Book Rec: The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order

The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order
by Daniel J. Mahoney
Intercollegiate Studies Institute

I supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq for several reasons. First of all, I – like everyone else – believed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I also took into account Iraq’s history as an aggressor nation. When we entered the first Iraq War, we did so to stop Hussein from conquering neighboring Kuwait — and the cease-fire which prevented a complete regime change at that time was predicated upon Hussein’s living up to the terms outlined by the U.N. This Hussein repeatedly failed to do, so on those grounds alone, we had a right to relaunch the conflict. Lastly, it did matter to me that Hussein was a dictator who tortured, raped, and murdered his own people. We may have been mistaken in concluding that Hussein had a viable WMD program, but only a mendacious idiot would declare that this –

– was preferable to what the Iraqi people have now.

The merits – or lack thereof – of the second war in Iraq will surely be debated for years to come, but I think Daniel Mahoney is right to declare in his latest that one of the major flaws of George W. Bush’s foreign policy was its democratic triumphalism. Though it may be true that all men desire liberty, it is manifestly not the case that they all wish to have it in the post-modern Western style — and it would behoove us to remember that top-down impositions of “democracy” may not always be wise.

As it is, the West itself is having trouble maintaining the old small-l liberal order because, as Mahoney writes, “democracy” has breached its bounds and bled into areas of life where it has been damaging rather than salubrious. It is not enough for today’s antinomians that our governments are democratic. No – instead, we must have a radical democratization of everything. The old authoritative institutions – organized religion and the family especially – must be knocked down.

Our Founding Fathers were quite congnizant of democracy’s tendency to democratize in the manner described above, so while they often wrote in the radical cadences set by the Enlightenment, they practiced the art of government in a manner that was more conservative. John Adams, for example, once famously opined that our U.S. Constitution would remain adequate so long as the American people remained religious. These men, in other words, counted upon the continued existence of pre-democratic institutions to moderate their political project. And this model worked — for a time.

Unfortunately, Western society now looks upon “authority” with distinct suspicion. Consider, for example, the constant negative coverage of the Catholic Church. When you combine its various projects, the Catholic Church turns out to be the largest charitable organization on the planet. The Church also educates more children than any other private group, and it often does so in areas where resources are severely lacking. Its hierarchical structure, however, is positively medieval; outsiders often regard the Holy Father as a quasi-king and the cardinals as quasi-lords, and the terrific pageantry of a High Mass in Rome certainly does nothing to dispel that impression. And the Magisterium? The fact that we Catholics can’t decide for ourselves what we believe about God or about the moral law is seen as an absolutely unconscionable offense against the democracy project. Thus, many seek to destroy the Church by magnifying its flaws at the expense of honest reporting.

Consider too how the usual suspects approach the military. The military is also a hierarchical organization in which respect for rank is considered an absolute necessity. A good commander will often seek the input of his subordinates, but once he has made his final decision, that’s it — a soldier is obligated to follow that commander’s orders tout de suite. And there’s a good reason why the military is run in this fashion: On a battlefield, disobedience can result in death. Our post-modern anti-authoritarians don’t understand this, however, and so they demonize the military as blood-thirsty and stupid at every opportunity.

Ironically, in tearing down these pre-democratic institutions, our radicals have ushered in an era of declining liberty and greater state control. Once, a man’s faith was expected to restrain his avarice; now, we must discourage greed via government fiat. Once, it was considered hideously impolite to whistle at a woman on the street, and men were taught to honor female chastity and modesty; now, we have draconian sexual harrassment rules which, again, are imposed from above. Once, families were put in charge of the moral education of our children; now, we must write legislation to discourage schoolyard bullying. We are losing sight of the principle of subsidiarity because we have radically weakened those small, local, and frequently non-democratic institutions which once took up a lot of the social slack.

In reality, Mahoney points out, the boundaries that were formerly delineated by conservative institutions like the family and the Church were part of what allowed our democracies to remain stable in the years before the “culture of repudiation” came into vogue. To pull down those boundaries, as many post-modern Westerners have done, is sheer folly.

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