The Post-liberal Politics of Faith
Over the past few years, influential voices on the right have been challenging the theories and practices associated not only with contemporary progressive politics, but with traditional American conservatism. These "post-liberals," as they are called, seek to redirect the right away from the collection of ideas and institutions they label "liberalism" — from originalism to federalism to free speech — and toward a more state-friendly ideology that would use the legal and political tactics of the left to promote their understanding of the common good.
While they have largely failed to gain traction on any specific political or legal vision, the post-liberals have successfully planted seeds of doubt on the right regarding traditional conservative commitments. The debate, however, is often marred by overgeneralizations, false dichotomies, vagueness, and a general imprecision of language. It is thus worth seeking greater clarity about the character of post-liberal ideas, the political tendencies they appeal to, and the language they rely on. An unlikely source can serve as a useful guide in this regard.
The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, a posthumously published work by conservative philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott, was written in the early 1950s around the same time as "Rationalism in Politics" and "The Tower of Babel." The work reconceptualizes the themes of those essays while pointing ahead to later writings in which Oakeshott developed the concepts of "nomocracy" and "telocracy," "societas" and "universitas," and the politics of "civil association." But Faith and Scepticism also paints in broader strokes than those later works, speaking of observable political inclinations that might more easily be applied to contemporary political ideologies and movements.
Timothy Fuller, the editor of Faith and Scepticism, calls it "as close to a book of advice for the practice of modern politics as Oakeshott ever produced." It offers an alternative way of thinking to that which characterizes the debate over liberalism on the right today.
FAITH AND SKEPTICISM
As the title suggests, Faith and Scepticism examines two "poles" of modern politics — that of faith and that of skepticism — between which our political world operates. These two poles are broad styles of politics that emerged in the early modern world as a response to the technological advancements of the Enlightenment and the disappearance of many intermediary authorities during and after that period. As government became more centralized and more powerful, these two instincts emerged as answers to the generic question, "what should government do?"
Faith and skepticism in Oakeshott's telling are not political ideologies, nor do they represent particular policy programs. Rather, our ideologies and policy ideas draw on the assumptions embedded in one or both of these styles, and our politics as a whole lies somewhere in between. Recognizing these two poles is thus key to understanding the activity and the rhetoric of modern American politics.
The politics of faith is not a reference to traditional religious faith, but to political faith — faith in human endeavors guided by government. The politics of faith sees government as an "inspirer" and "director" of society's improvement tasked with imposing a "comprehensive pattern" on society — a "mundane [as in 'earthly'] condition of human circumstances" that directs society toward some form of perfection.
That perfection may differ from ideology to ideology, though Oakeshott identifies two general forms: the religious and the material. The religious version is one in which government imposes a "pattern of activity" deemed morally or spiritually righteous upon a people — often one involving particular religious establishments and legislation with an eye not on preserving an existing social order, but on leading people to truth, salvation, or the highest good of human life. The material version, by contrast, organizes society in a way that integrates all individual endeavors into a broader effort to master nature, maximize economic productivity, or distribute goods along a pattern considered just. The perfection at which a political faith aims need not be utopian in a complete sense, but all politicians of faith posit a "single road" to progress and harbor no "hesitation about the direction in which improvement is to be sought."
The politics of faith sees man and society as plastic, capable of being molded by political choices. For man to reach his perfection, the politics of faith contends that the institutions around him must be consciously structured to direct him toward it. The national governments that materialized in the 14th and 15th centuries seem to be the only type of entity with the power to systematically reconfigure the "mundane condition of human circumstances" and thereby redirect human life. Thus, for the politics of faith, modern government is an indispensable means of earthly salvation.
If they are to succeed in their aim, governments must be unlimited and "omnicompetent," at least theoretically. The politics of faith "welcome[s] power" and requires what Oakeshott calls "minute government" to attend to all the various details of human activity, "to keep every enterprise in line." It can therefore be restrained only by the practical judgments of those directing society's quest for perfection.
The opposite pole of Oakeshott's paradigm — the politics of skepticism — sees politics as a mode of human interaction distinct from the pursuit of perfection. It views the purpose of government as the maintenance of the basic social order necessary for human beings to live peacefully together and to pursue various ends as individuals or social institutions, or as a whole.
