Joel Alicea (00:06:04):

Welcome to the Brookings Institution. My name is Joel Alicea, I’m an assistant professor of law at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and the co-director of the Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, which is a co-sponsor of this event. We’re very grateful to the Brookings Institution for hosting this event and co-sponsoring it with us. The Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition explores the relevance of the Catholic intellectual tradition for American constitutionalism more broadly. So this discussion today on the future of liberalism is very much in our wheelhouse. You can find out more about our project at, and you can follow this conversation on Twitter at the handle using the hashtag #futureofliberalism. You can also submit questions that way if you’d like, or you can email questions to There will be an opportunity for Q&A here from the in-person audience after a facilitated conversation with the panelists, and there will be microphones going around at that time, so if you wouldn’t mind waiting until the microphone gets to you before asking your question.


I would also ask you all to please silence your cellphones if you haven’t done that yet, just to make sure that we don’t have any interruptions during the event. So I’m going to introduce our speakers, then turn it over to Professor George to begin, then Professor Galston. Then facilitate conversation between the two of them, then over to you for Q&A. So Robert P George holds the McCormick chair in jurisprudence at Princeton University and is the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He has served as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and before that on the President’s Council on Bioethics. And as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Professor George is the author of numerous books, including in Defense of Natural Law, Making Men Moral, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and Clash of Orthodoxies. Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis.


His scholarly articles and reviews have appeared in such journals as Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal. He’s the recipient of many honors and awards, including the Presidential Citizens Medal. He’s a graduate of Swarthmore College, holds MTS and JD degrees from Harvard University and the degrees of DPhil, BCL, DCL and DLitt from Oxford University. William A Galston holds the Ezra K Zilkha chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as senior fellow. Prior to January, 2006 he was a Saul Stern professor and acting dean at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, and the director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. Founding director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. And the executive director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal. He’s a participant of six presidential campaigns, served from 1993 to 1995 as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy.


Dr. Dawson is the author of numerous books and articles just like Professor George, including his most recent book, Anti-Pluralism, The Populous Threat to Liberal Democracy, which I recommend. As well as Public Matters and the Practice of Liberal Pluralism. He’s the winner of the American Political Science Association’s Hubert H Humphrey Award, and he’s elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. He’s a graduate of Cornell University and earned his master’s [inaudible 00:09:36] degrees from the University of Chicago. So please join me in welcoming our panelists. Professor George.

Robert George (00:09:47):

Well thank you very much, Joel. I want to begin by expressing my thanks to the Brookings Institution for hosting this discussion today. And my thanks to Professor Alicia, who I’m proud to say is my former student at Princeton. I’m very proud of all that Joel has accomplished. He went from Princeton onto Harvard Law School, into a Supreme Court clerkship and to the practice of law, and now is a law professor at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, and has produced some absolutely spectacular scholarship. At the tender age of, what are you? 19 or whatever he is. So thank you, Joel, for giving me an answer to my friend Bill Galston. We were walking over from lunch and I was mentioning some of my former students, not Joel. And Bill said you have a lot to answer for. But Joel is the answer to that. And what a joy and a blessing it is to be with my old friend Bill Galston.


Bill and I have been friends since the 1990s when I was serving on the US Commission on Civil Rights, as Joel mentioned. And Bill was a domestic policy advisor in the Clinton administration. And Bill reminded me at lunch that our meeting probably had something to do with the work that we were both involved in on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress did enact then, after the Smith decision. The Oregon against Smith decision in the early 1990s, where the goal was to try to protect religious freedom. A mission in which conservatives such as myself and liberals such as Bill were united, at least in those days. The Smith decision and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act brought people from across the ideological spectrum together to try to defend the right, honored by both camps, not understood in exactly the same way, but honored by both camps, to religious freedom.


I should also mention the importance of Bill’s book, Liberal Purposes, which when I was working on my own first book, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, which was a critical examination of contemporary versions of liberal political philosophy. Bill’s book Liberal Purposes demonstrated to me, showed me that there was a different tradition, a tradition different from the dominant traditions of liberalism where schools have thought about liberalism as a political philosophical position. An alternative to the types, championed for example, my teacher Ron Gordon and John Rawls, the great Harvard philosopher. One that rooted liberal principles in virtues and values, and not on the idea that government should be neutral on questions of virtue and value, out of a sense of fairness or something like that. That book is well worth reading. I had actually occasion to revisit it recently and it’s well worth rereading today.


