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Where does liberalism come from?: Alexander Salter on why we can thank the Middle Ages for our modern liberties

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This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Alexander William Salter, a Texas Tech University economist and senior fellow at the Free Market Institute, about his co-authored new bookThe Medieval Constitution of Liberty: Political Foundations of Liberalism in the West.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Alexander William Salter, the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, and a research fellow at the University’s Free Market Institute. He’s also the co-author of the new book, The Medieval Constitution of Liberty: The Political Foundations of Liberalism in the West, which argues that the historical origins of liberal constitutional order dates back further than is typically understood. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, including the present-day consequences of their historical analysis, as well as the importance of what they call “polycentric sovereignty.” Alexander, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: Thank you, Sean. I’m very happy to join you.

SEAN SPEER: I think we may need to bring listeners, including me, along a bit here when it comes to the book’s ideas and arguments. Let’s start even with a definition. What is the liberal constitutional order, as you and your co-author, Andrew Young, define it?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: A very good place to start. We conceive of the liberal constitutional order as all those political institutions that protect individual rights and make sure that public policy and overall government behaviour is channeled toward protective and productive ends rather than predatory ends. So we’re thinking of things like checks and balances, the rule of law, democratic accountability. Again, it’s not just any one institution, it’s several rules and procedures, all of which overlap and reinforce each other that ensure the governance reflects broadly the consent of the governed and increases the welfare of those subject to those political institutions.

SEAN SPEER: Okay. Let’s now come to the conventional narrative that the book aims the challenge. What in brief terms is the prevailing historical understanding about the context and timing of the rise of liberalism as it has come to be reflected in the constitutional orders of countries like Canada?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: Of course, we know that good institutions have something to do with liberalism, and that liberalism has something to do with the Enlightenment, or perhaps more accurately, the several European Enlightenments, that flourished beginning in the late 17th or later in the early 18th century. The question then becomes, where did all of that come from?

In contemporary political and economic history, there’s this growing narrative that state building in the early modern era, the construction of rational, hierarchical, coherent, centralized states, was necessary to break up the Dark Ages, the legacy of the feudal order, and propagate a uniform rule of law. And that’s how we got all of this nice stuff.

I and my co-author, Andrew Young, offer a challenge to this thesis. We say, “No, we can’t necessarily assume that the centralized state, state capacity, call it what you will, is solving the governance problem here.” For the simple and obvious reason that if you look throughout human history, more often than not, political power is used to prey upon people rather than govern them in productive and protective ways. So if we’re going to point to nation-states as the answer to the question, there needs to be something coming along for the ride, so to speak. There needs to be something that constrains the use of political power such that it’s only used in broadly productive ways. We actually point back to the constitutional arrangements of the high Middle Ages, what we call in the book, The Medieval Constitution of Liberty. That’s the political and institutional inheritance that ultimately explains why modern states, when they were built, wielded power in a way that was conducive to economic growth and widespread flourishing rather than hindering it.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to your arguments and analysis in a second, but before we do, I have to ask, what led you to the hypothesis that this understanding might be wrong? Why did you decide to go deeper in your research to search out the nascent origins of the liberal constitutional order, as far back as you say, to the High Middle Ages?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: One of my faculty advisors in graduate school taught me something very important when it comes to academic research, which is that anger is a wonderful muse. I took a development economics course when I was a second-year graduate student in my Ph.D. program, and a lot of the papers and the books that we were reading were pushing the state capacity hypothesis. Again, the idea that we can explain the current bounty of economic modernity based on the construction of hierarchical centralized states. That explanation just never made very much sense to me, because if you look at the state capacity explanation, it’s really just an institutional morphology. By that, I mean, it tells you what institutions look like, but it doesn’t give you any reason to suppose they’re doing what the argument says they have to do in order to create broad-based economic growth. There are too many counter-examples in human history in order to trust centralized states to deliver economic growth. North Korea, the Soviet Union, these are countries that had enormous amounts of state capacity. Their governments can do things. I’m quite certain that their citizens were often hopeful that their governments would not be as capable as they are of doing things.

