At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Tea Partiers, Republicans, and Ron Paul

posted by Jack Kerwick

Within the last few years, a phenomenon emerged to become among the most formidable forces in contemporary American politics.  It goes by the name of “the Tea Party movement.” 

Supposedly, the Tea Party movement is not affiliated with either of our two national political parties.  Rather, it is composed of millions of ordinary Americans who, jealous as they are of the liberties bequeathed to them by their progeny, find intolerable the gargantuan proportions to which the federal government has grown. 

This, at any rate, is the conventional account of the genesis and character of the Tea Party movement. 

I once endorsed it.  Sadly, I no longer can.

It is my considered judgment—a judgment, mind you, from which I derive not the slightest satisfaction—that the Tea Party movement, like the so-called “conservative media” of Fox News and talk radio, has become, if it hasn’t always been, an organ of the GOP.

Those who would convict me of treating the Tea Party movement unfairly on this score shouldn’t be so hasty. 

Contrary to the assertions of their leftist critics, that the glaring profligacy of George W. Bush and his Republican dominated congress failed to give rise to the Tea Party most certainly is not the function of a lack of sincerity on its members’ part.  Still less can this be attributable to some racial animus that the latter have toward the current occupant of the White House.  As far as broadening the scope of the federal government is concerned, it is true that Barack H. Obama exploited the trends initiated by his predecessors, both Democrat and Republican alike; yet, understandably enough, both the rapidity and the aggressiveness with which he sought to strengthen this Colossus provoked the backlash that is the Tea Party movement. 

The Republicans spared no occasion, and no expense, to feed Leviathan—and yet the Tea Party never came.  But it is a mistake to think that this is what warrants concerns regarding Tea Partiers’ declaration of neutrality vis-à-vis political parties.  The suspicion that the Tea Party movement is essentially an arm of the Republican Party is not rooted in what it may or may not have done in the past; the suspicion is fueled by what self-identified Tea Partiers are doing right now. 

It hasn’t been uncommon to hear Republicans, whether politicians or “conservative” media personalities, wax repentant over having “lost their way” during the years that the vast apparatus of power was at their disposal.  In reality, though, the only thing for which the Republicans are sorrowful is that they lost the dominant position that they once held.  This, at least, is by far the most reasonable conclusion that we can draw, for genuine repentance demands that the penitent come to terms with his specific sins.  This Republicans have singularly failed to do. 

And yet, Tea Partiers continue to give them a pass.

Anyone who doubts this need only consider the GOP’s presidential primary contest.

If Tea Partiers really are concerned about affecting a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of the federal government; if they really want to deprive the government of much of its sustenance—i.e. “spending”; and if they really want to restore the Constitutional Republic to which our Founders gave birth and, thus, the liberty that this entails, then it should be obvious to all with eyes to see behind which of the candidates they should be throwing their unqualified support.

That candidate, of course, is Congressman Ron Paul.

In fact, truth be told, if it is the substance of a candidate’s ideas and his or her determination to realize them to which they ascribe importance, there isn’t a single other contestant in this race at whom Tea Partiers should glance twice.

My sympathies lie with Dr. Paul, of course, but it would be a grave mistake for his detractors to dismiss my verdict simply as a function of those sympathies.  There are some very good reasons—i.e. considerations that, whether they ultimately embrace them or not, reasonable people must concede are legitimate—for the judgment that, by the professed standards of the Tea Partiers, Dr. Paul is their candidate par excellence.

As of this juncture, it seems that there exists a chasm of considerable depth between, on the one hand, Tea Partiers’ rhetoric of “limited government,” “lower taxes,” and “less spending” and, on the other, their resolute failure to specify so much as a single program from the Bush era that they wish to revoke.  In this respect alone they are indistinguishable from the Republicans who they support.

This brings us to our second premise: to judge from the presidential primaries, one could be forgiven for thinking that Republicans haven’t changed their spots at all.  True, thanks to the tireless labors of Dr. Paul, some Republicans, like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, now recognize the need to make the occasional derogatory reference to the Federal Reserve; but outside of that, none of the candidates sound any differently now than the GOP presidential candidates of 2008. 

Ron Paul, however, is an entirely different matter.

