At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

What is Liberty?

posted by Jack Kerwick

This was originally delivered as a speech at the Liberty Political Action Conference in Reno, Nevada on September 15, 2011.

 

Introduction

The phenomenon that has arrested our attention and that is the object of our concerns is something that we call “liberty.”  Indeed, if our political universe can be said to consist of ideas, then the idea of liberty is the center around which every other revolves.  Partisans of every conceivable variety, if they insist upon engaging in our political discourse, simply have no option but to become fluent in the language of liberty.  The idiom of liberty has prevailed over all others, not just within the contemporary Western world, but well beyond it.  InAmerica, especially, one would no more think to deny the value of liberty than one would think to deny the values of compassion, justice, or any other virtue. 

Still, just because the rhetoric of liberty springs effortlessly from our lips does not mean, necessarily, that we know that of which we speak.  It is true, no doubt, that, not unlike any number of other concepts with which we are acquainted, “liberty” is not something that is easy to define.  And, not unlike any other concept, the challenges of defining liberty, we are confident, do not preclude us from identifying it when we see it.  Whether this self-assurance is justified, however, is another question.

That there is a plethora of mutually incompatible and, in some instances, contradictory, purposes in the service of which rival partisans have enlisted the language of liberty is as powerful an indicator as any that our concept has fallen on hard times indeed.  Perhaps it is inevitable that an abstract term, especially a normative abstract term like “liberty,” should acquire for itself a storied history.  Given the centrality of place that it managed to secure in the modern imagination, a position toward which it labored for centuries, it is to be expected that anyone and everyone in search of advancing an agenda should invoke the rhetoric of liberty.  By way of these efforts, though, the term—compelled, as it was, to sustain multiple, conflicting meanings—has become like the beast to which Plato likened democracy, a beast with a thousand heads, each pulling in a direction separate from all of the others.

So, given the morass within which we find ourselves, we are left wondering: Is there a single satisfactory account of liberty and, if so, what is it?

 

Liberty as “Natural Right” 

Historically, most of those singing hosannas to liberty, whether they have been libertarians, conservatives, or leftists of one stripe or another, have identified liberty with something to which every human being is said to have a right.  Liberty, on this account, is a “natural” or “human” right.  Our own Declaration of Independence is as clear and prominent an illustration of this understanding of liberty as any.  From the perspective of the Declaration, liberty is an “unalienable,” “self-evident,” right, a divine dispensation of which every human being the world over is a beneficiary.  That this right to liberty is “self-evident” means that anyone and everyone with just a modicum of rationality can no more think to deny this universal right to liberty than they can think to deny that they have bodies: self-evidence—in this context, at any rate—implies that which is impossible to coherently deny.

The Declaration of Independence has assumed something of a sacred status for many Americans. Because of this, this conception of liberty as a “natural right” that it embodies has prevailed over all others.  To question it is to risk falling into ill repute.  But question it we must, for the very same notion of liberty was resoundingly, unabashedly, indeed, aggressively affirmed by another group from the eighteenth century: the French Revolutionaries.  In fact, the conservatism of which the great apostle of liberty Edmund Burke remains to this day the most eloquent and impassioned of representatives emerged as a distinctive intellectual tradition precisely in response to the French Revolution’s “Rights of Man”: Fraternity, Equality, and, yes, Liberty.

In both the American and French revolutions, liberty was held to be a “right” that belonged to all human beings just by virtue of their humanity. Contrary to what some argue, that the American revolutionaries, via the Declaration, depicted liberty as a right bestowed by God while the French did not is neither here nor there.  The point is that this liberty to which all people had a right, like the right itself, owed nothing to the contingencies of place or time. Transcending as it did both history and culture, it was held to be timeless. 

Many a heroic thinker to this day remains committed to this idea of liberty as a “natural right.”  And indeed, it has much to commend it.  For one, in identifying liberty with a “principle,” an abstract, universal proposition specifying a “self-evident” “right” rooted in human nature itself, this theory of liberty is as comprehensive in scope as it is simple in conception: it encompasses everyone and should be easily apprehended by everyone. Furthermore, because it ascribes to liberty the character of a “self-evident” right, it satiates that longing for certainty that dwells in the breast of every human being while reducing its enemies to fools.  And since it construes liberty as a natural right, it exposes those who would threaten it not just as fools, but as evil.  After all, only an agent of evil, be it a person or a government, would seek to acquire something that is beyond its authority to claim.

