Classical Liberal Resolutions for 2017: Part I

It has been a disorienting year for classical liberals. The presidential candidate of the more classically liberal of the two major parties took some positions wildly at odds with classical liberalism, like opposition to freer trade, enthusiasm for government intervention in corporate decision making, and hostility to some civil liberties.   He won the Presidency in part because of some of those positions.

But then the same candidate announced the nomination of  a substantially better cabinet from the classical liberal perspective than those Hillary Clinton would have appointed. It is through these generally decent appointees that he must largely govern, not by twitter.

He also shows every sign of following through on his commitment to appointing a justice sympathetic to enforcing the constitution as written and thus better implementing a charter broadly reflecting the classical liberalism born in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, although not of modern libertarianism. Once again the relative success of classical liberalism is made even clearer if potential nominees are not evaluated against a standard of utopian perfection, but compared to the result-oriented justices(s) that Hillary Clinton promised to appoint.

Here then are a few classical liberal resolutions for this strange era.The first is that classical liberals should work hard for the success of the Trump administration.  His cabinet officials give ample opportunity to steer many areas in classical liberal direction, perhaps more so than in the administration of George W. Bush, whose compassionate conservatism turned out to be in many respects a cover for growing the size of government.

Working hard for success means being willing to serve if asked in the many policy areas that offer prospect of advancing classical liberal principles. It also means diffusely supporting the administration until it finds its sea legs. Of course, criticism may at times be warranted and this blogger is sure to deliver some.  But the first reaction to any trouble should not be to focus on creating tactical alliances with left-liberals.  There is little hope that such alliances will much advance classical liberalism in the long run. Left-liberalism is today devoted to empowering the state and its new banner of income inequality cloaks an agenda for a more thoroughgoing economic control over the commanding heights of the economy and of society than anything Donald Trump has so far suggested. Moreover, the likeliest successor to a failed Trump administration is left-wing populism of the Bernie Sanders type.

To be sure, any classical liberal must remain very worried about some of the President-elect’s political impulses about liberties.  But those impulses are sometimes responses to festering social problems that classically liberal policy makers have largely ignored. In a subsequent post, I will consider how classical liberalism ideas revised for modern conditions can fuse with some of the concerns of the President-elect.

Update: I slightly revised this post from its initial posting.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. says

    Quoting plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberalism/#ClaLib, “. . . a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order. For classical liberals — sometimes called the ‘old’ liberalism — liberty and private property are intimately related.”

    Let 2017 be the year the USA turns from wealth as land and corporate assets to a civic people as the nation’s chief property. Rather than elite education dominating, make the best possible education available to every newborn, because he or she is appreciated as both a person and essential to the USA provided he or she transitions to a young, civic adult. Let the person decline the education-opportunity during adolescence if he or she must.

    The USA may emerge a nation with a super-majority We the [Civic] People of the United States—persons who use the preamble to the USA so that each citizen may enjoy individual-independence to the limits of their natural abilities. A civic person both 1) works for fidelity in living and 2) collaborates for civic justice. The adult person who performs a wanted service is paid enough to both live and save & invest for retirement, financial security, and family advancement. The poorest adult worker is paid enough to accommodate savings to accumulate wealth—participates in American enterprise not only as consumer but as stakeholder, too.

    The USA emerges a nation that has no pretense of utopia—still has statutory law enforcement– yet inexorably marches toward a culture with everyone but dissenters, criminals and evils collaborating to effect We the People of the United States.

    While this was innovative thinking in 2015, it has matured as consistent with the classical-liberal view that life itself is property. Let public-integrity as private-liberty-with-civic-morality emerge as the principle practice in 2017.

  2. nobody.really says

    [T]he relative success of classical liberalism is made even clearer if potential nominees are not evaluated against a standard of utopian perfection, but compared to the result-oriented justices(s) that Hillary Clinton promised to appoint.

    Clinton’s nominees would be results-oriented? Oh, please.

    [C]lassical liberals should work hard for the success of the Trump administration….
    Working hard for success means …. diffusely supporting the administration until it finds its sea legs.

    So left-liberals are bad because they seek to implement policy via government mechanisms, which involves increasing government expressly. Whereas Trump is good because he implements his policies via dictat backed up by unspecified threats of retribution, and by calling upon his supporters to assault those who disagree with him. And this results in greater respect for autonomy … how?

    It doesn’t. It merely results in less threat to the autonomy of people who support Trump. That’s just results orientation.

    George W. Bush[‘s] compassionate conservatism turned out to be in many respects a cover for growing the size of government….

    To be sure, any classical liberal must remain very worried about some of the President-elect’s political impulses about liberties. But those impulses are sometimes responses to festering social problems that classically liberal policy makers have largely ignored.

    So classically liberal policy makers have largely ignored festering social problems, and the need to respond to these problems may justify adopting different policies—provided those polices don’t increase the size of government? I look forward to hearing more.

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