Chapter One: Something is Wrong with the World
Chapter Two: Where Do Conservatives Come From?
Chapter Three: Where Do Liberals Come From?
Chapter Four: Where Did the Founding Fathers Come From?
Chapter Five: Defending the Creed The Conservative Tide
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Something is Wrong with the World (excerpt)
There are a few basic principles that virtually all Americans still claim to believe in. They are summarized in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
There are few, if any, Americans who would disavow that short passage. It is so universally accepted that we’ll call it the American Creed.
Jefferson had a gift for conveying enormous ideas in very few words. This was one of his finest moments. In those one hundred thirty-four words, he captured all of the elements of the political treatises of his time. It’s worthwhile to take a moment and break it down.
First, the Creed talks about what philosophers back then called “the state of nature.” The state of nature is the condition man would find himself in if there were no government. Critics sometimes mistake this to mean some ancient time when we all wore fig leaves and ate only what we could find on the ground or club over the head. They misunderstand the term “state of nature” to mean a time before government ever existed anywhere on earth. That’s not correct.
The state of nature can occur anywhere and anytime, wherever and whenever there is no effective government to enforce law and order. Think “Lord of the Flies.” But it doesn’t have to be on a desert island, either. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke observed that all princes existed in a state of nature relative to each other, because there was no government over them.
The Creed says that in the state of nature we are all equal and have certain rights. These rights come from our Creator and are inherent. They aren’t granted to us by any government. These rights are also “unalienable,” meaning they cannot be taken away. Neither can we surrender them ourselves. Unalienable rights are as much a part of us as our own skins.
The Creed then tells us the purpose of government: to secure these unalienable rights. That’s a very limited purpose that necessarily precludes other things some people believe governments are supposed to do. But the Creed is unambiguous. Government’s purpose is to secure these rights, period.
The Creed concludes by reminding us that whenever the government becomes “destructive of these ends,” meaning it fails to protect or itself violates our unalienable rights, we have the right to alter or abolish the government and construct a new one.
Both liberals and conservatives claim their philosophies are the true basis for the American Creed. In the chapters ahead, we’re going to examine the foundational conservative and liberal philosophers to try to confirm or deny those claims.
Along the way, we’re going to meet some interesting people, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. But don’t worry. We’re not going to spend hours analyzing the categorical imperative or rubbing our chins and asking “Why am I here?”
We are going to revisit what these writers and thinkers said about the nature of man, the purpose of government, and the extent of the government’s power and compare their ideas to the American Creed.
In other words, we’re not just going to rehash what conservative and liberal politicians have said and done. We’re going to try to figure out why they said and did those things. We’re going to try to figure out how they think.
The results are going to surprise you.
Where Do Conservatives Come From? (full chapter)
“This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!””
– Attributed to Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt[xii]
Conservatives get their name from their desire to “conserve” the socio-political structure as it is. If change must occur, it should be gradual and as undisruptive as possible. Rather than “liberal,” the true opposite of conservative is really “radical,” as in “radical change.” That more than any specific policy is what the conservative fears most.
American conservatives are divided into two groups, as were their British forebears. They generally agree on most things. They share the same vision of the nature of man, the purpose of government, and the extent of the power invested in government. They disagree on the form of government or how that power should be distributed.
We’ll call the first group “centralizers,” because they seek to centralize government power, both in a national government and in the executive branch. That’s something liberals accused George Bush of trying to do with executive orders, signing statements, and other “unilateral” executive policies.
We’ll call the second group “constitutionalists,” because they seek to divide power between national, state and local governments and between separate branches within those governments. These would be more like “Old Right” conservatives Robert Taft or Barry Goldwater. A resurgence of Old Right conservatism is emerging today out of the Tea Party movement, with its emphasis on constitutional checks and balances.
While these two groups of conservatives have fought some epic internal battles over the course of American history, they have also worked together just as often. As they agree on most things, they tend to close ranks to resist perceived threats to their shared principles.
The literary traditions of British and American conservatism are rich. One could name hundreds of works as important in understanding conservatism. However, there are two men who are very much foundational: Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke.
Hobbes plays the larger role in developing the philosophy of conservatism. Living a century before Burke, he develops the tenets of conservatism from “the ground up,” articulating conservative ideas that Burke would echo later. Their chief differences are on the form of government. Hobbes was a centralizer and Burke a constitutionalist.
Conservatives on the nature of man
All conservatives agree on man’s nature. In a word, we’re bad. Very bad. So bad that life without government is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[xiii]
Hobbes lays out this view in his massive work, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, generally referred to simply as Leviathan.
First, he discusses man’s condition in the state of nature:
“Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.”[xiv]
That sentence was written over three hundred years ago. We’re going to be looking at passages like this from time to time to demonstrate just how long some of these ideas have been around. Don’t let the “haths” and “thereupons” throw you. We’ll provide translations in 21st century English wherever necessary.
In this passage, Hobbes is just saying “all men are created equal,” just like in the American Creed. But then he says this:
“From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore, if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies, and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.”[xv]
Where the American Creed says that man’s natural equality is the source of our rights, Hobbes says it is the source of all human conflict. Talk about a glass half empty kind of guy! It gets worse:
“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.”[xvi]
Hobbes actually believes that man’s natural state – meaning his condition in the absence of any government (whether twenty thousand years ago or tomorrow) – is a state of war. That’s pretty grim, but it is the basis for all conservative thinking. Not only does man need a government, but one powerful enough to “keep him in awe.” Otherwise, he is in a de facto state of war with every other man.
This isn’t just a 17th century idea. If you’ve seen the movie Apocalypse Now, it conveys the same message. It was based on a book called Heart of Darkness by lifelong conservative Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s novel was set in colonial Africa, while Francis Ford Coppola resets the story in the Viet Nam War, but the message of both is identical. As the main character, Marlowe, travels farther up the river and into the unsettled interior, he gets farther from the confines of society and government. The farther from these confines he gets, the more savage and insane the people become. The journey ends with Kurtz, who embodies man’s true nature when unrestrained by government. Man literally has a “heart of darkness.”
Whether you agree or not, both the movie and the book convey the idea brilliantly. Coppola also weaves in the insanity of war as a theme, without losing Conrad’s original message.
Burke and the constitutionalists are in lockstep with Hobbes on the nature of man. Russell Kirk, the 20th century intellectual leader of Burkean conservatism, says this in his own introduction to Leviathan:
“What must strike the reader with especial force, in this cold and relentless book, is the almost diabolical truth in Hobbes’ interpretation of human nature.”[xvii]
He also presents Burke’s view of man’s nature as indistinguishable from Hobbes’:
“Burke knew that just under the skin of modern man stirs the savage, the brute, the demon. Millennia of bitter experience have taught man how to hold his wilder nature in a precarious restraint; that dread knowledge is expressed in myth, ritual, usage, instinct, prejudice.”[xviii]
Now that you’re really feeling good about yourself, let’s go a bit further. We’ve established that man is bad and that it’s unfortunate that we are all created equal, because it brings out even more badness in us. What about those “inalienable rights?” Are we endowed by our Creator with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Not quite.
“And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone (in which case everyone is governed by his own reason and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies), it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.”[xix]
Hobbes takes a completely different approach to the concept of rights than does the American Creed. Where the Creed describes rights as moral principles, Hobbes is more mechanistic. Forget “what ought to be,” Hobbes is only concerned with what goes down when the rubber hits the road. And what really goes down is killing, looting, pillaging, cars turned over and burning…You get the picture.
Again, Burke agrees here with Hobbes. He quotes Hobbes directly in Reflections on the Revolution in France,
“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.”[xx]
The idea that man has “a right to everything” in the state of nature completely contradicts the American Creed. The Creed assumes rights are negative. They describe what other people should not do to you.
For example, the right to life is not the positive right to live under any circumstances. When someone is killed in an earthquake, we feel bad about it, but we do not say his right to life was violated. The right to life is specifically the right not to be killed by another human being.
Similarly, the right to liberty is the right not to have someone forcibly interfere with your peaceful actions. You might want to fly. That you can’t does not violate your right to liberty. Only violent interference by other people constitutes a violation of your right to liberty.
Implicit in the American Creed is the existence of these rights in the state of nature. They are not endowed by government, but by our Creator. That governments are created “to secure these rights” confirms that they must exist before government.
But conservatives don’t believe that. They believe that man has a right to everything in the state of nature, even to one another’s bodies, meaning there can be no rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness in this state. Since these rights do not exist without government, then the purpose of government must be something other than what the Creed says it is.
Hobbes goes on to say that none of the benefits of civil society are possible in this state, because man’s entire life is dominated by the constant fear of violent death. Without a government “to keep them in awe,” men cannot acquire property or benefit from the division of labor, because other men will immediately attack them and steal whatever they produce.
He goes so far as to say that death of natural causes is rare in the state of nature. Yikes!
