Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hitchens & conservative rights

What makes us free? Peter Hitchens believes that the left has it wrong. The left has put its faith in abstract declarations of human rights. These declarations give judges the power to interpret what is right or wrong. Rather than everyone, including those holding state power, being held to a divinely sanctioned morality, it is now the officials of the state who wield this power. Hence a vast increase in state authority and a loss of liberty.

Hitchens prefers what he calls conservative rights. These are clearly defined legal rights which limit the power of what the state can do, as opposed to the "grandiose blether about rights" coming from the left, which leads the state to interfere in people's lives:

That is why left-wing rights increase the power of the state. Conservative rights, as expressed in the hard, cool, terse, language of the 1689 Bill of Rights ... concentrate on saying quite clearly what government cannot do. And in the space that is left, when the ruler is restrained by such things, free men can live, write, speak and think.

I don't think this goes far enough. If you really want to defend freedom, you have to take the contest to a deeper level.

What really counts are not the legal forms but the understanding of who man is and what his freedom is for.

For instance, the Lockean liberals, who Peter Hitchens seems to endorse, did not have a neutral view of the nature of man and what men might legitimately do in society. They had an excessively pessimistic view of men as being asocial, self-interested creatures who only pretended to act socially in order to impose their own partisan interests on others. Therefore, men were to be restricted to private pursuits, with the ideal activity being participation in the market.

The Lockeans left a lot out of man. They wanted us to be free as atomised, abstracted individuals, lacking natural ties to our community and oriented instead to a pursuit of private self-interest.

Think too of the modern liberals. They define man in terms of autonomy: we are human to the extent that we can self-determine our own lives and being.

This view of what man is has inevitable consequences. It is an autonomous self that is to be made free - one "liberated" from unchosen, inherited aspects of life such as manhood and womanhood, traditional forms of the family, ethnicity and objective forms of morality.

The realm of freedom then becomes those aspects of life that can be chosen at an individual level: career, entertainment, travel, shopping and so on. Society becomes good at developing these aspects of life; others are neglected or deemed illegitimate and repressed.

The rule is this: the concept of what man is will lead on to a view of what freedom is for. This is the deeper, driving force behind whether we have a true conservative liberty or not.

The conservative position should be this: we cannot be free as radically autonomous, self-created individuals. If we are to be free, it will be as men and women, as husbands and wives, as fathers and mothers and as members of distinct human communities and traditions.

One final, important point. If we do not do battle on these grounds, then it is likely that an older concept of rights, one focused on limiting state power, will give way to state interference and coercion.

Why? If it is accepted as true that we become human through the power to self-create our own autonomous lives, then it will be thought terribly unjust for there to be any inequalities in this power of autonomy. It would mean accepting that some people were more human than others - a serious breach in human equality.

For instance, if careers help our autonomy by making us financially independent, then how can we justify men spending more time in careers than women. If the liberal view of personhood is true, then this would mean that women were being relegated to a less human status than men.

This will seem so immoral and so unjust to liberals, that it's unlikely that the state would not interfere coercively to achieve "gender equity".

At the very least, we have to make sure that a new generation of conservatives is brought up to reject not only the particular forms of coercion enacted by the liberal state, but also the underlying principles justifying them.


  1. Its interesting how a liberal judiciary still considers the notion of 'treason' against the state a capital crime and yet expects no fidelity from mothers to their families.

    The supranatural entity of the state seems to be more real than the natural family unit.

    If an officer of a corporation commits an 'unlawful' act against the corporation (legal person)he can be dismissed summarily without remuneration. Yet the same contractual responsibilities are not existent between marriage partners.

    Atomization of humans cannot be achieved without diminishing legal responsibilities to the family unit.

    The states lifeline its ability to usurp the responsibilities of the family unit.

  2. A terrific restatement by Mr. Richardson of the traditionalist versus the classic liberal position. As Mr. Richardson shows, not only is the classic liberal position of negative rights and restrictions on state power inadequate in itself to a proper understanding of the human, but it leads inevitably over time to a system of positive rights and unlimited state power directed at making everyone equal.

    The basic flaw of classical liberalism is that it has no sense of the "larger wholes" which form us, of which we are a part, and in which, to a significant and indispensable degree, we find ourselves. Rights being the only operative principle of classical liberalism, the rights inevitably keep growing and demanding more and more, and instead of just wanting to be left alone want to be made equal. While there are various self-described classical liberals in the U.S. today (two examples being S.T. Karnick and Ilana Mercer) who argue that classical liberalism is not anti-national but affirms national identity and national sovereignty, the fact is that classical liberalism does not contain within itself the means to stop its own tendency to move leftward. ONLY traditionalism can do that. ONLY traditionalism can contain the inherent ills of liberalism and thus assure that what is good about liberalism does not turn into its own opposite.

    I would add this. The American Founding is often described as the quintessence of classical, Lockean liberalism. But this is not correct. Americans in the Founding period believed in a uniquely American amalgam of Lockean liberalism and traditionalism: in Protestant Christianity, in traditional morality, in distinctive English-American ways of life, in English-American ways of governance, in a powerful and jealous sense of nationhood, and in a powerful sense of identity with their respective individual states of the Union, which they guarded against the power of the national government. They spoke and believed in the Lockean principles of the universal and natural rights of man, but they understood them and applied them within the context of a specific political and cultural order that was not universal but particular and contained many inequalities. Their liberalism was a part of a cultural order that was not itself liberal—which happens to be my formula for non-destructive liberalism. But, because they failed to produce a sufficient articulation of the non-liberal aspects of their political society, the liberal parts kept expanding and over time drove out the traditional parts.

  3. The inevitability theory of classical liberalism is a lie to cover the perversions brought upon it by the usual culprits.

  4. There are multiple different conceptions of what freedom is, even within the West.

    From David Fischer's book Albions' Seed:

    The East Anglian Puritans who populated New England used the word "liberty" in at least three ways. There was publick liberty, a collective notion perfectly consistent with close restraint on individuals. Then there were liberties a person might be entitled to: "understood as specific exemptions from conditions of prior restraint … The General Court [of Massachusetts], for example, enacted laws which extended 'liberties and privileges of fishing and fowling' to certain inhabitants, and thereby denied them to everyone else." Then there was soul liberty, which seems to have meant "freedom to order one's acts in a godly way — but not in any other."

    The "distressed cavaliers," mainly from England's West Country, who populated the Tidewater South, practiced hegemonic liberty, which, as Fischer says, Burke understood very well, as it was the common conception of 18th-century English gentlemen. Notions of pride, rank, and genealogy were to the fore here; and obviously this style of liberty cohabited quite comfortably with race slavery

    The Quakers from the English North Midlands who settled the Delaware valley looked to reciprocal liberty. This embraced all of humanity. Its central idea was freedom of the individual conscience. William Penn: "Conscience is God's throne in man, and the power of it his prerogative."

    The Scotch-Irish — border Scots and their Ulster relatives — cherished natural liberty, and took this to the colonial back-country they populated in the middle two quarters of the 18th century. Fischer quotes an observer: "They shun everything which appears to demand of them law and order, and anything that preaches constraint … They hate the name of a justice, and yet they are not transgressors. Their object is merely wild. Altogether, natural freedom … is what pleases them."

  5. I'm not sure it makes sense to speak of a classical liberal posiiton on freedom, or anything else. Classical liberalism was quite heterogeneous. It included both Locke and Burke. It even arguably included Marx, whose theories were based in large part on Lockes ideas.