Sohrab Ahmari and Common Good Constitutionalism

I follow Sohrab Ahmari on Twitter on “common good constitutionalism.” His assertion, the best that I can understand it (for now) – the Enlightenment view of liberty, the one that informs our Constitution, is partial and not fully up to the job of a flourishing culture. Ahmari proposes that we need a definition of liberty that is shaped by historic definitions informed by Greek philosophy, Aristotle in particular, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Western medievalism. It is the Enlightenment version that Ahmari believes is now running aground on the shoals of libertinism, and which no longer has the authority to press the case for responsibility, which is critical to what liberty actually is. I am sympathetic to this concern.

As we know, libertinism is bondage, not freedom. Ahmari’s view does not ask for a change in the Constitution but a change in interpretation of liberty. Of course, this would not be Scalia’s or Thomas’ originalism, since this perspective on liberty would go beyond that of the Founders. It would give a more historical definition as well to the Constitution’s phrase, “common welfare,” something that the Constitution does not elaborate on but which government is responsible for. What actually is the common welfare? Once again, Ahmari proposes that we fill that term with the meanings garnered from the Western tradition, going as far back as the Greeks and the Hebrew Bible.

Here is a screenshot of Ahmari’s tweet today.

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Common Good Constitutionalism

The Libertarian wing of the Republican Party, as well as those libertarians outside of the two party system of American politics, posits that the only thing really allowed on the political agenda is liberty, as full and unrestrained as possible, particularly with respect to government interference. Libertarians are in the main not unlike Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, “Stay off my lawn.” After they have said this, the virtually have nothing else to say. Witnessed a convention of the Libertarian Party? Loony is too weak a word. Freedom, they yell. And they mean it. Look at their antics in the name of freedom, and you have to believe it. No government in our bedrooms. No government in our school rooms. No government in our boardrooms. The list is infinite.

Does this jive with the Founding of our “experiment” in democratic self-rule? Can this value alone sustain us? Can our society really be “anything as long as we are free”? In terms of a thought experiment, we know this can’t sustain a civil society. That it has in America for these 250 year is due not to liberty alone, I would assert, but to the built up capital of a religious impulse and culture of virtue passed on to us by our fore-bearers. In other words, there was a sufficient treasury of merit in our moral inheritance that deepened the channel through which liberty would run, informing it, checking it, training it. Indications are that this capital has been spent, and liberty has now turned to the chaos of anarchy, an “anything as long as I am free” country.

What civil chaos you ask? Do I have to go through all the social indicators that we are all aware of and deal with every day? That our social, cultural, familial, educational, sexual, and marital permissiveness scale is off the charts? Only a madman could behold and say, like Genesis chapter one,” and he saw that it was good.” If that is your stance, have at it. Libertarians like to stand alone anyway.

Into this end game that we have now reached, steps what is being called “common good constitutionalism.” This is that form of our western liberal tradition which integrates a moral vision that is necessary, in the eyes of those who assert it, that a greater end than pure and unmitigated liberty can itself provide. That common good is virtue, nothing less than the virtue of which Aristotle spoke in 400 BC and of which we know today primarily through the model of Natural Law Theory, a la St. Thomas Aquinas. This is not necessarily the language of religion, but it gravitates there.
It simply asserts that as there are laws in the physical sphere which shape the behavior of objects, so there are laws in the moral sphere which shape human behavior. Or should shape human behavior, for unlike physical objects, humans exercise free choice. Of course, that free choice does not nullify the consequences of our voluntary actions. Those are as fixed as Newton’s laws of motion. Happiness is shaping human behavior in keeping with these laws so that human good and happiness are maximized.

Interestingly enough, we do know what makes people happy. This is not a mystery. Discrete observations of human behavior and experience demonstrate time and again what helps humans be human, and thus fulfill their end, their purpose, as sentient beings. It’s the Ten Commandments all over again, which encapsulates not only God’s Law but summarizes that moral code which bring to us all the highest happiness. The immediate question is, ‘who are you to tell me what makes me happy?,” “Who made you God?” and “even God doesn’t have the right to tell me what makes me happy. I alone know this.” This response is simplistic foolishness. Within a rather constricted circles of possible behaviors to be chosen, the multiple thousands of years of human experience with virtual unanimity tells us what behaviors lead to a flourishing life and which do not. We don’t have to think it up, speculate about it, or declare it a mystery.

Three authors have put this Aristotelian model to use in an attempt to refocus our constitutional order – Patrick Deneen is his book The Failure of Liberalism, Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, and Yoram Hazony in The Virtue of Nationalism. Adding to this is Sohrab Ahmari, editor of the New York Post and Adrian Vermeule, an American legal scholar, currently a law professor at Harvard Law School.

At root, their assertion is that liberty alone has led us about as far as it can. The moral capital of previous generations has run out, an inheritance which balanced liberty with moral responsibility. That balance is gone. The “chains” are unshackled. The cry now is only “FREEDOM,” and not in Braveheart’s meaning of the term either.

Not so for the patriarch of American conservatism, William Buckley, who wrote: “The conviction of some conservatives that the state can’t have a genuine, non-predatory interest in the cultivation of virtue strikes me as an anarchical accretion in modern conservative thought, something that grew from too humorless a reading of such spirited individualists as Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken.” Society does have an interest, a necessary one, in the virtuous citizen, and it can be manifested in the mission of the State.

“So conscious was Buckley of the ire that his argument would provoke from the libertarian faction of the conservative coalition, he wrote an entire chapter entitled “Anticipating the Libertarian Argument.” Despite his support for free markets, he begrudgingly acknowledged the limitations of economic liberty. ‘The deep wellsprings of patriotism are fed by other forces, and these do not leave fingerprints in the market,’ he wrote. ‘They must be investigated by the use of entirely different instruments.’” (Nate Hochman, https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/04/libertarians-common-good-conservatives-debate-long-running/)

It is time for the project of producing the virtuous citizen to find a partner in the State. Some will scream, theocracy, Roman Catholic integralism, fascism, tyranny, on and on. These are small minds which can admit of only one thing, absolute human autonomy.

“The state has a vested interest in protecting and even proactively nurturing our civic institutions, placing some aspects of our cultural inheritance beyond the reach of the creative destruction that is inherent to any dynamic liberal society.” (Nate Hochman, ibid.)

Of course, the State is us, democratically shaped, controlled, and monitored. We are not talking monarchy and authoritarian rule here. Some will say, this is where it is going to go, necessarily so. That’s worth thinking about, for sure. It’s a danger. But it is neither sure nor necessary.

The myth of a purely secular government has now been exposed. There is no naked public square, stripped of religion, where reason alone reigns. That is a myth, if there ever was one. No, religion is there, of a particular kind, an anti-religion, which is a metaphysical worldview, and every bit of a ultimate claim than any religions would make.

I will follow up on some comments and bibilography that enable the reader to follow up. In the meantime follow Yoram Hazony and Sohrab Ahmari on Twitter. Deneen and Vermeule make little use of social media.