Juliana Pilon, Senior Fellow, The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, has recently written a book An Idea Betrayed: Jews, Liberalism, and the American Left in which she explores the paradox of liberalism. Dr. Pilon continues to explore this theme in “Classical, New, or Conservative Liberalism?” in the April 20 issue of the online journal Law & Liberty, published by Liberty Fund. She begins her essay, “Are American conservatives the real liberals?”
Pilon concurs with the distinguished historian Louis Hartz that the Founders were simultaneously conservative and revolutionary, bonded to experience and tradition but also influenced by an antihistorical rationalism. “Was the original commitment to what eighteenth-century British thinkers referred to as ‘the system of natural liberty’ rationalist, traditionalist, conservative, radical, universalist, nationalist, democratic, or individualistic?” she questioned. “Clearly, or rather unclearly, it was none and all of the above.”
Thanks in large part to Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey, liberalism as a coherent system of ideas began to erode in the Western world in the 20th century. In the United States, Pilon laments, “‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations.”
At the end of World War II, pushing back against this trend, stood Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and other members of the Mont Pèlerin Society. They defended freedom “against the challenges of bureaucratic centralism at home and Soviet totalitarianism abroad.” They bridled at the sleight of hand being practiced: The word “liberalism” was being commandeered by “ideologues committed to its erosion, if not its destruction on the road to serfdom.”
Liberalism in its original usage appeared “respectful of both reason and sentiment, fact and faith. . . . True liberal conservatives were never violent. But neither were they timorous and afraid of change—on the contrary, they embraced change, innovation, and inclusion, provided it was uncoerced.” Hayek, one the most famous practitioners of classical liberalism, recoiled at the excesses of the French Revolution. But had no problem with “true religion” because it was based on choice and lacked the coercive element.
“It takes but a modicum of common sense to grasp that loving oneself does not exclude loving others,” observes Pilon. “Though egocentrism comes first—each baby instinctively oblivious to all but its own survival—maturity soon teaches the virtue of transcending oneself. The solipsist, a hapless Narcissus, sooner or later sinks into bottomless nihilism. But while the Greek mythological figure merely drowned himself, the psychopathic solipsist can drown an entire civilization. To save it from its discontents, a return to the original liberalism respectful of both reason and sentiment, fact and faith, is this generation’s principal challenge.”