Yet for all of its virtues, it would be a mistake to think that this notion of liberty is devoid of problems.

For one, if liberty really is the “self-evident” right that its defenders claim it is, then it should be beyond dispute.  But there are substantial numbers of people—including quite respectable thinkers of a more conservative bent—that deny, not just the “self-evidence” attributed to the natural right to liberty, but the claim that there even is a natural right to liberty.  Moreover, it hasn’t been until relatively recently, as far as history is measured, that the language of “natural rights” has emerged: prior to the very late middle Ages, there was no talk of “natural rights” at all. 

These are crucial considerations for the proponents of this theory of liberty to bear in mind. This so-called right to liberty has for quite some time been at the center of many a dispute; thus it is not self-evident.  So, since it is not self-evident, when it is depicted as if it were so, its opponents can be forgiven for suspecting that the idiom of a self-evident natural right to liberty is nothing more or less than a rhetorical device deployed in the service of a partisan agenda.  They could be forgiven for thinking along with Jeremy Bentham that natural rights are “nonsense on stilts.” 

Another difficulty with this natural right conception of liberty is that in and of itself it tells us nothing.  As we already saw by way of reference to the French Revolution, leftists have been no less inclined than those on the right to invoke the natural or “human” right to liberty.  Put another way, theoretically speaking, the concept of a natural right to liberty is as compatible with communism and socialism as it is compatible with libertarianism and even anarchism.

Finally, by portraying liberty as a universal ideal that subsists in advance of culture, the proponents of this natural right conception of liberty reveal themselves to be as indebted to rationalism as are their rivals who insist that liberty is a creation of government.  Whatever their differences with one another, all rationalists share in common an irresistible disposition to neglect the voice of tradition or culture in moral and political matters.  Believers in the natural right model of liberty look beyond culture to nature in accounting for liberty.  Those who regard rights to liberty as utilitarian contrivances of government ignore culture inasmuch as they view liberty as the product of the fully conscious intentions of individuals.  Nature and artifice are opposite heads of the same rationalist coin: both stand over and above culture, civilization, and tradition.

The liberty with which we as Americans are enamored is not some timeless, self-evident abstraction to which all peoples in all places have as much of a claim as ourselves.  No, it is something much more concrete and particular than that.

 

Liberty as Cultural Inheritance

The only liberty with which we are acquainted is not a universal principle; rather, it is a particular tradition.  In fact, far from denoting a single entity, the term “liberty” serves the same function served by all general terms.  Like, say, the word “humanity,” “liberty” is really a short-hand way by which we designate a multiplicity of individual things that we recognize as belonging to the same type.  In short, literally speaking, there is no liberty; there are only liberties. However, these liberties, while distinct from one another, are nevertheless mutually supporting components of a culturally specific political-moral tradition or system.

Although Americans, regardless of ideology, not infrequently speak as if our love for liberty is unique or “exceptional,” this is not the case. Admittedly, Americahas historically had a distinctive commitment to liberty. But the notion that America is “exceptional” or unique by virtue of having been the only nation in all of human history to have been founded upon a proposition asserting the equal liberty of all human beings implies, among other things, that up until the emergence of America, even the most civilized societies that had ever existed were as unfamiliar with liberty as the most primitive.

In reality, our liberty is not some timeless abstract principle of which anyone can have an immediate and comprehensive grasp.  It is a long standing Western tradition that Americans inherited directly from England.  The American colonists were, after all, the descendants of Englishmen.  Eventually, after quite some time, they decided to emancipate themselves from the Mother country because they convicted it of having violated, not their “natural right” to liberty, but the liberties that they believed were their birthright as Englishmen.  Edmund Burke’s love of liberty was second to none, and Burke was an adamant supporter of the American colonists.  Yet in his Address to the British Colonists in North America, he reminded them that the “very liberty, which” they “so justly prize above all things, originated here,” inEngland.  The colonists and their antagonists inEngland were “a people of one origin and one character,” of the same “blood,” who “should be directed to the rational objects of government by joint counsels, and protected in them by a common force.”