We’re in a very different situation in academic political theory than the one we were in when John Rawls dominated the field, in the second half of the 20th century. But Bill’s book still has very important and useful lessons for us. Liberalism now of course, our first problem is the word means different things. It means different things in different contexts. It means different things to different people. It has meant different things historically. It means different things in different places. In much of Latin America, the word liberal means what we mean when we say conservative, or at least what we used to mean not too long ago, when we said conservative. So what do we do about that? How can we have an intelligent, constructive conversation about liberalism? It’s virtues or problems, it’s future, if we don’t understand what it is? And unfortunately, the same word is used for things in such a way as to make some of us liberals in some respects, and non-liberal or critics of liberalism in other respects.


The great 18th century conservative Samuel Johnson, as you probably know, was rather abstemious with praise or compliments. He wasn’t so abstemious with condemnations. But he was abstemious with praise and compliments. But among the words that he would use to confer the highest praise on someone he admired, is he would call the person liberal, or describe the person as liberal. And the reason that was a compliment from the conservative Johnson’s point of view, is that the word liberal in those days, in that context, meant generous. Not only generous with money, although it did mean that, a charitably inclined person. It meant generosity of spirit. Now who wouldn’t want to be, who shouldn’t be a liberal in that sense? I hope that all of my fellow conservatives would aspire to be liberal in the sense of being generous in spirit. And of course, we use the word liberal in liberal education, something of which I regard myself as a great champion.


That’s a cause I’m prepared to go all the way to the mat for, the cause of liberal education. A cause that I happen to think is under jeopardy. We can talk about that some other time. But the principle there is, the spirit of education that is truth seeking and not limited to using education for instrumental purposes. To enable us to build bridges, solve this problem or that practical problem, make good careers, make a lot of money. Not that there’s anything wrong with good careers, or making money, or building bridges or anything else. But a liberal education is truth seeking education, where truth is understood as having its value not merely instrumentally, but most fundamentally and above all intrinsically. So a great liberal arts college is a college where students will study the sciences, natural sciences and the social sciences, and the humanities. Not just for careerist reasons, not for any instrumental reasons necessarily, but above all for the sake of the learning itself and the inherent enrichments that are on offer in liberal education, liberal learning.


Again, I would hope every conservative, I would hope every American, I would hope everyone would want to be a liberal, in the sense of supporting liberal education. And then of course, there’s liberal democracy. And traditionally American conservatives have been every bit as dedicated to liberal democracy, as have political liberals been. So if you ask me on the question of liberal democracy, do you stand for it or against it? I would say I stand for it and I’m worried about the threats to liberal democracy. Those coming sometimes from the right, and those coming from the left. And then there’s the question of, well, what is the antithesis of liberalism? What’s the opposite of liberalism? Well, if the opposite of liberalism is conservatism, then I come down on the side of conservatism generally speaking. But if the opposite of liberalism is illiberalism, then I’m on the side of liberalism. I don’t think anyone should want to be illiberal or support illiberalism. So in that sense, conservatives ought to be liberals. Now we sometimes, I think fruitfully, note the difference between traditional European forms of conservatism and American conservatism.


European conservatism tended to be historically, and even to this day, blood and soil conservatism were throne and altar conservatism. Now to say that isn’t meant to suggest that European conservatives are all Nazis, or proto-Nazis, or anything like that. But the belief is that what unites people as a people, a nation as a nation, and therefore what’s to be conserved if we conserve the nation in its ideals, is a certain ethnicity, or a common religion, or a common culture, thrown in altar blood and soil. But American conservatism has historically not been like that. That’s the difference people note between European and American conservatism. American conservatism isn’t, at least that it’s best it’s not, it’s leading exemplars have not been people dedicated to blood and soil, or throne and altar. So what do they want to conserve? Well, they want to conserve what American integration, what American unity is built around.


And that comes down to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is the idea of a creedal nation. Not a religious creed, but a political creed. One that has interesting religious presuppositions. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But what unites Americans as Americans when we unite around that creed is not a shared religion, we come from all religions. We are Christians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, unbelievers, secular people. And yet we are all united around the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. In that sense, we are a creedal nation. Now, none of that is to suggest that we can do without culture, without some kind of common culture. But the common culture we want to support is one that is not only consistent with, but is supported by the creed that is our principle of national unity.


