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Why I Am Not a Liberal, Or How I Changed My Mind, Twice

I was raised in a politically conservative family in Texas, back in the 1950s.

My first experience with electoral politics occurred at the age of 12, when my grandparents took me to hear a stump speech by Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater during his 1964 run for the Presidency against the Democratic incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson.

After that rally, I remember reading Goldwater’s autobiography, The Conscience of a Conservative, as well as Phyllis Schlaflys hard-hitting campaign manifesto, A Choice Not an Echo. I even pinned a large poster of Goldwater up on my bedroom wall.

Thus, I had the advantage of a good conservative start to my political education. Even so, it was not long before I turned my back on my upbringing. Through a combination of ordinary adolescent rebellion and the excitement generated by the “hippie” cultural revolution erupting all around me, I broke with my family’s entire way of looking at the world.

Down came Barry Goldwater from my bedroom wall and up went Bob Dylan. Wiser than my elders, I announced with great self-assurance to anyone who would listen that I was now a “liberal.”

Over the next few years, I became a rabid critic of the Vietnam War—though not to the extent of refusing my student deferment when the time came for me to leave home for college.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in classics and entering a PhD program in the history of science, I won a traveling fellowship to study for a year in Athens. There, I met a young woman from Yugoslavia who was traveling in Greece. A fellow classicist, she hailed from Belgrade, where she already taught at the university.

I should note in passing that in addition to being the national capital, Belgrade was also the capital of the Socialist Republic of Serbiathen a constituent part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I must confess that my friend’s connection to a communist country was one of the things I found fascinating about her.

For me, our love affair was, in part, a romance with the idea of the Left.

I will never forget how, on one of our first dates, we attended a gathering of an international communist youth organization (I’ve forgotten its name), which happened to be meeting in Athens that year.

I remember gazing out on a sea of young people wearing red neckerchiefs and singing in unison the stirring Italian labor-movement song, “Bandiera Rossa” [Red Flag], whose first verse has stuck with me down through the years:

Avanti Popolo, alla riscossa,

Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa,

Avanti Popolo, alla riscossa,

Bandiera rossa trionferà!

[Forward, People, to the rescue,

Red Flag, red flag,

Forward, People, to the rescue,

The Red Flag will overcome!]

One thing led to another, and before long I found myself arriving in Belgrade for a visit. I still vividly remember my first impression of that city, which I was to call home for four years.

Just outside the main railway station was a square lined by tall buildings. From two of them were hung gigantic red banners bearing these words in white letters:

Bratstvo i Jedinstvo

[Brotherhood and Unity]

By this time, I had been studying Yugoslav history and the Serbo-Croatian language (as it was then called) on my own, so I already knew something of the fratricidal bloodshed that had devastated that country during World War II.

For this reason—and, I guess, because they expressed an obscure longing of my own heart—these banners gave me a catch in my throat.

Of course, I had no way of imagining what was to happen just 15 years later, when Yugoslavia would be torn asunder once again by another terrible civil war. All I knew at the time was that I had stepped into a different world from the one I had grown up in and was used to.

My Serbian colleague and I ended up getting married and my one-year scholarship turned into a new and wholly different way of life.

I found work as a teacher at an international school, and later as a translator for a news service, while attempting to make progress on my dissertation. In due course, my son was born, and it seemed I had definitively assumed the role of househusband and faculty spouse.  

Looking back, I can see that the romance surrounding my life in a communist country had begun to wear thin under the pressure of ordinary, humdrum family life.

As the years passed and my family responsibilities increased, the idealistic mist clouding my judgment finally began to lift and I began to perceive the reality lurking beneath the moving symbols and inspiring rhetoric of communist ideology.

To be sure, there were still certain things that appealed to me greatly about the life I had been living in communist Yugoslavia.

Free, universal healthcare, for one thing, of which I ended up making no little use myself. True, some of the equipment was broken and the practices out of date, but still.

Another thing I liked about life in Yugoslavia was its relative egalitarianism. Professionals like university professors and doctors made little more money than manual laborerswith the palpable result that everyone lived in much the same way and no one felt superior to anyone else merely by dint of his education or profession.

On the other hand, there was indeed an arrogant upper class in Yugoslav society—the one constituted by the Communist Party apparatchiks who went whizzing by in their black BMWs. This “New Class” was carefully documented by the great partisan leader, imprisoned dissident, and man of letters, Milovan Djilas, in his 1957 book of that name. These folks were mocked or reviled by everyone else—behind their backs, of course.