Against “the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians” (431), those “men of theory” (433), those “new doctors of the rights of men” (424) who would “entangle” society “in the mazes of metaphysic sophistry” (423), Burke articulated a very different vision of liberty.  He writes that “from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right,” it had been the custom of the inhabitants of the British world to “assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity [.]”  This conception of liberty as an “entailed inheritance,” Burke is quick to note, “is without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right” (428 emphasis original).

In A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the Affairs of America, Burke notes that our “civil freedom…is not…a thing that lies hid in the depth of abstruse science.  It is a blessing and a benefit, not an abstract speculation [.]”  He continues: “Far from any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysics which admit no medium, but must be true or false in all their latitude, social and civil freedom, like all other things in common life, are variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in very different degrees, shaped into an infinite diversity of forms, according to the temper and circumstances of every community” (288).    

Burke never denies that there are natural rights.  What he denies is that they are relevant to life in civil society, or to the art of governing.  “The extreme of liberty (which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere; because extremes, as we all know, in every point which relates either to our duties or satisfactions in life, are destructive both to virtue and enjoyment” (288 emphasis original).  Our liberties, because they “vary with times and circumstances” and “admit of infinite modifications,” are incapable of being “settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle” (442).  When we are discussing politics and government, it is “the civil social man, and no other” with which we are concerned.  That is, man as he exists or allegedly exists in a “state of nature” is of no relevance.  As Burke reminds us, we “cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and civil state together” (441). 

The liberty to which we are attached resides within our institutional arrangements.  The rule of law, a government divided against itself, and the wide dispersion of power and authority that these affect do not “embody” or “express” our liberty; they constitute it.  Of course, these arrangements are not now nor have they ever been without defects.  But what this in turn means is that far from possessing the metaphysical perfection of the principle of the natural right to liberty, our liberty is always more or less.  It is a tradition of liberty with which we are in love, and because every tradition is open ended or incomplete, this tradition to which we owe, not just our love for liberty, but our very identity, forever hints at ever new possibilities of which we can avail ourselves in strengthening that liberty. 

Although we today tend to reference the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as our founding documents; although we tend to exalt both documents as repositories of our liberty, there is a very good reason why it is the Constitution and not the Declaration that is regarded as the supreme law of the land.  The Declaration, at least insofar as its most memorable and frequently quoted passage is concerned, gives expression to a universal conception of liberty that, because of its inherent abstractness, is incapable of governing specific conduct.  Whether in a court of law or a legislature, invocations of a natural right to liberty are singularly out of place, and if they are made at all, it is not before long that they give way to more particular considerations.  The Declaration is silent with respect to how societies—including American society—ought to arrange its institutions.  The Constitution, in glaring contrast, not only delineates those arrangements; in a real sense, it is identical with them.  

It really is no exaggeration to say that the Constitution, with its division of numerous powers, each “sovereign” in its own demarcated arena—each a “check” upon the authority of the others—articulates a fundamentally different kind of politics than that conveyed by the Declaration. 

With its soaring rhetoric concerning self-evident natural rights to liberty and the rest, the Declaration belongs to what the conservative English philosopher Michael Oakeshott once called “the politics of faith.”  Within this context, “faith” need not, and almost always does not, pertain to religion.  Rather, the proponents of this style of politics share in common the conviction that there are timeless, self-subsistent ideals toward the realization of which societies must be forever laboring.  To put it bluntly, proponents of this vision believe that it isn’t just permissible but mandatory that governments deploy at least some portion of its citizens’ resources, whether it be their wages, time, or even their very lives, in the service of perfecting these ideals on Earth.  What Oakeshott calls “the politics of faith” earlier generations of conservatives, like David Hume, referred to as “the politics of enthusiasm.”     

The problem with this style of politics, however, is that it is a standing repudiation of the liberty for which Americans have historically been willing to shed to the last both their own blood as well as that of anyone who would dare attempt to deprive them of it.  Even if there really are self-evident moral ideals that anyone and everyone can effortlessly grasp, once governments, whether of their own volition or on the part of the majority of their citizens, proceed to coerce other citizens to serve ends that are not of their own choosing, liberty has been denied. 