So when we reflect on the differences between European and American conservatism, we can see American conservatives as in a certain sense, old-fashioned liberals, Tocquevillian, Madisonian, liberals. Interested in preserving Republican government, our founders noble experiment in Republican government. The commitment to civil liberties, conservatives and liberals will disagree in some important ways on what our basic civil liberties are, how they’re to be understood. Still there’s a fundamental agreement about those basic liberties that we find in the First Amendment. So Bill and I were united in the 1990s in the wake of the Smith decision, in the RFRA matter, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. So were by the way, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Moral Majority, People for the American Way, and Pat Robertson’s organization, I’ve forgotten what it was called. But you had those alliances because there was this sharing of commitment to that very first liberty mentioned in the First Amendment, Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or the press, right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redressing grievances.


That’s our creed, that’s what American conservatives and liberals unite around. And if the belief in those basic civil liberties is what makes you a liberal, then conservatives at their best are in a certain sense, liberals too. And liberals at their best are committed to those principles. I’ve already gone on too long, but I think that the key to overcoming our very dangerous current polarization is for liberals and conservatives both, to get back to that idea that what unites us as a nation, despite our disagreements, is a shared commitment to conserving the principles of the American founding, and the American Constitution. The principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. We can argue about how they apply in this case or that, to this issue or that. We can argue about their exact meaning.


We can also argue about what the best philosophical basis for them is. And we will have disputes within our respective camps about their philosophical basis. Bill, in that great book Liberal Purposes that I mentioned, was challenging John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, who did attempt to found liberal philosophy, liberal political philosophy, on a basic bare commitment to fairness, prescinding from considerations of virtue and value. Bill, like Michael Sandell at Harvard and some others on the liberal side were proposing an alternative. They saw the Rawlsian, Dworkinian approaches as not sufficient, not good enough, not rich enough. That we really do need to reflect on the virtue and value basis of liberalism. And that actually brought Bill and Michael much closer to where I was, although I didn’t regard myself as a liberal. I regarded myself rather as a conservative. Conservatives also have the challenge now of keeping faith with their own best tradition. With the principles of the American founding. With the Madisonian, Tocquevillian, quote liberalism, unquote. Because many conservatives have given up on it.


They think that the whole concept of American exceptionalism, which was once championed by conservatives, is actually no good. That to have a unified nation, to have a decent nation, to have a good nation, you can’t rely on the thin gruel of a shared commitment to basic principles of liberty, for example. First amendment type principles, our constitutional principles, the principles of the Declaration. You need something more like blood and soil, throne and altar. Now, I don’t want conservatism to go in that direction, any more than I’m sure Bill wants liberalism to go in the direction of illiberalism that it’s being pressed in, by some on the progressive side of the side of the street. Well, that’s my opening.

William Galston (00:25:27):

Well, thank you. And I think first of all, I want to express my thanks to Professor Alicea for initiating the conversation that led up to this session. I wish that the Brookings Institution housed, or at least hosted more sessions like this. And even though I’m nearing my ninth decade, I live in hope that it will. I also want to pose the following question. How many people in this country can say that Antonin Scalia brought them together? I mean, but it’s quite true. And what you’ve just heard, we agreed over lunch to call each other by first names, which on the grounds and anything else would be artificial. And so what you’ve just heard from Robbie is, I think a persuasive articulation of what I will call the American center. The American center includes both liberals and conservatives as that term is conventionally understood, or was in living memory conventionally understood. It represents the common ground on the basis of fruitful discussion, deliberation, prudential judgments about the best path forward for our country must be conducted.


And so to that extent, what you’re going to get from this panel, at least for me, is vehement agreement. And what I’d like to do for just a few minutes is to build on the opening foundation that Robbie laid, and say a little bit more about liberalism and liberal democracy. As I understand it, for the purposes of laying the foundation for some questions and dialogue between us. I have long believed that in the phrase liberal democracy, the adjective liberal does not denote an opposition to conservative democracy. That’s not the point at all. The clash is between liberal and illiberal democracy. An example of the latter you will find in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and he pretty much coined the phrase as a matter of fact, to describe his own approach to politics.


And I think in American terms, it can be understood as the distinction between total democracy and limited democracy. In a total democracy, a majoritarian democracy, the majority can do what it wants, subject only to the prudential limitations that it may choose to impose on itself. In a liberal democracy that is not the case. The scope of government is limited by certain principles. What are those principles? And here I just offer a kind of flatfooted reading of one of the documents that Robbie referred to, namely the Declaration of Independence. What limits the power of majorities? Number one, the principle of moral equality of all human beings and citizens. And what that means is that you cannot say or presuppose as a matter of law or practice, that the lives of some people are more important than the lives of other people. The values of a person of a particular category, whether it’s skin color, or religion, or anything else, is higher than the value of a human being with a different set of attributes.


