Posted: October 29, 2013
n the middle of this collection of fine essays on the intellectual roots of our current political contests, James Ceaser distills what is at stake in the fundamental American debates of the past century and more:
Political communities gravitate to a central principle of right. If, as Progressives asserted, the doctrine of natural rights was the reigning idea among the public [at the American Founding and through the 19th century], its elimination would create a vacuum. It is important therefore to ask what Progressives thought would take its place, and whether their answer (if they had one) has proven to be viable. An inquiry into this question is of more than merely historical interest.
The insolvency of our national government and several liberal Democratic states, Detroit's bankruptcy, and the continuing struggles of European welfare states suggest that the Progressive answer, whatever it may be, is not as viable as our dominant intellectual culture has thought. Indeed, several essays in Natural Rights Individualism and Progressivism in American Political Thought turn the Progressive tactic of crisis-invocation on its head. The inadequacy of liberal Progressivism to address today's critical problems provides a ripe opportunity for conservatives and constitutionalists to press for renewed consideration of the philosophy underpinning the Declaration, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Civil War amendments.
Americans also deserve full and rigorous debate about our broader insolvency, which goes beyond fiscal and economic imbalances. The American Founders' philosophy of natural rights and liberal constitutionalism, broadly and properly understood, can help us understand our cultural deficit-spending. It can help us understand, in particular, the moral importance of liberty, both individual and associational, in contrast to state-centered authority and the soft, and not-so-soft, despotism of administrative experts. One of several strengths in this collection is Paul Rahe's splendid essay on Montesquieu as a natural rights thinker. Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws shows how commitment to individual natural rights can be combined with appreciation for civilized mores, religion, and other fundaments of decent social order beyond Lockean egoism and the social contract. That said, Thomas West's chapter argues for rediscovery of the more-than-individualist elements of John Locke's philosophy; indeed, West boldly weaves together threads from several Locke texts to find a neo-Aristotelian philosopher concerned with human happiness, and with a common good.
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This diversity of views on Locke, Montesquieu, and their importance to the American Founding in the opening chapters of the volume, by two scholars who agree in endorsing traditional American constitutionalism against its Progressive critics, signals that the editors—all professors at Bowling Green State University—sought a range of conservative or constitutionalist viewpoints. They even include one admirer of Progressive ideals, Eldon Eisenach, who distinguishes original Progressives from later Big Government liberals, and defends Progressive appeals to a moral narrative of populism and national cohesion. The essays present scholarship from a range of disciplines, including intellectual history, political science, American history, philosophy, and law.
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The book divides roughly into three parts. The first series of essays explicates natural rights philosophy and traditional liberal constitutionalism. The opening studies of Locke and Montesquieu by West and Rahe are followed by Craig Yirush's essay on the American revolutionaries' invocation of both natural rights and common-law rights, C. Bradley Thompson on the deeper meaning of the laws and rights of nature invoked in the Declaration of Independence, and Eric Mack on the 19th-century radical Lysander Spooner, a distinctive natural-rights libertarian.
The second series of essays examines and largely criticizes the Progressive repudiation of the founders' natural rights philosophy and constitutionalism, assessing the ultimate consequences of this turn for American politics and public policy. Ceaser opens by dissecting John Dewey's anti-foundationalist pragmatism and the adequacy of his repudiation of natural truths and rights. This is followed by Eisenach's qualified defense of Progressivism's democratic and nationalist ideals. Tiffany Jones Miller brilliantly explains the organic link between the historicist repudiation of natural rights by Progressives and their advocacy of racial discrimination and eugenics; James W. Ely analyzes the consequences for constitutional law and especially property rights of the Progressive critique of individualism in the name of organic cooperation and social responsibility; and Adam Mossoff offers a philosophical defense of Locke's labor theory of value, distinguishing it from Karl Marx's materialist account.
The final part of the volume features a debate between Ronald J. Pestritto and Michael Zuckert on the degree to which Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson repudiate the founders' constitutionalism and how these Progressive presidents reconciled their avowed populism with advocacy of increased national administrative authority over economics and politics. Pestritto gives credit to Wilson more than to Roosevelt for at least seeing the tension between populism and the administrative state, but thinks neither leader resolved the problem, let alone in a way that abides by the founders' principles of liberty and dispersed political authority. Zuckert strives to defend Wilson from his most severe conservative critics, but in the end admits that Wilson did not understand the Lockean constitutionalism of separated powers and thus hardly proved the superiority of his new-fangled replacement. The volume thus moves from first principles, to policy consequences, and finally to new conceptions of the presidential or administrative state. It leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the Progressive project and with deeper doubts about the sunny confidence of Progressives and their liberal heirs in replacing America's natural rights constitutionalism. Liberal-Progressives no less than conservative-constitutionalists should welcome this kind of focus on first principles in our national political and intellectual debates.
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The chapters by Rahe, Yirush, and Ceaser, which explore or at least mention the Montesquieuan and common-law elements of America's founding principles and constitutionalism, provide balance to what is otherwise a Locke-centric discussion. Six of the twelve essays, including both West's opening and Zuckert's closing, select Locke as the single most important locus for understanding rights and constitutionalism in America. If Progressives are rightly criticized for distorting or taking to extremes some worthy principles of America's political culture—the Social Gospel variant of Christianity and civil-service reform, among others—then defenders of natural rights and constitutional liberty might be asked to consider that Locke is not our only star and compass. West labors mightily to reconstruct Locke into an Aristotelian eudaemonist, and Mossoff follows suit—each of them surpassing Nathan Tarcov's plea (in a 1983 article) for recalling the "non-Lockean" elements in Locke. These efforts, painstaking and highly intelligent as they are, perhaps do not quite explain the materialism, hedonism, and individualism of Locke's revolutionary philosophy. The Randian, objectivist account of Lockean rights by Thompson and the radical libertarian view of Lockean philosophy by Mack highlight elements not accounted for in the eudaemonist portraits.
James Stoner raised these kinds of concerns in a 2004 journal debate with Michael Zuckert, wondering whether re-modeled conceptions of Locke overlooked Leo Strauss's trenchant concerns. This kind of query in no way endorses the Progressive caricature of Lockean individualism, since elements of Locke's philosophy of rights and constitutionalism are indispensable for the achievements of liberty and the rule of law in America, and beyond, in recent centuries. But the American Founding—indeed the Declaration itself—is a more capacious phenomenon than Lockeanism can explain. Granting Locke his proper due should not entail exclusion of equally important resources and principles, whether Montesquieu's spirit of moderation, the Bible's providential morality, or George Washington's own example of "sacred honor."
Praise is due to The Liberty Fund for sponsoring the conference that commissioned these chapters and to the Social Philosophy & Policy Center at Bowling Green State University for initially publishing these essays in their journal Social Philosophy & Policy. Such collaborations help to redress the imbalance of views in higher education and our elite culture, which is an element of our worsening cultural insolvency.