The doubling of the national debt; No Child Left Behind; Faith-Based Initiatives; the Home Ownership Society with the sub-prime mortgages that it required (and the economic collapse to which it critically contributed); endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in principle, the entire Islamic world; a prescription drug benefit that is unprecedented in its scope and cost; federal funding of embryonic stem cell research; the ominously named “Patriot Act”; bailouts; and TARP; these are just some of the measures that Bush 43 and his fellow Republicans appropriated to consolidate the federal government’s power and authority over our lives to an extent that hasn’t been seen since Lyndon Banes Johnson’s Great Society. 

Yet, besides Ron Paul, no other candidate has even hinted at regret over any of this.

Some candidates certainly sound better than others, but unless Tea Partiers are being dishonest about their desires to “shrink” government, they must be naively trusting to accept at face value these Republicans’ words in light of their records.  Just a few words about each should suffice to substantiate this point.

Take, first, the two “frontrunners,” Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.  The former was a lifelong Democrat and supporter of Al Gore up until the end of the Reagan decade, while the latter was the governor of the most heavily Democratic state in theUnionand long-time ally of Ted Kennedy.

Now, that a person’s intellectual horizons should expand is something at once possible and desirable.  It is certainly anything but a strike against Perry and Romney that they should have changed their minds throughout through out their lives.  But it is neither the quantity nor the quality of the changes in perspective that renders both men suspect; it is, rather, the timing of their political conversions that calls into question their sincerity:  both “frontrunners’ seem to have changed their views at just those moments when it was to the advantage of their political careers to do so.

More specifically, Perry not only attempted to compel underage girls to receive a vaccination (whether it would have adversely or beneficially impacted them physically, is neither here nor there), he attempted to do so by way of circumventing the legislative branch, through an executive order.  Furthermore, by granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens, he extended to them what in effect amounts to a de facto amnesty.  To add insult to injury, as recently as a few weeks ago during the last GOP primary debate, he stood by his decision, and all but accused his critics of being heartless “racists.”  If ever we needed proof that Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism” is back, and back with a vengeance, this is it.

As for Romney, he is credited by no less a figure than Obama himself as being the inspiration for the dreadful Obamacare.  Before there was Obamacare, there was Romneycare in Massachusetts.  That’s right, along with Perry (and, for that matter, Obama), Romney too has a penchant for deploying the power with which he has been entrusted in the service of coercing those over whom he presides into pursuing ends that he has chosen for them.  In the hardback edition of his book, No Excuses, Romney even expressed his enthusiasm over the prospect of implementing a national version of his state plan (When, however, the paperback edition was released, he omitted this detail). 

The second (and third, fourth, and fifth?) tier candidates aren’t significantly better. 

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are long-time establishment Republicans.  If the Republican establishment that Americans overwhelmingly rejected in 2006 and 2008 could be said to have a face, it would be a composite of the faces of Gingrich and Santorum.  From these two we heard not a peep during the last decade about excessive government spending, the dangers of the Federal Reserve, the impending housing bubble burst and consequent economic collapse, or any other threats to liberty and prosperity that Republican rule posed to the country. 

Michele Bachmann is much more impressive than her contenders, but she did vote for $192 billion dollars in “anti-recession” stimulus, while Herman Cain ecstatically endorsed Mitt Romney in 2008, indicated not the slightest awareness as late as 2006 of the looming economic crisis, and, even now, urges, never the elimination or drastic reduction of any agency or even program, but their reform.  As for Jon Huntsman…well, he is Jon Huntsman, a former servant in the Obama administration.  This is about all that we need to know about him.

There is something else that we must never forget: every one of the forgoing candidates supports Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” an agenda that demands for its actualization an ever expansive military and, thus, increases in government spending.

This brings us back around to our original point.  That Tea Partiers would be in the least bit conflicted as to which of the Republican candidates they should endorse would alone suffice to confirm my suspicion that they are the same old Republicans repackaged under a new label.  That they would think to chime right in there with Rick Santorum and other establishment backers in mocking, ridiculing, and booing Ron Paul all but assigns this suspicion an axiomatic status.

Ron Paul is the only single Republican presidential candidate who has a lifetime of unwavering service to precisely those ideals for which Tea Partiers claim to stand.  He should be the sole Tea Party candidate.  That he isn’t only shows that the Tea Party is an organ of the GOP.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published in The New American 




Paul Derangement Syndrome

posted by Jack Kerwick

Paul Derangement Syndrome (PDS) is a mental condition that, though it was first detected during the 2008 Republican Presidential primaries, has only now been identified for the dangerous disorder that it is.  Also known as “Paulophobia,” those suffering from it find themselves tortured by their fear ofTexas congressman and three time presidential candidate Ron Paul.