Another problem for me was that I resented having to stand in long lines in the hope of finding a working light bulb or a roll of toilet paper. At the time, I had told myself I was just a spoiled, white, rich kid, and should suck it up.

The trouble was: I was a spoiled, white, upper-middle-class, suburban child, and I simply could not help feeling that the economy ought to produce the basic goods necessary for my comfort.

Finally, there was the fact that my father-in-law, who was a lawyer, had gotten a year in jail for defending an Albanian political prisoner.

All of this—but especially the difficult economic conditions, together with my health problems—eventually led the three of us (son, wife, and me) to move to the US. There, eventually, my wife obtained a tenure-track position with a state university located in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania.

The three of us settled in that town and, once again, I undertook to live the ordinary life of a faculty spouse and househusband.

By now, I had given up hope of completing my dissertation and officially dropped out of grad school. To earn some pocket money, I worked for many years as an administrative assistant in a bank.

Where had my experience of living in a communist country left me ideologically?

I no longer considered myself a “man of the Left” in the time-honored sense of that phrase.  But I remained a steadfast “liberal.” What do I mean by that?

I hasten to say that as a classicist and historian of science, I had no expertise whatsoever in economics or political philosophy. I had simply imbibed a certain worldview from the atmosphere around me, and this worldview provided me with a set of ready-made reflexes whenever I was confronted by the great questions of life.

In my innocence, liberalism seemed intuitively obvious to me. It was by no means a system of thought I had arrived at from either experience or rational argument. Even though I would have said that my experience of living under communism had cured me of my youthful romance with radicalism, by no means had it stamped out my underlying utopian orientation altogether.

To me, it was very simple. The liberal side of the American political spectrum appeared to be the one that stood in solidarity with the poor, with the despised—with the “humiliated and insulted” (as Fyodor Dostoyevsky once put it) and the “wretched of the earth” (Frantz Fanon).

Above all, I was still a “dreamer” à la John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

I was no longer impervious to reality, and I had come to entertain doubts about the viability of the communist/socialist utopia, for the reasons given above. But I was still driven by the basic utopian impulse, which holds that all the ills of the world are due to oppressive political systems, which in turn persist due to the selfishness and bad faith of those who benefit from them.

Around this time, having abandoned my dissertation, I began to suffer from the lack of any purpose to my life beyond the family circle. I began to pay more and more attention to the news and to American politics, in compensation—as I now believe—for my feeling of leading a pointless existence.

In 1988—I was now 36 years oldthe civil rights activist Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming presidential election. I decided to join the local chapter of Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition, as it was then called.

At first, our little group met monthly to hash out our program and plan of action. As election day approached, we walked door to door in poor neighborhoods, handing out Jackson literature and signing up new voters.

Jackson, of course, failed to win the nomination. But victory had always been a long shot, and I was not too disappointed by the apparent futility of our efforts.

What was much more important, I think, for my moral and political development was something that one of my fellow Rainbow Coalition members said to me.

I had been friendly for some time with a young man who was studying at the local United Church of Christ seminary. One evening, we were assigned to walk the same neighborhood together, handing out leaflets.

I guess I was feeling a little high on the heady fumes of self-congratulation (as the great economist Thomas Sowell might put it), because as we were leaving the home of a poor white couple who had received us coldly, I let slip some remark (I forget my exact words) expressing disdain for the couple and people like them. I believe I used the phrase “white trash.”

My theology student friend—whom I liked and admired and who had the gift of personal authority—gently admonished me, not just for saying such a thing, but for looking at the world in that way.

Even today, after more than 30 years, I am ashamed to recall this incident.

Nevertheless, I report it here, both because it is indicative of my kneejerk response back then, and also because my friend’s reaction shook me to my core. He gave me a little glimpse of myself from the outside, and what he showed me was not pretty.

All of us are the sum of all of our actions and experiences. It is impossible for me to say with certainty why I began to undergo a profound change in my political beliefs and general attitude towards the world around that time—during my late thirties.

Nevertheless, I believe that my subsequent life would not have taken the direction it did, were it not for my friend’s loving insistence that I stop looking at human beings simplistically in terms of group identities, such as rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed, white and black, gay and straight, enlightened and deluded, and on and on.

But the conviction of one’s own enlightenment and superior insight into these group identities is the beating heart of liberalism. So, my friend was not just correcting my tendency to arrogance, he was pulling the rug of my entire political identity out from under me.

