When both Jeff Bilbro and a Catholic priest recommend an article to you, you’d best pay attention. It just might be God telling you something. This happened to me recently. I would not give myself the extravagant title of God’s messenger, yet perhaps there is something providential in two thoughtful people sending me the same article independent of each other. The article in question is Bryan Garsten’s “The Liberalism of Refuge,” published recently in the Journal of Democracy as the lead essay in a symposium asking “Can Liberalism Be Saved?” The article gives me an opportunity to do something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, namely sort through some inchoate ideas regarding liberalism.

The article is in some sense Garsten’s contribution to what we might call the “liberalism wars.” Perhaps instigated by Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, first published six years ago, a robust scholarly and online debate has emerged regarding the relative value of liberalism as a vital political philosophy. We have critics of liberalism such as Catholic integralists, national conservatives, and those generically called post-liberals. These schools of thought in one manner or another criticize liberalism for eroding community, placing too much emphasis on commerce, warping religion, subjecting the world to a heartless and homogenizing globalization, and more sins beyond that. There has been a reaction against liberalism’s critics, mostly (but not exclusively) from those on the libertarian right who wish to defend classical liberalism that they argue undergirds the progress of the modern West. The first piece I ever wrote for Front Porch Republic was a review of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, a book which reads like a love letter to John Locke and the glories of free market individualism. Released the same year as Deneen’s book, the two works form a kind of point/counterpoint in the liberalism wars. Garsten has authored an ingenious if ultimately unconvincing entry into this debate.

It might help to define our terms. What do we mean by liberalism? As noted, this is a question that has launched a thousand scholarly ships, so far be it from me, in a mere review essay, to give a comprehensive definition of the term. Still, I think we can lay out some basics. Liberalism, as I see it, starts with the individual. The individual is a complete human being before the formation of any political or social structure. Such an individual is recognizable to anyone familiar with the “state of nature” thinking of, say, Hobbes and Locke. Liberalism holds that this individual has certain natural rights that he or she bears equally with all other humans. We now have the foundational liberal ideas of natural rights and natural equality. Because these rights are natural, endowed by “our Creator” rather than by government, it suggests some limitation on government. Natural rights serve as a kind of check on authority. Liberals, then, tend to believe in some form of limited government. Serving the ends of limited government are such institutional commitments as separation of powers, equality before the law, and due process of law. Natural equality suggests the justness of a basically democratic regime; the average person should have some say in how and by whom he is governed. Liberal politics often shares a commitment to liberal economics, meaning restricted intrusion of government in economic activity and a general commitment to free markets and free trade. Liberal economics stems from one of our natural rights, namely the right to property.

I do not mean to suggest that this is a comprehensive definition of liberalism. Nor do I claim that one can get to one or more of these principles only through liberalism. But I think this is a fine summary of basic liberal commitments.

To this Garsten adds another liberal ideal, that of refuge. Garsten professes “Liberal societies…are those that offer refuge from the very people they empower.” Even a monarchy might earn the moniker “liberal” if a “citizen who fell out of the king’s good graces could take refuge under the protection of this or that aristocrat or constituency.” We might ask if the good of “refuge” is foundational or whether it relies on other deeper commitments. For example, basic belief in human equality and liberty leads to a notion of human dignity. Because humans have dignity, when a government or fellow citizens become oppressive to a person or definable group, such individual or group needs to be able to seek refuge in the law or in notions of liberal toleration that might mitigate the damage. We could conclude, then, that it is not refuge that sets liberalism apart but deeper commitments that are more foundational. Garsten implicitly concedes this point when, in his response to other symposium contributors, he argues that Southern slaveholders/segregationists should not have been granted liberal refuge. The Southerners violated a liberal principle deeper than refuge, namely that of equality. There is a particular concept of the human person that underlies any defense of a politics of refuge. Garsten leaves that anthropology assumed rather than articulated.

Garsten accuses skeptics of liberalism of practicing a “demonology,” turning liberalism into a kind of boogeyman. (Garsten seems to take it for granted that there are no actual demons, thus demonology is a kind of delusion). He readily acknowledges, however, that liberalism’s commitment to openness and mobility may undermine dedication to religion, place, or tradition. Here he accuses what he uncharitably calls “antiliberals” of having a politics of temptation. These antiliberals (such as Deneen) exaggerate any questioning of authority, thinking the slightest concession to openness tempts us toward “unlimited freedom,” weakening the authority of “parent, teacher, or minister, responsibility to spouse, children, or neighbor.”

Garsten seems blind to the actual erosion of social capital under liberal individualism run amok. Cue here the mandatory reference to Bowling Alone. One need not resort to chimerical apparitions to see actual damage caused by liberal commitments. Let’s turn to religion as one example.