PDS is peculiar in that in spite of its being a contagion, there is but one segment of the general population that it is known to afflict.  Even more curious is the fact that this segment consists of Ron Paul’s fellow partisans in the Republican Party.  More specifically, it is neoconservative men and women, especially those with a particularly powerful proclivity for “conservative” talk radio and Fox News, who are most susceptible to contracting PDS.

PDS is known to ravage the rationality of its hosts.  While this disorder indeed promises to reduce its victims’ thoughts on Congressman Paul to textbook cases of illogic, it would be a mistake to infer from this that every Paulophobe was a clear thinker prior to falling prey to PDS: in a not inconsiderable number of instances, Paulophobia hasn’t so much as caused the wild irrationality that is the most salient characteristic of all PDS victims as exacerbated the general unreasonableness with which they already lived.

Unlike many other illnesses, PDS isn’t at all difficult to identify.  The Paulophobe’s discourse on all matters pertaining to Ron Paul, or at least to Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy, is replete with, not just inconsistencies, but glaring inconsistencies, contradictions that are so profound that even a college freshman enrolled in an introductory logic course couldn’t help but to be pained by them.  To anyone remotely attuned to reality or possessed of a modicum of reason, the Paulophobe’s utterances can’t but sound like the babblings of a baby: indecipherable noises intending to signify we know not what.

At one and the same time that he loudly and proudly affirms “limited government,” “liberty,” “individualism,” “fiscal sanity,” “the Constitution,” and “the Founders,” the Paulophobe will just as loudly and unabashedly repudiate Ron Paul.  Although the latter has proven to be, by far, both more committed and more consistently committed to these values than any political actor of our generation—although, that is, he is an incomparable champion of the very ideals that the Paulophobe claims to cherish—the Paulophobe insists upon treating Ron Paul as an enemy. 

This in and of itself is sufficient to convict the Paulophobe of invincible irrationality.  Yet this unreason runs deeply, manifesting itself in other ways.

Obsessed with erasing altogether the distinction between his perception of reality and reality itself, the Paulophobe will stop at nothing to deny the latter.  Of the nine GOP presidential contenders, Ron Paul is more or less consistently in third place in those polls taken among likely Republican voters.  When Michele Bachmann held that same distinction, the Paulophobe repeatedly, and excitedly, declared this a “three way race.”  Now that Paul has usurped Bachmann’s standing, the Paulophobe characterizes the primaries as a contest between two frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry—two candidates whose commitment to the Paulophobe’s self-professed ideals even he questions.  But what’s worst, he episodically regards as a viable candidate virtually every other contestant in this race—from Tim Pawlenty, who terminated his candidacy after being crushed in the Iowa Ames Straw Poll by Ron Paul, to Herman Cain, from Jon Huntsman to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—while either failing to mention Paul at all or mentioning him just long enough to assure the rest of us that Paul is not a serious candidate.  This, the Paulophobe does, in spite of the fact that not one of Paul’s second-tier competitors has overall performed nearly as impressively as has he. 

Some victims of PDS, like nationally syndicated talk radio host Michael Medved, argue that Republican primary voters should nominate, not the most conservative of candidates, but the most conservative of candidates who also happens to be the most electable of candidates.  That is, only that person who can dominate Obama among “independents” and “moderates” should receive his or her party’s nomination. 

Now, Medved suffers from an especially acute case of PDS.  Indeed, Medved is a classic illustration of the depths of irrationality to which the mind will sink when Paulophobia is permitted to go untreated, a depth that appears to be beyond the point of no return.  Polls, including a Harris Poll that was conducted on September 28, show that among the Republican candidates, there are but two who will defeat Obama among independents and moderates: Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

Yet Medved continues to dismiss Paul when he isn’t insulting the latter and his followers. 

And this brings us to another observation: PDS warps what powers of rationality the Paulophobe once had, it is true, but at the same time, it severely weakens his character. 

The Paulophobe’s inability to follow the simplest of arguments that Ron Paul has articulated to substantiate his positions is rivaled only by his inability to resist casting one unfounded aspersion after the other against the twelve termTexascongressman.  Within no time, at the mere mention of Ron Paul’s name, the Paulophobe’s last vestiges of reason become forever lost in a mountainous pile of straw man fallacies, non sequiturs, and ad hominem attacks.

The Paul Derangement Syndrome is a serious condition.  Once it is identified, clear thinking should be sought immediately.          

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 



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.



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.



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. 



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