You cannot say that and be a liberal. Number two, once again continuing my flatfooted reading of the Declaration of Independence. You believe that individuals have rights. Certain unalienable rights comma, among which are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Which raises of course a very interesting question, what are the others? And how do we talk about what the others are? But what that formulation presupposes is that individual rights are a basic part of the liberal moral landscape. We can argue about where they come from and how they are justified, but they are there as fundamental building blocks. And the declaration goes on to say that to secure these rights, governments are instituted. Which means that governments are illegitimate when they render those rights insecure or violate them outright. It contradicts the purposes for which political institutions were created. Now, does that mean that governments are instituted only to secure rights? Not necessarily.


But if they don’t do that at the threshold, then they are presumptively illegitimate. They are actually illegitimate in principle and maybe illegitimate in practice, depending on what the practical alternatives are. The third principle of liberalism, also it has a point of tangency or overlap with another great political tradition, republicanism. Because the declaration also says, that to secure these great rights, governments are instituted among men. We would now say human beings or fellow citizens. And that when governments lose legitimacy, it is the right of the people to revise or abolish them, and to institute new institutions that are more suitable to the ends of a liberal government. To put it in Madisonian terms, political power is legitimate only when it stems directly or indirectly from the people. We can have learned arguments about the divine right of kings, or the idea that God has tapped a certain political leader on the shoulder and said, “You’re it Buddy, go to it.”


But that’s not a liberal way of thinking. The institutions need to be authorized by the people themselves, or they are not legitimate. Now, are the people free to institute whatever they want? No, that would be another form of the majoritarianism that the liberal tradition excludes. I will call that ensemble of ideas that I just put on the table, political liberalism. Now, what confuses the discussion or maybe enriches it, but there should be no confusion, is two other forms of liberalism. One that I will call economic, and the other that I will call cultural. Economic liberalism is the way of thinking about the relationship between government and the economy that developed during the decades of the progressive movement, roughly speaking from the 1890s through the 1920s. And then saw its crystallization and institutionalization in the New Deal. And liberal liberals and conservative liberals have argued about the New Deal innovations, I think ever since.


And there was a great split among conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s as to whether the principles of the New Deal and its basic institutions should be taken on board by conservatives. Some of them said yes, some of them said no. Dwight Eisenhower said yes, Barry Goldwater said no. And I think it’s fair to say that conservatives in the United States remained divided on that issue for quite some time, and still are. And interestingly, some of the most culturally illiberal conservatives are now much closer to the New Deal tradition on economics-

Robert George (00:34:45):

What do you mean?

William Galston (00:34:47):

Than Robbie’s liberal conservatives are? Which brings me to my third category, and that is cultural liberalism, which I think is one way of describing recent developments on the left wing of the liberal movement. And one might argue developments that have gone beyond the left wing of the liberal movement and have moved or morphed into something else. And how to describe culture liberalism? Well at the very end of Democracy in America, the second volume, well Tocqueville expresses many fears towards the end of the second volume of Democracy in America. But one of them is that the passion for equality will overwhelm the passion for liberty. And I think to a first approximation that has happened on the left. And it has gone in directions I think, that have separated it from the liberal tradition, in the same way that there are developments on the right to which Robert referred to, that have done the same thing. And we have witnessed a kind of europeanization of the American political spectrum on both the left and the right.


But they appeal to different Europeans. And on the left, people like Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bordone, people of that sort have been particularly influential on the right. Well there’s a whole cannon of illiberal European thinkers whose credibility some conservatives are seeking to restore. But our common ground, our core common ground to return to the beginning, is what I am calling political liberalism. And as Robbie indicated, there is a debate within that common ground on the meaning of certain commitments. Let me put one on the table, just to animate perhaps some disagreement. In a wonderful article that you co-authored a few years ago with Ryan Anderson, you mentioned that there are properly understood, limits to liberty that aren’t simply derived from the equal liberties of others. That there are additional considerations on the basis of which liberty may properly be limited, I take it by government. And I wonder if you’d say more about that, because depending on what you say, we may have some grounds for disagreement.

Robert George (00:37:43):

Okay, sure. So it has to be a little bit of a wind up to this.

