It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that 2017 was the best of times and the worst of times for classical liberalism in the United States but not much of one.
At an excellent colloquium on Tradition, Culture and Citizenship run by the Tradition Project of St. John’s Law School, a central question was what kind of politics allows traditions to flourish in the modern world. For me the clear answer is classical liberalism.
The classical liberal order leaves space for tradition in two ways. First, it justifies a state which has its object only providing the public goods that the family and the market cannot provide. As a result, the state has no business imposing wide ranging obligations that may burden traditional practices, so long as those practices do not interfere with these relatively few public goods, like the rule of the law, national defense and the regulation of substantial externalities, like pollution, that the state provides.
Second, classical liberalism recognizes that mediating institutions, like churches and mutual aid societies, are themselves important producers of public goods. It is these mediating institutions that are best at handing down traditions from generation to generation.
Recently, there has been much talk about the power of private companies, such as Google, Twitter, or Cloudfare (the internet security company), over political speech. The decision by these companies to not provide their services to certain political viewpoints is extremely controversial.
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 classical liberal strand in Western political philosophy has historically opposed special government privileges for groups and prized equality before the law. Classical liberals favored eliminating the benefit of clergy and the privileges of the nobility. They fought against slavery. And, unlike some progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they opposed Jim Crow.
Whether classical liberalism should embrace laws that prevent private actors from treating people unequally on the basis of characteristics, like race and sex, is a more complicated question. But in my view, given the long history of Jim Crow in the United States, laws against discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity were justified to break ingrained habits encouraged by government discrimination against African-Americans. But here again the classical liberal view molded these laws into general prohibitions against discrimination, not special privileges for certain groups.
In the 1960s and 1970s progressives began to transform these laws into mechanisms of social engineering that took account of race in their planning. But for a brief period in Reagan administration, the classical liberal strand of universalism reasserted itself as part of the core ideology of the Republican party. The result was an effort to treat laws on discrimination as general prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, no matter which race and ethnicity was at issue. Colorblindness was banner under which the movement marched.
Sadly, this movement has dissipated.
The 2016 election was a victory for the Republican party but it was hardly a resounding one for classical liberalism at least as historically defined. Classical liberalism, for instance, has reflected an enthusiasm for free trade along with other free markets. But Donald Trump ran the most aggressively anti-free trade platform of any major party nominee Democratic or Republican in the last century.
But rather than simply bemoaning the fact, classical liberals need to take account of it, because the anti-trade turn is a part of the greatest challenge classical liberalism has ever faced: how to address the ever faster rate of social and economic change. The freedom to make such transformations through technology and trade creates very substantial wealth but it disrupts people’s lives, making them less liberal and more eager for state protection than before.
There can be no doubt that such disruption was at the heart of Trump’s victory.