The Constitution, on the other hand, signifies what Oakeshott calls “the politics of skepticism.”  Robust metaphysical assertions and grandiose visions of the sort embodied in the Declaration are nowhere present in the Constitution.  It resolutely refuses to specify goals or ends for those within its jurisdiction to pursue.  Its language is somber, even dry.  The Constitution presupposes what all disciples of liberty have always known: dreams of perfection and great concentrations of power are mutually antagonistic.  In other words, nothing more or less than great skepticism is called for when attending to the claims of governments to do anything other than enact and enforce only those laws that protect liberties while remaining indifferent to the uses that citizens make of those liberties.

 

Conclusion

Though it is understandable that the lovers of liberty should want to elevate their beloved as high as she can go, they would be well served to consider that the higher the altitude, the greater the loss of oxygen.  The object of our affections—liberty—is not some abstract, universal ideal.  It is a concrete, particular reality.  This is the point that I have been trying to make.  If we love her as much as we claim to love her, then we must hold her close.

Thank you.    

 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defining Liberty

posted by Jack Kerwick

“Liberty” is a word that figures centrally in our political lexicon, the term around which every other revolves.   No one—neither the friends nor the foes of our traditions—who seeks a hearing in “the public square” that is our political discourse could coherently think to refrain from enlisting it in the service of his cause.  And no one would think to expose himself as an enemy of “liberty”—even if he really considered himself as such.

But for as simple as it is, “liberty,” being a concept that is both general and abstract, admits of a plethora of views, many of which are mutually contradictory.  Thus, if he is to avoid confusing others and, more importantly, himself, it is imperative that the lover of liberty specify the object of his affections with all of the exactness of which the subject matter admits. 

The prevailing conception of it equates liberty with a “right” that is alleged to be “natural” or “human.”  And because “this right,” being timeless, is a “first principle,” a proposition whose truth owes nothing to history, it is “self-evident.”  Walter E. Williams, Andrew Napolitano, and Ron Paul—men deserving of no small measure of respect—are among the most visible of contemporary proponents of this view.  They are only the most recent of its representatives, however.  This vision of liberty has roots stretching back centuries, and its pedigree is as impressive as it is extensive.  Our own Declaration of Independence is about as notable, and notably succinct, an expression of it as any.  

However, in spite of the undeniably valuable purposes that it has served, the notion of a “natural right to liberty” is not without its problems.

First, if this “natural right to liberty” was the self-evident proposition that its defenders claim, then presumably, anyone and everyone with just a shred of reason should be able to grasp it.  But for most of human history, up until near the advent of the modern era, no one spoke of “natural rights.”  The idea of “natural law,” it is true, has been in circulation for thousands of years.  Yet all expositors of “natural law,” whether Greek, Roman, or Christian, agreed that the natural law, like all law, postulated first and foremost obligations for its subjects to observe—not rights for them to exercise.   The concept of “rights” rooted in nature was alien to this tradition of natural law.

If there really is a self-evident right to liberty, then presumably it would be as impossible to question it as it is impossible to cast doubt upon the propositions that “2+2 = 4,” “I am a conscious entity,” “The world is more than five minutes old,” and the like.  However, even the defenders of natural law throughout the ancient and medieval periods had never heard or dreamt of natural rights.  When we couple this fact with the consideration that to this day, many an astute observer, including and especially those of a more conservative temperament, question the concept of natural rights, it becomes obvious that it does not possess the self-evidence that its proponents ascribe to it.

This is a problem, though, because in claiming that there is a “self-evident” natural right to liberty in spite of the fact that it has been anything but evident to most people, the proponent of natural rights arouses suspicions that he either doesn’t believe that of which he speaks or realizes that his belief is without basis.

Another difficulty with the natural right conception of liberty is that even if it is “self-evident” that everyone has a natural right to liberty, this no more generates guidance for action than does the “self-evident” fact that we are awake.  An allegedly “self-evident” natural right to liberty is as compatible with communism, socialism, and capitalism as it is compatible with liberalism, libertarianism, neoconservatism, and anarchism.

It may be true that there is such a right, but this in and of itself tells us nothing about how we should conduct our lives, arrange our institutions, or shape our policies.

