Confronting “The Limits of Liberalism”

Confronting “The Limits of Liberalism” June 23, 2019

In recent months, much of the intellectual energy among conservative thinkers has been oriented toward a reexamination of first principles—whether, for instance, the American social order was always destined to abandon tradition and collapse into a tribalistic struggle for power. As I’ve written about here and elsewhere, that reexamination has played out across multiple online publications and in the pages of numerous recent books. Mark T. Mitchell’s new volume, The Limits of Liberalism, is a fruitful extension of that conversation.

As it so happens, Mitchell—chair of the government department at Patrick Henry College—was my undergraduate political theory professor. (He did his best with us, but far too many of us were focused on the bare mechanics of politics (matters of technē) rather than the logic of the polis itself. If only I could go back and tell my twenty-year-old self to pay better attention.)Much of Mitchell’s scholarly work has focused on issues of scale, place, and community, contra the universalizing cosmopolitanism common to contemporary neoliberal culture. (His arguments have much in common with those of Yoram Hazony, though the two might differ with respect to the ideal size of a political community.) The Limits of Liberalismis a more aggressive text, one that examines the premises of modern life and finds many of them wanting.

Happily, his new book strikes me as perhaps the best of the recent flurry of “postliberal” conservative texts (and I’m fairly sure I’ve read most of them). I have a deep and abiding admiration for writers who can seamlessly draw on the insights of philosophy, theology, and the arts, weaving these elements into a compelling argument (Anthony Kronman, Charles Taylor, and Leo Strauss spring to mind)—and Mitchell’s book, which invokes thinkers as disparate as St. Augustine, Rene Descartes, and T.S. Eliot, is just such an achievement.

Mitchell gratifyingly resists the urge to justify his critique of liberalism by racking up examples of moral decline in society (a vice far too many conservative writers indulge). Instead, he begins by noting (quite uncontroversially) that much of contemporary liberalism refuses to recognize the legitimacy of tradition (understood quite broadly to encompass religion, inherited wisdom, cultural narrative, and so forth) as a source of real knowledge that may be deployed in the public square. This, Mitchell contends, is a profoundly incoherent stance.

Through close readings of the philosophers Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Polanyi, Mitchell argues persuasively that all knowledge necessarily proceeds from indemonstrable first principles (such as the very affirmation of a reality external to human beings, or the belief that one’s senses are reliable guides to that reality) that cannot be demonstrated deductively. These first principles mustbe accepted—try as one might to avoid them—in order for any rational inquiry whatsoever to proceed. The pattern of intellectual inquiry that proceeds from such first principles thus becomes a tradition of rationality. Indeed, the very use of language to communicate truth-claims about the world presupposes such a tradition: we generally assume without question that certain linguistic utterances have a stable meaning across conversations, that the objects referred to by words are ascertainable between speakers, and so forth.

This insight, if carried to its logical conclusion, guts the Rawlsian notion of “public reason.” To the extent that the members of a liberal social order seek to purge “faith-based’ reasoning from the public square—that is, to predicate public decision-making on the basis of entirely neutral principles perfectly demonstrable to all—those members delude themselves. No exercise of rationality, however ambitious, can ever free itself from the need for indemonstrable priors. This tension can only be resolved through what Polanyi described as “pseudo-substitution”: a regime pays lip service to neutrality while demonstrating a commitment to certain first principles through its actions.

Despite acknowledging this irresolvable contradiction at the heart of modern liberalism, Mitchell is no integralist or “Aristopopulist.” The alternative he proposes is one of “humane localism”—a political order that (speaking broadly) recognizes the inevitably tradition-bound character of rationality, the smaller settings within which those traditions develop, and the necessity of space for those traditions to flourish. It’s not entirely clear if Mitchell shares Montesquieu’s skepticism about large-scale republican projects, but there are clear gestures in that direction.