So, as far as the state of nature goes, both Hobbes and Burke reject the tenets of the American Creed, as do the schools of thought they founded within conservatism. Russell Kirk sums up the conservative position on the Creed when discussing John Randolph:
“John Randolph of Roanoke wholly repudiated the common interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, denounced Jefferson as a Pied Piper, and turned his back upon political abstractions to seek security in prescription and in an unbroken vigilance over personal and local rights.”[xxi]
Conservatives on the purpose of government
Burke summed up well what conservatives see as the purpose of government. Government exists to “thwart” man’s natural inclinations and to take him out of the state of war and into a state of relative peace.
Burke gets this idea from Hobbes as well, who said that men form government for the purpose of “getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shown [ch.xiii]) to the natural passion of men, when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters.”[xxii]
This idea that only the awesome power of government can keep our dark nature at bay explains quite a bit about the way conservatives react to the world today. While non-conservatives have a natural instinct to resist what they think is a bad law, even to practice civil disobedience, this scares the living daylights out of conservatives. They believe it’s better to follow a bad law until it is changed than to undermine the authority of the government in any way. Once the idea of resisting a law is introduced, we’re on our way back to the state of nature, which is a state of war.
It also explains why conservatives generally support law enforcement officers no matter what the circumstances. Rarely will you see conservatives side with an alleged victim of police brutality. Their first instinct is always to side with the police officer. That’s because they see the “thin blue line” as more than just functionaries who enforce the law. To conservatives, they are literally all that stands between civilization and the inherent state of war that exists wherever there is an absence of government force.
There’s a scene in the classic film Gone with the Wind which captures this idea beautifully. As Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara try to escape Atlanta ahead of the Yankees, the retreating Confederate Army momentarily blocks their way. Scarlett remarks, “Dear, I wish they’d hurry,” to which Butler replies,
“I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to see them go, if I were you, my dear. With them goes the last semblance of law and order.”
Before the soldiers are even out of view, a bench is thrown through a shop window and the looting and pillaging begins. It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is made. The minute government force is not present, man reverts to his natural, savage state.
This reasoning also explains conservative support of the war on drugs, even when confronted by its obvious failure. Conservatives see the use of recreational drugs as a departure from the kind of lifestyle that helps ensure an orderly, peaceful society. Like the concept of “gateway drugs,” conservatives see any departure from tradition as “gateway behavior” that will lead to other breakdowns of the laws and traditions which protect us from ourselves.
Conservatives on the extent of government power
As Hobbes says repeatedly throughout his treatise, the power of government must keep men “in awe.” Since man has no rights in the state of nature, he carries nothing with him into society. He transfers all of his individual authority over to the sovereign power, whose power is absolute and inalienable.
A government of absolute power is incompatible with the idea of “inalienable rights,” which conservatives do not believe in. Again, this is not only a conservative tenet from hundreds of years ago. Kirk confirms this as late as the 1950s:
“And natural rights do not exist independent of circumstances; what may be a right on one occasion and for one man, may be unjust folly for another man at a different time. Prudence is the test of actual right. Society may deny men prerogatives because they are unfit to exercise them.”[i]
It’s important to remember the difference between the powers vested in a government and the particular form government takes. Hobbes and Burke both believe the government should have absolute and inalienable power, but differ on how that power is distributed throughout the government.
This is very relevant to 21st century America. Today, Americans typically think of “democracy” as the type of government that provides freedom, while dictatorships or monarchies provide less freedom or no freedom at all.
However, it is not the form of government that determines the freedom of the people, but the power that government is allowed to wield. A dictator could theoretically provide more freedom than a democracy, if the dictator’s powers were limited and the democracy’s powers were not.
Hobbes takes pains to remind us of this distinction throughout Leviathan. When he speaks of the sovereign power, he often includes the parenthetical qualification “whether a monarch or an assembly.”
The inalienability of government power also contradicts the American Creed. Hobbes argues that once a commonwealth is formed and sovereign power invested in the government, the subjects can never change the form of that government. This completely contradicts the Creed’s assertion that the people have the right to alter or abolish their government and replace it with another.
Burke for the most part agrees in principle, if not in degree. He bases his criticism of the French Revolution on the Hobbesian idea that once the social contract made, it binds not only the people who made it, but all of their descendants. In Burke’s own words,
“The law by which this royal family is specifically destined to succession, is the act of the 12th and 13th of King William. The terms of this act bind ‘us and our heirs, and our posterity, to them, their heirs, and their posterity,’ being Protestants, to the end of time, in the same words as the declaration of right had bound us to the heirs of King William and Queen Mary.”[ii]
For Burke, the only circumstances under which the people are ever justified in dissolving the government and forming a new one are those where the king has committed such heinous acts against the people that he has fundamentally violated the social contract made between the monarchy and the people’s ancestors. Outside of that, the people are permanently bound by the contract made by their ancestors.
This would seem to contradict Burke’s support of the American Revolution, but it does not. Burke’s support of the Americans was based upon his opinion that the sovereign power had broken the social contract. He sees the attempt by Parliament to impose new taxes on the colonies and legislate in areas they hadn’t before as “innovations,” or breaks with the established contract between people and sovereign.
Burke’s position on the revolution is completely consistent with conservatism and explains one reason the American Revolution was successful: both conservatives and their opponents found common ground to unite in opposition to the mother country. Conservatives supported the revolution based on Burke’s argument. Non-conservatives supported the revolution for their own reasons.
The assumption that the subjects of a commonwealth must invest absolute and inalienable power in the government leads Hobbes to conclusions that would seem shocking to most modern Americans. Hobbes asserts that the sovereign is above the law and cannot be punished by his subjects.
The sovereign must even determine what teachings, both secular and religious, are proper for the people to have access to, as the sovereign must be “judge of what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducing, to peace.”[iii]
This explains the importance of religion in politics for conservatives. For Hobbes, people must have the proper religious beliefs or they will be tempted to undermine the sovereign power, which must never be challenged. Therefore, the head of state should also be the highest religious authority, as the King of England was head of the Church of England.
Burke also believed that a state religion should be a government institution. As Kirk puts it,
“To inculcate this veneration among men, to consecrate public office, Burke believed that the church must be interwoven with the fabric of the nation…’Religion is so far, in my opinion, from being out of the province of a Christian magistrate,’ Burke wrote, ‘that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.”[iv]
Both Burke and Kirk go so far as to say that the state itself is ordained by God to restrain the evil impulses of mankind. Even public policy they oppose vehemently is chalked up to the will of God if it overcomes their opposition and becomes firmly established legal tradition.
Opponents of conservatism today tend to see conservatives as seeking to impose their religious beliefs on other people out of petty tyranny. Whether you agree with Hobbes and Burke or not, examining their positions should at least inspire a little sympathy for conservatives on this point. They don’t promote the influence of religion in government just to impose their beliefs on other people. They truly believe society will break down without it.
Since the rights to life and liberty are not inalienable and carried into society, conservatives see them as privileges granted by the government. The government determines the bounds of liberty within society.
Rick Santorum was widely criticized for expressing this basic conservative principle during a 2012 Republican primary debate while responding to fellow candidate Ron Paul. Immediately afterwards, Santorum’s earlier comments in a 2005 NPR interview were all over the media:
“One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a Libertarianish right. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. That is not how traditional conservatives view the world. There is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.”[v]
Libertarians went apoplectic at this statement. David Boaz of the Cato Institute told Judge Andrew Napolitano the he didn’t “know of any other politician, other than Rick Santorum and Hillary Clinton, who have directly attacked the idea of the pursuit of happiness. It’s in the Declaration. It’s the fundamental idea of America.”[vi]
Boaz was wrong about there not being other politicians who agree with Santorum. Whether you agree with him or not, Santorum’s is right about one thing. Traditional conservatives do not see the world the way libertarians do. In fact, they don’t really believe there are inalienable rights, including to the pursuit of happiness. They may say they do, but the when it comes to applying that principle to policy, they consistently react as Santorum did here.
That government defines the amount of liberty people can enjoy is another old conservative idea. As Hobbes argues,
“Seventhly, is annexed to the sovereignty the whole power of prescribing the rules whereby every man may know what goods he many enjoy, and what actions he may do, without being molested by any of his fellow-subjects; and this is it men call propriety.”[vii]
In addition to liberty, Hobbes says the government also determines what right its constituents have to the ownership of property. This is also a departure from the Creed, as property rights are implicit in the pursuit of happiness. We’ll see in a later chapter that the natural right to acquire property and dispose of it as you wish is inextricably tied to the American Creed. It’s essential to pursuing happiness in the real world.
That’s not to say that happiness is solely determined by the accumulation of material wealth. Far from it. But the freedom to acquire property and dispose of it as one sees fit is necessary to be able to pursue one’s dreams, whether they are material, intellectual or spiritual. If you want to quit working and devote the rest of your life to study or prayer, you’re going to need material means to keep yourself alive in order to do it. That’s not being overly materialistic, just realistic.
Conservatives certainly defend private property rights, but not as a natural right. Rather, they are privileges bestowed by the government to individuals for the betterment of society as a whole, just like liberty. This has serious implications for their economic policy.
Kirk argues that Burke and the constitutional conservatives depart from Hobbes in that they rely not only on government power, but also on “the old motives to integrity, the old religious disciplines, and all those tender elements of free and local association”[viii] to restrain man’s passions [emphasis added].