Finally, although its apologists haven’t seemed to have grasped this fact, the notion that there is a “natural right to liberty” is of the same philosophical piece as the notion that rights are the creations of government alone. 

The nineteenth century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham had famously declared that “natural rights” are “nonsense on stilts.”  From Bentham’s perspective, far from being “natural,” rights were utilitarian devices that we contrive in order to “maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of sentient beings.”  Although this position and that affirming a natural right to liberty are mutually exclusive, they are equally animated by the same philosophical impulse.  This impulse has been called rationalism. 

Rationalism is variously depicted, but common to all rationalists is an aversion to anything and everything that threatens to defy the reason/nature dichotomy within which Western philosophy has operated for most of its history.  To put it more specifically, the rationalist’s analyzes of human conduct attach little to no importance to tradition, custom, culture, or civilization—i.e. that which is intermediate between reason and nature.  Either morality is grounded in an unencumbered, universal Rationality or else it is rooted in an unencumbered, universal human nature.  Both the proponents of “natural rights” as well as their utilitarian enemies assume that these are our only two alternatives.

Yet they are both mistaken. 

Neither reason nor nature is unfettered: both are constituted by the culturally and historically-specific traditions within which they develop.  The seventeenth century French Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal once noted that while habit is usually said to be “second nature,” it just may be the case that nature is “second habit.”  The point that he is making, I think, is that habit and nature are so closely bound that they are practically indistinguishable.

Though we mostly always speak of “liberty, in truth, this is but a short-hand term for our liberties.  Our liberties are not “natural.”  They are not goods to which all human beings in all places and at all times have “a right.” Rather, they are the fruits of the labors of our ancestors, a rich cultural inheritance that generations and generations worked tirelessly to bequeath to us. 

We no more need to lose ourselves in grand metaphysical speculations when affirming our liberties than when affirming our families.  Rather, we need look no further than our constitutional arrangements.  Our self-conflicted government with its wide dissemination of power and authority, its numerous “checks and balances,” and its subservience to the rule of law; it is within the interstices of these peculiar arrangements that our liberties are located.

Genuine lovers of liberty can disagree over how best to interpret the object of their affections.  However, those whose love leads them to elevate liberty into an abstract metaphysical perfection—a “self-evident” and “natural right”—would do themselves a good turn to consider that in raising it too highly, they risk losing it altogether. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

  

Ron Paul and Media Double Standards

posted by Jack Kerwick

Herman Cain’s unexpected victory in Saturday’s Florida Straw Poll has the media, especially the so-called “conservative” media, quite excited.  Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole each won this contest, and each eventually received their party’s presidential nomination.  Thus, so goes the conventional reasoning, this poll is not without its share of significance as far as the end result of the GOP primaries is concerned.

As usual, in covering this story, the pundits and “journalists” reveal both their proclivity for sensationalizing events as well as their seemingly insuperable cognitive challenges. 

That there is a coincidence between two events most certainly does not establish that there is a causal relation between them.  In other words, that three Republican presidential aspirers won both the Florida Straw Poll and, subsequently, their party’s nomination does not mean that the one event caused or predicted the other.  There is a complex of factors, and one factor in particular, that this argument from prediction omits: namely, the fact that Reagan, Bush I, and Dole were all competitive in their respective races at the time that they achieved victory in Florida.  The painful truth of the matter is that, judging from his polling numbers thus far, Cain hasn’t been serious competition for anyone. This, of course, isn’t to deny the possibility that he could experience a reversal of misfortunes; rather, it is only to point out that if he has better luck in the future, Florida, or at least Florida by itself, will have had little to nothing to do with it.  The coverage of his victory in Florida, however, is a different matter.

More exasperating than the predilection for hyperbolic eruptions and the intellectual shortcomings of most “conservative” pundits is the raw hypocrisy that is on parade throughout their coverage of the Republican primaries.  Indeed, so staggering is this hypocrisy, so glaring are the inconsistencies of which it consists, that getting a hold of it is a monumental task in and of itself.