While its outline of a postliberal order perhaps leaves something to be desired, all in all The Limits of Liberalism is a powerful and well-reasoned book with a central argument that—to my mind—truly succeeds. What’s more, it manages to avoid many of the issues currently fracturing the emerging postliberal right: perhaps I’m showing my Protestant colors here, but the book is greatly helped by the fact that Mitchell (an Anglican) doesn’t slip into some version of the “Reformation ruined everything” argument. His arguments are leaner and sharper, focused more on the conceptual difficulties of Enlightenment-era rationalism than on the need for a totalizing system of social authority. This, I imagine, will give his arguments a far greater reach among contemporary conservatives.

One issue Mitchell never really addresses, however, is the question of constitutionalism (and, by extension, what it means for a tradition to develop “legitimately”). Presumably, an authoritative text such as a constitution or charter can lay the groundwork from which a coherent tradition of rationality may develop (namely, the common law, the statutory code, and judicial precedent). But judging by the divisions in American political life today, constitutionalism alone seems insufficient.  To my mind, it would appear that successful reasoning within a tradition inevitably requires certain hermeneutic commitments (such as some form of adherence to a principle of “original meaning”) that extend beyond one’s mere profession of affiliation with a particular tradition. The absence of such additional commitments, it would seem, leads to the desaturation—and ultimately, the dissolution—of a tradition, as the tradition becomes indistinguishable from its rivals.

This, I admit, is a comparatively minor omission—and perhaps one that does not directly bear on Mitchell’s project here. As it stands, The Limits of Liberalism is a compelling and worthwhile contribution to the ongoing intellectual debate over the future of political life in the West—and it undoubtedly belongs on any philosophical conservative’s reading list.


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  • I’m sure I haven’t read as much as you, but from what I have read of these anti-liberal screeds it seems to me that they are seriously wrong in their history. Hayek has the best history of modern liberalism in his “The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason.” His “Individualism: True and False” is also important. He shows that classical liberalism and true individualism cared deeply about community, tradition, family and especially Christianity. Freedom meant no more than the right to life, liberty and property that the state couldn’t violate. Atheists in the “Enlightenment” fabricated the false individualism that good Christians abhor today and which became the foundation of socialism. The late 19th century economist and socialist JS Mills corrupted the term “liberal” to means socialism and the false individualism that came with it.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    As one who is at least somewhat familiar with the political systems of several other nations, it always drives me up the wall to see “liberal” rendered synonymous with “leftist” in US political discourse. In most of the world, there is the right wing on one end of the political spectrum and the left wing on the other. One usually does find “conservatives” on the right wing, along with various forms of nationalists, populists, and even fascists. Of course one finds socialists and communists on the left wing, along with assorted other extremists. In most of the world, the center is occupied by “liberals.” I thus find it both inaccurate and offensive to identify “liberals” with “leftists.” True liberals are not leftists, and true leftists are not liberals.

    Part of the problem, no doubt, is that for a long time the US hardly had a left wing at all. The very few true leftists we had were on the radical fringe and well outside the mainstream. Only recently – with Bernie Sanders, mostly – have we seen the re-emergence of the first real left wing since Eugene V. Debs. The association of centrist liberals with the left was thus mainly a product of right-wing propaganda – a ploy which most Americans, even in the media, swallowed hook, line, and sinker for decades.

  • Christiane Smith

    yes, at university, I was taught that there was a ‘continuum’ with two extreme ends: at one end were ‘fascists’ and at the other ‘communists’, so your comment makes sense to me. My professor was educated in England, and how this might have influenced his teaching content, I do know that he was able to see these extremes as applying to more than one country.

    I’ve recently heard some ‘conservatives’ say that fascism and communism were both ‘leftist’ ideas, but I did not buy into that, no. I do believe I had a fairly good professor who went quite deeply into the history of Western Civilization for example by helping us to see the development of ‘law’ from the time of the Roman Empire into the founding of our American government. So he had a grasp and an appreciation for how themes related to movements actually developed down through the ages.

    Your comment resonated with me.