For Burke, our rights are the result of these longstanding traditions, rather than merely what liberty and property the government allows us to enjoy. He calls these “prescriptive rights,” meaning rights based upon longstanding custom. Kirk constantly refers back to these throughout his Conservative Mind as essential to preserving a free society.
His characterization of these traditions as free associations might lead one to believe that Burkeans believe rights are more than just government-granted privileges.
But this is disingenuous. The institutions Kirk refers to may be local, but they are hardly free. One cannot refer to a state religion with a tax subsidized clergy and legally mandated participation as a “free association” without grossly abusing the English language.
Whether religion, inheritance laws, local regulation of tradesman or a dozen other institutions, both Kirk’s and Burke’s objections to “destruction” of longstanding customs amount to resistance to removing legal mandates and subsidies. Put bluntly, these institutions only became longstanding because people were forced to continue them by the government, whether local or central. How is this different from Hobbes?
For example, Kirk decries “the levelling agrarian republicanism of which Jefferson’s was the chief representative, zealous to abolish entail, primogeniture, church establishments, and all the vestiges of aristocracy…”[ix]
The word “levelling” is misleading, as it suggests positive government redistribution of wealth, which Jefferson consistently denounced. Kirk conflates removing existing government power with granting it new power. This is by no means the only occasion.
Abolishing primogeniture actually enhanced property rights. Primogeniture required fathers to bequeath all of their estates to their first born sons, regardless of the father’s wishes. Abolishing primogeniture didn’t prohibit the father bequeathing to the first born son; it merely gave the father the freedom to do otherwise if he wished. The right to dispose of one’s property as one sees fit is an essential element of owning property at all.
Similarly, Jefferson didn’t attempt to abolish churches. He merely proposed that churches no longer be subsidized. Before the revolution, Virginia subsidized the Anglican Church, but not others. After abolition of the subsidy, Virginians were still able to and still did attend church, including the Anglican Church. They were simply no longer forced to subsidize the sovereign’s church.
Conservatives are so reluctant to change established legal traditions that they typically defend institutions they previously opposed if they’re around long enough. When the New Deal was first proposed, conservatives passionately opposed it as destroying the foundation of American society. They were correct that it was a fundamental, constitutional change.
Fifty years later, Ronald Reagan raised taxes to allow Social Security to continue, saying the bill “demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security.”
During the 2012 elections, “fiscal hawk” Paul Ryan excoriated President Obama because his Affordable Care Act threatened the stability of Social Security and Medicare.
Libertarian author Tom Woods expresses frustration with this tendency, writing “Someday, Conservatives Will Defend Obamacare.”
“What were once fought tooth and nail as wealth redistribution and obvious violations of the Constitution are now ‘conservative New Deal principles.’ The word ‘entitlement’ is used favorably as well. Defending such things has become conservative, now that enough time has passed. We just want to administer the programs of liberalism more efficiently, and call it conservatism.”[x]
The reasoning here isn’t mysterious. When the New Deal was first proposed by FDR, it was a break with established legal tradition. It was therefore a threat to societal order, for all of the reasons previously stated. Now that it has been in place for decades, conservatives view it as the established legal tradition and vehemently defend it.
This is all consistent with Hobbes’ original premise that to challenge the sovereign power, regardless of how objectionably it is wielded, is to endanger all of civil society. It is better to suffer under bad laws than to risk civil war or chaos by changing them.
There really is no disagreement between Hobbesian centralizers and Burkean constitutionalists on the extent of the powers of government. Conservatives from Hobbes to Burke to Rick Santorum believe government power should regulate all areas of life. It is on how this power should be organized and distributed that conservatives are divided.
Conservatives on the form of government
For Hobbes and the centralizers, all power is invested in a sovereign and is indivisible. Hobbes is against any mixed form of government because it de facto results in a separation of powers. He acknowledges the many dangers of putting absolute power into the hands of one man, but argues that any government by an assembly, either elected or aristocratic, suffers from the same “inconveniences” while offering none of the security a monarchy can provide. He acknowledges that indivisible sovereign power can be invested in an assembly, but believes absolute monarchy is preferable.
“Fifthly, that in monarchy there is this inconvenience: that any subject, by the power of one man, for the enriching of a favourite or flatterer, may be deprived of all he possesseth; which I confess is a great and inevitable inconvenience. But the same may as well happen where the sovereign power is in an assembly; for their power is the same, and they are as subject to evil counsel, and to be seduced by orators, as a monarch by flatterers; and becoming one another’s flatterers, serve one another’s covetousness and ambition by turns.”[xi]
Hobbes would have been completely against the U.S. Constitution, particularly the idea that the different branches of government should retain their own independent powers and check each other. He didn’t necessarily oppose the existence of the British Parliament, as long as it rubber stamped the wishes of the king. But the sovereign power should never be divided. That only weakens it and increases the danger of returning to the state of nature or civil war.
This reasoning also informs Hobbes’ assertion that the secular and ecclesiastical authority must be united. As the scriptures are open to interpretation, it is up to the sovereign to decide which interpretations will be accepted by his subjects. The subjects must be educated according to the wishes of the sovereign and in such a way that they will not question the sovereign power nor the form of government they live under. Therefore, the sovereign dictates the form and content of education and even appoints the pastors of churches.
God forbid any subject of the sovereign entertain a religious idea that even questions the dictates of the monarch. From any individual right of conscience comes dissolution of the sovereign power, civil war, and eventual decline into the miserable state of nature. It is far better for the monarch to tell people what to believe, regardless of their opinions.
Hobbes conscientiously practices what he preaches in this respect. For, although he spends over 250 pages undertaking the monumental task of interpreting all of the Christian bible, he says he would be willing to change his interpretation if his monarch so ordered him!
Burke and the constitutionalists mostly agree with Hobbes on the marriage between religious and political power; they just don’t believe it should be centralized. When Burkean constitutional conservative John Adams drafted the first Massachusetts constitution, it allowed the legislature to pass laws making religious instruction mandatory. However, it stipulated that the local towns and parishes retained the right of electing the teachers. It read,
“To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.
And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subject an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.
Provided, notwithstanding, That the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, shall at all times have the exclusive right and electing their public teachers and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.”[xii]
This same argument continues today regarding both religion and education. Hobbesian centralizers supported George Bush’s initiatives to subsidize (and thereby control) “faith-based organizations” to perform some government social services and “No Child Left Behind” to subsidize (and thereby control) public education.
Constitutional conservatives don’t necessarily believe public money shouldn’t be spent on either of these functions, but they believe it should be local or state governments who do the subsidizing and controlling, not the federal government.
This is really the way Burke and the constitutionalists think on all issues. Their one substantive departure from Hobbes is their unwillingness to centralize all power in one place. Both Hobbes and Burke recognized the potential for abuse, but Hobbes said the abuses of an absolute monarch were worth the price to ensure that the government remained powerful enough to do what it has to do.
Burke and the conservatives in his tradition disagree. They see the king or the legislature as made up of the same fallen creatures that make up the assembly. Dividing the power of government between executive and legislature and federal, state and local governments provides powers to keep the politicians “in awe” and ensure their dark natures are not allowed to roam free and create havoc.
But even though the constitutionalists want power divided, it still extends to all areas of life. If the federal government isn’t going to regulate a particular area, they want the state government to regulate it. If not the state government, then the municipal. Or the town. Or your local school board. Nothing remains unregulated. The country remains “planted thick with laws.”
Conservative economic policy
Today, conservatives constantly profess their belief in free markets, but that doesn’t jibe with any of the policy they enact. It may surprise self-identified conservative voters, but conservative politicians have traditionally been the opponents of free markets throughout British and American history. We’ll get to that in a later chapter.
Conservatives do vigorously defend private property, but for different reasons than true free market proponents. While free markets place power with the individual, both Hobbesian and Burkean conservatives are more concerned with the health of the collective.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear this when conservatives talk about economic issues. They consistently promote policies that they say will “build a strong economy” or “promote economic growth.” Their arguments are based upon what is best for what Hobbes calls “the commonwealth.” Rarely will you hear traditional conservatives promoting an economic policy based upon the property rights of the individual. Their concern is what will make the commonwealth strong as a whole. The collective must remain strong to keep the nature of man at bay.
Kirk continually laments that individualism is destroying society. That’s an old conservative idea, too. He writes,
“Burke dreaded a consuming individualism; habit and prejudice induce that conformity without which society cannot endure.”[xiii]
Kirk also looks negatively in general on the industrial revolution. While recognizing its inevitability, he sees is as destroying the old foundations of society where landed aristocrats governed counties and each member of society lived out their lives at the same social level. He repeatedly criticizes self-made men as not being as valuable to society as the old aristocrats.
While Hobbes did not develop his economic ideas extensively, his philosophy forms the basis for mercantilism.
Mercantilism proceeds from the idea that independent nations are all economic rivals, economically mirroring the political state of war Hobbes assumed they exist in. Seeing all economic activity as a “zero sum game,” whereby any gain by one economic actor must necessarily come at the expense of another, the mercantilist nation seeks to maintain a positive trade balance, especially concerning the inflows and outflows of gold.
