Political liberalism is fundamentally flawed. Its founders—especially John Locke—are responsible for today’s hedonistic individualism and unmooring from traditional values. The nationalist-populist resurgence underway across the West must now discover, or rediscover, the true roots of conservatism as opposed to the Enlightenment progenitors of liberal thought who have led us astray. These truths have become almost axiomatic in New Right intellectual circles since the end of the Cold War—particularly after the failure of neo-conservatism’s international democratization and pro-globalization agenda. Western conservatism seems now to have finally found its way after many years lost in Fukuyama’s End of History wilderness. That way entails the wholesome repudiation of liberalism as a political concept and the recovery of a conservative tradition that both predates it and has a greater claim to laying the foundations of modern Western democracy and the nation-state.
Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony are seminal figures of the nascent New Right’s war on Liberalism. As they stated in a 2017 essay in American Affairs:
With the rest of the Anglo-American conservative tradition, we uphold the principles of limited government and individual liberties. But we also see clearly (again, in keeping with our conservative tradition) that the only forces that give the state its internal coherence and stability, holding limited government in place while staving off authoritarianism, are our nationalist and religious traditions. These nationalist and religious principles are not liberal. They are prior to liberalism, in conflict with liberalism, and presently being destroyed by liberalism.
Nationalism and religion, in so many words, are not only pre-liberal but incompatible with liberalism.
In his 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen similarly eviscerates the notion that liberalism might harbor any claims to a conservative inheritance:
Both ‘classical’ and ‘progressive’ liberalism ground the advance of liberalism in individual liberation from the limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationship. Both traditions—for all their differences over means—can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual.
In one fell swoop, Deneen dismisses outright the possibility that the term ‘classical liberalism’ can claim hereditary parentage of the modern political Right.
To be sure, there are voices of dissent. First Things editor and author R. R. Reno has written in defense of political liberalism to the extent that he does not see the foundational project of political modernity as fundamentally flawed. His book, Return of the Strong Gods, indicts not liberalism per se but its postwar maladies. The push to disarm rhetorically, culturally, and politically the “strong gods” of public religion, nationalism, and the traditional family—that is, the linchpins of societal stability—perhaps made sense in Berlin at the end of World War II, but 2021 is not 1933—nor 1945—and society is more in danger from the society-dissolving forces of atomization than the incipient totalitarianism of collectivist creeds. For Reno, the problem, then, is not with liberalism itself but with an anachronistic political-cultural outlook that must be reformulated for changing times. The threat of the dissipation of national communities, not their overweening consolidation, is the challenge of our time.
Must liberalism be leveled completely by the New Right, so that a new conservative edifice may emerge from its ruins? Or must the meaning of liberalism be reclaimed for the Right and from the historiographical distortions of the progressive Left? Haivry and Hazony, Deneen, and perhaps even Ryszard Legutko, the author of The Demon in Democracy, appear to answer in the affirmative to the former notion. However, a compelling alternate view is offered by Francisco José Contreras.
Contreras, a professor of philosophy of law at the University of Seville and a member of the Congreso de los Diputados for Spain’s preeminent nationalist-populist dissident party, VOX, seems to stand alone (or at least alone among self-identified right-wingers opposed to the ‘centrist’ political parties, such as Spain’s Ciudadanos) in claiming the banner of liberalism today. In an exclusive hour-and-a-half long interview via Zoom—and in his 2018 book, Una Defensa del Liberalismo Conservador (In Defense of Liberal Conservatism)—Contreras makes clear his commitment to defending liberalism both from its progressive usurpers and its right-of-center detractors.
“In my opinion, Deneen and Hazony are too radical in their critique of liberalism,” he tells me. “They don’t make the necessary distinctions within the liberal tradition. … They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” He continues:
Let’s look at liberalism and conservatism as two concentric circles. There are anti-conservative liberals, who are progressives. Then there are conservative anti-liberals like Spain’s Carlist movement or Joseph de Maistre. But there is also an overlap between liberalism and conservatism, and that’s what’s led to the best period of history the West has ever known—its apogee, in fact.
But Contreras doesn’t necessarily think that conservative liberalism is to blame for the West’s current maladies. While other people might beg to differ, classical liberalism, as Contreras understands it, is not intrinsically flawed. “Classical liberalism is equality before the law, separation of powers, fundamental rights, low levels of taxation, religious liberty,” he says. “I like religious freedom, and I think it’s a good thing. I like freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”
Can the Right really make a claim against any of these things? If they did, could they survive at the ballot box? With phrases such as ‘post-liberal,’ as used in Deneen’s book and freely embraced in some political circles, it would seem that said intellectuals either underappreciate the gifts of liberalism which they enjoy or neglect the political reality in which they find themselves, whether they like it or not.
Integralist critics of liberal democracy, such as Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley, seem to suffer from a similar myopia even as they appear emboldened by the work of Deneen and its positive reception from figures across the political spectrum. As much as conservative Catholics like myself would enjoy seeing a state ordered toward a Christian understanding of the common good in theory, the odds of such a platform being embraced both across the Catholic-Protestant Christian spectrum—plus among a plurality of the un-churched—seem unlikely.