William Galston (00:37:50):

Yeah, okay.

Robert George (00:37:51):

To this pitch. As Bill was using the term political liberalism, he means something different from what Rawls meant by political liberalism. Which was the title of the second of Rawls’s two really great works on political liberalism. What Rawls sought, John Rawls sought, was a set of political principles that could be affirmed by a range of people across the ideological and religious spectrum. A range of people for their own reasons, thus creating what he called an overlapping consensus on the rules by which we would be governed. Now, Rawls famously in his first book, and he didn’t change this in Political Liberalism, argued that the principles of liberty that should govern a well-ordered society where there is pluralism, that is people with different religions, different worldviews, what he would eventually call different comprehensive views, that those principles are principles that would be chosen by someone in what he called the original position behind a veil of ignorance where you don’t know anything about yourself that makes you different from anybody else.


All you know about yourself are the things that you have in common with other people, what he called primary goods. You know that you would prefer more opportunity to less, you would prefer more wealth to less. You want to have self-respect and so forth. But what you won’t know is whether you’re white, black, tall, short, Catholic, Protestant, Christian, Jewish, male, female. You won’t know anything else about yourself. In those conditions, Rawls argued that you would choose two principles. One principle is about the arrangement of inequalities, sometimes called the maximum principle or the difference principle. But the one Bill is here referring to is the maximum equal liberties principle. And that is that everyone should enjoy … liberty cannot be limited, except for the sake essentially of preventing people from invading other people’s liberties. I’ve got the old-fashioned conservative view, so I’m not a liberal. The old-fashioned conservative view is that the legitimate grounds for government intervention, including government intervention that would restrict liberties, is not merely to protect the liberties of others, although that is certainly a legitimate ground for government intervention, but also to protect public health, safety, and morals.


So I would argue that public health regulations, so long as they’re intelligently designed … I’m not offering a comment one way or another on whether our Covid regulations were the right ones, or whether they were intelligently designed, or who was right and who was wrong. But I am asserting that government has the right to regulate, for the sake of protecting public health. Same with public safety. And then in this day and age, the controversial one is in respect to public morals. So I make an argument beginning in Making Men Moral, that you can have good reasons for government to intervene, to ban practices that will corrupt the people, especially those who are trying to raise children, and the children themselves. So I don’t have any objection in principle, I think we can rule out in principle. Now whether prudence would support this or that prohibition is a different question. In principle, laws against gambling, prostitution, traditional morals, laws of drug, recreational drug use.


So my point is to reject the rather extreme libertarianism that is associated both with the old-fashioned ACLU liberalism of my youth on the one side, and with the properly speaking libertarian tradition on the other side. That’s I think, what makes a conservative, properly understood, different from a libertarian. Libertarians and conservatives these days have a lot of common ground. And if you look at the Federalist Society for example, it’ll say we’re a conservative and libertarian institution, or an institution that is sympathetic to conservatives and libertarians. But on that question of when the government may, and for what reasons the government may legitimately limit liberty, there’s a conservative view and a libertarian view, and I’m on the conservative side.

William Galston (00:42:37):

Well that’s an interesting way of formulating it. I must say, five years ago I would’ve agreed with you that government regulation in the name of public health was not essentially controversial. I’ve had occasion to rethink that.

Robert George (00:42:56):

Haven’t we all?

William Galston (00:42:57):

In recent years, and you might agree with me, that some of the intense opposition to the various public health matters, measures that were invoked during the pandemic was, put it colloquially, a little bit over the top. And perhaps more generally, an instance of hyper-libertarian instincts in action. Now of course, there is this problem, and I will generalize this problem in a minute. That if there is legitimate dissensus about the scientific or medical basis for certain sorts of public health interventions, coupled with a lack of trust in the government agencies that are tasked with making those decisions, and also those that are tasked with enforcing them, then you have a problem. And it turned out that we had a big problem. But I think that’s consistent with the overall principle. But let me push it a little bit farther, because I think this is where it gets complicated. You’ve written, that in addition, let’s take free speech. In addition to time, place, and manner considerations, it would also be legitimate for the government to regulate the following categories: Slander, libel, conspiracy, false advertising, and incitement to violence.

Robert George (00:44:37):

That’s me.