The specific policies of mercantilism include subsidies to favored domestic corporations, protective tariffs and regulations, and other government interventions into the marketplace that tend to protect established firms from new competition.
These policies all help support a wealthy class of aristocrats at the expense of the rest of society. The entrenched elite are both dependent upon government privilege and reciprocally loyal to the sovereign power.
This is the foundation for what we today call “crony capitalism,” or “corporatism.” Capital is privately owned and commerce is competitive, but heavily regulated. Regulations under the pretense of public safety or protectionism create barriers to entry into the market. This tends to limit the amount of new competition established corporations face at any given time. Exxon may compete with BP or Shell, but not the thousands of other potential competitors it would face if free entry into the market were permitted.
So, when liberals complain about conservatives “supporting the 1% at the expense of the 99%,” they aren’t completely wrong. In fact, an essential component of conservative theory is the need for an aristocracy.
Even centralist Hobbes wanted his absolute monarch to have the power ‘to confer honors and titles.” The existence of an elite class of “betters” helps maintain stability and keeps the passions of the mob at bay.
Kirk writes extensively on the need for an aristocracy. He also recognizes this as an essential part of Burke’s constitutional worldview:
“Physical and moral anarchy is prevented by general acquiescence in social distinctions of duty and privilege. If a natural aristocracy is not recognized among men, the sycophant and the brute exercise its abandoned functions in the name of a faceless “people.”[xiv]
The mercantilist economy is completely consistent with this. It establishes controlled competition, with the main economic players familiar and their behavior predictable. During the classical mercantilist period, kings would simply grant a monopoly to certain companies for certain products, as George III did for the East India Tea Company.
In today’s economy, regulation, subsidies and other government privileges to otherwise privately held firms accomplishes the same goal. There may not be one oil company or media company, but there are a small, comfortable number, both constrained by and dependent upon the government to maintain their position. This protects society from the dramatic change or “creative destruction” that results from laissez faire markets.
Conservatives recognize the need for a market economy with some competition, but they want to control outcomes to some degree so they are not too disruptive to the existing order. Their fear of radical change constantly motivates them to regulate in the original sense of the word, meaning “keep regular.”
That’s why conservatives rarely try to repeal regulations once in power. Instead, they talk about “more sensible regulation.” But when confronted with economic crises, virtually always caused by previous government interventions, conservatives consistently respond with more regulation.
That didn’t start with George Bush and Sarbanes-Oxley. Remember, it was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive fiat. He didn’t even ask Congress. He also instituted wage and price controls by executive order. Nixon was a classic Hobbesian in terms of how he achieved those ends, but regulation in general is a bedrock conservative principle.
Looking even farther back, Kirk laments the failure of conservatives to regulate with protectionist policies for English farmers. He sees the industrial revolution as a negative.
“Britain became the most thoroughly industrialized country of the world, perilously overpopulated, saddeningly decayed in taste and beauty; more and more, the national tone was set by the Black Country and the swollen seaports, rather than by the rural parishes and tight little towns that had nourished English political stability, English literature, and English charm.”[xv]
This is just more application of the central conservative theory. The government must control inheritance, commerce and even religious life to preserve the status quo, lest “innovation” threaten to break down these safeguards against man’s savage nature. Burke and Kirk aren’t opposing legal prohibitions against longstanding voluntary institutions, because no one was suggesting them. They opposed the removal of legal mandates forcing people to participate.
Economically, Kirk suggests that intangibles like “national tone” and “English charm” are essential enough to force English citizens to pay higher prices for food, rather than have access to less expensive imports. He views England naturally moving toward its comparative advantage in manufacturing over farming, the result of the free choices of English market players, as regrettable.
Better that the awesome power of the government was employed to override all of these choices to maintain longstanding custom, despite the hardship in England and devastation in Ireland wrought by protectionism.
Along with subsidies to domestic corporations and high tariffs to protect them from foreign competition, the mercantilist system usually depends upon a central bank to supply the needed liquidity when real savings are not to be found.
This “inflation” of the currency really redistributes wealth from society in general to whomever receives the loans. Again, liberals would say it redistributes wealth from the 99% to the 1%. They’re right; it does.
But they’re wrong to characterize this as a failure of free markets. Central banking is another departure from the free market that conservatives believe makes the collective stronger, by “creating jobs” or “stimulating economic growth.”
In fairness, central banking is more a Hobbesian centralist conservative institution than Burkean constitutionalist. Many Burkean constitutionalists, such as Barry Goldwater in the 1960’s or Rand Paul today are sharply critical of the Federal Reserve and its inflationary policies.
In conclusion, conservative economic theory grows naturally out of their general theory of the nature of man and the purpose of government. Rather than peaceful trade to mutual benefit, conservatives see the economy as a war, with winners and losers. They want to allow enough freedom for competition, but they also want to make sure the right people win.
The strength of the society as a whole trumps any individual rights to liberty or property, because it is that collective strength which protects us all from ourselves.
Conservative foreign policy
Most of the enlightenment philosophers viewed foreign policy similarly in one regard. They all viewed the relationship of nations to each other as analogous to the relationships between individuals within society. Thus, all separate political entities exist in a state of nature with each other.
One shouldn’t be surprised by what Hobbes says about the relationship of the various nations to each other. As they are in a state of nature, they are therefore in a de facto state of war.
“For as amongst masterless men, there is perpetual war of every man against his neighbor, no inheritance to transmit to the son nor to expect from the father, no propriety of goods or lands, no security, but a full and absolute liberty in every particular man, so in states and commonwealths not dependent on one another every commonwealth (not every man) has an absolute liberty to do what it shall judge (that is to say, what that man or assembly that representeth it shall judge) most conducing to their benefit. But withal, they live in the conditions of a perpetual war and upon the confines of battle, with their frontiers armed and cannons planted against their neighbours round about.”[xvi]
Hobbes does not lay out a detailed foreign policy, but it isn’t difficult to infer what kind of foreign policy naturally follows. As all nations exist in a de facto state of war with each other, no nation is safe unless one dominates all the rest, becoming the equivalent among nations of the absolute monarch within the commonwealth.
Along with the mercantilist idea that new markets for a nation’s goods can be “opened” militarily, the Hobbesian view of the natural relationship between nations is the primary motivation for empire.
You can hear Hobbes every day in neoconservative rhetoric about the dangers to national security posed by instability in third world countries thousands of miles away. When George Bush said we had to “fight them over there so we won’t have to fight them over here,” he was being perfectly consistent with this longstanding Hobbesian view of the world. It also inspired the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The so-called “domino theory” was deeply rooted in Hobbesian conservatism.
During the 2012 presidential primaries, Ron Paul suggested that the U.S. should not only withdraw from the Middle East, but bring its troops home from Japan, Korea and Germany. His Republican opponents responded by calling his foreign policy ideas “dangerous.”
Rationally, it’s hard to substantiate any danger to U.S. citizens from removing U.S. troops from Germany, seventy years after the end of WWII and over twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union. But it’s consistent with the Hobbesian view that all nations are in a state of war with one another, absent domination by one of them. Those troops are needed everywhere to keep other nations “in awe.”
From this comes the argument for “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States as the lone superpower should play the role, if not of world sovereign, at least of world policeman.
While its proponents are called “neoconservatives,” there is really nothing new about them or this idea. The British thought in much the same way in expanding their empire, as did early American centralizers like Alexander Hamilton who sought to copy the British Empire in America.
Hobbes invests the sovereign “the right of making war and peace with other nations and commonwealths, that is to say, of judging when it is for the public good.”[xvii] As the sovereign for Hobbes is preferably a monarch, he is empowering one man to take the nation to war. American centralizers seek to invest this power in the president, while constitutionalists point to Congress’ sole authority in declaring war.
Burkean conservative Robert Taft’s vote against NATO was based partially on his objection to investing the president with the power to take the United States to war:
“Under the Monroe Doctrine we could change our policy at any time. We could judge whether perhaps one of the countries had given cause for the attack. Only Congress could declare a war in pursuance of the doctrine. Under the new pact the President can take us into war without Congress.”[xviii]
Constitutional conservatives are also more reluctant to go to war in general. They may not reject the Hobbesian view of the relationship between nations out of hand, but their aversion to centralization of power within the commonwealth translates to a reluctance to expand the commonwealth’s authority across national borders.
American constitutional conservatives have traditionally opposed wars, especially in the 20th century when Democratic administrations sought to commit the United States to war for high ideals like “making the world safe for democracy,” rather than for some tangible and compelling national interest. Called “isolationists” by their opponents, constitutional conservatives opposed entry into WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Viet Nam War.
However, they do not object to military interventionism on principle. Burke himself was a supporter of the British Empire. He just objected to the way it was administered at certain times and places, particularly in India.
Similarly today, constitutional conservatives like Rand Paul do not object to U.S. military interventions on principle, but are more reluctant to resort to them and insist they are conducted constitutionally, with a declaration of war by Congress.