For the politics of skepticism, "governing is not a matter of establishing the 'truth' of a proposition and of translating the proposition into conduct," but one of "enforcing a certain superficial order" that maintains a deeper, infinitely complex social order without attempting to lead it in a particular direction. Government in this model serves primarily what Oakeshott calls a "judicial" function — maintaining and enforcing rules that undergird civil peace and basic societal well-being.
The precise nature of those rules may vary, just as the vision of perfection can vary under the politics of faith. There is a key difference, though: Under the politics of faith, the perfection pursued is determined by a ruler's a priori vision of human flourishing. The rules that characterize the politics of skepticism, by contrast, "will always be conditioned by the sort of activities which members of the community are engaged in." For the skeptic, the business of government is "not to determine what these activities shall be, but to guard against their becoming disruptive of that order without which all activity (except of the most primitive or unrewarding kind) is impossible." A skeptical politics, therefore, takes its bearing from the society being governed.
Under the politics of faith, we know the direction we ought to go beforehand; the difficult task is mobilizing society to do what it ought to do or to be what it ought to be. Under the politics of skepticism, we don't have the answers ahead of time: The order that maintains peace and harmony in a society must be determined by the political process itself. Though a politics of skepticism need not be defined by small government, it will prioritize constitutional limits on the state designed to prevent government from using its powers for purposes beyond the specific tasks assigned to it.
While some ideologies or political traditions may draw more heavily on one side or the other, no version relies entirely on faith or entirely on skepticism. As Oakeshott puts it, "where faith is a wife, scepticism is a mistress; and the lover of scepticism will be found also to be the friend of faith." Nevertheless, particular movements, theories, ideologies, and thinkers generally lean more heavily in one direction or the other.
The politics of faith was the dominant style of politics when Oakeshott was writing, and it remains so today. Oakeshott did not hide the fact that he was inclined toward the skeptical style, or that he thought it preferable for the pendulum to swing back from the extremes of political faith. But his purpose in the book was not to prove any particular variety of politics right or wrong; instead, he hoped to shed some light on the character of modern political practice and rhetoric.
In a similar spirit, we might consider the dynamics of the modern political right through the lens of faith and skepticism not to prove the post-liberal movement right or wrong, but to recognize its tendencies more readily and to think about the terms of debate more clearly.
TENDENCIES OF POLITICAL FAITH
In the Anglo-American context, "conservatism" has usually been the more skeptical choice of the major ideologies on offer. Yet we shouldn't be tempted to oversimplify things. The politics of faith has also been attractive to movement conservatism, especially in America. It is evident in the right's embrace of American exceptionalism, "Declarationism," and America as "an idea." The early-2000s neoconservative vision of America as a kind of morally righteous crusader-state was perhaps the most audacious version of American conservatism as a politics of faith.
That today's post-liberal movement represents a lurch toward the politics of faith should be clear to anyone familiar with its tenets. Though most prominent post-liberal writers deny any utopian pretensions, they don't shrink from declaring that they know what a healthy society looks like or that it's government's job to refashion society with that end in mind. They encourage, as Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule puts it, "intentional political action to shift the constraints or change the trends" of modern society. To wit, their most influential message is the necessity of an invigorated, unfettered state aligned with a cohesive moral vision.
Nor do post-liberals hesitate to blend their politics with the ultimate hope offered by religious faith. As Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold writes, "[w]e have a great hope even in this temporal order which is passing away; we have a high calling to order not only our souls, but also to order our cities rightly, on earth as it is in heaven."
We might consider several tendencies of the post-liberals in light of the faith-skepticism distinction. One of the most obvious is its counterintuitive resemblance to the politics of the progressive left. In the legal arena, to take one example, Vermeule's "common-good constitutionalism" is inspired in part by left-leaning legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. Many critics have pointed out its similarity to William Brennan-style living constitutionalism, though it swaps out Brennan's left-wing moral intuition for a right-wing one.
On the political side, Vermeule champions the administrative state as a vehicle for cultural transformation much the same way the left uses it today. Last year, a trio of post-liberal thinkers published a widely read defense of the "cultural Christianity" found in countries like Hungary, where regular church attendance hovers around 10%. This idea of enforcing the outer signs and symbols of religion bears striking resemblance to the kind of coerced virtue signaling that makes woke causes appear universally accepted, even by those who don't truly believe the dogma. And of course, many post-liberals have embraced the kind of social-democratic economics that we tend to associate with the modern left.