The dispute goes beyond mere semantics, however, because Contreras also takes issue with the inchoate anti-liberal populism of the Right on substantive grounds:
Deneen tries to argue that Hobbes and Locke are both liberal. But Hobbes is not a liberal; he’s a theorist of an absolutist state who believes there are no limits on the king’s powers, that no subject has a right to accuse the sovereign of an abuse of power.
What is more, Contreras attacks—convincingly, in my view—the notion that Lockean liberalism (disparaged by Deenen and Hazony) is a kind of amoral, un- or even anti-Christian assertion of the autonomy of the individual denuded of any moral-ethical context. In a subsection of chapter two of his book, titled “El Liberalismo Teísta de John Locke,” Contreras explicitly cites references in Locke’s work to an “omnipotent Creator” and “Sovereign Lord” for whose service man is made. Contreras then buttresses this assessment with the scholarship of prominent intellectuals such as Alan Ryan, John Gray, and Samuel Gregg. Contreras states:
What’s important for libertarianism is that the subject chooses—not what he chooses. For Locke, as is the case for other classical liberals … liberty is not an end in itself but a means: it’s a necessary precondition but not sufficient in itself for the good life. It’s important, not only to have freedom of choice, but to choose what is correct, what is of value, that which contributes objectively to human flourishing.
Christians who, like myself, often question the compatibility of secular democracy and orthodox Christianity cannot help but notice a connection here between ‘Lockean liberalism’ as Contreras defines it and Christian theology: in both cases, salvation is predicated upon the ‘gift’ (though it may seem more like a burden or even chimera at times) of free will.
“Lockean liberty is not unconditional or exclusively self-referential but rather liberty for the sake of virtue,” Contreras writes. Such arguments are echoed by figures like Ben Shapiro in his 2019 work The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, another book that may have been partially overlooked because of its lack of intellectual appeal—that is, its unwillingness to make a full-on frontal attack on political liberalism.
Contreras’ endeavor to burnish the conservative credentials of Locke is extended in the same chapter—titled “Classical Liberalism was Conservative Liberalism”—to other figures not exactly in vogue with the populist Right: Adam Smith and Montesquieu. For instance, Contreras quotes at length from a passage in Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) wherein the author juxtaposes the libertine sexual mores of the aristocracy—which are enabled by the sense of unchallenged privilege—and the self-restraint necessary for and practiced in republics.
Contreras also has interesting things to say about the American founding. Again, where Deneen and others of the ‘post-liberal’ ilk see a project flawed from inception, Contreras sees an ingeniously devised hybrid polity where countervailing forces keep one another in check. He says:
The diverse influences that converge in the nascent United States counterbalance one another: the liberal element tempered classical republicanism, keeping America from turning into a Spartan-like egalitarian and rural state; the Christian and Republican elements counterbalanced the liberal impulse, impeding the U.S. from falling into the trap of ultra-individualist libertarianism.
If America is seen as having fallen precisely into that trap today, Contreras avers that liberalism is not to blame. While he argues persuasively about the past, Contreras does not explicitly tackle the culture wars of the present in his book. How can we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that liberalism’s inherent weakness—its potential to over-emphasize human freedom—has not in fact enabled the very hyper-individualism and moral relativism that social conservatives detest? In a world which—from a moral-religious and bioethical point of view—seems to be constantly in flux and perpetually assaulted, the self-assuredness of liberalism’s post-, anti-, or illiberal critics is quite attractive. An explicitly ‘Catholic’ God, recognized by all, seems like a far safer bet than the intellectual slipperiness of ‘Christian’ theism—just as, I suspect, the Catechism of the Catholic Church feels like firmer ground to stand on than the republican-inspired ‘virtue’ to which America’s alternatively deist and practicing Christian founders aspired.
This leads me to the following point: does it matter whether conservatives call themselves ‘liberal-conservatives’ or ‘conservative-liberals,’ ‘post-liberals’ or ‘anti-liberals,’ or even ‘illiberals’—particularly if Contreras, Deneen, Hazony, and others ultimately share so much common ground? Are not these debates just looking to split hairs?
When I posed this final question to Contreras, he told me that VOX as a movement “tries to avoid [traditional] political labels” in the hope of transcending them and creating a new voting coalition—in much the same way that Trump commandeered and redirected the Republican Party. Even so, Contreras concedes that he would be happy if VOX one day were to embrace the label of “conservative liberalism.” That certainly would be interesting, and likely would be a consequence of his own influence. Until then, perhaps Contreras’ greatest contribution to the world of ideas, particularly on the Western Right, will someday be seen to have been his efforts to prevent contemporary critiques of liberalism—however well-founded—from hardening into a dogmatic new orthodoxy.
This interview appears in the Winter 2021 edition of The European Conservative, Number 21: 68-71.