The Fight Conservatives Are Having Over Theocracy and Classical Liberalism Obscures How Beaten Their Movement Is

The postwar era has been an endless series of rebukes to social conservatives—and a win for libertarians.


Watching an ugly, name-calling rift on the right between theocratic Catholics on the one hand and classical-liberalish evangelicals on the other, you could be forgiven for thinking that the conservative movement still has some intellectual life left in it. In the scant week since New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari attacked what he called "David French-ism" in a bilious article for First Things, the internet has exploded with dozens of pieces on the matter, including a long column in The New York Times by Ross Douthat, a detailed explainer in Vox by Jane Coaston, and an hour-long discussion of the stakes on a recent Reason podcast featuring Katherine Mangu-Ward, Peter Suderman, Matt Welch, and me.

But the deeper effect of the ideological slap fight is to underscore how social conservatives have lost essentially every culture-war battle they have prosecuted since the modern conservative movement got started with the launch of National Review in 1955. Whether they want to use power of the state to compel or restrict certain behaviors (as Ahmari argues) or believe they can win debates in a noncoercive marketplace of ideas (as National Review's David French, the specific target of Ahmari's ire, posits), both sides have wanted the same basic social and cultural outcomes over the past several decades, including a rejection of marriage equality, a ban on abortion except to save the life of the mother, the continued prohibition of most or all currently illicit drugs, an end to no-fault divorce, restrictions on the number and variety of immigrants, tighter controls on whatever they deem to be obscenity and pornography, a bigger role for religion in the public square, and an embrace of what they consider to be traditional sexual mores, marriage conventions, and gender roles.

The most you can say is that conservatives may have slowed down social trends, thus validating National Review founder William F. Buckley's cri de guerre that conservatives existed to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." In the mid-1950s, Buckley targeted "liberal orthodoxy" and "relativism" as the immediate domestic enemies to be engaged. Writing a few months after the 9/11 attacks and after the capture of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" soldier who was raised by hippies in Marin County and captured fighting against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, National Review's Jonah Goldberg identified "cultural libertarianism" as the real problem:

Cultural libertarianism basically says that whatever ideology, religion, cult, belief, creed, fad, hobby, or personal fantasy you like is just fine so long as you don't impose it on anybody else, especially with the government. You want to be a Klingon? Great! Attend the Church of Satan? Hey man, if that does it for ya, go for it. You want to be a "Buddhist for Jesus"? Sure, mix and match, man; we don't care. Hell, you can even be an observant Jew, a devout Catholic or a faithful Baptist, or a lifelong heroin addict—they're all the same, in the eyes of a cultural libertarian. Just remember: Keep it to yourself if you can. Don't claim that being a Lutheran is any better than being a member of the Hale-Bopp cult, and never use the government to advance your view. If you can do that, then—whatever floats your boat.

As I argued at the time (and continue to do so), this is a serious misrepresentation of libertarian thought, especially regarding the right to question and critique the sagacity of other people's freely chosen decisions. (Any meeting of 10 libertarians will yield twice as many opinions about any topic.) For instance, granting freedom of religion, a core libertarian and classical liberal value, in no way implies that you're not allowed to question other people's theology or life choices. If anything, it may demand it. The same goes for the choices that particular businesses make. I believe that as a matter of law, Facebook and YouTube should have the right to adopt whatever content-regulation policies they wish, but that hardly stops me or anyone else from criticizing their specific choices, many of which are stupid beyond words.

But Goldberg was right to identify libertarianism, rather than liberalism or even progressivism, as the true engine of social change. Thanks to the rise of cheaper and better means of self-expression (most notably the internet), American cultural production and consumption has boomed and everything become more individualized and personalized. Since Goldberg's column, it seems inarguable that American culture has evolved in an increasingly libertarian direction, one that grants the individual, rather than the group, what Friedrich Hayek called in The Road to Serfdom "the opportunity of knowing and choosing different forms of life." Even in an age of political correctness, one in which governments, corporations, and social movements are constantly trying to surveil, nudge, and scold people into particular types of approved or "appropriate" behavior, we all continue to be that scourge of 17th-century England, masterless men and women who refuse to conform to what our political and social betters demand of us.

On the issues that conservatives especially care about, we are becoming increasingly secular, accepting of same-sex marriage, and welcoming toward immigrants even as support for abortion rights remains strong and steady. The recent spate of highly restrictive abortion laws in states such as Alabama moved no less a social con than 700 Club host Pat Robertson to say, "I think Alabama has gone too far…I think it's an extreme law." Far from indicating a groundswell in support, such laws, which will all be challenged on legal grounds and almost certainly struck down, suggest the death throes of a social movement that knows it no has chance of success.

We can put too much weight on coincidences, but it's striking to me that just as internecine warfare was breaking out among social conservatives, Jonah Goldberg filed his final column for National Review, where he worked for the past 21 years. He had previously announced that he and former Weekly Standard editor Steve Hayes were starting a new venture that is slated to come online later this year. Goldberg is hardly a stand-in for all of conservatism, but he is surely one of the most thoughtful and representative voices of that broad movement. (So, too, is Hayes, and the weirdly rapid demise of The Weekly Standard is one more indicator that the conservative movement has serious problems.) While conceding that he doesn't think "Sohrab's utopian society, if achievable, would be such a terrible place," Goldberg embraces something that sounds more than a little like the "cultural libertarianism" he once denounced:

Send power back to the communities where people live. If North Dakota wants to be a theocracy, that's fine by me as long as the Bill of Rights is respected. If California wants to turn itself into Caligula's court, I'll criticize it, but go for it….

And the glorious thing about this kind of pluralism—i.e., for communities, not just individuals—is that if the community you're living in isn't conducive to your notion of happiness or virtue, you can move somewhere that is. We want more institutions that give us a sense of meaning and belonging, not a state that promises to deliver all of it for you.

People are misdiagnosing the problem of social, institutional and familial breakdown. A healthy society is a heterogeneous one, a rich ecosystem with a thousand niches where people can find different sources of meaning or identity. A sick society is one where people find meaning from a single source, whether you call it "the nation" or "socialism" or any of the other brand names we hang on statism.

Or from work, gender, sexual orientation, the family, religion, ideology—you name it.

In "Why I Am Not a Conservative," his postscript to The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Hayek posited that a major dividing line between conservatives and libertarians (professing an intense dislike of the word libertarian, he used the term liberal) revolved around a fear of the future. Socialists and libertarians, wrote Hayek, were forward-looking in a way that conservatives were not. Conservatism "by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance." Although Hayek was speaking of an older European vision of conservatism, his insight holds increasingly true for contemporary American social cons, who are simply more and more out of step with what most people believe or want out of life.

Especially in a world in which the progressive left is spending increasing amounts of time and energy trying to police not just our economic choices but our speech, thought, and all aspects of our lifestyles, the libertarian alternative is more appealing than ever. It offers "a rich ecosystem with a thousand niches where people can find different sources of meaning or identity," where we can learn from one another, and have the space to experiment with who we are becoming.