THE CONSERVATIVE FOUNDATIONS OF THE LIBERAL ORDER
By Daniel J. Mahoney
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $26.95, 208 pages
It would be fair to say of Daniel J. Mahoney that a political scientist with his acute sense of analytical balance should be better known than he is. But then you get to thinking - balance? That’s not what we’re about in the modern world, is it? We’re about pushing ideas - democracy, say - as far as they can be pushed until, well, we won’t know until we get there, will we?
That, when it comes to democracy, is just what worries Mr. Mahoney, a well-regarded professor and author at Assumption College. We tend these days, and indeed have for a long time, to make democracy a free-standing cause. As we tell the story, the democratic dogma is so tough it overrides modes, norms, restraints and even, in the case of President George W. Bush, reasonable doubts as to the whole world’s appetite for an institution even the West is still trying to figure out.
“The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order” is no frontal assault upon the familiar premise that liberty is a good thing and deserves to spread. The larger idea on display here is that liberty, as social good, neither deserves to stand alone nor is capable of it. Liberty needs companions: family, religion, a sense of who one is and where one came from.
Once we understand what the author is after, we sense the fragility of his appeal to a modern public. Would he talk to us of “self-limitation,” in the Solzhenitsynian sense? He sees good in restraint, in heroism, in the “moral constitution of the universe.” That’s not very modern - as Mr. Mahoney would be the first to acknowledge.
He wants balance - and says so in nine chapters extolling the wisdom of Edmund Burke, Raymond Aron, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and, especially, Alexis de Tocqueville. The astoundingly prescient author of “Democracy in America” recognized nearly 200 years ago the need for balance in the American equation: liberty, yes; self-restraint in the exercise of that liberty, yes also. He was a “conservative liberal” like the best and most sensible of Mr. Mahoney’s heroes. Liberty didn’t mean freedom to do anything whatever; it meant, among other things, right judgment in exercise of the democratic ideal.
“Conservative Foundations,” despite its large and encompassing theme (which goes with its large and encompassing title) is no connected narrative; rather, it’s a collection of occasional pieces, some of them previously published. Its subjects are nearly all European, Mr. Bush being less role model than illustration of the central point. Mr. Mahoney wants us to understand Mr. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 exercise in war and democratic vision as a partial misreading of “the prospects for self-government in a region where secular and religious authoritarianism too often compete to shape the destiny of peoples.”
More to the author’s taste is a hero like Churchill, whose “thought and rhetoric freely drew upon elements of ancient and modern theory and practice, power politics and the rule of law, and liberal and Christian civilization in a comprehensive effort to awaken democratic peoples from their somnolence” - and succeeded at just that task.
As modern philosophers go, Mr. Mahoney particularly likes and respects the late Aron - about whom he wrote an earlier book. Aron’s “life and writings embodied the best legacy of the Enlightenment while showing that the defense of liberty demanded courage and moderation as well as thoughtful, self-critical, yet unhesitating fidelity to the inheritance that is Western civilization.”
That was the ticket - balance in approach: no romanticism about the past or the future, either one; no inclination to drive a John Deere combine right over the analyses or objections of this side or that one. Aron, too, was a conservative liberal in his acceptance of democracy accompanied by insistence on social limitations on power, by whomsoever exercised.
The puzzle for modern readers will consist in how far to go with Mr. Mahoney in an age of anger and constant clamorous calls to arms. The balance for which he speaks up - realistic appreciation of present circumstances, reluctance to throw out babies along with bath water - is decidedly hard to bring off, the more so in an atmosphere of constant, shall we say, provocation, engendered by the Internet. No opinion rendered on the Internet is flat or squeezed of its juices. All is forthright and declarative. If you’re for democracy, you’ll do whatever the writer prescribes or you’re a softy, probably just waiting to jump ship.
The America that so enraptured Tocqueville had well-developed tendencies, not least to push things along pretty fast when possible. It still does, of course. “Conservative liberalism,” as a slogan, would not seem to have a terribly bright future among Glenn Beck’s legions, but its instructional value is immense. It more than takes intelligent note of prudence - it recommends that terribly (sometimes) impractical virtue as a means, not the only one, of assuring social comity and community.
In any case, Mr. Mahoney challenges conventional modern thinking in useful and clarifying ways. We don’t have to renounce democracy - we just have to work harder at making it work - first by realizing what it is and, more to the point sometimes, what it isn’t.
William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.
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