Let’s not forget, for example, that the space program of the Soviet Union once rivaled the space program of the United States. So it’s not going to be the case that strong centralized governments are necessarily going to be overseeing the political and economic development process. There’s got to be something more to the story than that. Again, we’re ultimately looking for those kinds of explanations that take political predation off the table, or at least limit it sufficiently that the other drivers of economic growth, private property rights, market exchange, all these good things, can cause the “Great Enrichment” and the takeoff in living standards that we would eventually see starting in, depending on where you are Western Europe versus North America and the mid to late 19th century.

SEAN SPEER: Tell us a bit about the era that you’re talking about. What was the basis of social and political organization? Would the liberalism of these political communities even have been recognizable to them or us?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: So, to be clear in the book, we do not characterize the High Middle Ages as a liberal paradise. In fact, we explicitly call it proto-liberalism. It is the political institutional foundation necessary for the philosophy of liberalism to begin emerging over the subsequent centuries. I can’t think of anybody who would’ve rather lived during the High Middle Ages than they would’ve rather lived today, for example. But it’s important to recognize that ideas, however powerful they are in determining human affairs, do not arise in a vacuum. Ideas are produced by and subscribed by individuals, and individuals interact within institutions. For any given set of ideas, you have to look at the institutional environment and ask, “Where did those ideas come from?” And if you look at the constitutional arrangements of the High Middle Ages, although they didn’t have a universal philosophy of human rights, they did have a belief in checks and balances, divided powers, these sorts of things that we take for granted today but at the time were conceived as the start of a new political order following the fall of the Roman Empire. Divided power, divided sovereignty, was very much not in vogue. So while we don’t want to say that the High Middle Ages were themselves liberal, we do think it is essential to understand the High Middle Ages if we want to answer the all-important question of “Where did liberalism come from? What are the deep roots of liberalism?”

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. That is a great answer, and it leads directly into my next question. Talk about the intellectual context then. Why did we get the Magna Carta, and why then and there?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: I think in many ways, Western Europe lived liberty before anybody thought to write it down. These sorts of things grew out of the organic relationships that existed among the various members of society. It’s not like we needed a philosophy of universal human rights to understand, “Okay, we have these divided powers between clergy, between nobility, between rich city dwellers, and no one party is strong enough to completely impose his will on the other parties. So if we’re going to be engaged in collective action in a way that touches all of our interests, we should have some consensual process. We should have representation. We should have divided powers. We should have checks and balances.”

In many ways, this resulted from actual contractual exchanges of political power. It might seem strange to modern ears, but political power was largely privatized in the Middle Ages. You had political power if you were a lord, if you owned some land, and probably you had people who owed you service and fealty, and you owed service and fealty to somebody higher up the feudal food chain, so to speak. And so this idea is that when we contract and exchange and bargain over political authority because no one of us is strong enough to get our way all the time, we have to necessarily arrive at some consensual process. Now, that does not mean that everybody had their interest accounted for. Obviously, serfs and commoners were highly, highly unrepresented in these processes. Nothing is perfect, but this is ultimately where the ideas of representation that we take for granted come from, a lot of people don’t realize. 

A scholar named David Stasavage at New York University has done really good work on this. Representative government was an innovation that the world had not really seen before the Middle Ages in Europe. Democracy had existed before, but not really representative government. That arose because various interest groups knew that they had to bargain and exchange political privileges amongst each other and set the foundation for these mutually beneficial political exchanges. And ultimately, if everybody’s getting half a loaf, that’s something that we can live with.

SEAN SPEER: Does that mean, Alexander, that these early seeds of liberalism principally evolve out of a sense of utilitarianism, or do they have more normative foundations? And what’s the role of Christianity in providing the underpinnings for the genesis of liberal ideas and liberal practices?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: That is a fascinating question. So in the book, we actually don’t stress the role of the church, the Catholic church, too highly beyond its institution. The church is an important player in the sense that it served as a Pan-European source of moral authority. It’s also important to remember that oftentimes, especially on the continent, bishops were themselves feudal lords. They were landowners, or at least they were stewards of land on behalf of the church. Sometimes bishops were capable of putting armies in the field, so they were very much part of the medieval constitutional bargaining process.