Garsten ignores the fact that liberalism arose hand in hand with centralization of state power. The nation replaced the church as an object of religious devotion. As William Cavanaugh has noted, the post-Reformation era was an age of political centralization. The wars of religion were to a significant degree really wars of centralization, as there was a “migration of the holy” from the church to the state.

The atomization that is a result of liberal individualism empowers the state at the expense of other obligations such as church or family. Garsten says a religion is liberal “if it also offers refuge from its leaders.” It allows the individual “deference to one’s own conscience.” This is all well and good as far as it goes, but as John Henry Newman pointed out, conscience has to be properly understood. Conscience is the “divine voice” that tells us right from wrong. When we substitute our own judgment for that of religious authority, it must be after serious thought and study. It is far too easy for “I am following my conscience” to mask “I am doing what I want, not what God wants.” This is why Newman opposed religious liberalism, because it all too easily moves from seeking and doing God’s will to simply doing what the individual wants, honoring the self instead of honoring God.

One sees the rejection of God’s will in Locke’s very intolerant Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke maintains, in what might be the fundamental doctrine of theological liberalism, that every man is “orthodox to himself” and “care of the soul belongs to himself.” Locke turns religion from a belief that is acted out in community to a private, interior disposition. What’s more, Locke defines the ends of society as “life, liberty, and indolency of the body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” A crude acquisitiveness becomes the foundation of society. Locke then argues that a religion that “undermines the foundations of society” cannot be tolerated. It turns out any religion that gets in the way of self-indulgence is suspect. Locke denies the transcendent in the name of economic productivity.

Garsten implicitly accepts Locke’s intolerant toleration. In his response essay, he approvingly cites Benjamin Constant’s nineteenth-century warning about the Catholic church’s threat to liberty. One recalls that Locke explicitly exempts Catholics from religious toleration. Garsten does, however, support the Supreme Court’s offering of refuge to the Amish in the Wisconsin v. Yoder case. Garsten perhaps unwittingly proves the critic’s point: he’s willing to tolerate religions as long as they are cute, cuddly, and harmless. Any church that represents a threat to the liberal order is not to be tolerated. This is similar to Americans who, in the wake of Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, were supportive of religious liberty legislation when they thought it was Native Americans who would benefit. As soon as evangelical Christians sought support under the same laws, the tolerant became decidedly intolerant. Religious liberty for Garsten and many liberals is a limited good, only offered to those religions that accept their subservient place.

One could also point to Locke’s low estimation of marriage and his description of the family in largely transactional terms. Or one might mention John Stuart Mill’s condemnation of “the despotism of custom.” It seems like undercutting religion, family, and tradition are not just the work of illusory demons, but actual agendas of foundational liberals. In liberalism, all commitments are provisional except the commitment to oneself.

Garsten also addresses Tocqueville’s famous concern regarding the tyranny of the majority. Tocqueville, argues Garsten, sought a “guarantee” against such a tyranny. “By ‘guarantee’ he meant some institution or authority with the power to protect against the sovereign majority.” Garsten cites here Tocqueville’s defense of association. But association is not a formal institution; it’s a habit of the people. Tocqueville’s central concern is that the love of equality which is the dominant ethos of democracy will give rise to individualism and a lack of concern for public things. Tocqueville may have been a liberal, but he was a moderate liberal. He recognized that democracy taken unalloyed would succumb to despotism. The alteration of family and religion that Tocqueville feared democracy might bring about would leave the individual adrift in the world. The art of association that Tocqueville praises in Americans is derivative of their religious and familial commitments. Without such commitments the centralized state would have to step in as the only recognized instrument of collective action, reducing the people to a herd of timid, individuated sheep.

It’s a bit unfair to conflate Tocqueville’s critique of democracy with a critique of liberalism. Still, while the two are not synonymous, in the modern world they are close cousins. The point here is that liberal democracy relies on habits and mores (Tocqueville’s word) that it itself struggles to maintain. Count me as all in favor of liberal institutionalism. I happen to think that Madisonian democracy, heavily indebted to liberal assumptions, is about as fine an institutional order as mankind has developed. Still, liberalism cannot rely on mere institutionalism. It must appeal to non-liberal authorities such as religion and family to sustain the liberal regime. Further note Tocqueville’s commitment to local government as a bulwark against centralization. It is hard to imagine a sustained commitment to local government amongst a people who have no loyalty to a particular place. An unreflective devotion to individual “mobility” weakens such a loyalty.

Garsten is convinced, however, that those defending non-liberal politics in a liberal era are merely tilting at windmills. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that it is the liberals who believe in the natural sociability of man, while it is liberalism’s critics who are the true individualists. After all, it is the liberals, Garsten says, who think that left to their own devices people will naturally form a vibrant civil society. It is the critics of liberalism, he claims, who must be the individualists because they think there must be some active participation by cultural authorities, including government, in order for humans to engage in communal activity.