That said, I did not stop calling myself a “liberal” right away. The process of political conversion continued to be a slow one. However, it began to accelerate rapidly when I was fortunate enough to be offered the chance to return to graduate school at the age of 51.

During my second stint in graduate school, I tried to fill in some of the many gaps in my earlier education. I was now working in the subdiscipline of philosophy known as philosophy of biology, and I also was a teaching assistant for several classes in ethics. Both these areas were far removed from my earlier academic training. I was therefore determined to make up for lost time.

Another reason for my ultimate decision to switch political sides was no doubt the fact that I was now getting on in years and finally growing up. (Better late than never!)

Still, all this preparatory work was not quite enough on its own to bring me to consciously acknowledge the conversion of heart and mind that was occurring inside me. For that, yet another piece of luck (or providential intervention) was needed.

After finally obtaining my PhD, I was still unable to find an academic job. I won’t go into all the reasons for that here. But at least I was now in a stronger position to apply for various jobs around the fringes of academia.

I got a gig doing editing work for the publishing arm of the Great Books Foundation and, as fate would have it, one of the first projects they assigned to me was a book on the history of economic theory.

I have already explained that I was entirely innocent of the academic subject of economics. For some reason, I had never felt it to be very inviting. In fact, I found it downright boring.

Now, however, I plunged into the subject with a will, embarking upon an ambitious program of reading. And this time, with a concrete goal in mind, I found the subject fascinating!

In fact, I became obsessed with understanding how human societies work. Even after my editing job was completed, I continued my reading program. Eventually, I discovered the “Austrian school of economics” and allied authors, and devoured such classics as Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law and, above all, Friedrich A. Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty.

What did I take away from all my reading? Many things, but above all, the following:

  1. The enormous complexity of large-scale modern societies.
  2. The inherent impossibility of centralized controls leading to successful outcomes (due to the impossibility of gathering the necessary information).
  3. The inherent immorality of centralized control (because to achieve the coordination of collective action, individual liberty must be crushed).
  4. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

All of these propositions seemed (and still seem) to me indisputable. But the last one, especially, was the real eye-opener for me. There was no doubt that liberals’ hearts were in the right place. But so what?

Politics is not about how liberals feel. It is (or ought to be) about how best to facilitate the participation of all members of society in the common good. Liberals’ feelings are neither here nor there.

This idea struck me with great force. Suddenly, I realized that all my life I had been primarily concerned, not with concrete assistance to real poor people, but rather with showing the world what a wonderful, compassionate, and enlightened individual I was.

That was the essence of liberalism and the reason why the doctrine kept growing and growing, even though it had done so little to help anyone to flourish. Rather the reverse—liberalism aided and abetted the worst in people, encouraging their envy, resentment, and sloth, leading them to deny their own agency and to avoid responsibility for their own actions.

I suddenly saw that the liberal ideology is the main thing wrong with the world!

In short, I went from being a “liberal” in the American sense of a leftist or “progressive,” to being a “libertarian“—someone who believes that a small government that interferes with the economy and society in general as little as possible is the best form of political organization.

I believed it was best, not (as leftist propaganda would have it) because it is good for the rich, but rather because it is good for everyone, including, especially, the poor. Why was that?

Because I had come to understand that material equality was a foolish and illusory measure of the justice of society. Rather, the measure we should all be using is how well-off the poorest in society are. And I was convinced that, all things considered, the libertarian ideal of an unimpeded free market inevitably produced the fastest rate of economic growth, which in turn would best help to improve the material conditions of life of the poorest members of society.

This all made good sense to me as I entered my sixtieth year. It also comported well with the version of virtue ethics that I was developing for myself around this same time.

Derived from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and others, I took the two central insights of virtue ethics to be that (1) human flourishing depends upon the possession of the virtues and (2) there are several fundamental virtues, not just one—compassion—as liberalism tends to assume.

Now, for Aristotle the principal virtues are justice, courage, moderation, and practical sense. Compassion is not on the list. It comes into play with Christianity, specifically, with St. Paul’s “faith, hope, and love.”

To me, it made sense to combine the pagan and the Christian visions of virtue. I felt that someone who was completely lacking in compassion would be susceptible to brutality, no matter how “virtuous” he was from the pagan perspective.

But I also felt that someone completely lacking in the pagan virtues of self-command and personal responsibility would be equally susceptible to a vice—albeit the opposite vice from the person lacking in compassion—namely, sentimentality.

And that is indeed how the two American political parties have traditionally regarded each other: Democrats view Republicans as deficient in compassion and prone to brutality, while Republicans view Democrats as deficient in self-mastery and responsibility and prone to sentimentality.

