Posts tagged American Founders

Column on Progressives are Reactionaries

Progressives are Reactionaries

Tibor R. Machan

The simple answer to why progressives are reactionaries is that they tend to want to empower governments to solve all of the problems that face people in their social lives and that is just the authority that kings, tsars, pharaohs, and other rulers have claimed for themselves throughout history. The literally progressive position is that no one gets to rule anyone else without that other’s permission. So a football coach or physician or orchestra conductor may rule only because he or she is permitted by those being ruled. But no one else has such authority without such consent. Today’s pseudo-progressives, however, want to assign such authority to governments without anyone consenting to being ruled about a great many matters that their favored governments want imposed on the citizenry.

More generally, governments that rule people have been the norm throughout human political history. Here and there and now and then this practice hasn’t prevailed but mostly it has. In contemporary times the term “ruler” is still used in, say, Libya and Dubai. It was the American Founders, or the majority of them, who demoted the English king and along with him all monarchs–no longer were they deemed the sovereign but a servant of the citizenry.

It is true that American conservatives, often associated with traditional values, have embraced much of what the Founders installed here and this may make it appear that what the Founders believed was itself conservative or traditional. Not so. In American it is the distinctive tradition to champion limited government and not the bloated state. So that is why American conservatives are really more radical than their modern liberal, welfare statists opponents.

The confusion is understandable but foes of the fully free society like to engage in discrediting what they do not like instead of arguing about it. In any argument there is no question that the political vision of the American founders wins hands down. It is a superior system to all those that went before which have all been more or less statist, gripped by the governmental habit. It is just this habit that modern liberals have reaffirmed, what with their wish to make government the caretaker of society, the nanny and ruler of us all. That is the old idea of politics and there is nothing truly progressive about it at all. Let’s just get this straight.

Sure the statism embraced by contemporary liberals, socialists, fascists and the like is somewhat different from the older kind, from mercantilism, from monarchism, from the rule of Caesars and tsars. Not all statists are the same. But what is crucial about all of them is that they are statists. They do not favor certain particular version of statism such as monarchism that had been demoted, overturned by way of the American revolution. The Founders were nearly libertarians except for some matters they probably didn’t know how to handle without some coercive laws, such as the funding of law enforcement and maintenance via taxation. But taxation is the feudal kin of serfdom–the treatment of those in a society as if they and their resources belonged to the government. That idea is not knew at all, nothing progressive about it whatever. It is however the idea that is close to socialism in which system all the major means of production are publicly owned, belonging to government (which goes by the euphemism of “the public”). And what does socialism see as the major means of production in a society? Human labor. So human labor–which is to say every human being–is owned by the state. The hallmark of serfdom and slavery.

Progressive my foot. This is thoroughly reactionary, taking contemporary politics back to an era that was prominent before the American revolution challenged it good and hard. This is crucial not just for purposes of political rhetoric, which can delude people who are not all that well versed in political history, but also for dealing competently with public policy. Any such policy that treats the citizen as a subject–subject to the will of the government, that is–must be rejected without any compromise.

Column on Natural Rights

Let’s Talk about Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When various skeptics question the soundness of the American political system, one of their targets is the idea of human nature. After all, the founders took their political philosophy mainly from John Locke who thought human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it and a few other evident matters, we can reach the conclusion that all human beings have certain rights. This is what is meant by holding that there are natural rights and that they are pre-legal, not a creation of government.

This is the idea that is rejected today by one of President Obama’s top advisers and the man in charge of the federal government’s regulatory operations. Cass Sunstein, who is now a professor of law at Harvard but is on leave to work with the administration, rejects any notion of rights not fashioned by government. And one reason for this may well be, although I am not certain about it, that Professor Sunstein does not agree that human nature exists.

Certainly many prominent legal and political theorists share this skepticism. I recently read one of them who argued that because in some cultures there is no reference to human nature anywhere, let alone in the law, the idea of human nature cannot be right. As if consensus determined whether human nature exists; as if it were impossible that some folks could be entirely ignorant of what human nature is, so much so that they might even deny its existence.

When the idea emerged in philosophy that things have a nature–e.g., starting with Socrates and his pupil Plato–it was thought that the nature of something resembled geometrical objects by being perfect and timeless. So if there is a human nature, it must be something perfect and a-temporal. But because none of us is going to live to eternity, none of us can establish anything as timelessly true. If human nature has to be something like that, then skepticism about it would be warranted.

But human nature–and, indeed, the nature of anything else–need not be timeless. What makes us all human, our human nature, can be the most up to date, well-informed specification of attributes, capacities, or properties so far. Anything else would be unreasonable to ask for since, as I already said, none of us is going to be here till the end of time and can thus establish that what we understand as human nature will not need some modification or adjustment. The principles the American founders rested on human nature were understood as capable of being updated, which is why the U. S. Constitution has provisions for its amendment. This, however, does not justify fundamental doubt or skepticism about either human nature or the principles based on it, such as our natural rights.

So at least one source of skepticism about our basic rights, rights that do not depend upon government’s grating them (even if their protection is government’s main job), can be set aside. But there is more. We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits–a class of some kind of beings–and games–another class–and subatomic particles–yet another class–and so on and so forth. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chicken and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, even when there are some oddities involved.

So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us–we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights and as they do so they must also respect them.