At first blush, the similarities between post-liberalism — a phenomenon of the far right — and progressivism — a phenomenon of the far left — present a paradox. But when viewed through Oakeshott's faith-skepticism paradigm, the overlap becomes more intuitive. Both the progressive left and the post-liberal right, for instance, understand the "activity of governing" and the "office of government" in essentially the same way — in the manner of the politics of faith. And both seek "minute government" — that which reaches into all corners of society, working to manipulate and direct social forces so that we might all march one way: toward moral purity as defined by a ruling class.
This analysis leads to a great irony, as well as a second characteristic worthy of consideration. For all the insistence among post-liberals that politics and law are indelibly connected to religion — that the good political order is fundamentally linked to mankind's highest good (which, for most post-liberals, is informed by the Catholic faith) — the post-liberal conception of the role of government appears mostly untouched by Christian doctrine. Its understanding of the proper "activities and office of government" is secular, and modern enough that it can be shared with both woke progressives and, in some respects, even atheistic Chinese communists, who are not infrequently held up for praise by post-liberal writers.
Given this irony, one might begin to wonder about the nature of the relationship between a political faith and a traditional, religious faith. In one sense, Oakeshott describes the politics of faith as a religious tendency. He identifies a religious and a material form of the politics of faith, as noted above, but he also suggests that all forms of the politics of faith are religious in a broader sense, for they all integrate beliefs about man's ultimate end (in essence, a religious question) straightforwardly into the question of what government ought to do. "The politics of faith," he contends, "is, from one point of view, the continuous reassertion of the unity of politics and religion."
His meaning here, though, is nuanced. Its subtleties reveal interesting dynamics about the politics of skepticism as well as the "religious" version of the politics of faith.
In identifying faith and skepticism as two opposite poles, Oakeshott does not mean to imply that religion and politics have nothing to do with one another in skeptical traditions. But in these traditions, the connection is not as straightforward. The religious believer has many good reasons — often emerging from his own doctrine — not to empower government to pursue the good. He may, as Oakeshott suggests, take "the view that the pursuit of perfection is far too important to be handed over to the control and direction of a set of people who by blood, force or election have acquired the right to call themselves 'governors.'" Indeed, many varieties of Christian politics find their starting point in the psalmist's admonition to "put not your trust in princes."
More intriguing is what Oakeshott's paradigm reveals about the nature of the relationship between religious faith and the politics of faith. By wedding religion and politics — and thereby shifting the focus of faith to earthly endeavors — the politics of faith devalues the otherworldly aspects of traditional religious belief, reducing it almost completely to moral teaching.
Two elements of traditional Christianity in particular sit uneasily with the politics of faith, the first of which is the notion that human salvation comes only through divine providence. As Oakeshott explains, under the politics of faith,
it is believed that we need not, and should not, depend upon the working of divine providence for the salvation of mankind. Human perfection is to be achieved by human effort....We may, perhaps, be permitted to encourage ourselves by believing that our efforts have the approval and even the support of providence, but we are to understand that the achievement of perfection depends upon our own unrelaxed efforts.
In short, the politics of faith proposes that the direction of history is dependent not upon the will of God, but upon our own collective efforts. The idea of waiting patiently on divine providence is thus incompatible with the politics of faith. Timothy Fuller goes so far as to say that, in this sense, the politics of faith is "virtually the opposite of traditional religious faith."
This tendency to eschew divine providence is remarkably evident in post-liberal thought, which quickly turns from its religious foundations to the question of human power and the political struggle between friend and enemy. Its adherents may embrace Christian moral teaching and natural law as the criteria of an earthly condition of human perfection, but when it comes to its fulfillment, God is largely absent.
To the post-liberal, divine providence is insignificant except insofar as it is carried out through concerted political effort. In his widely read broadside against David French, for instance, the post-liberal writer Sohrab Ahmari expressed skepticism toward the idea that religious revival might come about without state-enforced "moral regulation." And in a review of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, Vermeule ends a long discussion about how to capture and redirect the administrative state by presenting this consciously planned political project in providential terms: "The vast bureaucracy," he writes, "created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good." Under the politics of faith, as Oakeshott suggests, the hand of God and the hand of the political activist become interchangeable.