The conservative philosophy is inconsistent with the American Creed. Both Hobbesian centralizers and Burkean constitutionalists reject the Creed’s assertions that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. They believe that in the state of nature man has no rights and exists in a perpetual state of war.
Based on this assumption, they do not agree that governments are instituted to secure these rights. Instead, they believe the purpose of government is to restrain man’s natural, savage instincts. They believe liberty and property are privileges bestowed by government, not natural rights which government is tasked with protecting.
Finally, they do not believe the Creed’s assertion that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish the government if it fails to protect or violates the rights of the people. Conservatives believe the social contract can be broken only in the case of extreme violations by the sovereign power.
Based on their rejection of the American Creed, conservatives generally support a mercantilist or controlled private property economy over the laissez faire free markets implicit in the Creed. Their foreign policy also departs from the non-aggressive policy implicit in the Creed, although centralist and constitutional conservatives disagree on how and why the nation should go to war.
Obviously, we haven’t found the source of the American Creed anywhere within conservatism, neither in its philosophical traditions nor in the application of its principles by politicians. Are the liberals closer to the principles of the Creed?
We’ll examine the philosophical basis for liberalism in the next chapter.
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[i] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 888 0f 6718
[ii] Burke, Reflections pg. 33
[iii] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 113
[iv] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 661 of 6718
[v] Santorum, Rick from Rick Santorum ‘It Takes a Family” interview on National Public Radio http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4784905
[vi] Boaz, David from Freedom Watch (Fox Business) January 4, 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTDAu6ENPVE
[vii] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 114
[viii] Kirk Leviathan, I pg. 5
[ix] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 1111 of 6718
[x] Woods, Tom http://tomwoods.com/blog/someday-conservatives-will-defend-obamacare/
[xi] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 121
[xii] Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 http://www.nhinet.org/ccs/docs/ma-1780.htm
[xiii] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 739
[xiv] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 1062-1066
[xv] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 1821
[xvi] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 140
[xvii] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 114
[xviii] Taft, Robert Speech on the North Atlantic Treaty July 26, 1949 http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-on-the-north-atlantic-treaty/
Where Do Liberals Come From? (Full Chapter)
“An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. “
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (1936)[i]
Before determining where they come from, we must first define who liberals are. At one time, the word “liberal” meant a laissez faire approach to economic issues, limited government and maximum individual liberty. That is still roughly how liberal is defined in many European countries. American liberals seem to believe exactly the opposite.
For that reason, many on the left have found it more fashionable to call themselves “progressives,” although that term is troublesome as well. The American progressive movement began around the turn of the 20th century, founded by both conservatives and liberals. The first “progressive president” was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican.
Writing for the Huffington Post, David Sirota attempts to sort it out:
“It seems to me that traditional ‘liberals’ in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A “progressive” are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.
To put it in more concrete terms – a liberal solution to some of our current problems with high energy costs would be to increase funding for programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). A more ‘progressive’ solution would be to increase LIHEAP but also crack down on price gouging and pass laws better-regulating the oil industry’s profiteering and market manipulation tactics.”[ii]
For Sirota, the liberal philosophy is limited to government wealth redistribution, while progressivism adds more aggressive regulation. Whether the regulatory component was really missing from 20th century liberalism is debatable, but we’ll see in a later chapter that the distinction has some merit.
Regardless, the overwhelming majority of Americans tend to use the word “liberal” to describe supporters of both regulation and redistribution, all of whom tend to vote for the Democratic Party in American elections. As “progressive” is troublesome in that it overlaps with conservatism in some respects, we will do likewise.
Liberals in 21st century America believe the government has a role to both regulate human behavior and redistribute wealth in order to achieve a more “socially just” and equitable society. Liberals are suspicious of laissez faire capitalism due to their belief that it results in too much of society’s wealth concentrated in a small percentage of the population, as well as a disregard for the environment.
Liberals have been fiercely anti-war or have supported an aggressive foreign policy, depending upon the reasons for the war and, like conservatives, whether it was started by a Republican or a Democrat.
Like conservatives, liberals claim to be the true standard bearers of the American Creed, particularly that all men are created equal. They view themselves as champions of the middle class and poor, protecting the little guy from exploitation by powerful, “moneyed interests.” They are also champions of the “public good,” including protecting a clean, safe environment for future generations.
Their critics label them socialists, claiming their true philosophical inspiration comes from Karl Marx. Marx’s influence on modern liberalism is undeniable, but it would be dishonest to describe all liberals as Marxist. Most haven’t openly advocated for the government to seize the means of production or eliminate private property.
Just like conservatism, liberalism consist of two subgroups who generally agree on the nature of man, his condition in the state of nature, the purpose of government and the extent of its power.
Also like conservatives, the two liberal subgroups disagree on the form the government should take. The first group believes the government should be a pure democracy that allows private property, but regulates and redistributes it. We’ll call them democrats (not to be confused with the Democratic Party). These trace their modern roots back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The second group also believes in pure democracy, but that private property should be prohibited and government should own the means of production. These are the socialists. Their modern philosophical roots can be found in the writings of Karl Marx.
Both the democratic and socialist philosophies have its roots in antiquity. If Aristotle is the classical conservative, Plato is the classical liberal, whose ideas still influence liberals today. But it was Rousseau and Marx who laid the modern foundations for liberalism.
Just as Hobbes built the more extensive philosophical theory of conservatism, so did Rousseau for liberalism. Marx is derivative of Rousseau and is more purely focused on economics, although he does make many observations on socio-political theory.
We’ll begin with those elements of society that both democrats and socialists agree on.
Rousseau on the nature of man
Rousseau begins his examination of the state of nature by drawing an important distinction. For him, there is a fundamental difference between men in the state of nature before the dawn of societies and men in the state of nature after they have been exposed to society, particularly the division of labor.
Remember, “state of nature” means the absence of government, not society. There can be an association of individuals who voluntarily cooperate with each other that constitutes a society without there being a government.
Rousseau first seeks to examine the former state of man, without society or government, which he refers to as “savage man.”
Hobbes’ first observation was that all men are born in a state of equality. Hobbes recognized that one man might be stronger than another or smarter than another, but that the differences did not result in any one man having a natural right to exercise power over another.
In his Discourses on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau makes similar observations, distinguishing between absolute equality and political equality.
Neither Hobbes, Rousseau nor Locke asserted that man is equal in strength, intelligence, or other abilities, but they all believed men in their natural state are equal in terms of any right to exert power over one another.
For Rousseau, equality is the central theme.
“I conceive that there are two kinds of inequality among the human species; one, which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or of the soul: and another, which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorised by the consent of men. This latter consists of the different privileges, which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience.”[iii]
Of the latter inequality, Rousseau concludes that it does not exist in nature, but is a “convention” invented by men. Thus, he implies man’s natural political equality indirectly. He is more explicit in recognizing man’s “natural equality” in his Discourse on Political Economy. While men naturally have different abilities, they are for all intents and purposes equal in the state of nature.
Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau does not conclude that their equality puts men in a state of war against each other. Instead, Rousseau sees his “savage man” in a state of ignorant innocence, much like Adam and Eve in Genesis. He is governed primarily by his passions, which are few, moderate, and do not include the competitive passions that he develops later. Savage man only develops his reason so far as it is necessary to protect him from predators and to fulfill his basic needs.
“Let us conclude then that man in a state of nature, wandering up and down the forests, without industry, without speech, and without home, an equal stranger to war and to all ties, neither standing in need of his fellow-creatures nor having any desire to hurt them, and perhaps even not distinguishing them one from another; let us conclude that, being self-sufficient and subject to so few passions, he could have no feelings or knowledge but such as befitted his situation; that he felt only his actual necessities, and disregarded everything he did not think himself immediately concerned to notice, and that his understanding made no greater progress than his vanity. If by accident he made any discovery, he was the less able to communicate it to others, as he did not know even his own children. Every art would necessarily perish with its inventor, where there was no kind of education among men, and generations succeeded generations without the least advance; when, all setting out from the same point, centuries must have elapsed in the barbarism of the first ages; when the race was already old, and man remained a child.”[iv]
You can already see the seeds of bitter conflict between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives see man as a natural devil. Liberals see him as, if not an angel, at least an innocent.
Both view man in nature as primarily governed by his passions, but for Rousseau they are few and limited and not the source of conflict. He sees his savage man as solely concerned with self-preservation, but does not conclude that this leads him into direct conflict with others concerned with their own.
Rousseau also asserts that there is no “industry” in the state of nature, and that man does not stand “in need of his fellow creatures.” In other words, Rousseau agrees with Hobbes that there is no division of labor or benefits of complex society in the “savage stage” of the state of nature. For Hobbes this is a defect, for Rousseau, a boon.