  • Christiane Smith

    I do think that anti-liberal screeds do mis-represent ‘socialism’ as it applies to ‘the common good’. There seems a great paradox among the kind of ‘conservative’ viewpoints that applaud ‘the survival of the fittest’ over a communal ‘social contract’ devoted to the common good as a practical effort that benefits ALL involved. . . . . the ‘rugged individualism’ of the ‘you’re on your own’ conservatism does even affect the ‘abortion issue’ in this way: the conservative moral teaching decries the taking of the life of an unborn child, while also applauding the fact that our national government here in the US offers NO paid leave benefits to new parents, which is something seen at some level in most civilized nations which are a part of the Western Tradition.

    I can’t sort this thinking out, but it seems that a moral movement to want to stop abortions would certain also support the principle of paid leave for a new mother at least. But no. Not here. In this country which has so much wealth. I am left bewildered. Something else is going on in that strange thinking that is NOT logical or rational. I’m not quite sure if there are even labels out there for this ‘divide’ among ‘conservative’ people. The least charitable thought I’ve had is that voting for a candidate who is ‘against abortion’ doesn’t cost anything. Votes are cast, hands are washed of responsibility for the possible consequences, and new mothers are left wondering how they can possibly manage to support themselves and their newborn. Sometimes women who are worried much about this do make decisions that they later regret. But frightened, desperate people often do.

    But I digress . . .

  • The problem is that free marketeers think they promote the common good and they have history on their side. Until the advent of capitalism, most people lived like the majority in Bangladesh. Capitalism gave the West it’s great wealth and the benefits that came with it, such as health and science. And we didnt steal it from anyone. Free marketeers, the true right, believe that no group of people who what the common good is than does any individual. The main question is who will decide what is the common good? Adam Smith showed that competition for consumers in a free market will force businesses to achieve the common good, decided by consumers, even if they don’t intend to do it.

    As for abortion and family leave, there is no contradiction. The role of he state is to protect the life, liberty and property of the people. Unborn babies have a right to life so the state should protect it. But people have no right to family leave unless they pay for it themselves. Forcing someone else to pay for their leave violates the right to property of the ones who pay for it and could be considered theft. The one involves the right to life and the other the right to property.

  • Christiane Smith

    you are right about this part:
    ‘if we are not for ourselves, who will be?’

    but your model does not consider this:
    “if we are not for others, what are we?’

    in some better world than this, Roger McKinney, new life WOULD be welcomed;
    but your model is not quite there yet . . . what’s missing lies in the realm of the ‘humane’.

    sometimes being ‘kind’ takes precedence over being ‘right’, especially when it concerns the care of a new hopefully healthy baby and its mother’s well-being which MUST also be considered if you are at all concerned for the life of the infant,
    so I would hope that some balance is found that allows for our nation to also be seen among the world’s civilized nations as one that is FOR welcoming new life.

    Thank you for your response, Mr. McKinney.
    God Bless.

  • Sorry but I don’t see how kindness fits in.

  • Christiane Smith

    Hello Roger McKinney,

    you leave me wondering what your thoughts might be on our nation having a more theonomic government; one that also permits and encourages libertarian economic principles . . .

    I wonder about this because you seem to want to make abortion to be a ‘crime against the state’ in which case, the actual laws of our country must then revoke ‘Roe v. Wade’ whereupon any woman who gets an ‘illegal’ abortion then becomes a criminal against the ‘state’, a murderess, who must be held accountable for a crime against the state, rather than just to see her as someone who has violated a law of God. That development would certainly be a more ‘theonomic’ form of government than we have at present time.

    I also wonder about your thoughts to do with ‘libertarian’ economic principles . . . . the seeing of taxation for anything other than the national defense as the government ‘stealing’ the people’s monies. In these circumstances, only private groups would give aid to help new parents during that critical time when a nursing mother needs time for the initial period of the lactation which can pass the mother’s immunities over to the baby until the infant can be vaccinated (this is only ONE good reason for close parental contact between mother and new-born in the first weeks after birth, so many others)

    I choose to wonder if PERHAPS your statement “I don’t see how kindness fits in” might have been because of your philosophical admiration for certain theonomic / libertarian ideals.

    I cannot know this, but from what you have stated, it might possibly put some light on the full meaning of your last reply to me.