William Galston (00:44:39):

That’s you. And you encounter then some familiar problems of scope and definition, in the application of those terms. And the problem is that moving from a concept of libel, to a specification of libel that can be made operational as a matter of practice, particularly as applied to the media, but not only as applied to the media, also is applied to individuals, turns out to be extraordinarily difficult and controversial. And never more so than recently. And I’ll just, to motivate a full response, I’ll just put one more consideration on the table. You go on to say that government regulation of pornography, which quote, shouldn’t be viewed as speech at all, is entirely legitimate. Now that takes us back almost a full century, to the controversy over Lady Chatterley’s Lover and all of that.


So once again, something that sounds credible in principle turns out to be very difficult to operationalize. And the Supreme Court took a crack at it when it talked about artistic portrayals without redeeming social value. But that phrase itself is just the proxy for an argument that’s ongoing. So in practice, how do we deal with speech restriction, given all of these difficulties and ambiguities? Because this is really a core problem for liberalism, dealing on the right flank. And of course on the left flank, there’re all of the, as far as I’m concerned, unconscionable restrictions that are now becoming quite commonplace in American colleges and universities, and not just there. So how do we wrestle with all of this?

Robert George (00:46:45):

Well, very good. I’m in an interesting position up here because as some of you perhaps know, I’m notorious in the academic world these days for my free speech fundamentalism as they call it, or free speech absolutism. So let me tell you about that first, and then I’ll get to the areas where I as it happens, in line with the Supreme Court’s prevailing jurisprudence historically on this, believe that there are some categories of speech that are actually unprotected. Slander, libel, incitement to violence, false advertising and so forth, obscenity being another. The reason I’m notorious is that I believe in academic institutions, and certainly in non-sectarian academic institutions like state universities, and private universities like the one at which I teach. I think this applies pretty much to, should apply pretty much to institutions that are religiously affiliated, like the one at which Joel teaches as well.


And I’ve gone around to those sorts of institutions, to BYU, and Yeshiva, and Notre Dame, and Baylor, making my case that while the rules shouldn’t be exactly the same, they’re pretty close to the same. In other words, I want a liberal policy. I want liberality when it comes to the expression of ideas on campus. And in institutions like mine at Princeton, or in state institutions, I think no idea should be forbidden. It should never be a punishable, sanctionable offense to articulate any idea, no matter how outrageous, offensive, unjust. I sometimes put it this way, I don’t want a single view that I hold, especially when it comes to the classroom. I don’t want a single view that I hold, no matter how deeply I cherish it, my religious opinions, my political views, my moral opinions. I don’t want a single view that I hold, no matter how deeply I cherish it, no matter how identity forming it is for me, no matter how important I think it is to the future of humanity, I want no idea to be immunized from critique.


I want every idea to be subject to critique, including those that are absolutely outrageous. So part of my notoriety among conservatives, is that I’ve famously defended the right of my colleague at Princeton, professor Peter Singer, to defend views that he holds, that have frequently brought to our campus at Princeton, protestors from the disability rights community. Who chain themselves, some in wheelchairs, chain themselves to the gates of Princeton and demand that he be fired and that his tenure be revoked, because of his belief that severely cognitively disabled individuals do not qualify as persons, and all the things that follow from that. Or his belief in the moral permissibility of infanticide. Not only abortion, but infanticide, because he believes that a human being doesn’t become a person until some period of time after birth. So that newborn human beings are not persons and therefore don’t have rights.


There’s nothing wrong in itself with killing a newborn human being up to a certain number of days, or months, or a year, or what have you. Now these are views that I myself abominate. I’m pro-life. I’m totally on the opposite side from Peter on those things, and yet I defend his right, because I think that in advocating his views, he makes an important contribution to the discussion. So my limiting principle is this. All I ask when it comes to speech, is that business on campus be conducted, and I would commend this to the larger society and to the polity that business be conducted in the proper currency of academic discourse. Just as there’s an economic concern currency consisting in our country of dollars and cents, and in Britain of pounds and pence, there’s a currency of intellectual or academic discourse. And it consists in reason, evidence, and arguments. So as long as someone’s willing to do business in that currency, I think any view that they hold should be on the table.

William Galston (00:51:00):

Let me stop now there, because I see that in my enthusiasm for engaging you in this issue, I’ve overridden the moderator who is supposed to segue two questions from the audience at this point.

Robert George (00:51:14):


William Galston (00:51:15):

No no, it’s my fault, not yours. And I’ve allowed you to give only half the answer for which I am truly sorry. But a principle we both agree on, namely respect for other human beings, suggests that we both subside at this point.

