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By Mark Blitz
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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Conserving Natural Rights
I concluded the introduction by suggesting that American conservatism successfully unites the security of accepted practices with a reasoned understanding of what is good. The Constitution is meant to be revered, but it is also revolutionary. Our tradition is composed primarily of liberal democratic or constitutional teachings, institutions, and practices.
A central cause of our political mistakes is the failure to understand our origin. Vague pronouncements about freedom, intellectual pabulum about the founders, and distorting principles so they seem to accord with selfish interests are endemic. By passing President Obama's health care legislation, Nancy Pelosi told the world during the concluding House debate about the bill on March 21, 2010:
we will honor the vows of our founders who in the Declaration of Independence said that we are 'endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' This legislation will lead to healthier lives, more liberty to pursue hopes and dreams and happiness for the American people. This is an American proposal that honors the traditions of our country.
This is but one of countless examples. It is a wonder that our roots have not altogether decayed in their decades-long bath of acidic babble and mush. To be worthy of success, genuine conservatism must recover the true bearing and intention of our beginning.
The central American conservative principle, and the one most attractive politically, is liberty, or freedom. Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. Unless we attempt to understand and conserve its principles, we cannot truly be conserving what is most native to us, and what is most our own. As Speaker Pelosi only partially reminded us on her stumbling journey toward "progress:"
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....
It is the "laws of nature and of nature's God" that "entitle" us to a "separate and equal station" "among the powers of the earth."
The Declaration of Independence announces inalienable individual rights. Because natural rights are our tradition we come to take them for granted, practically and intellectually. What, however, is a right? Rights are often misunderstood, which obscures their meaning and why they are desirable. A related mistake is the implicit view that however we understand rights and liberty they are mere preferences with no ground.
If we explore rights more fully we will see that they do rest on solid ground. Our foundation is not arbitrary or accidental. A right is an authority to reflect, prefer, choose, use, proceed, and act that we justly possess. As an authority, it is not a mere privilege or opportunity. As an authority to reflect, prefer, choose, use, proceed, and act, a right is freedom of self-direction, not a particular outcome or a bare state of being unobstructed. As justly possessed or deserved, a right is not something stolen or usurped. An inalienable right is an authority one cannot give up, unlike a fleeting possession. It is not something one keeps only at another's sufferance. The individual natural rights with which we are endowed, therefore, are individual authorities to reflect, prefer, choose, use, proceed, and act that always belong to us.
It is easy to confuse such rights with rights as procedures, or good things that others should guarantee or give to me. We believe we have rights to a fair trial, sympathetic jurors, safe roads, fast cars, good education, useful degrees, fine medical care, gourmet food, equal treatment, compassionate treatment, decent incomes, premium seats, fat settlements from misbehaving corporations, and never-ending growth and plenty. These often contradictory "rights," however, differ from the individual rights at our foundation. Our founding rights are authorities to reflect, prefer, choose, use, proceed, and act, not particular procedures, outcomes, and goods. The similarity is that in all these cases we believe "rights" to be what we justly, properly, or "righteously" deserve. The similarity in a few of these cases — the right to a fair trial, for example — is that some flow from natural rights once we try to secure these in self-governing political communities. But, again, the difference in all cases is that only individual natural rights are inalienable authorities for self-direction. They therefore fit together with free action and effort, but do not assure accomplishment and success.
It is easy enough to see why we supplement and piece by piece replace our understanding of individual rights with the notion that rights are deserved outcomes that someone — the government, the wealthy, magical providers — should guarantee. The discipline of individual freedom can be difficult and its outcome not assured. Necessary imperfection means that even the best government's protection of rights falls short of justice. Bad luck leads to unfairness. The wealthy seek and often find ways to perpetuate their advantages. Especially when growth is not robust, the economic rewards of liberty are insufficiently widespread. In a regime grounded on rights, where rights among other things mean what one deserves, dissatisfaction with the results of pursuing individual natural rights may lead to calls for "rights" that are merely the outcomes one desires. All good words become hollowed so that we can stuff them with the comfortable and familiar. "Rights" are no exception.
