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Daniel Burns spoke on campus. Twitter

Arguing that the­o­retical lib­er­alism is impos­sible to translate exactly into real life, Daniel Burns, asso­ciate pro­fessor of pol­itics at the Uni­versity of Dallas, spoke to a group of Hillsdale stu­dents and faculty on Tuesday, Feb. 25. In fact, Burns said that the mod­ified, imperfect version of lib­er­alism in America is actually preferable to its pure, the­o­retical form. 

At the beginning of his talk, Burns clar­ified that his use of “lib­er­alism” was “not New Deal lib­er­alism, not Demo­c­ratic lib­er­alism or any­thing like that, but some­thing more general, the kind of lib­er­alism that both FDR and Ronald Reagan were both basi­cally united in favor of.”

Burns said that lib­er­alism can be thought about in two ways: the­o­ret­i­cally and prac­ti­cally. 

“When we talk about lib­er­alism we some­times mean a political idea that you can read about in books, and each describes a par­ticular version of lib­er­alism, but those ver­sions clearly all have some­thing in common, from Locke to Spinoza to Mon­tesquieu to Kant to Mill and Rawls,” he said. “On the other hand, by lib­er­alism we some­times mean a set of liberal prac­tices that are appre­ciated by mil­lions of people who know nothing about the political theory behind them.”

Burns came down firmly in favor of the prac­tical appli­cation of lib­er­alism. 

 “Every­thing that’s good about our liberal insti­tu­tions can be defended without any help from liberal theory,” he said. “And if we ever seri­ously tried to put into practice the dic­tates of liberal theory, we would have to get rid of many of the most valuable insti­tu­tions of liberal practice.”

According to Burns, American political the­orist Patrick Deneen and a handful of con­ser­v­a­tives are beginning to think that many of the problems that we find in modern society are not actually due to “pro­gres­sives”, but actually to issues rooted in liberal theory itself. 

“The stuff that con­ser­v­a­tives and pro­gres­sives thought they agreed on — indi­vidual rights, limited gov­ernment, and at least some sep­a­ration of church and state — our whole American political phi­losophy is what got us into trouble,” Burns said. “What we’re seeing today is a playing out of mis­takes made by our founders who spent too much time reading Locke when they should have been reading Cicero and Aquinas.”

Burns said that the issues with liberal theory begin with flawed assump­tions that philoso­phers make about human nature. 

“They imagine human beings in a state no one has ever seen, some­times called a state of nature. In this imag­inary state, human beings are sup­posed to be com­pletely autonomous and have no mean­ingful oblig­a­tions to other human beings, even to their own parents,” Burns said. “I think we all know that nobody is like this, and they would be barely rec­og­nizable as human if they were.”

According to Burns, American liberal theory as crafted by the Founders is incon­sistent. 

“The Founders were not political philoso­phers. The­o­retical coherence just wasn’t their strong suit,” he said. “American liberal practice is much better than liberal theory and we should make sure not to interpret liberal practice through the lens of liberal theory.”

In fact, Burns said that he doesn’t think Amer­icans need any sort of ide­ology at all.

“I’m not aware of anyone in the Western tra­dition before Hobbes who thought that political phi­losophy required this kind of com­pre­hensive ide­ology of human political life,” he said. 

According to Burns, the political phi­losophy of Aris­totle can “direct and update” our American political tra­di­tions and provide answers for modern social problems that “the Founders, for all their wisdom, just couldn’t have antic­i­pated.”

In the Q&A session after the talk, Hillsdale pro­fessor of pol­itics Thomas West told Burns “I don’t rec­ognize any­thing you just said about lib­er­alism. Every lib­er­alism has a coherent theory.”

West dis­agreed with Burns’ broad cat­e­go­rizing of lib­er­alism, espe­cially with the fact that Burns lumped Rawls in with thinkers like Locke. 

Under Rawls’ theory, West said “There is no lib­er­alism. There is no freedom of speech.”

Senior Brian Freimuth, who attended the talk, said that he didn’t agree with Burns because his ideas were not aca­d­e­m­i­cally rig­orous. 

“He didn’t treat Locke in any mean­ingful aca­demic way,” Freimuth said. “He made a huge umbrella cat­egory that he called ‘liberal theory’ which he said is respon­sible for the radical indi­vid­u­alism of today, and then under that umbrella he placed people like Rawls and Locke. Okay, great. You just made the biggest umbrella ever.”

Freimuth said that Burns attributed ideas to philoso­phers that they didn’t actually believe. 

“Burns said that Locke is for radical indi­vid­u­alism,” Freimuth said. “But the longest chapter in Locke’s Second Treatise of Gov­ernment is on the family.”

Burns’ talk caused quite the stir in the audience, and he acknowl­edged it at the end of the lecture. “That’s my view. I know I haven’t per­suaded everybody,” he said.