are you now or have you ever...

Friday, January 22, 2016

What kind of classical liberalism does the New Reform Club seek to conserve?

A recent reader sent along that inquiry after finding his way to the New Reform Club thanks to one of the recent Instalanches now regularly triggered by the excellent work done by our co-blogger, Seth Barrett Tillman. While I am sure that my colleagues here at the New Reform Club can each come up with their own take on how our work her ties back to the classical liberal tradition, I thought I would share my own answer to that question. In short, this blog exists to further the classical liberal tradition's orientation to politics and culture: an openness to argument & dialogue, grounded in a normative understanding of human nature, expressed through the language of natural law & natural rights, giving rise to a commitment to government limited in scope but vigorous in its legitimate functions, supported by a society that embraces innovation & individual initiative, mediating institutions and the vitality of traditional bonds of social order found in family, faith & friendship.  

Okay. That was a long sentence. Let's take a breath. Okay, now back to it. 

This approach to political and cultural engagement is most often associated with the political right today, but it not exclusively the preserve of the right. Left-conservatives like Christopher Lasch and Bill Kaufmann have embraced much of its wisdom, as have paleo-conservatives like Russell Kirk and M.E. Bradford. Distributionists like Belloc and Chesterton also fit comfortably within this definition. Belloc perhaps most of all due to his career as a member of Parliament, elected as part of the original Liberal Party in Great Britain, the successor party to the Whigs of blessed memory, which in turn had been the political home of the English statesman and grandfather of modern conservatism Edmund Burke.

As Russell Kirk once commented of Burke, "he was a conservative because he was a liberal." It is in that sense that this blog embodies the grand tradition of classical liberalism.  It avoids the ideological fervor of both modern left-liberalism and both left- and right-libertarianism. It seeks to cultivate the garden of discourse with strong opinions and strong convictions, preferring disagreement to superficial conformity. Embracing the wisdom of the liberal approach to politics that developed in the West in the aftermath of Reformation and Enlightenment, it seeks to conserve those Permanent Things that exist both above and beyond the control of the State, while recognizing the positive role that government plays when active within the proper sphere of its authority. This commitment to the liberal approach to politics is grounded not in relativism or in a sense of the futility of politics to discern moral order, but rather in the understanding that there exists a moral order discernible to human reason through observation of and reflection upon natural law.

And what is this natural law? For this we rely again on the commentary of Russell Kirk, this time from his lecture The Case For and Against Natural Law (1993):
Objectively speaking, natural law, as a term of politics and jurisprudence, may be defined as a loosely knit body of rules of action prescribed by an authority superior to the state. These rules variously (according to the several differing schools of natural-law and natural rights speculation) are derived from divine commandment; from the nature of humankind; from abstract Reason; or from long experience of mankind in community. But natural law does not appertain to states and courts merely. For primarily it is a body of ethical perceptions or rules governing the life of the individual person, quite aside from politics and jurisprudence. [...] The natural law should not be taken for graven Tables of Governance, to be followed to jot and tittle; appealed to in varying circumstances, the law of nature must be applied with high prudence. As Alessandro d'Entreves writes, "The lesson of natural law is in fact nothing but an assertion that law is a part of ethics." And, he concludes "The lesson of natural law [is] simply to remind the jurist of his own limitations.... This point where values and norms coincide, which is the ultimate origin of law and at the same time the beginning of moral life proper, is, I believe, what men for over two thousand years have indicated by the name of natural law." On the one hand, natural law must be distinguished from positive or statutory law, decreed by the state; on the other, from the "laws of nature" in a scientific sense -- that is, from propositions expressing the regular order of certain natural phenomena. Also natural law sometimes is confounded with assertions of "natural rights," which may or may not be founded upon classical and medieval concepts of natural law.
Acknowledgement of natural law, the avoidance of ideological dogmatism, the adherence to tradition, and an understanding that this side of heaven, change is inevitable and reform desirable mark this blog's approach to the issues of the day.  At the same time, this blog recognizes that constructive reform preserves a continuity with the past that is integrated rather than fragmented. Beneficial reform does not embrace disruptive change for the sake of disruption. All of us stand or fall as part of a great chain of being that links our ancestry with future generations. To uphold these bonds, these mystic cords (to borrow a phrase from Lincoln), is the task of everyone who identifies as a classical liberal. It is also the task of the New Reform Club. 

Edmund Burke, that great conservative and great liberal, would expect no less. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

As Russell Kirk once commented of Burke, "he was a conservative because he was a liberal." It is in that sense that this blog embodies the grand tradition of classical liberalism.

Not bad. Along with your tethering "liberalism" to natural law [after all, liberty is claimed as a "natural right"], we're in the zone.

Mark D. said...

That was my thinking. Locke, after all, was a natural law theorist as well as a natural rights proponent.