Like providence, original sin — historically a doctrine with extensive influence on many Christian political traditions — sits uneasily with the politics of faith. Original sin does not necessarily direct one in a skeptical direction, but the doctrine can temper expectations (as it did for Saint Augustine) about the extent to which the city of man can ever be purified. When applied to political rulers, it can also serve as a reminder that, as Oakeshott put it, "the office of government is occupied by men of the same make as the subjects they rule," encouraging us to think twice before placing the entire social order into the hands of any ruling class to direct as it sees fit. Though Oakeshott rejects the idea that original sin is the key difference between faith and skepticism, he refers to the politics of faith multiple times as "Pelagian" in its belief that original sin, if it exists, poses no serious barrier to social perfection.
As one might expect, the notion of original sin is remarkably trivial to the post-liberal political vision. When it does come into the picture, it is sometimes depicted as an excuse for failing to perfect a disordered political regime — a tendency represented in a remarkable passage by Pecknold in which he chastises "liberal" conservatives who use original sin "to explain our structural unwellness" while "cruelly depriving us of Christianity's structural cures." "The only cure for our decline," he continues, "is to act politically to build legal and political structures that make it easier for people to believe in God." This dynamic of political faith is perhaps a case of Maslow's hammer: The more a religiously motivated political movement embraces human government as the necessary tool for achieving perfection, the more that perfection is seen as something built by human hands.
A final relevant characteristic of the politics of faith is its "preoccupation with the future." For its adherents, neither the past nor the present has claim over us; the purpose of government is not to manage an inherited social order, but to create it.
Post-liberals often fall into this pattern too, expending relatively little effort considering how to live well in the corrupt world we occupy, preferring instead to paint a picture of what the world might one day be like. On this point, Ave Maria University's James Patterson describes Vermeule's project as a "work of pure imagination" — a reference to Roald Dahl's fanciful chocolate-factory tycoon. With eyes set firmly on a possible future, Vermeule seeks to inspire a set of elites that might one day use their positions of influence to reshape society. "His story," Patterson observes, "is meant to grip the imaginations of the despondent conservative would-be elite and give them the language they need for a counter-revolution."
Because all efforts are to be focused on creating the ideal future, the practitioner of political faith can disregard and even gamble away the goods of the present as part of a political strategy — even the goods he regularly relies on to survive in a world hostile to his own creed. He is "prepared to risk everything" for his vision, including procedural restraints on power that shield him. For the politics of faith, "[e]very protective formality in the conduct of affairs will be recognized as an impediment to the pursuit of 'perfection.'"
We can see this sort of attitude in the flippant dismissal by post-liberal theorists of principles like religious liberty, free speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom. All of these would appear to be protections that a minority religious movement would find invaluable — and yet they are all the subject of ridicule by leading post-liberal voices. At best, they are characterized as "defensive crouch" fallbacks; at worst, they are depicted as outgrowths of destructive individualist theories that disregard truth.
On a deeper level, post-liberals realize that these protections are established on skeptical foundations — on a recognition that we cannot simply insist on truth, because we cannot trust ourselves, or any ruling class, to discern or pursue it correctly. Embracing such freedoms would be to make peace with an imperfect order — something the politics of faith cannot stomach.
THE TERMS OF DEBATE: LIBERALISM
Faith and Scepticism's two styles of politics also offer us a way to understand the ambiguity inherent to terms that characterize the debate between post-liberals and conservatives.
In the modern world, words like "freedom," "reason," "justice," and "liberal," to name just a few, necessarily dominate political speech. And yet they tend to obscure more than they clarify. Oakeshott argues that this is so in part because these words have "been obliged, for nearly five centuries, to serve two masters." Like a lenticular print, the meanings of these words change as they are viewed from the different angles of faith and skepticism.
Today's post-liberal discourse, too, is marred by vague and imprecise language. Words and phrases like "liberalism," "neutrality," and "the common good" are susceptible to various definitions, and they are all employed in ways that obscure or distract from the core conceptual issues at stake. Thinking in terms of faith and skepticism can help us penetrate the rhetorical fog.
