How does a Conservative differ from a Liberal? Part 3 (Footloose and Fancy-Free)
Updated: Apr 5
Years ago, comedian and director Woody Allen had the legendary conservative icon William F. Buckley on his TV show. The audience was invited to ask questions of either of them when someone asked: “Mr. Allen, in your terms, what does liberal mean?” Woody Allen responded:
“Liberal [pause] well, you’ve got me on this [another pause] I, um, if—let me—if a girl will neck with me, she’s liberal. If Mr. Buckley will neck with me, he’s very liberal.”
That One Thing Liberals Can Agree On
I began both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series differentiating between progressive and classical liberals, so I won’t subject the reader to yet another lengthy explanation here. However, I do want to clarify one thing before moving on. I had earlier tried to make the point that the two ideologies could hardly be further apart as one calls for government involvement in providing “freedom” while the other demands the government stay out of our lives to preserve “freedom”.
But I may have gone too far in trying to stress their differences; for there is an important way in which they are actually quite similar. Both progressive and classical liberals may disagree sharply on the means of acquiring or maintaining liberty or the basis for our liberties, but they are united in the idea that the individual should be “free” to live their lives unencumbered by stuffy cultural norms, traditions, expectations, and religious doctrines.
“The doctrinaire liberal, from the beginning, repudiated authority, tradition, and the wisdom of our ancestors, intending to supplant these checks upon the natural man by Rationality with a capital R,” Russell Kirk wrote, disapprovingly. As we explored in Part 2, liberalism rejected the ancient understanding of liberty as freedom from both external constraints and internal passions to move the individual towards some greater good or the will of God and instead reframed it as freedom from only externalities to move the individual towards their own sense of self-actualization. To the liberal, only the individual is qualified to determine what is best for the individual.
Liberalism has long championed the rugged individualism that’s built the economic powerhouses and cultural varieties of Western society. Individuals pursuing their own self-interests, living lives free from the tyranny of external authorities directing their actions, have—by many important measurements—accomplished a great deal more than entire nation-states directed by monarchs, spiritual leaders, or collectivist ideologies.
Mr. Allen Necking with Mr. Buckley
No other nation has applied classical liberal principles or cultivated a stronger sense of individualism than the United States. And most Americans celebrate that fact even as they entwine freedom from externalities into their identity. For some, this means they are owners of property and not just stewards of property owned by the State. For others, it means celebrating self-expression like footloose teenagers rebelling against their town’s prohibition against playing or dancing to rock music. And for others, it means the freedom to push beyond cultural norms and religious traditions that frowned upon Mr. Allen necking with Mr. Buckley.
Woody Allen’s definition may have been insufficient, but it wasn’t inaccurate. For the more “liberal” one becomes, the more they are wary of any outside authority imposing some constraint on otherwise footloose and fancy free individuals reaching for whatsoever their hearts desire; whether that’s being their own boss in a niche industry or reading books to children at the public library while dressed in drag.
Don’t misunderstand me here—I am not saying that someone is more liberal if they personally desire to partake in behaviors that run contrary to cultural norms or external constraints. I mean that someone is more liberal as they defend the “rights” of the individual to partake in those things. Self-professed classical liberal David French has frequently said on his podcast that he doesn’t support drag queens reading to children at a public library, but that does not mean he believes the government should have the power to stop them. Someone who is less liberal than David may argue this sort of behavior ought to be outlawed. And someone who is more liberal than David may say that the real problem here are the religious and cultural norms that impose some puritanical sense of morality that says it’s wrong for drag queens to read to children.
The Connectivity of Community
“Liberalism encourages loose connections,” wrote Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen in his conspicuously titled book Why Liberalism Failed. But strong connections are vital to the wellbeing of a community. In fact—“communities chasten the absolutist claims of ‘rights bearers’”—a fact that has infuriated children everywhere who protest the parental order’s tyrannical rules over bedtime, sharing, and household chores.
“Community begins with the family but extends outward to incorporate an appropriate locus of the common good,” Deneen continues. Community is a place of “constraint and limits. Indeed, in this simple fact lies its great attraction. Properly conceived, community is the appropriate setting for flourishing human life—flourishing that requires culture, discipline, constraint, and forms.” All around us are constraints, norms, and boundaries that allow communities to flourish. If we were all free from one another in an absolute sense there could be no family, no church, no state, not even a friend who held significance in your life beyond the mutual exchange of pleasures.
Deneen doesn’t mince words in expressing the damage left by communities subjected to hyper-individualism:
“In the wake of disassembled local cultures, there is no longer a set of norms by which to cultivate self-rule, since these would constitute an unjust limitation upon our freedom. Now there can be only punitive threats that occur after the fact. Most institutions have gotten out of the business of seeking to educate the exercise of freedom through cultivation of character and virtue; emphasis is instead placed upon the likelihood of punishment after one body has harmed another body.”
One noteworthy aspect of liberal societies is how rapidly they’ve moved from attitudes of Victorian prudishness when it comes to sex to the insistence that the expression of all sexual lifestyles must not only be tolerated but openly celebrated. Why? “Eros must be raised to the level of religious cult in modern society,” explains Patrick Deneen, “It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his ‘individuality.’ The body must be the true ‘subject’ of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire.”
Notice the striking similarities between the liberal idea of how a government’s legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed and how liberal society reduces the ethics of sexual relations to the consent of the individual. Sexual acts are permissible so long as they take place between consenting adults, irrespective of cultural or religious norms. The only remaining constraints are that the individuals must be adults and they must not violate the other’s consensual declarations. But it does not follow that consent prevents harm. And some have begun to suggest even pedophilia should be accepted as an unchangeable sexual orientation.
The reader may object here that I’m beginning to imply liberals celebrate sexual debauchery. While this may be true of some, there certainly are many classical liberals who adhere to cultural norms of all varieties and encourage others to do the same. However, there’s nothing within the liberal ideology that produced those norms. They came from somewhere outside of liberalism.
Liberalism divorced of norms and taken to its ultimate end would result in the absolute unfettered expression of every individual—regardless of how noble, goofy, evil, or debaucherous it may be. Much of conservatism then—in an effort to conserve liberalism—is the project of cultivating norms that come from places outside of the liberal system. And this is where we’ll pick things up in Part 4.