For the longest time we have been told that the GOP presidential primaries were a “three way” race: Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or Michele Bachmann would eventually walk away with the spoils.  Mind you, it wasn’t that these three candidates all polled comparably with one another: Perry held first place while Romney and Bachmann steadily came in second and third places, respectively.  But then something happened.

Ron Paul overcame Bachmann.

Suddenly, the media’s tone changed.  No longer was this a “three way race”; it was now a contest between the two frontrunners, Perry and Romney. 

When Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll, she was all of the rage.  Much like more recent developments inFlorida, media personalities couldn’t underscore enough the significance ofIowa.  That they weren’t all that wide of the mark is born out by the decision of Tim Pawlenty—of whose “formidability” and “attractiveness” as a candidate neoconservative talk show host and Republican Party loyalist Michael Medved, among many others, continually reminded us—to terminate his campaign due to his poor showing there. 

But for as poorly as Pawlenty did in Iowa, what must not be lost upon us is that he performed better, significantly better, than every other candidate—except, of course, for Bachmann and…Ron Paul.  Paul, you may recall, came within nine-tenths of one percentage point of defeating Bachmann.

Yet so painfully obvious was “the conservative media’s” omission of this critical fact in its coverage ofIowathat leftist comic Jon Stewart couldn’t resist parodying his ideological rivals—Fox News specifically.  In truth, however, Stewart didn’t have to do all that much, for Chris Wallace and company at Fox, along with their cohorts in “conservative” talk radio, have become parodies of themselves.  The Paul Derangement Syndrome that has been ravaging their minds every few years has reduced them to undifferentiated masses of raw irrationality. Because they have refused to attend to their condition, they have become caricatures of themselves.  Stewart just exploited this fact.

Ron Paul has not only consistently maintained his third place showing, polls have shown him actually beating Barack Obama when it comes to that most coveted “independent” voter.  Furthermore, Paul does as well in this regard as “frontrunner” Mitt Romney and better than “frontrunner” Rick Perry.  No other GOP contender or potential contender even comes close.

In spite of his impressive feats, though, the “conservative” punditry still insists on treating Paul as if he was utterly irrelevant.  Had Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, or even Jon Huntsman been doing remotely as well overall as has Paul, you can rest assured that these very same pundits would have been singing their praises. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that these “experts” were touting Huntsman—a man whose polling has been so poor that he is just scarcely a candidate (This is no exaggeration: Huntsman was bordering upon being excluded from further debates because of his abysmal showing among Republican voters).  In fact, even now, given that his numbers in New Hampshire (and New Hampshire alone) have finally reached double digits, some of “conservative” commentators find their excitement over Huntsman—Huntsman!—rekindled.

Cain wins one straw poll and “conservative” talking heads speak as if he now has an opportunity to not only secure his party’s nomination, but to beat Obama.  Paul, in contrast, not only picks off straw polls like they are going out of style but, as I already noted, excels by every other conceivable criteria used to measure a viable candidacy, and yet Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Michael Medved, and scores of others incessantly inform us that he hasn’t got a shot. 

Because they can’t deny that Paul has a substantial following, they try to dismiss it by referring to the millions of his supporters as “Ron Paul people” or, in the case of Medved, “Paulistinians.”  Notice, you never hear any talk from this same crowd of “Cain people,” “Bachmann people,” “Perry people,” or “Romney people.”  Neither will they refer to “Gingrich people,” “Santorum people,” or “Huntsman people,” but in all fairness, in these cases it may just be because there are no such people.

If, as Limbaugh and his ilk would have us believe, it is only a fringe element to which Paul appeals; if his following consists of “kooks” and “nuts” who need not, and should not, be treated with any seriousness, then, presumably, the Republican Party can afford to dispense with their votes in the next election.  If Paul does not become his party’s presidential nominee, then because his following is so negligible, it apparently would not matter if those who would have otherwise cast their votes for Paul decided to abandon to its fate the party that spared no occasion to subject them to ridicule and insults.  Is this what Paul’s right-of-center detractors would have his supporters do?

The question, obviously, is rhetorical, for if Paul’s supporters refuse to back the Republican nominee, Obama’s reelection is a foregone conclusion.  Perhaps it is time for “conservative” media personalities to be reminded of this.     

