"I really call myself a classical liberal more than a conservative."
Protests like the above have become common as of late from certain quadrants of the self-proclaimed, free-thinking "Intellectual Dark Web," a loose confederacy of free speech absolutists that includes figures like the atheist writer Sam Harris and Peter Thiel sidekick Eric Weinstein. The "classical liberal" label has until now mostly been the domain of libertarian types and conservatives on the never-Trump end of the spectrum, such as Bill Kristol and much of the National Review staff, who are eager to root themselves in a tradition that connects the Founding Fathers to conservative philosophical icon Edmund Burke. Its recent surge in popularity, however, has come from twin phenomena—those conservatives' intensifying desire to distance themselves from a Trump-ified Republican Party, and the term's discovery by that new clique of anti-PC voices placing themselves in opposition to the supposedly illiberal campus left.
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The label has a sort of musty intellectual authority to the lay person—"classical" is right in the name—and in the partisan chop of the Trump era it's an appealing rope ladder, thrown down from the helicopter by a team of powdered-wigged Whigs who offer an escape from the never-ending battle between Trump and the #Resistance. That escape was appealing for obvious reasons to the speaker of that quote, in February of last year—not a political historian or a YouTube warrior, but Speaker of the House Paul Ryan himself.
How could the supposedly stalwart defender of Reaganite conservatism, a man once criticized by Steve Bannon as "born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation," forsake the label entirely? To those not immersed in the wonky lexicon of the intellectual right, it may have sounded like a contradiction at best, heresy at worst. Don't "liberals" drive hybrid cars, listen to Ed Sheeran, and nosh on organic arugula and locally sourced tofu?
The tradition of the use of the term "classical liberal" within conservative circles dates back to (and is largely because of) the movement's youth. The movement conservatism that still flickers at the heart of the Trump-era Republican Party was born just within the last 70 years, roughly, whereas the tradition of liberalism as understood by most of the world outside America, and as embraced by these conservatives—unfettered free markets, the rule of law, civil liberties (with qualifications, frequently)—is defined by the work of 17th and 18th century heavyweights such as Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith.
It's only fitting that conservatives would reach for such a term in greater number given the existential crisis their movement currently faces. During the Bush years it was a clubby signifier of one's true believer-dom, but with Trump's (at least rhetorical) retreat from traditional conservatism it's the password for a fully-fledged sleeper cell within the Republican Party. The combination of its Trump-inspired resurgence in conservative circles and its discovery by malcontent free speech absolutists has led to a spike in classical liberalism's popularity, one that has seen it used to describe an increasingly disparate range of beliefs. But despite its seeming elasticity, the term is rooted in a real, sprawling, frequently contradictory intellectual history—one that allows it to bend to its bearer's will just as easily as it resists the authoritative claim of any one party or cadre.
Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, a portentous year in more ways than the obvious. The Scot's book, which formed the basis of the free-market capitalist system as we understand it today, also featured the most prominent use to its date of the newly coined modifier "liberal." "Liberal" policies, in Smith's conception and that of his contemporaneous predecessors, stemmed from the Enlightenment concept of "liberty"—"Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way," as he wrote in "The Wealth of Nations."
The idea caught on. The debate, however, over to whom that liberty is extended or denied, and under what circumstances, was no less robust at the idea's inception than it is today. John Locke, whose life spanned the English Civil War and its ensuing paranoia about Popish conspiracy, extended his conception of religious liberty just short of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill, another figure who looms over the liberal tradition, believed the "barbarians" on the other end of the 19th century colonial rifle incapable of participating in equal speech or political activity with their imperators. The historical tradition of liberalism is marked by fierce, sometimes bloody debate over the big questions that faced its standard-bearers, be they over religious toleration, slavery and colonialism, or the existence of trade unions.
To the Intellectual Dark Web types who provide much of the energy behind the concept's current resurgence, such civilizational arguments have been mere speed bumps on the way to a pure ideology of individualism and unlimited free speech—with emphasis on the latter. Internet talk show host Dave Rubin, who sells T-shirts emblazoned with the "classical liberal" label, has monologued in favor of "true tolerance of opinion and thought... a live and let live attitude." He goes on to inveigh against the supposed illiberalism of the modern left, a unifying thread among those who have recently identified themselves as classical liberals from Jordan Peterson to Bari Weiss, the New York Times columnist who introduced the concept of the "Intellectual Dark Web" to a skeptical public. Their argument is that opposition to speech that in past decades would have faced less public opposition—advocating against the validity of transgender identities, for example, or that there are inherent intellectual differences between ethnic races—is tantamount to censorship.
They embrace the label, then, as a sort of "gotcha" to their critics, emblematic proof that they are the true defenders of intellectual freedom. It also serves as a useful differential from the popular conception of conservatism—while right-leaning in many ways, these newcomers to classical liberalism's big tent are ill at ease with a movement that ostensibly includes the Mike Pences and Mike Huckabees of the world.
"[These are people] who are culturally liberal in the sense that they come from that world, from that tradition, and yet... they're pursuing intellectual honesty to places where they run into the guild of academic liberalism and political correctness, and they feel the pinch of illiberalism up close," said the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg in an interview with POLITICO Magazine. "This country was founded with a classically liberal bourgeois revolution, and [the tradition] gives you a ready-made intellectual history that you can subscribe to, without having to subscribe to the politically or reputationally damaging parts of full-suite Republican-style conservatism."
