Classical Liberal Resolutions for 2017: Part I

New Year concept - cheering crowd and fireworks

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.

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Renew the Struggle for Colorblindness

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.

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Trump versus The Bureaucracy

After President-Elect Trump announced that he would separate himself from his business, the tweeter feed of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) went berserk. It praised Trump for agreeing to divest himself of the ownership of his companies, a position which he had not announced.   OGE’s multiple twitter comments were often sarcastic, ending with exclamation points obviously intended to mock Trump’s own style.

To say that these comments were inappropriate is an understatement.  OGE lacks jurisdiction over Trump because the President and Vice-President are not covered by the conflict of interest rules on which OGE advises. And OGE helps presidential appointees with conflicts problems confidentially, reserving twitter for announcing new rules. Unless the director of OGE can get control of his agency, he should resign.

But OGE’s actions show what may be in store for the Trump administration from the federal bureaucracy: not only hostility but contempt. There are three problems President Trump faces.  One confronts any Republican President: the bureaucracy leans left.  Indeed, the average bureaucrat is not only more left-wing than the median Republican but also the median Democrat.

But Trump faces two additional problems.

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President-Elect Trump’s Opportunity to Create a Lawful Judiciary

Law and Order

Donald Trump has the best opportunity of any President to create a judiciary that follows the Constitution as written.

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The End of Conservative Ideology?

11/18/1986-Washington, D.C.-: President Reagan talks with William F. Buckley, Jr. prior to a dinner honoring the latter.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican presidential nomination, many wise critics have concluded that the old Buckley-Reagan conservative ideology is dead. The paradoxical reply: It is not dead because the original was not an ideology.

That declaration had always annoyed me in my younger days, when William F. Buckley, Jr. would ceaselessly insist that conservatism was not ideological.

Sure it was. What did Buckley himself write in his Up from Liberalism (1959) about the essence of conservatism? Its principles were set forth therein as “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” a strong defense—and all were meaningful “in proportion as political power is decentralized.”

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The Gipper Wins Another One

616px-President_Reagan_speaking_in_Minneapolis_1982

Ronald Reagan is the latest entry in the American Presidents Series from Times Books, the publishing house owned by the New York Times. The original general editor of the series, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., selected authors with the appropriate ideological pedigree to chronicle the nation’s 43 chief executives.[1] The core precept of the Schlesinger series was that successful Presidents push the boundaries of their office in pursuit of a Progressive agenda. Schlesinger, succinctly described by David Broder as “James Carville in a cap and gown,” recruited such noted presidential scholars as Gary Hart and George McGovern (the latter was assigned…

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Scalia with Reagan: An Iconic, but Fading, Photo

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Many obituaries of Antonin Scalia were accompanied by a picture of the justice and Ronald Reagan standing together on the day of his nomination. And that photograph perfectly captures Scalia’s importance to the American polity. Scalia changed our jurisprudence as much as Reagan changed our politics.

In an essay at City Journal I explore some of the deep connections between these two iconic figures of the conservative movement:

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Reagan’s Legacy in a World Transformed: A Conversation with Paul Kengor

reagan's legacyThis next edition of Liberty Law Talk features a discussion with Paul Kengor, co-editor with Jeffrey Chidester, of a new volume titled Reagan’s Legacy in a World Transformed that explores the incredible presidency and continuing impact of Ronald Reagan.

The Enduring Tension That Is Modern Conservatism

Original caption: Magazine editor William F. Buckley, Jr., editor of the  holds a copy of the magazine as he makes a statement on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse.  on the cover if the title of an article the magazine published, "The Wheels of Justice Stop for Adam Clayton Powell, Jr."  Buckley, who admitted sending copies of the article to grand jury members investigating Powell, is facing charges of using improper influence on the jury. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

The preeminent conservative intellectual forum called the Philadelphia Society devoted its recent meeting to exploring the roots of its philosophy, especially conservatism’s mid-20th century rebirth at National Review magazine under William F. Buckley, Jr. and Frank Meyer. Discussants could not ignore an important fact: that the modern conservative movement was born bearing a revealing quirk.

To free American conservatism of its image as a defense of the status quo, new labeling was essential. Meyer, who had come on as National Review‘s literary editor in 1956, ruminated upon a philosophical grounding for the movement. In 1962, editor Brent Bozell characterized what Meyer had come up with as “fusionist conservatism” and, despite that this was supposed to have been a criticism of the movement’s (and the magazine’s) apparent dualism, the “fusionist” tag somehow stuck.

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The Witness Still Stands

Chambers

In 1948, when confronted with a cache of damning documents in his handwriting and typescript collected a decade before by his then-comrade Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, a lawyer, State Department official, and a Soviet spy code-named ALES, responded in the following fashion: “I immediately directed that the papers be turned over to the Department of Justice, as it was evident that they were copies and summaries of State Department documents which warranted inquiry.”

Contrast this with Chambers’ response when the documents’ authenticity was challenged. His government benefactor, Rep. Richard Nixon (R-Cal.), submitted the microfilmed portions of the cache to a photographic expert to determine their date. Chambers’ claim that they were from the time, in the 1930s, when he and Hiss worked for Soviet military intelligence, was rejected by said expert, who determined that the kind of film used was a new product. In other words this particular evidence, at least, had to have been faked. When a worried Nixon threw that at Chambers, his response was that “God must be against me.” (It turned to be a temporary setback, for the expert had been wrong that such film wasn’t being manufactured in the 1930s.)

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