Rousseau on natural rights
Rousseau also observes that man in nature is in a state of absolute liberty. However, he disagrees that this means man’s actions have no bounds beyond their self-preservation, resulting in perpetual war. He calls out Hobbes explicitly on this point:
“There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes; which, having been bestowed on mankind, to moderate, on certain occasions, the impetuosity of egoism, or, before its birth, the desire of self-preservation, tempers the ardour with which he pursues his own welfare, by an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer.3 I think I need not fear contradiction in holding man to be possessed of the only natural virtue, which could not be denied him by the most violent detractor of human virtue. I am speaking of compassion, which is a disposition suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils as we certainly are: by so much the more universal and useful to mankind, as it comes before any kind of reflection; and at the same time so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it.”[v]
Rousseau goes on to say that it is pity for the suffering of his fellow creatures that places a limit upon the natural liberty of man in the state of nature. In stark contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau argues that man’s passion is what keeps him out of the state of war, specifically his compassion for his fellow man. Rousseau goes on to replace Hobbes’ fundamental law of nature with his own.
“… It is this which, instead of inculcating that sublime maxim of rational justice. Do to others as you would have them do unto you, inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect indeed, but perhaps more useful; Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others. In a word, it is rather in this natural feeling than in any subtle arguments that we must look for the cause of that repugnance, which every man would experience in doing evil, even independently of the maxims of education. Although it might belong to Socrates and other minds of the like craft to acquire virtue by reason, the human race would long since have ceased to be, had its preservation depended only on the reasonings of the individuals composing it.”[vi]
Rousseau views compassion or pity as so important an emotion that he actually credits it with the survival of the species, being the force in nature that keeps man out of the state of war.
One can see in these passages the philosophical basis for the “bleeding heart liberal.” In less pejorative terms, it forms the basis for the liberal principle that compassion for one’s fellow man, rather than solely reason, should play a role in determining public policy.
If you’re a conservative, how many times have you been called “heartless” by liberals if you oppose a social program? That’s nothing new. It goes back centuries.
This idea resonated in the French Revolution, which replaced the American “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
Thus, the savage man in a state of nature exists in peaceful ignorance of right and wrong, provides for his material needs and no more, is governed by his few and moderate passions, and generally has little reason to strive for anything more. Rousseau says at one point that man must have existed in this childlike state for many centuries before ever entering into society.
While Rousseau did not coin the phrase, these passages define the modern liberal concept of the “noble savage,” and underlie liberal animosity towards industrialization.
Liberals often romanticize Native American peoples living in America before European colonization as equivalent to Rousseau’s innocent, savage man. They like to represent them as noble conservationists, even when the evidence doesn’t support that claim.
Many liberals also believe that Native American peoples avoided what Rousseau sees as the reason people leave the state of nature and enter civil society.
“THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”[vii]
The point at which man begins to acquire property, both land and moveable property, is what Rousseau calls the “final stage in the state of nature.” It is still the state of nature because man has not yet established government, but we are no longer dealing with “savage man.” Man has by this time developed industry and engaged in the division of labor. For Hobbes these were blessings that could only be bestowed by government. For Rousseau they are a curse that leads to the inequality that necessitates government.
“So long as men remained content with their rustic huts, so long as they were satisfied with clothes made of the skins of animals and sewn together with thorns and fish-bones, adorned themselves only with feathers and shells, and continued to paint their bodies different colours, to improve and beautify their bows and arrows and to make with sharp-edged stones fishing boats or clumsy musical instruments; in a word, so long as they undertook only what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labour of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives, so long as their nature allowed, and as they continued to enjoy the pleasures of mutual and independent intercourse. But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.”[viii]
Once man begins to engage in the acquisition of property and the division of labor, he gives up the liberty and equality that he enjoyed in his savage state. Rousseau recognizes that every person will have different abilities and different ambitions, which will result in them acquiring unequal amounts of property. This destroys the tranquility of man’s savage state and excites those more powerful passions that ultimately lead to a state of war.
“Finally, consuming ambition, the zeal for raising the relative level of his fortune, less out of real need than in order to put himself above others, inspires in all men a wicked tendency to harm one another, a secret jealousy all the more dangerous because, in order to strike its blow in greater safety, it often wears the mask of benevolence; in short, competition and rivalry on the one hand, opposition of interest[s] on the other, and always the hidden desire to profit at the expense of someone else. All these ills are the first effect of property and the inseparable offshoot of incipient inequality.”[ix]
Where man’s dark nature and the natural state of war that exists between all men is the foundation of conservatism, the inequality that results from any acquisition of property is the foundation of liberalism. Socialists seek to abolish private property, democrats to heavily regulate and redistribute it, but both view the acquisition of property as inherently problematic.
This idea is also central to the romantic liberal view of the Native Americans before European colonization of the Americas. They often characterize them as living in that innocent, savage state, free of the corruption and conflict that ownership of property brings with it. We’ll see later that this has no basis in reality.
For liberals, equality really is it. Nearly every political issue they take up has the word “equality” either explicitly or implicitly contained within it. They talk about “equal pay for equal work” for women. They fight for “marriage equality” for homosexuals. They complain about income equality in general, which is their explanation for all other societal ills, including “white privilege.” Some people acquire more property than others and then use that advantage to oppress the rest.
It doesn’t really matter to liberals how one has accumulated wealth. Rousseau does recognize that men may acquire property by different methods. He identifies the acquisition of property by force as a usurpation of the natural rights of man, which is not surprising. However, he sees the acquisition of property through honest labor in much the same way.
“Even those enriched exclusively by their industry could hardly base their property on better claims. They could very well say: ‘I am the one who built that wall; I have earned this land with my labor.’ In response to them it could be said: ‘Who gave you the boundary lines? By what right do you claim to exact payment at our expense for labor we did not impose upon you? Are you unaware that a multitude of your brothers perish or suffer from need of what you have in excess, and that you needed explicit and unanimous consent from the human race for you to help yourself to anything from the common subsistence that went beyond your own?”[x]
Conservatives lost their minds when President Obama told business owners, “You didn’t build that.” As you can see, what he said was nothing new. He was drawing on fundamental liberal principles Rousseau articulated almost three hundred years ago.
Rousseau recognizes no natural right to property beyond what any human being absolutely needs for the preservation of himself and his dependents. He also views the acquisition of property as “a zero-sum game,” meaning that no one can acquire anything without depriving someone else.
He argues that the earth and all of its resources belong to mankind in common, necessitating that any use of the land or its resources beyond what is needed to survive requires the consent of all of mankind.
French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously echoed this idea, saying, “Property is Theft.”[xi]
Rousseau’s ideas about property and inequality inspired the French Revolution, Marx, the 20th century communist movement, and the modern American liberal movement.
After identifying the advent of private property as the root of inequality and ultimately competition and war among men, Rousseau goes on to describe how men have in the past been deceived into consenting to governments that have preserved the unequal distribution of wealth. Once under the power of government, men were now bound by the laws of that government, which were written with the deliberate intent of preserving the wealth of the rich at the expense of the poor.
In other words, the government protected the 1% at the expense of the 99%.
Obedience to these laws returned the relative peace that existed in the state of nature, but not its relative equality. Marx will elaborate on these very ideas in constructing his theory.
Like Hobbes, Rousseau views those societies in a state of nature with all other societies. The inherent conflicts that occur between individuals within society led to war on a much grander scale. The source of all conflict is the acquisition of private property and the inequality that results from it.
Rousseau on the role of government
Identifying inequality as the great defect of the state of nature, Rousseau saw restoring man’s original equality as the purpose of government. This is the underlying motivation for all liberal public policy. Where for conservatives it is security, for liberals it is equality, most importantly economic equality. Rousseau writes,
“It is to the law alone that men owe justice and liberty. It is this healthy tool of the will of all which reestablishes as a civil right the natural equality among men.”[xii]
Conservatives today complain that liberals do not just want equal rights, but equality of results. They’re right. That’s a fundamental liberal principle that goes back to Plato, but is also articulated here by Rousseau. The government must take an active role in changing the outcomes that would otherwise occur in a laissez faire economy. Even if the unequal distribution of wealth is due to unequal productivity, the government should address it.
While central, the quest for equality of results is by no means limited to economic results. Liberals seek to ensure that every individual, regardless of differences in gender, race, creed or sexual orientation, have equality of results in all aspects of life. This is the motivation for positive laws regarding social and economic interactions between the majority and minority groups liberals see as disadvantaged or oppressed.
When a conservative baker declined to prepare a wedding cake for a gay marriage, liberals sought legal penalties. According to their worldview, the gay couple had a right to equal treatment with heterosexuals by the baker. Where even many non-liberals support the right of homosexual people to get married, true liberals go farther. They insist on positive laws that prohibit anyone from refusing to associate with homosexuals.
The government does not just recognize an inherent political equality in all human beings. It must take positive steps to ensure equal results for all members of society. There is no conflict any individual’s inherent rights, because those were all surrendered to the general will upon formation of the society. That’s completely antithetical to the American Creed, but it’s the way liberals think and it affects the way they react to real world situations like this one.
Rousseau on the extent of government power
Having defined the purpose of government, Rousseau proceeds to the extent of its powers. Like Hobbes, Rousseau makes a clear distinction between the powers vested in government and the form that it takes. He similarly devotes a chapter of his treatise On the Social Contract to explaining the sovereign power.