"Classical liberal," then, will suffice where "conservative" carries too much baggage. In the cases of Weiss, Peterson, et al., its utility is in positioning them as defenders of free speech against illiberal forces on a spectrum of validity from dedicated no-platformers to mere social media mockery. Previous deployments of the term have been over far less heated subjects, notably the pre-Tea Party rumblings of discontent over former President George W. Bush's money pit of entitlement spending and military intervention. Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution in 2005 told the New York Times that "Our president is a most inconsistent classical liberal, to be charitable... he's terrible on trade and a huge spender and not completely candid about the parlous situation Social Security is in."
So, then: a classical liberal can, or should, be spendthrift, hawkish on the social safety net, and willing to defend to the death the right to voice an unpopular opinion, whether they agree with it or not. For those who lived through the so-called "libertarian moment," where brash and uncompromising liberty-lovers like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Michigan Rep. Justin Amash were projected to lead the Republican Party into a new era of relevancy, this might all be starting to sound slightly familiar. Whither the libertarians, and what separates them from their intellectual twins in classical liberalism? Why flock to a new, more ambiguous label, and leave another on the table with its own readymade political infrastructure?
Daniel Klein, an economist at George Mason University, suggested that the "libertarian moment" may have exerted its toll on the movement's brand. "[The term libertarian] has the baggage of being slightly dogmatic, whereas the 'liberal' expression does not," Klein said in an interview. "I'm not for discarding the word libertarian, but classical liberalism is like a nuanced libertarianism."
"Ron Paul had his big resurgence during the Bush era, then Rand kind of seized on it and shed all the nasty stuff, and embraced this more contemporary thing... trying to bring on more non-engaged types," echoed Goldberg. "The libertarian fanboys of Ron Paul were sort of like the Bernie Bros."
Proponents of classical liberalism like Klein and Goldberg who have deep roots in the conservative movement are welcoming of their new neighbors in the free speech brigade, but with a qualified wariness. Tom Palmer of the Atlas Network, a network of market-oriented think tanks, welcomed the new interest but cautioned against a single-mindedness in cause.
"Some who chafe at speech codes on campuses may think that a proper response is not merely to criticize them, but to violate them," Palmer wrote in an email. "The point of liberty, however, is not to offend the sensibilities of majorities, but to defend the right of people to live as they choose so long as they do not infringe on the equal rights of others. Classical liberals believe in liberty for all, not just for themselves."
But what about the other liberals? You know, the liberal liberals? The ones roasted by Phil Ochs, sneered at by Ann Coulter, and lampooned by "The Simpsons"? Unsurprisingly, as conservatives become more comfortable exploring this particular part of their intellectual heritage just as those on the left have begun to shy away. The liberal identity as currently perceived by most Americans solidified in the mid-20th-century, describing the coalition of blue-collar workers, minorities, and intellectuals that have historically formed the modern Democratic party's base. The term has lost some of its verve lately, however, with those on the left seeking to distance themselves from torpid Third Way anti-politics embracing the more ontologically transparent "progressive" mantle.
In the annals of political history, this is referred to as the "social liberal" tradition, in contrast to that of classical liberalism. To be slightly reductive, in the former rights are "positive" (extended to others through action, like the right to medical coverage as extended by programs like Medicaid and Medicare), and in the latter rights are "negative" (based on the inaction of others, like the right to consume raw milk.) The dichotomy informs American politics across centuries and topics, from Jefferson's belief in the moral superiority of a cloistered country life to Lyndon Johnson's creation of entire federal departments to better organize the Great Society. It's not difficult to see how the use of the same term to describe such disparate traditions has led to today's identitarian pile-up—especially in the crater of today's political landscape, with its Trump-sized blast mark. So where do the newcomers to the table fit into an intellectual tradition that predates the nation itself?
"I'm hopeful that... if people want to call themselves classical liberals, and actually subscribe to real classical liberal ideological views, I hope they win the fight the way the neocons did, and pull the Republican Party back toward its modern tradition of limited government, free market, free speech," Goldberg said. "If I had to pick a team, I would pick that team."
In an era where those still faithful to old-fashioned, Goldwater-style movement conservatism have been relegated to the sidelines by Trump's cannibalization of their party, that team may someday be their only option. The path forward may be pointed by the example of their ideological patron saint William F. Buckley—Buckley's "fusionism" of the 1950s, the alliance of economic libertarians with the social conservatives and culture warriors of his day, allowed a niche intellectual movement to launch itself to the Republican presidential nomination in less than a decade.
The partisan remnants of movement conservatism within the Republican Party and the culture warriors of the so-called "Intellectual Dark Web" make an analogue of sorts, if imperfect, to the mid-century Buckleyite alliance. To this point, the sniping at the latter over their use of the "classical liberal" label has been mostly from critics on the left, not those who have tended to it in the political darkness between these periodic moments of light. Ultimately, an intellectual legacy that stretches back to the time of monarchs resists by its nature any claim to authority from one or the other splinter group—but in that right may be flexible and inclusive enough to incubate the strange new alliances necessitated by the Trump era.
Derek Robertson is an intern for POLITICO Magazine.