I pointed out that such a politics isn't likely, by itself, to be conservative. Genuine conservatism is concerned to uphold, in Lawrence Auster's definition, "a substantive spiritual, cultural and social order". But a politics based on the idea of doing whatever we like, as long as we don't impede the negative liberty of others, effectively denies the existence of such an order. And so classical liberalism in countries like Australia tends to be strongly socially liberal rather than socially conservative.
As a case study, I looked at the politics of Sean Hannity. He holds to a classical liberal philosophy but is not as socially liberal as his Australian counterparts are, because he goes beyond the concepts of negative liberty and the free market and recognises that society won't work without some traditional moral virtues.
What was the response to my argument? We had an excellent discussion at this site and someone also linked the post to the American Free Republic website. One of the most interesting responses was from a commenter at Free Republic. He argued that classical liberals had recognised from the start that their philosophy wouldn't work unless the population was virtuous:
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other"
What the writer fails to realize about classical liberalism and our founding fathers is that morality and our religion was the fabric that weaved this country together and helped to make our government work.
Many on here (myself included) enjoy the writings of Ayan Rand. Yet, for all her wisdom she never understood how or why the philosophy she espoused worked. It worked because a moral and religious people followed it...
A writer that few freepers ever allude to understood why this country was so great and why classical liberalism worked. If you read Alex DeToqueville's "Democracy in America", he marvelled at our religous people and understood why it flourished. Because it was not forced upon them as in the state run religions of Europe but because a free people willingly lived under a moral and religous code.
He's right. The classical liberals did recognise that their philosophy required certain attributes of character and moral virtue in a population to succeed. It's noticeable even when it comes to someone like J.S. Mill, who was not a Christian, but whose liberal individual was to be high-minded, cultivated and morally self-disciplined.
But here's the catch. How do classical liberals expect that virtue and character in a population will be maintained? What is there in the classical liberal philosophy that will uphold the moral standards that the philosophy requires for its success?
J.S. Mill pinned his hopes on education:
Nothing hinders us from so training a man that he will not, even for a disinterested purpose, violate the moral law, and also feeding and encouraging those high feelings, on which we mainly rely for lifting men above low and sordid objects ...
Well, higher education has expanded massively since Mill's time, but culture has become more, and not less, oriented to "low and sordid objects". Mill also seems to have fundamentally misunderstood human nature in his claim that people could simply be trained not to violate the moral law. That, surely, is an overly optimistic, utopian claim.
So higher education, in and of itself, is not sufficient. Another option has been put forward by a reader of this site, Alte. She argues that it is the growth of the state which is responsible for moral decline:
Furthermore, in our country we have seen over the years that the growth of the state leads to a decline in values. The state is inherently anti-tradition because it undermines patriarchy (which relies on strict subsidiarity to survive). We generally believe that if the state would just back off and let men handle things on their own, the social situation would improve.
That's a better suggestion. It's true that the state has intervened in society in ways which undermine the virtues. If you're a teenage girl, for instance, the state now makes it much easier to be promiscuous and to have a child out of wedlock (in the UK, as I understand it, such girls even get a council flat as well as an allowance, so single motherhood becomes a means to an "independent" lifestyle). And what happens to the young men whom these girls would once have looked to in order to form a household? They are no longer subject to the same pressures to act responsibly as fathers or providers.
So Alte's argument does have merit. Even so, I don't think it's sufficient. Is it really the case that if people were left to their own devices that people would then be virtuous and follow the good? Isn't it the case that human nature is fallen? Won't at least some people, if left alone, choose to act for their own selfish purposes rather than for the good?
And there are other problems. Classical liberalism encourages the idea that the goods we follow are private virtues rather than public ones. That's because the focus on negative liberty means that we see things in terms of individual choice and non-interference. So even if I have had a stable marriage and believe that to be an important good in my life, I'll be reluctant to assert it as a public good for others.
But people do need a sense of common principles or standards in society. So the void gets filled by the general principles of classical liberalism, such as negative liberty and a free market. These become the public goods of society, rather than the traditional virtues. So an action might be validated as "good" if it fits in with the free market or with individual choice (e.g. "I'm just an entrepreneur providing a service" or "This is what I freely choose to do".)
So the more conservative private virtues are subordinated to more liberal public ones, even in a society dominated by classical liberals. But, of course, we don't even have such a society. In Western societies, there is a large cohort of left-liberals. And they have a vision of positive liberty, in which the state acts to establish the conditions of life favoured by left-liberals.
And left-liberals are handed a tremendous advantage by classical (i.e. right) liberals. The classical liberal might be a terrific family man, living his life successfully according to socially conservative principles. But he is likely to treat this as a purely private good.
The left-liberal who opposes the traditional family, on the other hand, is more than happy to use the power of the state to force his own view on the whole of society. So left-liberals get to march through the institutions and to win the culture war over and over.
Which then means that right-liberals, living as they do in this culture, are always being dragged to the left. They might put up some resistance to the latest leftist cause, but once it's established they get influenced by the culture and come to accept it.
There is one final problem with the idea that cutting back the state will protect the virtue and character of the citizenry. Right liberal parties, even when they are in power for extended periods of time, rarely cut back on the social programmes of the state. No doubt there are a number of reasons for this. But I suspect that one reason is that right liberals quietly support the existence of many such programmes, even when they have been established by the left.
Classical liberals tend to share the view with the left that individual choice should not be limited by inherited group affiliations, such as our membership of a sex or ethny. What is supposed to matter is individual character, rather than unchosen characteristics such as being a man or a woman, a Chinese or a Swede. Classical liberals are therefore often sympathetic to the larger liberal aim of making such group affiliations not matter.
So what happens if they continue to matter? It's true that classical liberals formally don't approve of coercive, state action to suppress group differences. But if left-liberals have established some sort of affirmative action programme, for instance, or special funding for a "disadvantaged" ethnic group, then right liberals in power may not be unsympathetic to it.
In practice, right liberals have preferred to cut back the economic functions of the state (e.g. privatisation) rather than the social programmes.
a) Classical liberalism requires something external to it to succeed: the existence of standards of moral virtue.
b) The classical liberal aim of limited government might encourage such standards in certain areas. But it's not clear that classical liberals in power would actually limit government by cutting social programmes they philosophically approve of. And even if such programmes were radically cut, and people were left to themselves, there is still considerable scope for people to use this negative freedom to act immorally.
c) Classical liberalism tends to reduce traditional forms of morality to private or personal goods. This makes them difficult to defend. First, because negative liberty and the free market are recognised over time as higher ranking public goods. So the standard is no longer the traditional morality, but whether an action accords with the free market or individual choice. The traditional forms of morality lose their standing.
Second, left-liberals have a vision of positive liberty, in which the state is used to guarantee individual conditions of life. So left-liberals are highly motivated to seize control of the state to implement their more radical social programmes. This means that a small number of left-liberals can use the state to influence society in an effective way. In contrast, a very large number of more conservative-minded family men will have little influence, because they regard the goods they follow as private or personal values.
If the larger culture is drawn leftward, the mainstream right will adapt to it.
It is therefore not enough for classical/right liberals to affirm that their philosophy requires a standard of virtue in society. They have to make clear how they would assert traditional forms of morality as high ranking public rather than private goods; and how they would effectively establish these public goods in society given the existence of a left that is willing to use the state to enforce its own vision of society.