Although the purpose of government is entirely different for Rousseau, his ideas about the sovereign power are remarkably similar to Hobbes.’ Most significantly, Rousseau believes that man has to give up all of his natural rights to the sovereign power when entering the social contract, in return for the benefits that contract will bestow. He summarizes the “clauses” of the social contract to one.
“These clauses, properly understood, are all reducible to a single one, namely the total alienation of each associate, together with all of his rights, to the entire community.”[xiii]
Rousseau is kind to our investigation in using precisely the same word as the American Creed. Rights cannot be both “unalienable” and “alienable” at the same time. On this point alone, liberals depart from the Creed completely.
In exchange for giving up his natural rights, man in society will be granted “civil rights,” which are really government-granted privileges. According to Rousseau, this is necessary because if man retained his natural rights while a party to the social contract, he would eventually claim to be his own judge, thus undermining the social contract and returning man to the state of nature.
Rousseau concludes that there is an immediate equality in this renunciation, as each individual has given up the same rights and assumed the same power over everyone else. He goes so far as to demonstrate this with mathematical calculations, asserting that in a city of 10,000 citizens, each individual citizen has 1/10,000th of the power. Each individual pledges his portion of this power to the good of the state, which is now dedicated to what Rousseau calls “the general will.”
“Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”[xiv]
In order for the government to successfully execute this “general will,” Rousseau also argues, like Hobbes, that the sovereign power must be absolute, indivisible, and inalienable.
“Just as nature gives each man an absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic an absolute power over all its members, and it is the same power which, as I have said, is directed by the general will and bears the name sovereignty.”[xv]
“I therefore maintain that since sovereignty is merely the exercise of the general will, it can never be alienated, and that the sovereign, which is only a collective being, cannot be represented by anything but itself. Power can perfectly well be transmitted, but not the will.”[xvi]
“Sovereignty is indivisible for the same reason that it is inalienable. For either the will is general, or it is not. It is the will of either the people as a whole or of only a part.”[xvii]
While there are some superficial differences between Hobbes and Rousseau concerning the powers vested in the sovereign, for both that power is absolute. While Rousseau will go on to suggest a different form of government than does Hobbes, the powers exercised are the same.
One specific power Rousseau identifies explicitly in Political Economy is that of controlling the amount of wealth that any of its citizens can accumulate.
“It is one of the most important items of business for the government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes, not by appropriating treasures from their owners, but by denying everyone the means of acquiring them, and not by building hospitals for the poor but by protecting citizens from becoming poor.”[xviii]
Here Rousseau lays the foundation for a modern liberal society. Private property is not abolished, but heavy regulation prevents extreme concentrations of wealth on the one hand and extreme poverty on the other. Thus so does government achieve its prime directive: to remedy the inequality caused by man’s acquisition of private property. Rousseau does not rule out redistribution (there are no limits on the legislative power of the majority), but prefers preventative measures as more effective than attempting to solve economic inequality once it already exists.
Under this system, the individual has no natural right to keep the fruits of his labor without the consent of all mankind, as Rousseau established earlier. Ultimately, the state will indirectly decide how the product of each person’s labor is distributed through the democratic process.
Rousseau on education
Rousseau also identifies public education as one of the core functions of legitimate government. Rousseau argues that you cannot have liberty without virtue, and that you cannot have virtue unless you teach your citizens to be virtuous, which he defines as absolute loyalty to the state. Rousseau goes so far as to say that by educating children on their duties as citizens, the state teaches them how “to deserve to live.”
“If, for example, they are trained early enough never to consider their own persons except in terms of being related to the body of the state, and not to perceive their own existence except as part of the state’s existence, they will eventually come to identify themselves in some way with this larger whole, to feel themselves to be members of the country, to love it with that exquisite sentiment that every isolated man feels only for himself, to elevate their soul perpetually toward this great object, and thus to transform into a sublime virtue this dangerous disposition from which arises all our vices.”[xix]
Importantly, Rousseau argues that this duty to educate the children “to obey others” cannot be executed solely by the family, under the leadership of the father. Rousseau argues that the state has a larger stake in the education of the child, since the father will eventually die while the state will live on. Therefore, the state should replace the father as the party responsible for the education of the child and determine what that education should consist of. Since they are only exercising the “general will,” of which the father is a part, Rousseau concludes that the father should have no reason to object!
This is why Hillary Clinton says “it takes a village to raise a child.” It actually goes back to Plato, who wanted his “guardians” educated by the state. It’s a lot creepier when you really understand what she means!
A role for the state in educating children is another plank that both conservatives and liberals have in common. Conservatives seek to have the state promote religious values, while liberals seek to have the state promote secular ones.
In both cases, education is more than just “reading, writing and arithmetic.” The principle objective of education for both Hobbes and Rousseau is to indoctrinate children with the beliefs and values that will best serve the state. To do so, the state’s values must combine with or replace the parents’.
It also explains the latest controversy over “Common Core.” If you listen carefully, neither conservatives nor liberals seem to object to the fundamental principle: the centralized control over the content of child education in mandatory education. They just disagree over what that content is and how to teach it.
How many social media posts or articles have you seen criticizing the overly complicated way Common Core attempts to teach math? Too many to mention.
Now, how many have you seen criticizing Common Core for having children read government manuals, with all their attendant propaganda? Or criticizing Common Core on its basic premise, that the central government should dictate the methods and content of child education? Outside of a few honest constitutional conservatives, almost none at all.
To his credit, conservative commentator Bill Whittle calls Common Core what it is: Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.”
With regard to religion, which is directly related to education in that it affects how the person thinks about his relationship to the state, Rousseau at first seems slightly less authoritarian. He argues that the rights of the sovereign do not go beyond what is necessary to the common good of the state. Therefore, the particular religion that any citizen practices is of no concern to the sovereign, as long as that religion “causes him to love his duties.”
To the extent practice of his particular religion exhorts the citizen to go over and above his duties to the state, without neglecting those duties or otherwise harming the state, each citizen is free to do as he pleases in this area. However, Rousseau actually talks about another kind of religion that is mandatory for every citizen.
“There is, therefore, a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which it belongs to the sovereign to establish, not exactly as dogmas of religion, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While not having the ability to obligate anyone to believe them, the sovereign can banish from the state anyone who does not believe them. It can banish him not for being impious but for being unsociable, for being incapable of sincerely loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing his life, if necessary, for his duty. If, after having publicly acknowledged these same dogmas, a person acts as if he does not believe them, he should be put to death; he has committed the greatest of crimes: he has lied before the laws.”[xx]
You’ll often hear conservatives say that liberals replace God with government. It sounds like they’re right about that, too.
Rousseau on the form of government
For Rousseau, the sovereign also has the legislative power, which should at all times reflect the general will. Unlike Hobbes, however, Rousseau does not believe that the executive power should be wielded by the sovereign. The executive power is the agent that carries into effect the general will and is subordinate to it.
“What then is the government? An intermediate body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual communication, and charged with the execution of the laws and the preservation of liberty, both civil and political.”[xxi]
Rousseau goes on to explain that the government consists of magistrates or kings and gives them the general name “prince,” which he uses to refer to the government, in whatever form it takes. So, when Rousseau says “government” he really means “executive branch.”
For Rousseau, even a prince is merely an agent of the sovereign, which is the people, and cannot exercise any arbitrary authority over them. The prince’s role is to execute the general will. If the executive substitutes its own will for the general will, it has exercised illegitimate power.
Rousseau asserts that an equilibrium must be achieved, then, between the power of the government over the people and the power of the people. The people are both sovereign as a whole and subjects individually. Individually, they have given up all of their rights, power, and even their will to the state.
It goes without saying that this is completely antithetical to the American Creed. But it’s implicit in nearly all liberal rhetoric. How many times have you heard liberals answer a criticism about government overreach with the rejoinder, “That’s why we have elections?” For liberals, there is no government overreach as long as a majority vote sanctioned the policy.
As to the form that the government should take, Rousseau says that all states which are ultimately subject to “the rule of law” are republics. However, Rousseau does not argue for a representative republic, as he maintains that the sovereign power cannot be represented. Instead, the whole people exercise the legislative power through legislators, who possess neither the legislative power nor the executive power themselves. They are merely professional lawmakers, employed as agents of the people. The legislators draft the laws, which are passed by the whole people and executed by the government.
Since there must be some way to discover the general will in order to exercise it through legislation, Rousseau asserts that this is accomplished through majority vote. While the social contract itself must be unanimous, with anyone who does not consent to it excluded from the contract (and forced to leave the territory), all acts of sovereignty under the social contract are determined by the will of the majority.
For Rousseau, this is not a means for each individual to give his consent, which he has already given to the sovereign power over everything, but rather to discover what the general will is.
This interpretation of the nature of voting and legislating allows Rousseau to give a bizarre though convenient answer to the question of whether the minority has any recourse to legislation that they disagree with.
“When, therefore, the opinion contrary to mine prevails, this proves merely that I was in error, and that what I took to be the general will was not so. If my private opinion had prevailed, I would have done something other than what I had wanted. In that case I would have not been free.”[xxii]
Seriously, he just said that any opinion the majority doesn’t endorse must be an error. It’s a good thing Copernicus and Galileo didn’t think this way!
