This is now called conservatism

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

American politics can be considered a tale of three liberalisms, George Will argues, in The Conservative Sensibility:

[T]he first of which, classical liberalism, teaches that the creative arena of human affairs is society, as distinct from government. Government’s proper function is to protect the conditions of life and liberty, primarily for the individual’s private pursuit of happiness. This is now called conservatism. Until the New Deal, however, it was the Jeffersonian spirit of most of the Democratic Party.

FDR’s New Deal liberalism was significantly more ambitious. He said that until the emergence of the modern industrial economy, “government had merely been called upon to produce the conditions within which people could live happily, labor peacefully and rest secure.” Now it would be called upon to play a grander role. It would not just provide conditions in which happiness, understood as material well-being, could be pursued. Rather, it would become a deliverer of happiness itself. Government, FDR said, has “final responsibility” for it. This “middle liberalism” of the New Deal supplemented political rights with economic rights.

The New Deal, the modern state it created, and the class of people for whom the state provided employment led to the third liberalism, that of the 1960s and beyond. This “managerial liberalism” celebrates the role of intellectuals and other policy elites in rationalizing society from above, wielding the federal government and the “science” of public administration, meaning bureaucracy.

The apotheosis of the first phase of liberalism, in Will’s view, was the American Founding, as Arnold Kling explains:

Madison and the other Founders took at as given that human nature made us sufficiently equal to deserve identical treatment under the law, sufficiently different to benefit from liberty and autonomy, sufficiently bellicose to require a government that could resolve disputes peacefully, and sufficiently factional that preventing one coalition from dominating the rest required a system of checks and balances.

Read the whole thing.


  1. Dave says:

    In other words, the “good” kind of liberalism lasted for about one generation, then began a long slide down a slippery slope of ever more insane forms of liberalism.

    Equality was always a joke. If Jefferson actually believed that all men were created equal, he’d have freed his slaves. The Founders all got the joke but subsequent generations didn’t. Adults often tell pretty lies to sound nice or smart; children believe these lies and incorporate into the official belief system.

  2. Kirk says:

    I think you do Jefferson and the rest of the Founders a disservice.

    I put it to you that having grown up in a milieu of chattel slavery, just having the aspirational ideals that they had was one hell of an achievement. Name for me any great Greek or Roman who looked at his slave-based economy, and said “This is evil…”.

    We make a mistake to judge those men with our values of today; we should look at the state of things when and where they came from. I find it amazing that someone like Jefferson could conceive the things he did, with his background and where he came from. Yeah, he did not rise to the standards he thought up, but he did at least come up with them, which is more than many others managed.

    It’s ironic that so many want these men to be plaster saints, without flaw or fracture. They were men, and we should look to what they aspired to, and try to reach those goals rather than look back at them and sneer for their failings. They pointed the way, even if they could not bring themselves to live their own ideals.

  3. Bruce says:

    Jefferson was broke after the British burned his property, and he never really got solvent after. He had to sell his library. He had no chance of offering pensions to his freed slaves, and just setting them loose to prosper, die, or go bandit was against the law. So he never made his promise to free them good. Washington freed and pensioned his slaves.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    In the real world, never say “A is equal to B” unless you have an answer to “equal in what sense?”

    “All men are created equal” makes perfect sense in context. It’s when you separate it from the other clauses in its sentence that the mischief begins.

  5. Dave says:

    Jim makes a convincing case that men are not created equal in any sense of the word. We have the same body temperature, that’s about it.

  6. Graham says:

    Glad to see the transition is almost complete.

    Bill Kristol a couple of years ago basically issued the call for neoconservatism to embrace its identity as liberalism, and not only in the classical sense. This at least would bring America-centred war-driven globalism into direct conceptual alignment with international economic globalism, which has long been assigned the name “neoliberalism”. I’m all about terminological synchronization.

    It seemed like Rich Lowry had taken National Review down that path for many years and I’d probably still say so, though I gather today they are taking a lot of heat from the likes of Max Boot.

    Pity to carry George Will along. I always enjoyed his 80s columns citing things like the debates of the Scottish Parliament pre-1707.

  7. Graham says:


    From the days of Marx Himself, the left has been pushing against the idea of procedural equality ["equality before the law"] as evil, because not reflecting the fundamental equality of all. A Whig fig-leaf, basically.

    I’ve been trying on a set of ideas with a coworker, without persuasive effect but without outrage, either.

    I like public provision of education and health insurance, infrastructure, and so on. What can you do. I’m used to these. I even am slightly persuaded by the idea that while society is not duty bound to endure equality of outcome, it has some role in ensuring equality of opportunity through provision of those resources it provides, equally.

    Beyond that, which is rather a procedural take, I’m not even sure it’s society’s job to provide equality of opportunity. It needn’t equalize parenting styles, socialization experiences, and so on. Rather, play the cards you’re dealt as best you can and we’ll give you equivalent resources from whatever we provide the generality. And the same treatment in the courts.

    The justification would be something like, “human beings are visibly, radically unequal by measures large or small in every dimension of ability and character. As these measures, and priorities of ability and character, are in constant, never ending flux, no society can assign in advance a position in a durable hierarchy that is both rational and just. Only events can do that.”

  8. CVLR says:

    Bruce: “He had to sell his library.”

    Torching the White House wasn’t enough, they had to make Thomas Jefferson sell his library also?

    It just never ends with these Englishmen.

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