Here Garsten claims too much. There are natural processes that nevertheless need cultivation. It is natural for the cilantro to rise every spring in my garden, but if I do nothing it can get pushed out by weeds. If not picked regularly cilantro goes to seed, now becoming coriander. Cultures, almost by definition, need cultivation. There needs to be positive activity on the part of the citizenry and social institutions to maintain the vibrancy of associational life. Garsten seems to overlook the law’s pedagogical function.

One can look to college campuses as an example. I suspect that my campus is not unlike other campuses across the United States. As I noted in passing here at FPR in my review of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, my campus has seen many clubs wither and die over the last decade or so as students are more likely to stay in their dorm rooms staring at screens rather than joining History Club, hanging out with other business majors in the Business Club, or attending the weekly Intervarsity praise and worship. Tocqueville noted that democracy contains many preconditions that pull people apart, encouraging them to withdraw from public life. Government’s role here might simply to be to get out of the way. Anyone who tries to run a private social service organization, for example, knows the myriad levels of paperwork it takes to operate such a charitable service, to say nothing of the constant threat of lawsuit in our litigious age. Also, as government steps in and does many of the jobs once done by fraternal organizations, it isn’t surprising that such organizations have dwindled. In order for communities to remain vital they have to have work to do. The more the government says, “No, that’s our job,” the less vigorous are the Tocquevillian associations. Witness jurisdictions in which Catholic Charities has been driven out of adoption facilitation because it is being forced to choose between its deeply held convictions on marriage or facilitating adoptions for same-sex couples. Similarly, locales vary as to how friendly they are to private education or homeschooling. Government can set conditions in which associations are more likely to thrive.

Richard Rorty once said that he was a freeloading atheist. Given four thousand years of Judeo-Christian morality, Rorty felt we could indulge his atheism without fear of return to the brutal morality of pagan Greece and Rome. History might be proving him wrong. Garsten, it seems, may be a freeloading liberal. Because there is such a strong tradition, at least in the United States, of associational activity, much of it religiously driven, we no longer need to actively cultivate communal virtues. Once again, history may be proving this assumption wrong. And as Ross Douthat quips, “if you dislike the religious right, wait until you meet the post-religious right.”

I feel I am being too hard on Garsten. His article is an intriguing attempt to articulate a novel grounding for liberal commitments. Most provocative is his recognition that we may need refuge from private economic power along with public power. Garsten explicitly acknowledges that progress always comes with loss, and that loss “is not equally shared.” Such is the case with globalization, for example. There are winners in the era of open trade that began in earnest in the early 1990s. But there are also losers. Garsten implies that the disruption caused by economic globalization may be the source of some of the illiberalism of our era, and these victims need some space of refuge. In this sense Garsten avoids the idealism that sometimes infects liberalism’s most ardent defenders, the notion that more “openness” and “free markets” are the solution to every problem. Liberalism must take into account and leave some space for non-liberalism.

The older I get the more I find political labels a bit tiresome. I do not wish to associate myself with those who are principled “no labels” folks. Labels do carry some useful information. We cannot entirely escape them. Still, younger me was very concerned about which “camp” this or that thinker was in. I had the same attitude toward myself. Am I with the West Coast Straussians or the East Coast Straussians? Am I a natural rights thinker or do I share Burke’s and MacIntyre’s skepticism toward natural rights in favor of a more narrative approach to politics? Am I a realist, a neo-conservative, or a liberal internationalist? Am I a free-market capitalist or a communitarian skeptic toward untrammeled capitalism? I no longer think in such terms. Am I a liberal? I don’t think so, but I share many liberal commitments. As noted above, I do think that Madisonian constitutionalism is about as fine a governmental arrangement as we can realistically devise. Like Madison, I think we must take self-interest into account when framing a government. I am a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, sharing Lincoln’s devotion to the Declaration of Independence and the natural rights and natural equality it professes. In my book on Lincoln I approvingly describe him as a liberal statesman. I also have a basic commitment to the free market on both practical and principled grounds. I often wish that liberalism’s contemporary critics would recognize the truths and considerable successes of liberal ideas and liberal regimes.

At the same time, as the above discussion of those like Locke and Mill indicates, I essentially reject liberalism’s anthropology. Part of that rejection is religious. I am with Newman that liberal theology inaccurately describes man, God, and the relationship between the two, including their relationship with God’s Church here on Earth. I am with Irving Kristol in giving two cheers to capitalism, but not three. The tendency of liberal capitalism is to value all things only by their economic value. Despite its good fruits, liberalism’s dedication to individualism and acquisition does tend to erode necessary pre-political institutions such as family and church, both ordained by God for man’s good. There are goods worth defending, such as the family or God’s creation, that might necessitate mandating economic inefficiencies. Unlike some who favor such pro-family or pro-creation (I’m with Wendell Berry in eschewing the term “environmental”) policies, I forthrightly acknowledge that such policies might make us poorer with all the attendant costs. But just like in our individual lives, sometimes we must make economic sacrifices for higher goals. I do wish liberalism’s most ardent contemporary defenders would recognize the ill effects of an undiluted liberalism.