Robert George (00:51:29):

And let Joel-

Joel Alicea (00:51:31):

No, I was being a very liberal moderator on this. I will now go to Q&A from the audience. So if you have a question, please raise your hand and wait for the mic to come to you.

Robert George (00:51:41):

I hope the first question is for me to answer the second half of Bill’s-

Speaker 4 (00:51:44):

You didn’t mention word nationalism.

Robert George (00:51:52):

This is something Bill’s been thinking about more than I have. So let me kick that one over to you, Bill.

William Galston (00:51:57):

Well …

Joel Alicea (00:51:59):

Very quickly, let me just, I think his question was about nationalism, but I think we have a mic working now, if you wouldn’t mind just waiting until he …

Speaker 5 (00:52:05):

I’m trying to [inaudible 00:52:10].

Joel Alicea (00:52:09):

We can hear it. Or would it not be picked up on-

Robert George (00:52:11):

Why don’t you ask your question and I’ll say it into the mic here.

Speaker 4 (00:52:16):

Okay. Well liberalist nationalism at this time seems confused with on the right, if we’re giving the country back to the people having the republic. And on the left, it seems for a global authoritarian class with solutions of tyranny. So there’s the use of nationalism seems almost as confused as liberalism. So I was wondering how you impart there being two sides and a concern being almost the globalism and global citizen is the call on the left is liberal. But that’s almost government by man, not government by law, the way they’re trying to move things more under war powers. Like we need this now, and they’re bypassing the country is actually the republic.

Joel Alicea (00:53:00):

So just for those at home, the question was just in brief, what role does nationalism play in this conversation? Especially given how much that term is itself contested and can be used both on the left and the right in different ways, as a criticism of liberalism. Yes.

William Galston (00:53:21):

Well, my personal view is that there is no contradiction whatsoever between liberalism and nationalism, rightly understood. And that it is perfectly coherent to be a liberal nationalist. And the world is made up after all, of separate and distinct political communities. That is simply a fact. I don’t think it’s a regrettable fact at all. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest philosophical universalists in Western history, Emmanuel Kant offered very coherent arguments against the idea of a world state, a global state. And nationalism can be understood in a way that is incompatible with liberalism, but especially American nationalism need not be understood in that sense at all. When people fight and die for the United States, they are fighting and dying for the citizens from whom they’re drawn. They’re fighting for their country. They may be fighting for something else as well, including their buddies.


And anybody who’s been in the military as I’ve been, will tell you that relationships with your buddies are just as important as relationships with the Declaration of Independence. But the fact of the matter is that nationalism should not be invoked as a wedge for critique of liberalism, the way Robbie George and I have just explained it, not at all. And to be a liberal is not the same thing as to be a globalist, not at all. And the idea that if you are a liberal, you must be a globalist, it simply rests on a series of false inferences. So that’s where I stand on the issue. And so I object to the idea that liberals must be globalists on the one hand. And I also on the other hand, object to the idea that if you’re a nationalist, you can’t be a liberal.

Robert George (00:55:46):

I think you’re right to say that there is a problem on both the extreme left and the extreme right. And the trouble is those extremes are getting bigger, in terms of the number of people on both sides. Some on the left believe that America isn’t, can’t be, and shouldn’t be a nation. They think a nation is when people are integrated around, united by, a common religion, or common ethnic heritage, blood and soil and throne and altar. And we’re not that, and we shouldn’t be that. On the extreme right are some who agree that you can’t be a nation unless you’re integrated around blood and soil or throne and altar. And that’s why we need to give up the myth as they believe it is, that America can be a nation integrated around principles, the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, and embrace blood and soil or throne and altar nationalism.


Well, as I’ve already said, my view is that you can be a creedal nation. You can’t be a bare creedal nation, you’re going to have to have some common culture. But that common culture needs to be supported by, in a certain sense, an outgrowth of those creedal commitments, like those in the Declaration. Some on both the left and right think that’s just too thin. I don’t think it’s too thin. I confess it’s thin, it means that people who have very different worldviews, very different backgrounds, very different cultural traditions are going to have somehow to see each other as civic friends and fellow citizens. And I agree that that’s hard, but I think it’s the beauty of America. It’s a challenge yes, but many American people are up to the challenge. It seems to me it’s an ongoing experiment, collapse at any time. When we lose that civic friendship, and our polarization is putting that civic friendship in jeopardy, lots of people on the right just don’t recognize folks on the left as their fellow citizens.


