If the founding was so great, then why is America in such a mess? That, crudely stated, is the central question behind the never-ending liberalism wars.
On one side of the divide are the critics of liberalism who draw a straight line from the natural rights philosophy of the founding to all that ails America today. In their retelling, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” inexorably leads to “Diversity—especially of the Transvestite variety, Consumerism, and the demand for state-subsidized Happiness.” Sure, it took two centuries, but that’s because the corrosive acid of selfish, materialistic liberalism had to burn through America’s inherited Christian and communitarian moral capital.
Brad Thompson’s defense of the founding stakes out an equally maximalist position. “The nihilistic, postmodern world in which we live today bears zero causal relationship to the principles of the American Founding,” he vigorously asserts. “Progressive ‘liberalism’ is not the natural outgrowth of classical liberalism, nor is it even a corruption of the founders’ liberalism; it represents a total rejection of the classical-liberal tradition.”
As someone who admires the founding, I think our cause is better served by a more nuanced understanding of America’s political degeneration. Only on the basis of a proper diagnosis can we properly defend the founders’ regime and think through how to rebuild it.
That modern liberalism breaks with classical liberalism in fundamental ways is undeniable. But we must recognize that modern liberalism does so by reinterpreting classical liberalism’s fundamental concepts. Both liberalisms speak the language of equality and liberty, albeit in distinct dialects that are still somewhat mutually intelligible (unlike identity politics, which is markedly illiberal).
Just as one may say that Christian solicitude for the poor unwittingly softened the ground for Marxism, so too the founders’ focus on individual rights made it easier for subsequent thinkers to radicalize their demands and discard the considerable restrictions they placed on liberty (which are much broader than what Thompson’s libertarian interpretation of the founding suggests, as Thomas West demonstrates in The Political Theory of the American Founding).
Invoking a medical analogy, we could say that classical liberalism has a genetic predisposition to contract the disease of modern liberalism. The odds of Sparta or the biblical Hebraic polity contracting the disease are obviously nil. By contrast, a regime anchored in natural human equality and liberty is more likely to be overturned by promises of greater individual freedom and equality.
For example, something akin to modern feminism was almost certainly bound to come along at some point. One can admit this without mistakenly concluding that we were fated to succumb to it—no more than we are fated to cave in on polygamy, lowering the age of consent, or whatever else is next on the horizon. A predisposition, however strong, is not a predetermination.
The Costs of Security
There is another way in which classical liberalism unintentionally facilitates the rise of modern liberalism. By unleashing acquisitiveness and promoting commerce, classical liberalism generates not just tremendous wealth and innovation, but also great disruption and constant churning.
While conservatives and libertarians wax lyrical about the creative power of markets, progressives and liberals address the economic insecurities of workers and ordinary citizens. If capitalism is synonymous with creative destruction, then there will always be a political market for those whose livelihoods are threatened with destruction. Human beings, after all, long for security more than they do for opportunity—especially after they take on family responsibilities.
What’s more, commerce, by its very design, produces not just prosperity but also peace (it does so by elevating the peaceable bourgeois virtues over the more bellicose aristocratic ones). Over time, peace and prosperity make men forget about the harshness of necessity, thereby allowing their minds and mores to be more readily corrupted. “We are now suffering the calamities of long peace,” Juvenal laments in The Satires. “Luxury, more deadly than any foe, has laid her hand upon us, and avenges a conquered world.”
The founders all worried about the corrupting effects of commerce on the character of the people. “Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury?” John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson. “Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice, and folly?”
We know the founders’ answer: education in virtue and support for religion (Adams also favored sumptuary laws, but doubted whether Americans would submit to them). These, coupled with the fact that life in America was hard well into the 20th century, diminished the appeal of fanciful ideologies that promised happiness to all at no cost (beyond higher taxes on the rich). But eventually life got too easy.
Is it a coincidence that the radicalism of the ’60s was promoted and embraced by the first generation in American history to know neither want nor war (and when war came, it was in a faraway country and they opposed it)?
The Price of Prosperity
Returning to our current predicament, it is hard not to think that much of what ails us stems from the fact that we are a bored, safe, and prosperous people who have lost touch with the harshness of necessity (whether COVID changes things remains to be seen). The virtues necessary to sustain the founders’ regime are much harder to cultivate among men who take that very regime for granted and assume—as many in America today do—that peace and prosperity are the new normal, thereby allowing themselves to indulge in flights of fancy.
To a certain extent then, classical liberalism can be said to create conditions that undermine it. Lest we be too quick, on this account, to dismiss the manifold goods brought about by the founders’ regime, we should remember Hamilton’s reflections on the problems created by the “mischiefs of opulence.” Such mischiefs, he concluded, are the price to pay for erecting a system of “true liberty”: “Tis the portion of man assigned to him by the eternal allotment of Providence that every good he enjoys shall be alloyed with ills, that every source of his bliss shall be a source of his affliction—except virtue alone.”
Thompson, like Harry Jaffa before him, may ultimately be right that our founding principles are “true—objectively, absolutely, permanently, and universally true.” But it is equally true that no country, however well founded, is incorruptible and everlasting. And only by properly understanding the weaknesses of our regime can we hope to forfend them.