Personally, this is me speaking personally now rather than as an author of this book project, I do really think that the Christian anthropology, this understanding of what rights and duties, what it means to be human, is an important part of the story. I do think that the philosophy of human dignity, this idea that—if you take seriously the idea that God became man and the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which most people did at this time, then that’s going to be something that structures your understanding of what people can do to each other privately and publicly, politically and nonpolitically. I do think that that’s an important part of the story. I understand that not everybody is a believer, especially in this day and age, but I think that if we really want to get in the minds and inside the worldview of a medieval audience, of medieval actors, agents who were actually interacting on these scenes, we have to try and put ourselves in their shoes and understand the ideas that they found currency in. 

I definitely think that a lot of these ideas, those things—there’s a saying in medieval Europe that which touches everybody’s interest should be decided by all. That seems obvious to us, right? If something affects you politically, your voice should count. For most of human history, in most places, it didn’t work that way. The person with the swords made the rules. And yet we have this idea evolving now that we should actually have consensual governance, or there are things that it’s wrong to do to people unless you actually have the permission to do that. Partly, I think that that’s due to a de facto balance of power amongst the estates, and so there is that utilitarian foundation. But I also see a role for deep moral foundations for all of this. I think it’s a complementary story rather than an exclusive one.

SEAN SPEER: Alex, your own research, and it’s indeed reflected in the book, focuses on the origins and evolution of property rights. Let me ask a two-part question. First, why are property rights so important in your mind? And second, what are the similarities and differences between how property rights were conceived during the past and the present?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: Property rights, and specifically private property rights, are an essential part of the story of why the West grew rich, why the Industrial Revolution ultimately happened. You can’t have widespread economic development without markets. That doesn’t mean that markets are a sufficient condition for economic growth, but they are a necessary condition. Without property rights, you can’t have markets. Without markets, you can’t have market prices. Without prices, you can’t evaluate tradeoffs across various resources, and you can’t have profit and loss calculations by business. The whole economic system rests on property rights. One of the innovations that my co-author Andy and I undertake in this book, is to extend property rights-based thinking to political authority itself. How can we conceive of the exchange, quite literally the purchase and sale of political authority, when political power is itself treated as a problem? Because that’s how it was primarily regarded in medieval Western Europe. You could buy and sell Lordships. You could buy and sell domains. 

And so we need to situate political power in this overall bargaining process and realize that it too was subject to exchange. The reason that’s important is if these things can be traded, if these things can be residually owned, then that creates a strong incentive for the owner, whoever it happens to be at any moment, to actually care for the resources under their political jurisdiction. Of course, that by itself is not enough to ensure that the lord, for example, takes good care of his servants. I’m sure that ranchers care somewhat for their cows, and yet it’s still not very nice to be the cow at the end of the day. So you need some additional institutional architecture in place to make sure that people are not abusing those on their charge, though you can find that in several places I’m sure, but property rights are an essential component story. 

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask now about the idea of “polycentric sovereignty.” What do you mean, and why does it matter?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: We, academics, like using these fancy-sounding words like polycentric sovereignty. Polycentricity is this idea in economics and political science that some governing systems are characterized by multiple overlapping spheres of authority. So rather than within a given geographic territory, there’s one guy making the rules, you have multiple decision makers, and all of them have authority that overlaps in some sense. So you might be a key decision maker with respect to the allocation of economic resources in your jurisdiction, except for water rights which are mine because I have water rights of the upstream, except over here where there’s a lake, and that also belongs to somebody else. Well we get together and decide, “Okay, how do we govern the fish supply so that none of us are infringing on the rights of others?” That’s polycentricity.

This idea is that in any given jurisdiction, we have to have multiple people with skin in the game, with decision-making power. The sovereignty aspect refers to people actually being able to back up their claims. Remember, there is no territorial nation-state in medieval Western Europe, even in the High Middle Ages. Even Kings did not have a monopoly on the secure use of force and coercion within their jurisdictions. It’s very different than today, right? Most people, 99.9 times out of 100, if you’ve got a beef with law enforcement in your country, you better not escalate it too far because law enforcement is almost certainly going to win. It’s a massive power asymmetry. That was not the case in medieval Western Europe. It was often the case that kings would try and put an army in the field, and one of their vassals would also put an army in the field and beat them. And so if you’re interacting regularly with people who can actually coerce you just as easily as you can coerce them, you can recognize that it’s often in your interest to come to the bargaining table and come to some durable arrangement for how we’re going to work together peacefully because violence is costly to everybody. 

