Nationalist Conservatives Are Abandoning the Ideas of Liberty

We should prefer drag queens in libraries over despots in the government.


"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of government," George Washington said, "are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." Not long ago, virtually all American conservatives would have applauded those words—and described themselves as protectors of that limited-government ideal.

These days, the first president's words would be controversial among the growing ranks of national conservatives. They are so disgusted with the nation's cultural trends that they no longer want to bother with preserving that sacred fire. They echo an Old World approach. In Europe, conservatives rarely focus on preservation of liberty, but on using government to promote the religious and cultural traditions of their respective nations.

That's a far cry from our founders, who expressed the ideals defined in the Declaration of Independence—"that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Governments, they wrote, derived "their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Because conservatives here tried to conserve our nation's traditions, conservatism has long been associated, at least rhetorically, with these ideals. Following the Trump-induced emergence of right-wing populism, however, many American conservatives no longer see the government as a referee that protects individual rights – but as something that should intervene aggressively to assert a set of collective values and goals.

Now some of these voices have dispensed even with the pretense of defending the right of individuals and businesses to make their own choices. We see that in Republican efforts to break up tech firms, but a tweet from The New York Post's Sohrab Ahmari takes this thinking to new levels. He's arguably the most prominent advocate for this illiberal form of conservatism.

"I'm at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century," he tweeted last week. "Late liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue." Ahmari removed the tweet, but it shows how desperate some national conservatives have become in seeking respite from a society that they apparently find intolerable.

Religiously devout Ahmari, who gained national fame for his outrage at drag-queen story hour at the Sacramento public library, apparently is so upset at excesses of our increasingly libertine society that he's willing to see the world led by a communist government that insists on selecting Catholic bishops and persecutes Christian believers. We certainly live in interesting times.

"The U.S. is decadent because it isn't Christian enough and classical liberalism still holds sway," as a colleague summarized this line of reasoning. "Therefore, we should accept the global leadership of an atheist/communist dictatorship which bulldozes churches and because it runs a society grounded in Confucianism."

That Chinese philosophy stresses "the importance of correct behavior, loyalty and obedience to hierarchy," as History Today explains. Fortunately, most Americans would never rank "obedience to hierarchy" as a top-tier value. I share some of Ahmari's frustrations about our society's problems, but am not about to seek leadership from overseas tyrants (ours are bad enough).

During his 2019 debate with David French, a traditional liberty-defending conservative, Ahmari urged conservatives, "to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good." I'm not sure there'd be much agreement even among religious people of how to achieve that Higher Good.

Ahmari is perhaps an outlier, but this "common good" malarkey is making a comeback among mainstream Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) gave a speech on Catholic social doctrine in 2019 in which he championed common-good capitalism. He described it as a "third-way" between Democratic welfarism and Republican "market fundamentalism."

"Our challenge is an economic order that is bad for America," he argued. In order to re-jigger the economy for higher purposes, Rubio advances various highfalutin but mostly nebulous federal policies. "Promoting the common good will require public policies that drive investments in key industries, because pure market principles and our national interest are not aligned," he said.

This is just a grandiose justification for government intervention in private decisions. What is the common good? It is whatever policy makers and government planners say it is. This proposal sounds remarkably similar to the progressive vision of letting "public-spirited" bureaucrats and politicians have unlimited power. They know what's best, after all.

Despite their common-good promises, "all government is, in its essence, organized exploitation, and in virtually all of its existing forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man," as journalist H.L. Mencken noted. That's why our founders believed in liberty—and why I would rather put up with drag queens in libraries than throw in the towel and submit to despots.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.