Thus I think Patrick Deneen, whatever his faults, is correct that liberalism is at its worst when it is most itself. Tocqueville’s wisdom is that liberal democracy needs to be ameliorated with remnants of pre-liberal, pre-democratic ideals. For example, democracies would benefit from maintaining the aristocratic dedication to beauty and building things of lasting value rather than simply valuing efficiency and economic use. A good liberalism is a humble, chastened liberalism.

Part of my rejection of labels is a rejection of formula. I distrust any preordained checklist that tells us what is in and what is out. When precisely should we adopt a liberal outlook and when should we reject it? I confess that I don’t know. As I outline in my Lincoln book, one of Lincoln’s chief virtues is his prudence. Flannery O’Conner once stated that readers should not study literature like they are studying algebra; you are not solving for x. There isn’t one right answer as to what a story or poem means. Much the same with politics. Politics is done by people, and thus it is messy and unpredictable. There is no political or philosophical quadratic formula. In this sense, I find value in Russell Kirk’s politics of prudence (see principle #4 or read this book) helpful on this account. When should equality give way to liberty, and vice versa? When is it socially beneficial for government to support religious life and when does such support slip into establishment, to the detriment both of church and state? When are appeals to popular opinion expressions of a healthy democratic spirit and when do they slide into demagoguery? These kinds of questions defy easy, fixed answers.

Those who are not liberals would be well served to prudentially consider those aspects of political life that liberalism gets right. If it is not a comprehensively sound doctrine, surely it gets some aspects of the human condition right. Such critics should avoid blaming every pathology of contemporary life on liberalism.

And when liberals critique their intellectual opponents, they can surely do better than accusing them of demonology. Reflexively branding any criticism of liberalism as authoritarianism or fascism is as lazy as it is incorrect.

Garsten’s piece succeeds in getting us to think about what liberalism is and what it is not, what liberalism does well and what it does poorly. It is important that people have some refuge from power. Human liberty is indeed a good. But liberty is the freedom to choose well, not just freedom from restraints. Liberalism provides some guidance as to what “choose well” means, but it is insufficient in that regard. Some recourse to non-liberal thought is needed to temper liberalism’s individualism and excessive skepticism toward authority. If liberalism is at its worst when it is most itself, it is at its best when it gladly embraces guidance from other, stronger philosophies.

Image Credit: Thomas Seddon, “Léhon visto desde Mont Parnasse, Britania” (1853) via Picryl

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Jon D. Schaff
Jon D. Schaff is professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota where he teaches courses on American politics and political thought. He is author of Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy (SIU Press) and co-author of Age of Anxiety: Meaning, Identity, and Politics in 21st Century Film and Literature (Lexington Books). He lives in Aberdeen with his wife and four children.


  1. The concept of “refuge” has been completely perverted and is now used to obliterate anything like the individual benefits that “liberalism” allegedly confers.
    Free speech is being massively suppressed in the “west”, broadly popular politicians and political parties are being monitored, suppressed, and urged to be banned, etc. We’re not in an anything like an era of runaway individualism, it’s the complete opposite–the government has absolutely unprecedented powers that it is using to crush individual rights, under the exact pretense that “we” need the state to give us “refuge” from each other.

  2. There are two kinds of freedom, one exclusive of the other.

    Culture is the set of traditions, customs and habits which liberate a man from his libido dominandi, i.e. the will to act out his whims, compulsions and desires, such that his is emancipated from them so that he can fulfill his duty to God, to family, to Church and community. Culture engeners character which comes about when a man acquires, internalizes and lives out the Cardinal Virtues, the Capital Virtue and the Christian Virtues. While living day to day in a healthy culture engenders these virtues by which we govern ourselves, our families and our community, the formal way is the ars liberalis (trivium and quadrivium).

    The anti-culture consists of those forces which would limit or reduce the effects of traditions, customs and habits such that a man is free to pursue his whims, compulsions and desires beyond restraint. The anti-culture engenders the cult of personality, the would-be Promethean self who can shake his fist in the face of all gods. In the end, this would-be Promethean self is a miscreant: a shriveled, estranged and alienated self, portrayed in the popular culture as a vampire or a zombie or in the “real” culture as a Michael Jackson or Elvis in their last years or a Taylor Swift in her best years. Add to that the trans-gender and the trans-human examples imposing themselves on the rest of us.

    Put in the Christian idiom, we must loose ourselves in Christ, and it is in Him that we actually find ourselves and the freedom therewith associated. The alternative is the Anti-Christ.


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