So you need those two supporting features. You need political property rights, privately owned political authority that’s privately dispersed over jurisdictions, you need polycentricity, multiple people with decision-making power and who have the check on the decision-making power, and you need sovereignty. People need the power to back up their demands. If you have those three ingredients, we argue in the book, you have the recipe for respect for markets, respect for private property, respect for obtained rights, these sorts of things that are frequently embodied in the charters of liberties that we have left over to us from the High Middle Ages.

SEAN SPEER: Alexander, I mentioned to you before we started that I read the book last night, and as I was reading it, a metaphor formed in my mind, and I want to put it to you and see if it resonates or if it’s a sign that I misinterpreted the book. There’s not a lot of debate about the Big Bang itself, but there’s some debate about what happened before the Big Bang in terms of the creation of the universe. Was it random, or was there some role for a divine creator? As I read the book, I thought, you broadly accept the Great Enrichment story, which is sort of the Big Bang creation of liberalism. What you’re trying to get at is what came before the Big Bang. Does that metaphor work for you? And maybe talk a bit about some of the consequences of your conclusion?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: That’s very interesting. I’d have to think more about that, to be honest with you. I’m not super up to brush up to the state of affairs and the cosmological literature on the origins of the universe. As I understand it, the answer to the question of what came before the Big Bang is nothing. It’s not the case that the singularity is what existed for all eternity before the Big Bang, the singularity, all of space-time and density at the moment, is what came into being when the Big Vang happened. At least that’s my understanding. But I think that your broader point is right, and the sense that when you’re analysing social affairs, you can always ask the question, “Okay, you’ve explained things that happened at this point in time, what was the explanation for the circumstances that gave rise to that process?”

SEAN SPEER: Precisely.

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: That’s where we are in the economic history literature today. There’s a broad acceptance that the Great Enrichment was caused by good institutions. Where we had institutions that respected private property rights, were conducive to market exchange. Now, the debate has moved on to, “Okay, where do good institutions come from?” And that’s where you get the state capacity theorists saying, “It’s modernity is the construction of centralized states.” That’s where Andy and I are jumping in and saying, “No, we actually are missing some essential parts of the story here, we need to go back further.” 

Now, of course, you could reply to us, “Okay. I buy your story about the balance of power in the High Middle Ages, but where did that come from?” Well, now you have to talk about the fall of Rome and those idiosyncrasies. “Where did Rome come from?” And then you’ve got to go back further. You can always go back further. There’s never going to be any final explanation or final story, but I think it’s a matter of, for any given project, coming up with a reasonable degree, a prudently sophisticated degree, of explanation because you’re never going to be able to explain anything in one book. We actually start the book with the fall of Rome, because that power vacuum, the collapse of an empire, is necessary to explain, where did the first Germanic kingdoms come from? What sorts of political orders grew up in the vacuum of political authority that was previously overseen by Rome? So for practical purposes, that’s our starting. And of course, we freely conceive that you can always go back further than that too.

SEAN SPEER: What are the present-day implications of your research? How does your challenge to our historical understanding of the origins and evolution of liberalism affect us today?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: We discussed that a little bit in the conclusion. What we’re worried by is what we call “the tragedy of the commons” in politics. This idea that our political processes have become so diffused, that basically nobody has any ultimate residual responsibility or accountability for political decision-making. And if nobody has any residual responsibility or accountability for political decision-making, nobody has the incentives to start making better decisions in public. Now, obviously, one of the things that performed that role, political accountability and incentive alignment, in the high Middle Ages was the fact that authority was privately owned. Does that mean we want to change all Western governments to monarchies? No. That’s absolutely not what we’re saying. 

We’re big fans of liberal democracy. But we do see a problem in the sense that so many political decisions are sufficiently opaque and diffused and are made by people that frankly have no skin in the game, don’t incur any personal consequences from making bad decisions. That we really don’t think that we have very good reason to expect the policy process in many liberal advanced democracies, including the United States, to be systematically putting out good things anymore. That which nobody owns, nobody cares for. We don’t want political authority to be owned. You like democracy? Okay, well, if you don’t want ownership, you need something else performing that incentive-aligning function. Checks and balances, federalism, reserved rights of individuals and local communities. These things are substitute pieces of institutional architecture that can fill the gap if you don’t have privately owned political power.