In line with Aristotle’s idea that each virtue lies midway between an extreme of deficiency and an extreme of excess—for example, courage lies in between cowardice and rashness—I devised a simple schema to illustrate my view of virtue ethics. It goes like this.

Imagine a spectrum—I like to think of it as the axis of virtue—representing combinations of the virtues, from compassion at one extreme to self-command at the other. At either extreme, we are clearly confronted with a character sorely deficient in virtue: without self-command, one is prone to sentimentality, while without compassion, one is vulnerable to brutality.

At the midpoint of this spectrum lies the ideal moral character, in which self-command and compassion are properly balanced.

As a result of this objective approach to morality, in which compassion is a necessary but not sufficient virtue, I finally began to admit to myself that I had become a conservative. Saying it out loud, though, was another matter.

Like Charles Darwin—who once said of his theory of evolution that it felt like “confessing a murder”—it took me a long time to get over the nagging feeling that becoming a conservative had made me a bad person.

Eventually, I became relatively comfortable in my new conservative skin. However, looking back, I cannot help wondering: Was I really a conservative at all?

Don’t get me wrong: I do not doubt that I had become a sincere libertarian. But can a libertarian really be a conservative?

It was not long before I came to believe that this is impossible—which led me to my second crisis of worldview in just a few years.

In a nutshell, what happened next was Donald J. Trump. Not the man himself, so much as the way he enlarged the Overton window in our public discourse—and in my own head.

I came to realize that libertarianism was a sort of free-market fundamentalism, and to that extent little different from liberal utopianism. Both systems were ideologies, which claimed to be able to prescribe the correct economic action regardless of all the circumstances specific to a given situation.

I became convinced that I had still not made a radical-enough break with my original liberal belief system. While libertarianism undoubtedly pointed to certain truths about the human condition, to the extent that it encouraged us to disregard relevant conditions and empirical evidence, it was really only Lennonism under another name.

I am not concerned here with the wisdom of this or that particular proposal put forth by Donald Trump or anyone else. What I am interested in, rather, is the fundamental idea that an economic policy is not a good that ought to be pursued for its own sake, but rather something instrumental that ought to serve the common good. If the common good is better served by tariffs on certain products than by pure laissez-faire, then so be it.

As I began to learn and reflect more on general political philosophy, I came to see that libertarianism is not only not an absolute good, it may not be a good at all in the absence of a virtuous population. As the great British statesman Edmund Burke famously observed in 1791:

Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Of course, I have always believed that, like economic freedom, political freedom is a great good. But neither economic nor even political freedom by itself is the totality of the common good.

In fact, in the absence of a virtuous population, too much political freedom may collapse into anarchic individualism, leading to general vice, or, as it is also called, “libertinism.” On the other hand, too little political freedom obviously leads to tyrannical collectivism.

This thought led me to devise a second schema, this one representing the ideal form of government, defined as the one most apt to promote the common good.

This second schema represents a spectrum of degrees of liberty—an axis of freedom, if you will. It is similar in structure to the axis of freedom, except that the two extremities represent tyrannical collectivism, on the one hand, and anarchic individualism, on the other.

The midpoint of the axis of freedom, then, represents the state that conservatives call “ordered liberty.”

Finally, if the axis of virtue is laid beside the axis of freedom and then rotated through 90°, the two axes together produce at the point of intersection a representation of the ideal moral character together with the ideal government, forming what one might think of as the best understanding of the overall common good, or ideal society.

It might seem paradoxical to some that my second epiphany—my conversion from libertarianism to authentic conservatism—owed much to my reading of Burke and other eighteenth-century writers who, after all, were Whigs, that is, “classical liberals.”

But the paradox is a superficial one, based on a misunderstanding. The term “classical liberal” means someone who espouses the joining of virtue and freedom, that is, ordered liberty, as opposed to freedom devoid of virtue, or anarchic individualism, also known as “libertinism.”

I now call myself either a classical liberal or a conservative, interchangeably, for I consider the two systems of thought to be extremely close to each other. The conservative perhaps lays a greater stress on order and the classical liberal on liberty, but both see in ordered liberty as constituting the best type of human character and the best form of human government.

What will happen if we go on the way we are, ignoring virtue and careening headlong into libertinism?

No one has addressed this question more shrewdly than George Washington, who spoke the following prescient words in his First Inaugural Address in 1789:

[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity… [W]e ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.

We cannot say we were not warned.