This general possibility of misunderstanding rights, however, is insufficient to explain all that actually takes place in substituting rights as outcomes for rights as natural authorities. Why do we claim these misunderstood "rights?" One reason is that the two centuries of political and philosophical thought that follow America's founding argue against the truth of individual rights. They claim, instead, that we are formed primarily by social, economic, class, and historical forces and must find our happiness within what they give. Not everyone makes such arguments, but this is the dominant trend. Indeed, it is a trend that forms and to a degree is begun by conservative writers, as traditionally understood.
One might even fear from these trends that the arguments against individual rights (or "bourgeois rights," as the Marxists say), could become so widespread that defending rights would fade altogether. This would be wrong. Rights are so ingrained in our politics and law that they are and were more likely to be misinterpreted than jettisoned. Several of the thinkers who began the movement away from natural rights, such as Kant and Hegel, nonetheless incorporated them in their thought. Battles against the Nazis and Communists made evident that individual liberty was a core of what we were defending. And, the natural power of individual rights means that they make their presence felt whenever circumstances are at all reasonable.
The theoretical turn away from individual rights is in any event insufficient to explain fully the new confusion about what they are. Intellectual and political events may interact, but they do not determine each other. In the United States, the theoretical change influenced journalists and academics, who then began to develop the political opinions we summarize as "progressivism." These views helped to form the policies of Wilson and the two Roosevelts. Political opinions alone, however, do not cause policy. Actual events need to be addressed. The closing of the frontier, the expansion of large cities, the growth of industry, the rise of monopolies, and the increasing dependence of Americans on jobs provided by someone else all produced significant difficulties.
Whether government needed to meet these challenges as it did one hundred years ago, or could have accommodated them less intrusively is another matter. Many conservatives doubt the wisdom of government's growth under Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, just as many doubt that the New Deal responded to the depression effectively. Others concede that economic complexity, lack of timely consumer information about sophisticated products, and dangers to health and safety justified some growth in government. Ronald Reagan, for example, objected primarily to domestic programs that began under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and to irresponsible prosecution of the Cold War.
Government growth combined with opinions that see us more as members of groups than as individuals to create a view of rights as goods that others ought to give us. Rights increasingly lost their meaning as justified authorities to engage in one's own efforts and enjoy the fruits (and suffer the shortcomings) of one's own actions. The new view grew during the 1960s when the civil rights movement joined Johnson's Great Society. It is especially visible in programs of affirmative action. Demands, often successful demands, for unequal treatment were increasingly advanced as one's right without even being justified by the unique circumstance of the horror of slavery. The original sense of individual rights became buried under the weight of group claims to redress and, in time, to advantage. Much of the conservative revival in the United States that issued in Reagan's election and the Reagan era received its energy from revulsion at this distortion and its effects.
Changing theoretical views after the American founding dimmed our understanding of rights. They even more completely distorted our understanding of nature.
Arguments following Kant's works at the end of the eighteenth century stopped seeing nature as a measure for human action. The argument became decisive that our central traits change and vary historically and that reason essentially shapes and produces rather than discovers. Even thinkers who supported individual rights increasingly failed to defend them as natural.
It is hard to conserve "natural" rights once thinkers no longer see nature as a standard, or citizens view it at best as a way to discuss animals and the environment, that is, what is not human. Yet, the Declaration of Independence speaks seriously of "the laws of nature and of nature's God," and the thinker whom Thomas Jefferson chiefly had in mind, John Locke, spoke confidently of natural rights.
What does it mean to call our rights "natural" or to say that the laws of nature and Nature's God justify our independence? "Nature" is not a throwaway term. In fact, to ignore the natural basis of rights is to make our preference for them arbitrary, or a mere expression of American habit and tradition. Our rights are "self-evident" truths; that is, they are self-evident to reason. They are visible in principle to all men, not only to some men in some situations. To notice them does not require that one be ensconced in the class, religious, or familial order prized by later conservatives. They are not merely the rights of Americans, Englishmen, the rich, the poor, or any other such group. They belong to all.
