism.
  • Shortly after assertive state liberalism arose, there also appeared aggressive state liberalism (or 'qualitative liberalism,' as Schlesinger calls it). Now government would not just be in the business of regulating industry to protect workers and consumers; not just in the business of transferring wealth from the rich and upper-middle classes to the working and poorer classes. Big government now justified its reach into the culture itself in order to instantiate progressive values. In the New Deal it involved the WPA art projects and writer projects. I have long thought that all the New Deal murals that went up on public buildings in the 1930s were an answer to the Confederate statues that were erected under the influence of the KKK in the 1920s. In any case, beginning with the Great Society it involved disseminating news and commentary on NPR and PBS, promulgating a liberal outlook among the populace; supporting the arts even when that art offended taxpayers; funding the humanities even when they furthered the elite's alienation from ordinary Americans; regulating our schools by mandating who got to go where, depending on their race and class and zip code; striking organized prayer in public schools; permitting abortion on demand. Some liberalism, this. The overreach has been breathtaking. Our Founders tried precisely to prevent a situation in which unelected federal judges could acquire the authority to transform the culture.
  • Now liberalism is entering a fourth phase, and that newly coined term, 'identity politics,' captures it best. It was inevitable that when liberal intellectuals and Democratic politicians from FDR to LBJ began to open up immigration, expand civil rights, and broaden the franchise, those who felt historically marginalized would demand greater inclusion in the American experiment. Identity politics is a coalition of diverse groups -- second- and third-wave feminists, homosexuals, the handicapped, Indians, Blacks, Latinos, and other non-white, non-European immigrants. This coalition is every bit as statist as previous generations of liberals. It seeks power to change the culture by fiat. Even my work has been influenced by the tam-tam of identity politics. Already by the early 1970s I was 'updating' the American dream and arguing for greater diversity in our universities.[18]
I think the primary driver of identity politics stems from America's original sin, black chattel slavery and its derivative, Jim Crow. Racism manifests itself in the enforcement of bigotry. It is the banal oppression of racial inequality everywhere in public and private life."
Tonsor suddenly reached for a paper on his desk and held it up to his eyes. Impatiently removing his glasses he squinted to read. The black English professor, Shelby Steele, has written something truly perceptive on the topic. I quote: 'Racism is a tyranny and an oppression that dehumanizes -- animalizes -- the "other." It is a social malignancy, yet it carries the authority of natural law, as if God Himself had dispassionately ordained it.... America finds itself in moral trouble,' Steele says. 'The open acknowledgement of the nation's racist past has seriously compromised its moral authority, and affirming democratic principles and the rule of law will not be a sufficient response. Only a strict moral accounting can restore legitimacy. Thus redemption -- paying off the nation's sins -- becomes the moral imperative of a new cultural and political liberalism. President Lyndon Johnson turned redemption into a kind of activism: the Great Society, the War on Poverty, school busing, liberalized welfare policies, affirmative action. This liberalism always projects moral idealism in the form of integration, social justice, and so on, which has the ring of redemption.What is political correctness if not essentially redemptive speech? So liberalism has become a cultural identity that offers Americans a way to think of themselves as a decent people. To be liberal is once again to be good.'[19]
Grand as redemption is, two challenges may eventually thwart identity politics. One is that each of these diverse groups has its own agenda. For example, the feminist agenda will not always square with the Black agenda (think of their differences over abortion), and the Black agenda will not always line up with the homosexual agenda (think of their differences when it comes to going outside established sexual norms). The Black church is one of the most conservative places in our culture. As each faction competes for limited public resources, there will be strain within the coalition. I predict that liberal America will become balkanized and possibly quite illiberal because it will have trouble articulating a vision of the common good. 
Second, identity politics will make whites more aware of threats to their power. As the liberal coalition grows, whites will embrace an identity politics of their own. We have seen some indication of this shift in Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and in Ronald Reagan's electoral successes. Conservatives will have to remain vigilant in the process. William F. Buckley at National Review has done a fairly good job of policing the movement by keeping out the KKK, the Birchers, the Randians, and other kooks. There will always be silly and even dangerous camp followers just outside the main ranks. But my point here is: Those who rise by identity politics should be prepared to fall by identity politics.
The question I have about identity politics which remains to be answered is this: Is identity politics getting enough traction in the culture to constitute a third source of authority in the civilization? We've talked about how our civilization came to have two coexisting authorities in tension with one another -- Everyman's ethics and faith that come from classical Christendom, and our elites' science that comes from the modern Enlightenment. In our postmodern culture, one detects in identity politics the fevered canvass of non-Western cultures for a new source of values -- ideological, balkanized, neopagan, statist -- that will erode and eventually supplant both the Christian evangel and the Enlightenment project."
"It sounds like a book waiting to be written," I ventured. "Instead of Alvin Toffler's Third Wave, Stephen Tonsor's Third Authority."