In his 1975 essay on our confused political lexicon, Oakeshott observed that "[w]hat may now be meant by the word 'liberal' is anyone's guess." What was true nearly 50 years ago is doubly so today. Despite the fact that the term now stands at the center of this storm on the right (or perhaps because of that fact), its meaning is so imprecise that, at best, it serves merely as a vague gesture toward characteristics of the modern world that have something to do with individualism, toleration, equality, or liberty.
Post-liberals often present liberalism as a unified, sometimes almost personified, force — the "man behind the curtain" responsible for projecting a set of illusions that make up our ruling order. Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed in particular sets this tone by presenting liberalism — a term with a thousand definitions — as a single, self-conscious, conceptually cohesive movement.
Faith and Scepticism helps us recover at least one key distinction that this comprehensive understanding of liberalism obscures: that between the skeptical and the faithful conceptions of liberalism. A liberalism in line with skepticism consists of the practices and institutions that emerged as a way to live with and to mitigate the inevitable conflicts that arise in a pluralistic society. A liberalism in line with the politics of faith, by contrast, is one defined by moral principles, like individual autonomy or the fundamental equality of all mankind, on which all legitimate politics must be based. The former sees the political process itself as a way we learn to live with one another; the latter sees it as putting into practice certain pre-political moral truths.
Oakeshott believed that while ideologies are abridgements of political traditions, "practice is primordial." Classical liberalism is a good example: It shares with the politics of skepticism the idea that there are limits to what government ought to do, but that inclination is often rooted in moral theories of individual autonomy and equality, thereby marrying the ideology to a kind of politics of faith. Ultimately, such theories make moral promises that practice cannot keep. They therefore sow the seeds of their own destruction in modern progressive liberalism — which turns to an unlimited, omnicompetent government to satisfy liberalism's moral demands.
This, of course, is a central contention of the post-liberal story of liberal modernity. But it is only applicable to a liberalism of faith, and only convincing to those who believe political theory governs the world.
Daniel Burns presented in these pages the value of thinking about liberalism in terms of established practice rather than theory. He pointed out that post-liberals share with the most faithful of liberals the idea that liberal theory is "the authoritative interpreter of liberal practice" — despite ample evidence that, in practice, liberal societies have never come close to the description worked out by theorists. At the same time, post-liberals tend to present many liberal practices — including religious freedom and freedom of speech — as creations consciously designed by liberal theory to destroy the old social order.
Interestingly, though, some post-liberals are loath to jettison other practices associated with liberalism, such as divided power and the rule of law. To address the inconsistency, they point out that these practices have origins in medieval or Roman law, and therefore could not have been created by liberalism.
In selectively appealing to practice over theory, they hope to hold on to certain "liberal" teachings that are undeniably valuable. But to a certain extent, this strategy gives up the game. These latter teachings may not have had their origins in liberal theory, but neither did many other liberal practices that the post-liberal movement attacks, including free speech and religious liberty. Indeed, in one way or another, nearly all classical liberal practices arose out of a process of negotiation and compromise necessitated by man's need to live peacefully and harmoniously with other men. They therefore cannot be merely the creations of a theory that conquered the world.
A more fundamental problem with post-liberals' selective baptism of certain liberal practices is that it distracts from the core tension between these practices and the post-liberal vision of society. Constitutional government, the rule of law, the separation of powers — each of these skeptical practices emerged as a way to avoid the prospect of an enlightened elite wielding minute government to reshape society according to its comprehensive vision of the good.
It is easy to show that certain theories of liberalism have failed; it is much harder to show that liberal practice has failed. It is more plausible to say that skeptical liberal practice is often abandoned in pursuit of either a liberal or an illiberal politics of faith. The distinction doesn't necessarily undermine the post-liberal movement, but it does indicate that, to prove their case, post-liberals will need to spend less intellectual energy disparaging John Locke and John Stuart Mill and more energy showing why their model of "politics as war and enmity" will wind up better than the versions that prompted Western societies to turn to liberal practices in the first place.