More importantly, Rousseau’s thinking here is completely antithetical to the Bill of Rights. Those amendments were written with the express purpose of protecting the individual against the majority. In fact, the whole constitutional system of separated and strictly enumerated powers was designed to protect individuals against the kind of absolute democracy Rousseau advocates.
At first glance, Rousseau’s philosophy might look to some to be more closely related to the ideals of the American republic than Hobbes.’ Rather than an absolute monarch, Rousseau advocates for a democratic republic, with the power reserved to the people, who exercise it by electing a government to carry out their will. The goal of the republic is liberty and equality for all, which is accomplished by subjecting both the citizens and the government to the rule of law.
There is only one problem. While his government is organized in a completely different manner than Hobbes,’ it is quite the same by the most important measurement: the power that it yields. Like Hobbes, Rousseau concludes that in order to accomplish its daunting task, the state must have absolute power over its citizens. While each of them has a small, proportionate share in that power, no one of them has any right to resist.
The “general will,” represented by the will of the majority, supplants the will of every individual in society. The majority decides how children are to be educated and thus what they think. The majority makes rules about how much property any individual can accumulate. Each individual gives up all of his natural rights and allows the majority to determine what “civil liberties” he is allowed.
These ideas are completely irreconcilable with the American creed, where rights are inalienable, where each individual has a right to pursue his own happiness, and where his thoughts, speech, and religious beliefs are beyond the reach of government.
It probably goes without saying that we won’t find them in Marx, either. But it’s important to understand where Marx departs from Rousseau to understand the difference between democrats and socialists within the liberal movement.
While Rousseau provides the philosophical foundation for modern liberalism, the influence of Marx cannot be denied. There are too many similarities between modern liberal rhetoric and policy and Marx’s ideas, particularly as expressed in the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Yet, many 20th century American liberals were fierce opponents of communism. How can both be true?
The answer is somewhat analogous to the differences between Hobbes and Burke. While expressing them in more socio-economic terms, Marx substantively agrees with most of Rousseau’s philosophical assumptions, especially his view of private property. Marx departs from Rousseau merely in his ideas about what political action is necessary to resolve the problems caused by private property.
Marx on the nature of man
In the Manifesto, Marx famously wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.”[xxiii] The idea of history being a series of epochs in which different property structures resulted in different class struggles is central to Marx’s argument. But Engels’ 1888 footnote to this iconic statement provides even more insight.
“That is, all written history. In 1847, the prehistory of society, the social organization existing previous to recorded history, was all but unknown. Since then, Haxthausen discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and by and by the village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive Communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Morgan’s crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of these primeval communities society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this process of dissolution in ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.” (Chicago, Charles H. Kerr & Co.)[xxiv]
This is substantively the same as Rousseau’s view of prehistoric man. Between his “savage man” period and the creation of government, Rousseau also claimed there was a period where men lived in “rustic huts” and claimed for themselves only “what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labour of several hands.” While in this state, human beings “lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives.”
Marx, like Rousseau, sees private property and the division of labor as the root causes of conflict. Marx merely develops the idea with more emphasis on the different class struggles he believes define historical epochs.
“In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.”[xxv]
This is really no different than Rousseau’s ideas about how men had been deceived in the past by governments that perpetuated the inequalities among men. Marx just comes up with new marketing for it, labeling them “class struggles.”
Marx on the purpose of government
The root of the problem for Marx is the same as for Rousseau: the inequality that results from any acquisition of private property. Marx differs only in how to solve it. Marx regards the prescriptions of Rousseau and his more direct philosophical descendants like Proudhon as inadequate and unrealistic, dismissing them as “appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois.”[xxvi]
Marx believes only full scale revolution will suffice. The present property structure epoch of bourgeois and proletariat must be completely overthrown and replaced by the new and final epoch, where the proletariat rules directly and finally eliminates class struggle as the fundamental dynamic of human society.
“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”[xxvii]
It might be argued that the complete abolition of private property is a departure from Rousseau, not only in means but in ends. However, both Rousseau and Marx are after the same thing: economic equality. The difference is merely one of degree. Rousseau believes a tolerable amount of economic equality can be achieved through heavy regulation of private property through legislation. Marx believes equality is only achieved with the elimination of private property completely.
Moreover, as Rousseau did not construct a complex economic theory that compares with Marx’s, one could argue that Rousseau’s all-powerful democracy could certainly execute Marx’s plan.
Marx on the form of government
Still, Marx certainly anticipates the need for more radical change and more authoritarianism than Rousseau admits to anywhere in his writing. Where Rousseau says “A country cannot exist without liberty,” Marx is more realistic about what is necessary to achieve equality of outcomes:
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.”[xxviii] [emphasis added]
While Marx openly admits the need for a despotic government, run by the proletariat, in order to abolish private property and institute a new mode of production, he believes this despotism will be temporary. As government itself is merely “the organised power of one class for oppressing another,”[xxix] Marx believes that once the proletariat has created a classless society, it will have eliminated the need for government. The result will be an anarchistic society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[xxx]
As with the American conservative movement, there are generally two groups of liberals. Both accept Rousseau’s views on the nature of man and the inherent problems resulting from the acquisition of private property, primarily inequality of condition.
Like conservatives, they also believe all men are created equal, but understand that equality to mean something completely different than does the American Creed.
They do not believe rights are inalienable. They believe rights must be totally alienated as a condition of entering society.
As they do not believe in inalienable rights, they do not agree with the American Creed on the purpose of government. Instead of securing rights, the purpose of government is to restore man’s natural equality, which is lost the moment he begins acquiring private property.
Liberal democrats believe in unlimited democracy, or a government with absolute power, as long as that power is sanctioned by majority vote. This is something the founding fathers consistently denounced. As James Madison wrote,
“Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”[xxxi]
Socialists believe unlimited democracy is inadequate to solve the problems of inequality, restated as “class warfare,” caused by the acquisition of private property. Only state control of the means of production and abolition of the market economy can restore true equality.
The distinction between the two groups is by no means absolute. It is hard to find liberals who do not support the idea of “single payer” health care, meaning government ownership of the means of production of healthcare services. At the very least, they see an inherent conflict in health care being delivered on a for profit basis.
In conclusion, you cannot reconcile the liberal philosophy with the American Creed. Like conservatism, it is completely antithetical.
This leaves us with an interesting problem. We seem to have run out of philosophies in American politics. If both conservatism and liberalism flatly contradict the American Creed, we are left with a very important question:
What philosophy inspired the American Revolution and where did its adherents go?
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Chapter Three Where Do Liberals Come From?
[i] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Speech before the 1936 Democratic National Convention Philadelphia, PA June 27, 1936 http://www.austincc.edu/lpatrick/his2341/fdr36acceptancespeech.htm
[ii] Sirota, David “What’s the Difference Between a Liberal and a Liberal” Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/whats-the-difference-betw_b_9140.html
[iii] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 37
[iv] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 37
[v] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 53
[vi] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 55
[vii] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 60
[viii] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 65
[ix] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 68
[x] Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality pg. 69
[xi] Proudhon, Pierre Joseph . What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library http://web.archive.org/web/20080830074011/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ProProp.html
[xii] Rousseau Discourse on Political Economy pg. 117
[xiii] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 148
[xiv] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 148
[xv] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 156
[xvi] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 153
[xvii] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 154
[xviii] Rousseau Discourse on Political Economy pg. 124
[xix] Rousseau Discourse on Political Economy pg. 125
[xx] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 226
[xxi] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 173
[xxii] Rousseau On the Social Contract pg. 206
[xxiii] Marx, Karl The Communist Manifesto Kindle Edition HarperTorch (February 11, 2014) Location 107
[xxiv] Engels, Frederick The Communist Manifesto Location 303
[xxv] Marx The Communist Manifesto Location 113
[xxvi] Marx The Communist Manifesto Location 615
[xxvii] Marx The Communist Manifesto Location 333
[xxviii] Marx The Communist Manifesto Location 432
[xxix] Marx The Communist Manifesto Location 451
[xxx] Marx The Communist Manifesto Location 451
[xxxi] Madison, James Federalist #10 Library of Congress website http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_10.html
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Chapter Two Where Do Conservatives Come From?
[xii] Bolt, Robert A Man for All Seasons
[xiii] Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil Hackett Publishing Company Indianapolis, IN 1994 pg. 76
[xiv] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 74
[xv] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 75
[xvi] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 76
[xvii] Kirk, Leviathan, I, pg. 5
[xviii] Kirk, Russell The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot Regnery Publishing; Seventh Edition (November 30, 1953) Kindle Edition Location 707 of 6718
[xix] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 80
[xx] Burke, Edmund Reflections on the Revolution in France Second Edition London Printed for J. Dodsley, in Pall-Mall 1790 pgs.88-89
[xxi] Kirk, Conservative Mind, Location 2144-2148
[xxii] Hobbes Leviathan pg. 106