"Not by me it wouldn't -- the very thought gives me a crushing headache that would send me to bed.

"Well, that's enough for today, Mr. Whitney," said Tonsor, slapping his knees. "There is a line of students waiting outside the door and they are in need of my ministrations."

Closing my looseleaf binder and thanking my graduate advisor for the grand tour of liberalism, I retreated to the warrens of Harlan Hatcher Library to reconstruct the conversation in my notes and further untangle the knot in my mind. It would now be easier to distinguish between the "liberal conservative" who ordered the spirit of liberty according to the permanent things, and the "liberalism" that increasingly sought to harness the state to engineer society. Listening to my professor, I realized that I was more liberal than he. I had seen Germany's social market economy with my own eyes, and it worked beautifully. As a result, the tutorial with Tonsor prompted tensions and still more questions. Foremost among them was this: As the meaning of liberalism shifted through its four phases, did the meaning of conservatism shift with it? For now, I was too spent to pursue the question.



[1] Tonsor alluded to himself as a "liberal conservative" in his letter to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[2] Quotation by H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949).

[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Unraveling of American Liberalism," book review, but I do not yet have a date or publication data; Alfred Regnery kindly sent a photocopy of the review to me.

[4] Peter Augustine Lawler, "Liberalism," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 496.

[5] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Conservative Pluralism: The Foundation and the Academy," pp. 1-2; unpublished, no date; lecture or manuscript in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[6] Tonsor, "Unraveling." Given the stereotypes of the sixties, and given Tonsor's own observations, it is easy to fall into the erroneous assumption that virtually everyone on college campuses was liberal or radical during that tumultuous decade. Yet Todd Gitlin -- a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, a veteran of student protests in the 1960s, and the author of an important book on the period -- argues that the decade was not so much radical as it was polarized. Indeed, conservatives were strong on campus in the early part of the decade. "I was at Michigan for two years in '63 and '65, so I can tell you there was a very widespread right-wing movement." Gitlin quoted by Anemona Hartocollis, "On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need 'Safe Spaces,'" New York Times, December 8, 2016; at URL

[7] Tonsor, "Unraveling."

[8] Tonsor recommended that his students read Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).

[9] Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs, 1969.

[10] Tonsor was clear that, even though Jacob Burckhardt was often credited with seeing the rise of individualism during the Italian Renaissance especially, subsequent studies pushed the idea of individualism back several centuries. He cited Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200, and Walter Ullmann, The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. See Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 19, 1986, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[11] Sola scriptura is Latin for "by Scripture alone." This Protestant theological doctrine holds that Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. The problem comes when passages are interpreted and mean different things to different people.

[12] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

[13] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[14] URL, accessed October 24, 2016.

[15] Stephen J. Tonsor, Foreword, Lectures on the French Revolution, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000), ebook ed., loc. 31.

[16] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1985), p. 185.

[17] Kirk, Conservative Mind, p. 185.

[18] Stephen J. Tonsor," Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974).

[19] Shelby Steele would become a Hoover Fellow just a few years after this conversation with Tonsor. As a Hoover Fellow he wrote, "Why the Left Can't Let Go of Racism," Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2017, at URL

No comments:

Post a Comment