Lots of folks on the left do not recognize folks on the right as they’re fellow … they’re enemies to be defeated, be destroyed. Well, the American nation, American nationalism in that positive sense, can’t survive that. And all that flag-waving on the 4th of July and Memorial Day, I’m for that. I believe we need to return to an old fashioned patriotism. It mustn’t be jingoistic. It must recognize our national sins, we have plenty of them. But we’ve got a lot we can be proud of as well, including demonstrating to the world that a Republican political regime can, government of the people, by the people, and for the people, can in fact long endure. And we’ve defeated some very nasty threats to Republican government, to human liberty, to human equality, like the Nazis and the Soviet Empire.


So I think there’s some things we can be proud of as well. So I don’t know if I want to embrace the word nationalism, given how it’s being used these days. But I’m all for an old-fashioned patriotism. On July 4th, I’m out there waving the flag. On Memorial day, watching my now 97 year old dad, World War II vet march in that parade, my heart still beats.

Joel Alicea (00:59:16):

I think we probably have time for one more question. I think there was one right over here? Yes?

Speaker 6 (00:59:23):

Thanks very much for a fascinating conversation. Just picking up on your previous comments, I wondered what role, if any, you see for the Universal Bill of Rights in helping to define liberalism? And perhaps because of a lack of a written constitution in my own country, the UK, that I see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR, ICESCR, as helping to provide a platform, a bedrock for both political and social liberalism. And picking up on the title of your event, I wondered if you saw any role, it might sound fanciful, any role for the International Bill of Rights, in helping to provide a platform for liberalism here in the US or internationally?

William Galston (01:00:09):

You spoke softly, but I think you were referring to things like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Well if you look at the history of the drafting of that, which some very fine scholars across the political spectrum have written about, there are two things that seem to me to emerge quite strikingly. First, the extent to which the experience of Nazi horror during World War II had awakened the conscience of the rest of the world to certain bedrock moral truths that had been introduced, violated, and trashed for many years. And so it was a forceful restatement of what people had thought a hundred years ago they could take for granted. And that was very important. Secondly, it did to a considerable extent reflect the generalization of the New Deal experience in the United States, as well as the wisdom of scholars, and theologians, and philosophers from around the world. And so it broadened out the conception of rights to include economic and social/cultural rights that are, I think, less self-evident than the original core of political rights, and we’ve been arguing about them ever since as a result.


That said, I am glad that those documents, which are almost universally assented to by signatory nations, exist because they represent a kind of standard to which nations, regardless of the precise form of political institutions they adopt, can be held to standards of decency. Bedrock thou shalt’s and thou shalt not’s, when it comes to the exercise of political authority. And can they be used to fortify liberal democracy here at home in America? I fear not. Like many other countries, we tend for the most part, to resist intellectual imports, and to rely on our homegrown traditions. I’m not defending that, but it is a fact.

Joel Alicea (01:02:52):

Professor George, any very brief add-ons to that?

Robert George (01:02:54):

Sure. Well I’m an admirer of the UN Declaration, and I would commend to you the book by Mary Ann Glendon, a World Made New, which was about the framing and eventual adoption by so many nations of the Declaration. One thing that is remarkable is that people came from many different traditions, eastern as well as western traditions of thought. Religious as well as secular traditions to put it together. They ended up with agreement on the words, but they were able to reach that agreement because they decided to agree to disagree on the underlying justification for the words that were used. So I do admire it and I admire the people who pulled off that remarkable accomplishment. At the same time, I think it’s very important that we be cautious about falling into the trap of allowing distant bureaucrats, empowered by or acting in the name of these kinds of international treaties, or international declarations, international conventions, to impose on nations and local communities.


There’s some I think, legitimate room for international bodies to act to restrict what individual nations choose to do in the name of human rights. But there’s a real danger of overstepping and improperly governing people, and not letting local people make their own decisions. It’s also important that we not try to displace Republican democracy, or any other legitimate form of regime, by trying to make all the decisions that really matter, in a document that is then enforceable, or allegedly enforceable, by non-democratically accountable individuals. I think that creates too great a danger of abuse. So I’m an admirer. I think there’s a place for those international documents. I think modest mechanisms of enforcement in certain conditions are proper. But I’d want to be very, very cautious not to overuse and risk abuse.

Joel Alicea (01:05:28):

Well unfortunately we’re out of time. But please join me in thanking our speakers.