David French: ‘I Think the Protection of Liberty Is a Common Good’
“There is a level of panic and catastrophizing about American politics that’s way out of proportion,” says David French. “And that is dangerous to our body politic.”
It’s ironic that French, a Tennessee-based evangelical Christian, has found himself in the position of trying to persuade his fellow conservatives to cool their jets. After all, the 51-year-old writer, litigator, and activist made a name for himself lobbing attacks on laws and policies that he felt were infringing on people’s rights. As president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), he helped file suit against college speech codes that were preventing students from voicing unpopular opinions on campus. As a columnist for the conservative magazine National Review, he regularly drew attention to religious liberty violations such as the Obamacare contraception mandate.
But since about the time Donald Trump made his presidential aspirations known, French has found himself in hot water with folks on the political right who fault him for not being a team player. The brief against him was epitomized by a now-infamous May 2019 essay in the Christian journal First Things in which New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari complained that “liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.”
In October, French left his perch as a senior editor at National Review to join former colleague Jonah Goldberg and former chief of the now-defunct Weekly Standard Stephen Hayes in a new media venture called The Dispatch. In December, French sat down with Reason Managing Editor Stephanie Slade to explain that while he’s “every bit as conservative” as he was before the Trump era, he’s also deeply committed to the values of classical liberalism.
Reason: In one of your recent email newsletters, you used the phrases common good conservatism and nationalist conservatism. Can you tell us what those terms signify and how they differ from each other, if at all?
French: They’re mainly synonyms in my mind. The reason why I used common good conservatism is because I’m going with phrases used, for example, in some of [Sen. Marco] Rubio’s work and in a lot of the work you’re seeing out of Claremont, out of First Things. It’s emphasizing the role of the government in fostering the common good over the role of the government in protecting liberty.
They would reject, in many ways, this formulation from the Declaration of Independence that we’re endowed with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and then the next sentence following that, that governments were instituted among men to protect these liberties. They have much greater confidence, for example, than I do, that governments can in fact create economic conditions, can create social conditions that advance human welfare in a concrete and predictable way.
So you’re seeing a lot more emphasis on the right on central economic planning and a lot less emphasis on individual liberty—certainly a lot less emphasis on free speech, a lot less emphasis on economic freedom, more of an argument that because the market has been shaped a great deal by government, that essentially that means it must continue to be shaped as much as we can possibly shape it to advance the common good. It’s a sharp turn from what you would call classic Reagan conservatism.
What do you think caused that departure?
Well, there’s always been a strain of the GOP that is populist. And populism is rarely focused on small government and individual liberty, particularly the populism that you’ve seen in the South over the years….Populism in the South was public works: a big public intervention into the poor rural South.
There’s a very flawed belief that the principles of Reagan Republicanism and classical liberalism have failed this country—this is an argument you’ve seen from Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame—and that therefore we need a correction.
The thing that has come to exemplify everything that’s wrong with modernity for this crowd, as you well know, is Drag Queen Story Hour. Tell us what those words mean and then give me the Frenchian position on it.
Drag Queen Story Hour is a small movement of drag queens and friends of drag queens who will host, in public libraries scattered around this country, small gatherings of people who will listen to a drag queen read a children’s book. Children come to Drag Queen Story Hour. They see the drag queens and they interact with the drag queens. It’s come to symbolize the advance of the sexual revolution and, particularly, the way that the sexual revolution touches the lives of children. So the argument that was made was that classical liberalism is inadequate to address the threat of Drag Queen Story Hour, and that Drag Queen Story Hour is the product of liberty unrestrained. This is what happens when people are given too much liberty: Drag queens read books to kids.
My argument about this was really pretty simple. I don’t like Drag Queen Story Hour. I would not take my children to Drag Queen Story Hour. But I don’t have to go to Drag Queen Story Hour, and unless they violate anti-obscenity or indecency statutes or otherwise applicable and constitutionally appropriate laws, they enjoy all the protections of the First Amendment that everybody else enjoys. In fact, that open access to the use of public facilities has been a boon to social conservative groups like Christian organizations. There are thousands of churches that conduct worship services in empty classrooms and gymnasiums and cafeterias across this country, who have access to library facilities and other public buildings. They utilize those to say and preach and teach things that the common good conservatives would very much like and very much endorse. And you cannot have a legal system that allows the government to dictate which preferred viewpoint gets access to its facilities. If you embrace such a system, you’re not going to like the outcome.
The idea is that if conservatives can stop Drag Queen Story Hour from happening at the library, then why can’t progressives stop—
They can and will stop church services, Bible studies, Tea Party meetings, GOP gatherings. I mean, once you lift the [requirement of] viewpoint neutrality in access to public facilities, you lift it. It’s gone. And you better be in charge of everything, or you’re going to see your preferred viewpoint locked out of the public square.
Now, that’s a pragmatic response. I tend to think that liberty has independent value. A lot of [co
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