Recognizing the nuance involved in liberalism also forces us to be clear about what is abandoned when we reject liberalism wholesale. Post-liberals are often open about the fact that they are not conservatives, but they nonetheless attempt to attract conservative-minded people to their cause. It should therefore be clear that it is not just individualism or Baconian materialism that falls in their model, but also the skeptical conservative liberalism of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists of the founding generation.
THE TERMS OF DEBATE: NEUTRALITY
The term "neutrality" has a similarly ambiguous meaning in modern political discourse that tends to obscure more than it enlightens. Neutrality, often taken in a Rawlsian sense, is presented as a kind of legitimating characteristic of various liberal practices that can then be easily disproven. Religious freedom, the free press, and textualism, to take just a few examples, can all be seen as aiming at a certain kind of neutrality. The post-liberal writer will show how these practices can never achieve true neutrality, meaning they fail the legitimacy test set out by liberal theory. Once we accept the impossibility of neutrality, the argument goes, we might as well accept that politics amounts to nothing but a battle over specific visions of the good.
This rhetorical approach boils the debate down to a pure ideal of neutrality on the one hand and a unified, cohesive understanding of the human good on the other. Vermeule, for instance, after having "disproven" liberal neutrality, selectively quotes James Fitzjames Stephen to present the only alternative concept of politics: "[O]ne of us two must rule and the other must obey, and I mean to rule." This dismisses the middle possibility: that social order might be the outgrowth of various inchoate and incomplete understandings of the human good that necessarily vie against one another, consciously or unconsciously, within a legal framework that preserves public order, neither claiming absolute metaphysical neutrality nor choosing a single path to the exclusion of all others.
This is a more skeptical understanding of social order — one that takes its bearings from the society over which it governs. Of course, a political and legal order must have certain commitments, and many of them will have some crucial moral content. But they can (and the conservative would argue, must) reflect the commitments and practices of the given society. They are "neutral" only in the sense that they remain rules rather than broad moral imperatives. Since society is not traveling down a singlular path, the adoption of a particular rule cannot be understood to embrace a broader moral principle that may seem to stand behind it. Those who enforce and apply written rules, therefore, must do so "neutrally," not importing a meaning beyond what the established rulemaking authorities have articulated. This reflects the skeptic's preference for a stable, if imperfect, order in which individuals, families, and civil society can cultivate human flourishing — as opposed to that of the practitioner of faith, who is inclined to gamble a present good for a pure, hoped-for future.
Such a dynamic is reflected in the supermajoritarian constitution-making practices of the American order, which require a broad consensus on specific constitutionally protected rights as well as the powers delegated to the federal government. The provisions of the Constitution are obviously not neutral in any comprehensive sense — they reflect certain goods that its adopters valued. But neither do they evince a comprehensive or unified vision of the good that we are authorized to read into the law. They are rather a product of an imperfect, negotiated social consensus.
THE TERMS OF DEBATE: THE COMMON GOOD
"In the politics of faith," Oakeshott writes, "political decision and enterprise may be understood as a response to an inspired perception of what the common good is." His emphasis on the word "the" captures his meaning. The politics of faith tends to see the common good as a particular social condition that requires certain government policies to bring about. Its practitioners assert that only this social condition can allow for our perfection. The post-liberals share this understanding, focusing their attention on the social conditions necessary to bring about the highest form of human flourishing.
Thanks to post-liberals' emphasis on unfettered state power, their critics sometimes suggest that their understanding of the common good amounts to pure collectivism — that the good of the state takes priority over the good or rights of individuals. This critique is not exactly correct. In reality, post-liberals argue that the true individual good can only be achieved when it is encouraged by a well-ordered society, which in turn can only come about through an empowered state guided by a comprehensive vision of the good.
Vermeule, for example, argues that "human flourishing, including the flourishing of individuals, is itself essentially, not merely contingently, dependent upon the flourishing of the political communities (including ruling authorities) within which humans are always born, found, and embedded." Deneen offers another example in discussing a social order that encourages the life of prayer as a common good. Here, he argues that the common good is "the sum of the needs that arise from the bottom up, and which can be more or less supplied, encouraged, and fortified from the top-down." The "bottom up" language sounds a somewhat skeptical note, but the emphasis on the government's duty to "encourage" these goods hints that they may not really be coming from the bottom. Indeed, Deneen's analysis goes on to say that the good in question (a life of prayer) is impossible to achieve if the requisite social order is not in place. "The 'freedom to pray' in a world inimical to the habit of prayer," he writes, is "functionally equivalent to its outright deprivation."
