A Taxonomy of liberty and a Natural Rights Throwdown

Carl Scott over at Pomocon put up a great series of posts on what he sees as the differing American conceptions of liberty last month. Beyond the subject matter, it was an interesting because Tom West (what’s up with all the UD politics professors ending up at Hillsdale?) weighs in on the issue in the comments.

For those of you who just want the juicy bits, here are some nice and digestible nibbles.

Dr. Scott holds that there are “five fundamental conceptions of liberty: first, as the protection of natural rights, second, as the self-governance of the local community, third, as economic individualism, fourth, as the social justice of the national community, and fifth, as moral individualism.”  He goes on to give texts which expound on each conception, giving you a better idea where on the political fault lines each conception stands, and more things to put on that giant list of “stuff I’ll never get around to, but would like to think I will.” This stuff is neat from a purely theoretical or historical perspective, but Mr. Scott tips his hand pretty early in his admission that the political and cultural application of this taxonomy is what drives his study. He’s broadly interested in two things:
1. getting moderates and centrist-Democrats on board with actually taking the constitution seriously
2. getting conservatives to separate what the founders were actually all about from the caricature of them that the right has embraced

Number one is smart from both a tactical political/political warfare perspective (divide and conquer) and from a substantive/long term view (ensure the survival of the regime). We need to take number two seriously because, well, caricatures aren’t a great way build and sustain political coalitions or projects.

So, Carl is bobbin’ and weavin, displaying some impressive footwork, speed, and agility in all matters historical, political, and philosophical, when all of a sudden Dr. West enters the ring with a solid stance with no intention of wasting energy. I’m running out ways to keep my boxing analogy going, because good ole Dr. West just doesn’t seem interested in sparring. He doesn’t really answer many of Dr. Scott’s points, and his take on the over all project is basically that it’s way too complicated. Tom thinks that good old natural rights and social compact theory, as actually understood and practiced by the founders, is comprehensive and adaptable enough to address any real world tension between economic, social, and political spheres.

My main objection to the way that “postmodern conservatives” treat the founding is that too little attention is given to the actual political thought of the founding. I keep hearing about Aristotle, Locke, Christianity, and all the “isms” that are so frequently mentioned in this blog. Why not simply look at how people who accepted the social compact theory tried to tie that theory to actual policies regarding property, economics, family, government support of religion, free speech, and the rest? There is then no need to speculate on Locke’s influence, or Christianity’s, or the common law’s, etc.

Upon reading these words, I had to admit that I don’t remember and don’t appreciate what the founders were all about as I used used.  While I’m comfortable granting him the point that more work needs to be done actually trying to apply the wisdom of the founders to our (post)modern/contemporary world, I don’t really believe him that he doesn’t care about how Aristotle, Locke and Christianity inform the founding.  To hold such a position would be out of step with what they believed and accomplished, and there’s no way someone as smart as Dr. West would hold such a contradictory position.  Maybe he’s being intentionally provocative or maybe its a limitation in the medium of comments on a blog post.

Whatever the case, I look forward to both Dr. West’s and Dr. Scott’s forthcoming books.