But many of these things are not in vogue today. We’re big on national top-down policy. We’re not so big on the legislative branches of our government. The executive branches, at least in the United States, the executive branches are more and more breaking apart from our Congress. This is going to result in a situation where there are going to be a lot of rules with not very much accountability, not very much feedback. And we’re worried about that. We don’t see an easy solution to that. But we do think that we’ve stumbled upon a theory that also suggests, “Hey, if we’re looking for an explanation for contemporary political sclerosis, maybe it’s just due to the fact that our current evolution of institutions has resulted in a state of affairs where people just don’t really have any reason to care that much by the long run consequences of their decisions.” That’s bad for everybody.

SEAN SPEER: I have to ask about the book homage to Friedrich Hayek’s famous book, The Constitution of Liberty. You write, “Embracing the arguments of Hayek and similar-minded scholars, we here seek to understand why that idea of liberty evolved first in the West.” Talk about how your historical interpretation converges and diverges with Hayek and its implications.

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: Hayek is a big influence on me and my co-author. I first read The Constitution of Liberty when I was a graduate student. The way that Hayek thought about political authority, and how he brought an economist’s perspective on affairs that were typically within the purview of political philosophy, was very influential on me. And so we titled this book, The Medieval Constitution of Liberty, because again, like Hayek, we were looking for the foundations of what Hayek ultimately called “The Great Society.” The kind of society that was conducive to an extensive division of labour. Many people don’t realize just how phenomenal and extraordinary it is, in historical terms, how easily we cooperate in our daily lives with anonymous others, people that we don’t know and never will know intimately.

For most of human history, that didn’t happen. You interacted with kin, with family members, with close associates, and beyond that, your circle of trust just really extends very fast. If that’s how things work, you’re never going to get an extensive division of labour sufficient to lift us all up past the Malthusian Trap. We’re all going to stay poor and life is going to be nasty, brutish, and short. So if we want to understand the source of our modern liberties and our modern economic prosperity, we really need to take seriously the institutional foundations for these things. And so we see ourselves as traveling the same ground as Hayek, just again, pushing it one step further back analysis, a meta “Constitution of Liberty”, in that sense.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask about one other influence on you and your thinking, and that’s Deirdre McCloskey. How does the book’s historical analysis converge or diverge with her own work trying to understand the origins and causes of the Great Enrichment?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: If I am one-tenth as prolific as McCloskey on this topic, I’ll be a happy scholar. McCloskey is great on these things. The work that Deirdre has done on the source of what she calls “The bourgeois revolution.” Her Bourgeois Dignity trilogy, arguing that the ultimate source of modern economic growth was the increased dignity accorded to everyday tradesmen, the bourgeois. The increased status of commerce, compared to the other traditional vocations, is a major part of the story of why we all got rich. We think that there’s a lot there that makes sense. We do agree that there was an increase in dignity of the common man, the egalitarian revolutions that McCloskey calls them. 

Again, we just think that we need to look at these things as downstream from some institutional source. What ultimately resulted in cultural and political atmosphere where merchants and tradesmen and everyday workers were accorded this dignity to undertake entrepreneurial experiments. And so the book chapter that we have that’s explicitly devoted to that question is the one on self-governing medieval cities. The cities and the High Middle Ages that would often acquire charters of liberties and immunities from a local noble, the king or bishop, and basically guaranteed them their freedom and rights of self-governance. That’s where you get experimentation. Experimentation in governance is crucial, but that experimentation needs to be bottom-up rather than top-down. Because otherwise, we’re not going to get enough experiments to be able to sort out what works from what doesn’t. We’re not going to have a not a big enough “sample size” of governance models. And so we definitely see ourselves as contributing to the same project as Deirdre. Again, we’re more persuaded by institutional explanations than cultural explanations.

SEAN SPEER: So many scholars over the years have invested themselves in the Enlightenment narrative. What has been the reaction to the book, Alexander?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: So far, it’s been pretty positive. We’re pleased at the endorsements that it’s gotten from leading scholars. Several scholars who we don’t know who have read our book already have reached out to us and extended their congratulations and said it was valuable for their own research projects, so we’re very happy to see that. And of course, we were also very pleased that we were able to get an open-access publishing grant. So for your listeners, the EPUB and Kindle versions are available to you for the extraordinarily low price of $0. And well, that’s probably not going to contribute to our bank account balance all that much, we do hope that it contributes to citation counts, the ultimate currency over realm.

