Comment Opinion & Features

Ben Shapiro, a William F Buckley for the internet age

Ben Shapiro: personal responsibility

Brilliant, impish and alarmingly productive, Ben Shapiro is a William F Buckley for the internet age. Hundreds of thousands of fans listen to his podcast, read his columns and crowd campus auditoriums to see him spar with liberals. Shortly after his new book, The Right Side of History, debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, The Economist described Shapiro as a sage of the “alt-right.” In fact, he is the most articulate advocate of a more familiar kind of conservatism – sometimes called fusionism, because it seeks to fuse the spirits of order and liberty.

Everything about Shapiro suggests that religious tradition can be combined with the forward-looking individualism of the tech entrepreneur. A devout Orthodox Jew, he pairs sleek modern suits and open-collared shirts with his yarmulke. For a recent Vanity Fair profile, he posed with his laptop in front of an impressive shelf of Mishnah and Talmud sets.

In The Right Side of History, Shapiro makes this logic explicit. He argues that we must return to our religious and cultural inheritance, the twin legacies of Jerusalem and Athens, in order to preserve our freedoms. There is much to admire in the book. Unlike members of the alt-right, who imagine that our civilisation is a genetic inheritance, passed on through DNA and limited to those who look a certain way, Shapiro understands that it is a spiritual inheritance that began with the Greeks and the Jews, passing only later to savage Teutons.

Shapiro places the usual fusionist emphasis on individual liberty, but he presents it in new terms for new times. When the Young Americans for Freedom drafted the “Sharon Statement” at Buckley’s estate in 1960, they stressed individual liberty. Doing so made polemical sense, because conservatives viewed the Soviet Union as the paramount threat.

Young Americans for Freedom still exists (and sponsors Shapiro’s gladiatorial campus engagements), but the Soviet Union is gone. Today, threats are more likely to come from what Solzhenitsyn called “a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil”. Conservatives who bang on about the perils of collectivism and enthuse about liberty while deaths of despair continue to rise risk sounding like they care more about ideology than about reality. Shapiro is careful to avoid this peril. He consistently speaks of communal as well as individual values. There is an admirable moderation in his account, an eagerness to avoid falling into excess on either side.

Yet his account still prioritises liberty. Shapiro, who frequently argues that the government should get out of the marriage business, suggests that values should be transmitted through family and church, not through the state. He writes, “We need social organisations promoting civic virtue in order to instil individual virtue; we need government to protect individuals’ free right to choose.” Virtue is ultimately a private matter; freedom, a public affair.

This division is too neat. As Robert George wrote in Making Men Moral, “The sharp distinction proposed by many contemporary liberals and conservatives between ‘personal’ and ‘political’ morality cannot be sustained.” George offered a detailed argument for a countercultural conclusion: “Sound politics and good law are concerned with helping people to lead morally upright and valuable lives … political society may justly bring to bear the coercive power of public authority to provide people with some protection from the corrupting influence of vice.”

Countercultural – but classical. Aristotle taught that, whereas moral arguments “seem to have the power to encourage and stimulate” the “generous-minded” and the “gently born”, those who were guided by passions needed to have those passions forcibly curbed by political authorities. Only then could they be habituated to an uncompelled exercise of virtue.

When I meet people who insist that the government should not be in the business of restraining vice or promoting virtue, I almost invariably find that they are more virtuous than I happen to be. Though they preach liberty, they draw on old-fashioned resources: a stable family life, a deeply held faith. They celebrate an economy of risk while enjoying financial security. Such people can safely resist, or moderately enjoy, liberties that lead others to excess and disaster.

Shapiro not only celebrates personal responsibility, he seems to have more of it than the great mass of men. He works out three times a week with a personal trainer. He has never done drugs and was a virgin when he married. Every sabbath he logs off his massive online empire, reads religious books and spends time with his family.

If everyone were as temperate, devout and industrious as Ben Shapiro, then government really could forget about upholding virtue, and seek merely to preserve free choice. Unfortunately, few men share all of Shapiro’s enviable traits. Most are less disciplined in argument, and in their personal lives. Ruled by their passions, they fail to follow the dictates of reason and religion – even when they know their rebellion will make them unhappy. Perhaps because I am one of those men, I also am less enthusiastic than Shapiro is about individual liberty.

The Right Side of History shows that even the least deviationist conservatives are adapting to new realities. No one is better positioned than Shapiro to extend and improve the tradition he inherited from William F Buckley. He has enjoyed great success speaking on college campuses, where the winners of today’s society tend to congregate. A successful conservatism for the 21st century will speak as well to those who never pursue a degree.