Harvard Professor joins New York Post editor in taking down liberalism

In recent years, intra-conservative debate evaluating the merits of liberalism has intensified. Last week, notable conservative intellectuals engaged this debate on Twitter focusing on the promotion of the common good.

American conservatism is in the process of redefining itself in the post-Trump era. As such, understanding this debate is critical for the Catholic conservative seeking to identify that which he should fight for socially and politically.

On April 10, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari noted that “We all seek happiness by nature. The question is whether we can be mistaken about the good and whether the law should enshrine the pursuit of the common good and authoritatively help people in the discernment of it. The liberal here disagrees.”

Liberals disagree with the notion that the good should be enshrined by law as a normative feature of the state. This line of thinking squares with the Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, which details how post-Enlightenment conceptions of freedom are actually antithetical to the true freedom that comes from a life of virtue which can be promoted by the state.

Like Deneen, Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby argues that the liberal state is destined to fail and become tyrannical, as liberalism “becomes the mediator of all human relations, insinuating itself between me and all claims upon the property that is my person. This enclosure of possibility, moreover, is threatened by anything that would define me prior to my choosing—even, as it turns out, my own nature. Liberal freedom thus initiates a war against every form of antecedent order.”

Ahmari liked a tweet which stated that “right liberals misread” Thomas Aquinas as saying “let’s all agree to disagree and so pursue our own private ends.” In other words, conservatives who use Aquinas to justify relativistic liberal pluralism mistakenly believe that the fact that people disagree about what the good is means the state should not assert a normative view of it. By contrast, Ahmari believes that the good is objective rather than an esoteric question that each person can decide for themselves.

Harvard Law School Professor Adrian Vermeule affirmed that “If you find yourself treating a concept like ‘the common good’ as essentially contested and therefore intractably mysterious, but also treating a concept like ‘liberty’ as an appealing invitation to protection by and through law, please consider getting checked for ideology.”

In fact, the common good is not intractably mysterious. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’”

On a different thread from the same day, Ahmari wrote that he “may expand this thread into an essay at some point. But bottom line: We won’t begin to claw our way out of dystopia until we excise right liberalism from the right. It’s a well-funded and sinecured apparatus of sophistry designed to *police the right.*”

He contended that “The right liberal’s one reflex besides tone-policing is to suggest that adopting any but liberal principles risks bringing about intolerable oppression: You have to start by disclaiming all sorts of past and potential future horrors that liberalism supposedly guards against.”

He then wrote that this tactic is “a form of intellectual blackmail, and we shouldn’t stand for it. And the best defense is to go on offense: to turn the tactic around: ‘No, you, Professor Christian Right Lib, have to account for your compromises and to own all the horrors of our actually existing dystopia.’” This is interesting because it is consistent with his call to action for conservatives to go on the offensive in promoting a substantive vision of the good.

In a 2019 discussion at Notre Dame, Ahmari diagnosed the reality that “consensus conservatism” is “mainly a defensive procedural posture” rather than a movement with a “substantive vision of the highest good” like “the woke sexual revolutionary left” which seeks “to systematically impose” their vision of the good “at every level—on campus at the university, in the corporation, in the workplace, in the law, in politics.”

Ahmari and Vermeule contend that the fact that there is disagreement over what the good is does not mean that the good is not objective. They are calling on conservatives to reject pluralistic relativism and the mystification of the common good by using institutions to promote the good as understood by the Church.

On April 14, Ahmari encouraged people to read a piece by Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative. The piece, summarizing the debate about liberalism, is of interest to “all Catholics (and other Christians) interested in questions surrounding the faith and whether or not it can be reconciled to what liberalism has become.”

Dreher extensively quotes Hanby, who recently wrote a response to Robert Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. To summarize Dreher’s summary of the debate, “Reilly believes that the American founding is, in fact, consonant with Catholicism, and that the late deviations from the Founding can be remedied. Hanby and Deneen, by contrast, believe that the ultimate irreconcilability of Catholicism with classical liberalism was there from the beginning.”

American conservatives must think rigorously and decide whether Catholicism comports with liberalism. Can the American Catholic recover the essence of the liberal state and use it to evangelize and promote the good, or does liberalism ontologically crowd out the Gospel? Indeed, we have reached “A Time for Choosing.”

John Hale is a senior studying Political Science and Italian. He is interested in ecclesiology, football, ethics, and airports. Feel free to send him book recommendations at jhale1@nd.edu.