Coronavirus opens hard questions about state authority and conservative values

Conservatism is at a crossroads as to the essential nature of individual liberties versus the need for state overreach during this existential pandemic.

Peter Hitchens is bitter about the fact that, amidst an unprecedented global pandemic, unseen in around a hundred years, the British state has ordered everyone to stay at home. Surprisingly, to a self-declared “reactionary” like Hitchens, this is an extraordinary attack on civil liberties.

“Such a thing has not happened in England for 800 years, since the days of Bad King John," he wrote. "This unpleasant man found himself put under a Papal Interdict, which forbade almost every church service save Baptism, and this too has now been banned by our Prime Minister, Alexander Johnson.” Since when did self-declared reactionaries get so skeptical about the state’s coercive power for a greater good? It’s a funny old world, where Peter Hitchens, Helen Andrews, Ben Domenech and Elizabeth Nolan Brown are on the same page.

On the same day, however, Adrian Vermeule, Twitter’s favourite Schmittian, wrote why conservatives need to move beyond their dogmatic theory of originalism. Originalism, or textualism, which believes in a neutral public square, and written unchangeable laws, without any state coercion, has been a right-wing staple for decades, compared to the more liberal argument, which argues for a changeable and fluid constitution, dependent on fluid morality, and legal interpretations of scholar-philosopher-jurists.

Put simply, liberal jurisprudence is more activist and conservative jurisprudence is more, well, conservative. Vermeule however, argues that conservatives should give up on that old game and imitate liberals, using the coercive power of the state, for the greater good. It is not a new argument, and has been prominent for some time, especially among the post-liberals, from Deneen, to Ahmari, to a section of the snowballing National-Conservative movement.

Vermeule however, goes far beyond that. In explaining the extent of state power, Vermeule elaborates that, “the libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law and free-speech ideology—that government is forbidden to judge the quality and moral worth of public speech, that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric,” and so on—fall under the ax,” adding, that “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go, insofar as they bar the state from enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources.”

This intra-right rift is only going to increase, but Vermeule loses even sympathetic conservatives, with his overreach about private property. It is one thing to argue, that there should be a moral arbiter. Vermeule isn’t very different than standard left-liberals that way. Change his concept of religious morality, with “diversity and inclusivity” and his thesis doesn’t seem much different.

For all the rhetorical prowess Anglosphere conservatives were not able to prevent the corruption of society and the capturing of institutional power by progressives. When Nickelodeon, a channel for kids, celebrates Trans visibility day, a day glorified and amplified by social networks, it seems, to sane conservatives, like grooming of vulnerable autistic children. Market forces are unable to stop this rot, and someone must take responsibility, whether it is the state, or church, or local community and governance. Pure unchecked liberty without any hammer of authority or responsibility, is utter anarchy, exploited by some of the vilest elements of society.

But, Anglo-American (and their brethren in the greater Anglosphere) conservatism isn’t about just porn, so to speak, it is also about property, since the Magna Carta. While many conservatives would be absolutely fine with some form of moral arbiters, any attempt to redistribute or relitigate private property would be destructive to the greater conservative cause. No King, President, Party Chairman, Supreme Chancellor, Priest, Padre, Archbishop, Mullah, Guru, or Fuehrer is allowed to touch one’s money, earned or inherited, as long as the maxim, “an Englishman’s home is his castle” forms the basis of the Anglo-American common law. As long as there’s right to private property, there’s freedom, in some form.

In that way, Vermeule is philosophically closer to a more autocratic and continental European Throne-and-Altar conservatism, a perfect (and somewhat increasingly controversial) example of which is currently Orban’s Hungary. Whereas Hitchens, the man vilified forever by the British press as an out of touch Edwardian, appears to be skeptical of Hobbesian state authority, in favour of old unwritten liberties. Given that the primary job of the ruler since the Old Testament is simply to guard citizens against barbarians from outside, and plagues within, coronavirus would only exacerbate this debate over the future direction of conservatism in the west.