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Initial Thoughts on Herman Cain

posted by Jack Kerwick

Republican presidential contender Herman Cain is all of the news at the moment. Cain, as everyone now knows, achieved a startling upset victory in the Florida Straw Poll.  With 37% of the vote, he received more support than GOP “frontrunners” Rick Perry and Mitt Romney combined. 

Cain is certainly an affable enough fellow, but in spite of the apparently pervasive perception among the GOP faithful—a perception that Cain himself has in no small measure labored tirelessly to inculcate—that his candidacy marks a radical departure from “politics as usual,” Cain has of yet to do or even say anything to distinguish himself from the Republican Party establishment.  In fact, not only has he failed to set himself apart from his party, but from his support of TARP to his endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2008, from his support of the military-centered crusade to export Democracy to the Middle East to his insistence on the eve of the economic collapse that there was no impending crisis, Cain has proven himself to be a party man through and through.    

But there is more.

To listen to Cain throughout these primary debates, one could be pardoned for thinking that he has never known of a government program or policy that, with just the right amount of care, couldn’t be salvaged.  Whether it is Social Security or anything else, Cain’s answer is always: Don’t end it, mend it.  It is reform, not abolition, for which circumstances call, as far as Cain is concerned.

This position has much to gain in the way of political expediency. However, it reflects an ignorance of the natures of both government and liberty that is at once appalling and, quite frankly, disturbing.  

Cain is no different from any number of the communists who I have met during my time in academia insofar as he speaks as if the woeful inadequacies of this or that governmental policy are a function of those specific individuals who, up to this juncture, have been entrusted with administering them.  That is, the corruption, costliness, and inefficiency attending to government programs and policies are accidental by-products of either the malevolent intentions or the incompetence or the negligence of past and present office holders.  In short, from this perspective, it is the folks implementing these programs and policies and operating these agencies that are responsible for their failures.  If only we get rid of them and replace them with ourselves, we can redeem our system of government.

Don’t end them, mend them.

But as any student of politics, of our constitutional arrangements, and, thus, our liberty, knows all too well, the problems from which Big Government suffers are intrinsic to its size and scope.  Communism failed, yes, but it would have failed even if angels had presided over its implementation.  Similarly, regardless of which party or group of individuals control the reins of the federal government, the ills that afflict it now will continue to do so as long as it remains the Leviathan that it is.  As long as the federal government is permitted to subvert the design of the U.S. Constitution—a design according to which it is assigned a subordinate role vis-à-vis the individual states—our situation will not change an iota. 

This brings us to our second point about Herman Cain. 

Cain’s vision of government reflects a misunderstanding, not just of the character of Big Government, but of liberty itself. Liberty, or at least the liberty with which Americans have always been enamored, is inseparable from the structure of government.  It is the wide dispersion of power, the decentralization of authority, in short, the divided government to which our Constitution gives expression that makes our liberty possible. To state this point another way, our liberty is located in the interstices of our Constitution, with its numerous “checks and balances.”    

Judging from Cain’s reluctance to eliminate any part of the federal government, it is only reasonable to conclude that he fundamentally misapprehends the relationship between government and individual liberty.

But like I already said, in this regard, he is not unlike the vast majority of his fellow partisans (as well as, of course, their leftist counterparts). 

There is one final problem with Cain.

He seems to think, along with Mitt Romney and a whole lot of other folks, that a presidential candidate with business expertise preferable to a one without this experience.  Not only, though, is this presupposition—and it is indeed a presupposition—anything but the axiom that it is usually treated as; a businessman turned politician could very well be the most dreadful of politicians. 

Business is an enterprise.  The country is not.  While some measure of individuality is, of course, permitted in a business, each of its members is expected to devote his time and energies toward the realization of the common end or “good” for the sake of which the business exists. In the case of business, this final end is that of profit.  In contrast, in a civil association, an associational type that Americawas originally intended to embody, there is no single or final end.  There is a staggering multiplicity of ends, each of which is chosen by the individuals whose ends they are.

Will a President Cain (or, for that matter, a President Romney) use the power at his disposal to impose uponAmericathe character of the one associational type with which he is most familiar?  Will he, that is, resolve to governAmericaas a business enterprise?

Those who love liberty will serve themselves, and their beloved country, well to look carefully at Cain.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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