SEAN SPEER: Indeed. I should just say in parentheses that it’s precisely how I read the book this week. So I strongly encourage listeners to find it and read it for the various insights that we’ve been talking about here.

Alexander, in addition to your academic scholarship, you do some popular writing in different places, including National Review magazine. I want to take up a recent essay that you publish at NR, about some growing fissures within American conservatism. You wrote an article in the magazine that said the following, “So-called national conservatives, enamored with the administrative state permanent deficits in industrial planning, think the freedom conservative economic agenda is a broken record. They’re wrong. The supply-side paradigm embedded in freedom conservatism will restore our nation’s economic vitality. Big government meddling, whether the left-wing or right-wing variety won’t.” Let me ask you why. What do the national conservatives get wrong in your mind?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: I think that the national conservatives are too optimistic about state-guided economic growth. Now the problem with the discussion about industrial policy is that so many people are involved in it trying to get different things out of it. An industrial policy of trying to pick winners where you’re trying to out-market the market and engineer higher growth is not the same thing as an industrial policy narrowly tailored, for example, to national security. Those are fundamentally different things. And I think that there’s a reasonable discussion to have about, for example, national security.

When it comes to ultimately trying to engineer the economy from the top down, trying to affect a particular distribution of resources, trying to pick winners and losers in ways that would actually get more economic performance, greater economic performance than you would otherwise, it can’t work. It’s not going to work. You need market processes in order for these things to work, not political processes. Because market processes are precisely those that come with the information-generating and incentive-aligning features that cause resources to be systematically allocated to the highest-value activities. 

Profits and losses give businesses an incentive to produce products consumers want at prices that they can afford, and it also gives them the information necessary to do so, the market price system. How would you know how to produce for your customers if you weren’t able to do profit and loss calculations? You wouldn’t. And so if we’re interested in broad-based economic growth, I really do think that we have to get back to a bottom-up supply-side perspective. You can’t consume goods and services that haven’t been produced. The wealth has got to be there before you can divvy up and redistribute it. I’m not saying there should be zero redistribution, even if I were saying that that’s a political non-starter in the United States anyway. So it’s not a serious public policy. But I do think that we need to get back to this idea that in terms of producing wealth, that’s the voluntary sector’s job. That’s the market sector’s job, not the public sector’s job.

SEAN SPEER: You observe in the essay, the potential risk of supply-side liberalism producing unequal outcomes, which you and I may be more or less concerned about than others. But let me ask for a self-assessment. Where if anywhere have so-called freedom conservatives gotten it wrong?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: I think that freedom conservatives were too optimistic about the self-evident desirability of broad-based economic freedom. We won these debates in the 1980s. And frankly, the policy reforms that we got in the United States went nowhere near as far as the popular understanding suggests. According to the popular narrative, we’ve been living under pure laissez-faire cowboy capitalism ever since the Reagan revolution. In reality, we got some deregulation, marginal tax rates came down, the government spending kept growing, the number of pages in the federal registry kept growing. I really can’t take seriously anybody who says that small libertarian has been seriously tried. It just happened. Maybe you don’t think it should. That’s a perfectly respectable position. But to argue that that’s been the governing philosophy of Washington for the past 40 years, I mean, I have to quote the wonderful movie Anchorman here. I feel like I’m on crazy pills, it just doesn’t make any sense.

But I do think that people in my camp, so to speak broadly, have too easily assumed that we’ve permanently won the debate. We’re rehashing all the old arguments assuming that people are automatically going to understand that. This one area—this is particularly evident for national trade policy. Protectionism is a live issue in the United States, and it has been for like the last 10 years in a way that it hasn’t been for previous decades. 