Rights are natural because they are evident to reason, belong to each man, and are inalienable. What is natural is, first, what is inevitable and spontaneous rather than arbitrary and artificially concocted. We sometimes ask people to be "natural," by which we mean to be real, not phony, artificial, or made-up. In the last analysis, what is most spontaneous, or least arbitrary, is what is inevitable and unavoidable. The natural is inherent and inescapable in every attempt to ignore or choose against it and in the powers we use to make this choice.
What is natural is also what is general or universal about something, a dog or cat's nature, as we say, or even a person's natural impatience or calm. When what is universal and spontaneous also organizes, directs, and sets in motion something's other qualities, it is fundamental to it. This is why the natural is often the essential or fundamental. The authoritative use of our natural freedom is essentially connected to each of our other actions and pursuits.
The fact that reason recognizes natural truths suggests that what is most natural is what is present most universally, because reason as such sees what is unlimited by the merely bodily, material, local, or transient. For humans, indeed, our ever-present natural ability is reason itself and choice according to it. What is universal about or in something need not cover it identically, however, at least not obviously. Each of us reasons or speaks but not equally well. Sunsets and pictures of sunsets are similar, not identical. All roses are roses but only some bloom with spectacular beauty.
The full range and power of what is universal, spontaneous, and essential is difficult to grasp completely. In the case of natural rights, however, the question is not especially complex, because their substance is the inalienable power everyone has to reflect and choose, to make up his own mind, and to pursue actions under his own direction. Natural rights exist in each of us fully, not only in some average way. Moreover, their immediacy and extent means that everyone can see them not only in principle but in fact, once his vision is freed from theocratic and class occlusions.
Can Nature Guide?
Nature is not only inevitable (spontaneous) and universal, it also guides. This guidance is not obvious, because we flee earthquakes and storms, or try to overcome them. The harshness and destruction of much in the physical world is one reason people wonder how nature can set standards. "According to nature you want to live?" Nietzsche asks incredulously:
Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power — how could you live according to this indifference?
One way nature guides is precisely through forces and powers that are present even when we try to manage them. Nature also guides more affirmatively, however, because our human abilities have a complete or satisfactory use and structure, and a natural pleasure, attraction, and beauty connected to them. We do not invent this satisfaction or attraction. Nature supplies forms and ends as well as motions and materials. Natural use and structure set the direction for human improvement, moreover, as proper vision sets the direction for lenses, and even for vision stronger than 20/20. Indeed, nature distinguishes in the sense that, as we said, all men reason, but some better than others.
The true issue is not that natural guidance is simply missing, but that it is disputable and complex. We are what we are only by being free to choose. We therefore can be what we are only by activating and energizing ourselves, and we can do this poorly or have capacities that fall short to begin with. Moreover, the complexity of choice, reason, and their objects is such that the variety of our goals and practices makes easy statements about what and how to choose difficult to give. Reason differentiates us fundamentally, but does not simply constitute us. We are also composed from our desires, loves, spiritedness, and pride and are oriented to the property, wealth, pleasure, beauty, honors, friendships, and knowledge that help to satisfy these passions. The combinations among these goods and the political and social conditions that form and fit them, the competition among us when these goods are scarce, and the differences among us make natural direction obscure. This obscurity exists even if we are oriented toward a measured grasp of these goods, let alone when we are dominated by error and illusion.
This variety notwithstanding, we can still sketch with some precision the goods that most complete our natural powers and reasoned enjoyment of them. Aristotle's discussions in his Ethics and Politics and Plato's in his Republic clarify much of what we can say about natural excellence.
This controversy about guidance, however, concerns the best use of our powers, not the presence of natural rights. One of the great attractions of basing public or political choice on natural rights is precisely their universality, which makes them a visible and stable ground for potential agreement and consent. The evidence for natural free choice is more accessible than is the evidence for the excellent use of this choice. Natural rights are largely open about ends. Any desires (such as bodily desires) that we can fill by exercising equal natural rights (within the political and economic order that equal freedom implies) are acceptable, and in this way natural, not arbitrary.
Excerpted from Conserving Liberty by Mark Blitz. Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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