The next conservatism

After work on September 5th I was initially headed home and walking down M Street, until I ran into a friend from Newsmax and decided to head to Catholic University for the Institute for Human Ecology-hosted debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. I’ve been following this debate since Sohrab Ahmari’s May piece, “Against David Frenchism“. It drew an incredible audience, probably 500+:

I think the debate itself was basically a disaster, in the sense that neither Ahmari nor French really debated one another—they spent most of the conversation trying to feel each other out, and so much of the conversation felt like a series of Twitter-style barbs rather than a good back-and-forth. You can watch/hear it here.

I spoke with Hadley Arkes afterwards, and he previewed what ultimately became this review/response to the debate. I think that’s worth reading if you watch the debate and come away as ambivalent by both Ahmari and French as I think many should have been after their debate. I have heard that their second encounter at Notre Dame went much better, but I haven’t had time to hear it.

All that said, Sohrab Ahmari’s latest First Things piece states very directly what wasn’t ultimately sussed out at Catholic University: “The New American Right: An Outline for a Post-Fusionist Conservatism“. It really is worth reading in its entirety, but I think this excerpt particularly helps explain why Ahmari started critiquing “Frenchism” (what Ahmari calls “a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square into a safe private sphere”) in the first place:

The common good and the highest good are among the bedrock principles of classical and Christian political philosophy. It is a sign of the times that their use now elicits a parade of horribles: the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism. The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality. This truism is asserted even as the critics’ intemperate reactions reveal that the liberal public square is anything but neutral—that it is bathed in its own metaphysics and theology.

Progressive liberals are quite open about their aim: to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the “free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits,” as Pierre Manent has written. Conservative liberals and libertarians share in this view of the highest good: The unfettered life is the best life. Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits.

Our classical and biblical heritage holds a different lesson: that we are not free merely to the degree that we are unregulated, unrestricted, and undisciplined. Rather, true freedom is above all the free affirmation of the personal responsibilities attendant on individual rights. “I shall walk in liberty,” sings the psalmist, “for I have sought thy precepts” (Ps. 119:45). Freedom requires a moral and religious horizon, not just in man’s private sphere, not just at the level of culture and civil society, but also in his collective experience—that is, in the state and the political community.

Critics fret that such talk risks unsettling the peace of modernity and resurrecting “a premodern concept of the higher good.” It was precisely liberalism’s “ability to filter out the old prejudices,” one critic asserted, “that made the peace of the modern world possible.”

That is a cartoonish critique. It reduces millennia of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation to so many “old prejudices.” But it expresses a belief that is common enough: that liberalism has put an end to the religious conflicts of the past and ushered in an unprecedented peace by relegating faith to its proper—that is, private—sphere. To its critics, then, the new American right raises the specter of religious and moral conflicts that will imperil the peaceful freedom of the West.

But the new right begins from a different premise: that a great deal of our peaceful freedom is already lost. The free world doesn’t feel free, because often it isn’t. But this new unfreedom doesn’t arise from a dearth of individual liberties. The modern West is unfree because it is irresponsible, unbounded, unattached.

Ahmari writes elsewhere in the piece: “Yes, plenty of men and women still make commitments: They get married, have children, serve their communities, and so on. But they do so in spite of, and with little help from, our liberal-technocratic arrangement. At every step, disorder menaces families and communities.”

If any of this makes sense, or “sounds right” in some way, this is a debate worth following…