Many economists, I think, are tempted to say, “Well, all we need to do is step up our lecture on comparative advantage to our students and we’ll fix this proper and good. This will go away.” No, it won’t. Because there are people that have serious concerns about, on the one hand, what a lack of protectionist policies are doing to the defense industrial base. What they are doing to the supply chain for crucial medical goods. Look at what happened in the pandemic with China’s involvement in the medical supply chain. If you have a strategic adversary that’s disproportionately responsible for major medical goods and a global pandemic arrives, well, understandably, that’s going to result in some geopolitical insecurities that you may want to address. Now, I’m not coming down and saying that we should completely reorient the economy away from China. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that automatically, assuming that people who are suggesting these things just don’t understand free trade, yes, they do. They just disagree with you about national priorities, and you can’t keep on giving them the same lecture over and over and over again. Expecting them to just understand you this time. You need to be more humble about our interlocutors with whom we disagree and actually meet them on their own terms.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask up a penultimate question that in a way connects the book to the conversation we’re having now about these tensions between so-called freedom conservatives and national conservatives. One stream of thought within American conservatism is that for liberalism to thrive, it requires a virtuous citizenry. It requires a citizenry that probably is rooted in some theological foundation or at least some form of moral understanding. What would you say to that, Alexander? Can liberalism continue to flourish in an increasingly secular world?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: Oh, in an increasingly secular world? That’s a fascinating question. So, John Adams famously said that “Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people. Indeed, it is wholly unsuited to the governance of any other.” I definitely think that you need virtue in order for limited government constitutionalism, liberalism more broadly, to work. I’m also very sympathetic to the idea that you need specifically religious foundations. I myself, am religious, a practicing Christian, and I also think that the story of Christianity is a necessary part of the story of where liberalism came from. In terms of what that means for us today, if it’s the case that religiosity of some kind is necessary for the maintenance of public virtue in our institutions, we might be in a little bit of trouble, since religiosity is on the decline, especially among young people. And so the people who we are going to pass the baton to, in terms of who are ultimately going to lead our institutions and be the primary voices in American public life, if they don’t share these foundations, then we might have to take seriously the idea that some of the prerequisite beliefs that make our institutions and practices work simply aren’t there anymore. That’s a sobering thought. 

One thing I am pretty convinced of though, is that it’s not going to happen—we’re not going to recover civic virtue and religious faith through government social engineering. It’s not going to come top down. A lot of people who I’m normally on board with in terms of public policy are big on this idea of Christian nationalism. This idea that to promote religiosity the government of the United States should actively encourage expressions of Christianity and these sorts of things. I actually do think that religion belongs in public life. I think it is a thorough misreading the First Amendment to assume that that means complete separation of church and state. However, I also don’t think it’s possible to inculcate virtue and religious faith at the point of a gun. It’s just not going to happen. 

So I think that we need to pay a lot more attention to our parishes, to our local communities, to affect the broad-based revival of communitarian virtue that we need. My conservatism is the old-school fusionist conservatism. What that basically means is I think that liberty, freedom from violence, freedom from coercion, freedom from fraud, is the highest political goal. But politics is not man’s true end, our highest end, virtue is our end. And politics can help us get that, but it can’t build it for us. We want to be free because being free creates the greatest moral space to become good. And that’s, I think, how we properly square that circle.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. Well said. Listeners can’t see us, of course, but Bill Buckley is over my shoulder. Your observations about fusionism resonate with me.

Final question, do you think the freedom conservatives like you will ultimately prevail in this intramural debate within American conservatism?

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: I suppose it depends on what prevail means. We prevailed once before politically, we didn’t get a whole lot out of it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these people who says conservatives haven’t conserved anything. Yes, we have. There are many basic constitutional rights that are in much better shape today than they were 40 years ago. At the same time, we’ve never gotten control over spending. We’ve never gotten control over the national debt. We’ve never gotten control over entitlement programs. We’ve never actually returned a meaningful degree of political power to the states from Washington D.C. 

So if our victory is a victory of ideas, but those ideas do not become embodied or incarnated in our institutions, of what value is the victory? I think it’s important to win the value of ideas, but the ideas matter because they guide us in terms of the practical reforms that we need to sustain the body politic. Talking is important because it teaches us about doing. It’s one of the reasons that I think that we can and should still read the Federalist Papers, because the people who wrote the Federalist Papers also conceived, carved out, and governed a nation. Talking without doing, doing without talking. It’s just one-half of the coin. You need both sides in order to make this work.

SEAN SPEER: Well, if one wants to understand those foundational ideas, they ought to read The Medieval Constitution of Liberty: The Political Foundations of Liberalism in the West. Alexander William Salter, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

ALEXANDER WILLIAM SALTER: It was my pleasure. Thank you.