To the post-liberal, then, it is not merely that a corrupt social order disincentivizes certain deeper moral goods; it makes them impossible to attain. The possibility that free government might allow for institutions of civil society that preserve and promote formative countercultures is absent from their analysis. The people cannot choose what is best, so the political order must "positively guide them" in that direction.
We come, then, to recognize what Deneen means when he says that needs "arise from the bottom up." He does not mean to argue that needs are felt, recognized, and articulated by the common man; rather, he claims they are recognized by the enlightened elite to be in the interest of the common man. The emphasis is on a political order that provides for the common good, but the political process plays a minimal role in discerning it; typically, that decision is reserved to the prudential judgment of rulers.
Post-liberals also suggest that their liberal critics implicitly dispense with the idea of the common good and speak only the language of rights. This claim, however, sets up a false dichotomy.
On the front end, post-liberals often offer things like "peace," "harmony," and "justice" as examples of common goods. If all that is meant by "the common good" is the preservation of peace, a social concordia discors, or a stable system of legal justice, there would be little to object to, as well as little to distinguish this "common good" from that of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. Conservatives look to things like a balanced constitution, prescribed rights, and a healthy civil society to preserve, reform, and enforce a system of political rules conducive to such ends. But these ends do not constitute a comprehensive substantive understanding of the human good, nor do they fully direct man to his "highest good," except insofar as they allow him the freedom to pursue it. What distinguishes post-liberals from conservatives is not their notion of the common good, but their understanding of the common good as a political faith that compels a society to march in lockstep toward that good.
BETWEEN TWO POLES
Oakeshott held that no political movement is defined entirely by faith or skepticism, as both would be self-contradictory if taken to an extreme. But understanding the post-liberal movement as one primarily rooted in the rhetoric and assumptions of the politics of faith recasts the liberalism debate in a helpful way.
For conservatives who are doubtful of this new vision, we might ask an admittedly un-Oakeshottian question: What, then, should we do?
First, conservatives ought to consider a pivot to the more skeptical elements of our legal and political tradition. On the particular question of the "activities and office of government," the post-liberal movement is not all that different from the movements it pits itself against — what post-liberals understand as a doctrinaire version of liberalism. Indeed, it goes further than most liberal theories in the direction of political faith while positing a different moral core. Recovering the more skeptical elements of our traditions offers a way of challenging not only the post-liberals, but also the regnant iterations of liberal theory against which they cast themselves.
Second, conservatives should pay more attention to the slipperiness of language. In particular, they should try to avoid talking about "liberalism" in a comprehensive sense. Given the imprecise nature of the term, an attack on liberalism should not elicit a simple defense, but a demand for clarity and precision about what aspects of that broad concept are being attacked and which are worth defending. The same goes for ideas like the common good. Rather than lapse into the false dichotomy of "rights versus the common good," conservatives ought to show why a limited understanding of government's role is more conducive to human flourishing than minute governance.
Finally, as the preceding points suggest, conservatives ought to avoid merely defending the status quo. Post-liberals, as well as populist and nationalist conservatives, tend to exaggerate everyday political problems, casting them as crises of existential proportions. Conservatives should continue to expose both overstatements and falsehoods associated with the claim that America has nothing worth conserving. However, as Oakeshott warned, a natural tendency of the skeptical conservative is to fail to face up to real crises. Conservatives should not deny that there are serious problems with our political system, many of which have been prompted or exacerbated by the desire to use concentrated government power to stamp a particular vision of the good on society. A skeptical conservative response to these new movements must be able to offer constitutional reforms that promote a tolerable order in the imperfect polity we have inherited.
The rapid ascent of new ideas on the right offers us a chance to seek greater clarity regarding the character and commitments of the American conservative. The new answers are incorrect, but so are many of the old ones. Oakeshott's insights can help us seize this opportunity to dig deeper into our political tradition, clarify the terms of the debate, and think in new ways about how to respond to the significant contemporary challenges to ordered, constitutional government.