From a reader:
Dear Mr. Goldberg,
I find it dismaying that a writer of your prominence on the Right
would reduce political philosophy to a matter of Locke vs. Rousseau,
as neither can be considered a conservative. At the least, I wish you
would have made a point of more overtly declaring your rejection of
your previous Burkean tendencies. I shan’t attempt much of an
exploration for your philosophical shift, except to say that I suspect
it is due to you having, as your colleague Mr. Derbyshire observed,
not a religious bone in your body (I recall you contesting that
characterization, but at most it could be conceded that you have two
or three such bones–certainly there aren’t enough to make any
difference in your philosophy).
As it is not to be expected that a full case against Locke can be made
in this short missive, I’ll confine myself to a few points that I hope
will induce you to reconsider the matter.
1. Rousseau admired Locke a good deal. Emile, for instance, contains
more than a few eulogistic remarks about him.
2. Locke, far more than Rousseau, ignores the problem of original
sin. The perverted Protestantism of Hobbes very much took account of
original sin, but provided a purely materialist response: the
sovereign, who is a mortal god frightening men into being tolerable to
each other. Rousseau displaced original sin, moving it to the
conflict between man and society. Locke simply pretends that original
sin does not exist.
3. Locke declares that men are born free as they are born rational.
It is difficult to view more opposed to that of Burke and
4. Locke is extremely anti-historical. His system is an attempt to
escape historically evolved societies.
5. Despite my general antipathy toward Leo Strauss, I admit that he
was dead-on in his characterization of Locke as a mere continuation of
Hobbes’ rejection of classical and Christian thought (see Natural
Right and History). As for Eric Voegelin, who you have at times
quoted with approval, he considered Locke to be “one of the most
repugnant, dirty, morally corrupt appearances in the history of
humanity…Locke was one of the first very great cases of spiritual
pathology.” (Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence
between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964. 96-97). I’m sure
you would benefit from an examination of Voegelin’s more technical
works, especially Order and History. At the least, such a study might
prevent you from trotting him out whenever you want to take a jab at
political religions, only to quickly drop him lest his views interfere
with your own essential progressivism (e.g. no need to worry about
environmental concerns, we’ll just wait on science our savior).
As noted, these are very brief and crudely presented points, but I
hope you’ll give some consideration to them.
Me: I agree entirely about the crudity of the points presented!
But, hey, it’s interesting stuff nonetheless. I am familiar with the objections here. I respect most of them, even where I disagree (though the speculation of my motives doesn’t impress).
I think the biggest point of misunderstanding is that I am unapologetically speaking in terms of vision more than philosophical specifics. If you want to replace the name Locke with Edmund Burke’s or Adam Smith’s and Rousseau’s with — I dunno — Dewey’s or Sorel’s, I think you can make pretty much the same point I make in my Locke v. Rousseau spiel. If that’s too fast and loose for close students of these folks, I understand. But, that won’t stop me!
For the record, I don’t think everything in Locke is right nor do I think everything in Rousseau is wrong. As I’ve argued at length elsewhere, I think these two visions run through the human heart. There are places where the Rousseauian vision should take precedence over the Lockean, and vice versa. And, rarely should one vision totally dominate. The time, place and manner of how these visions should interplay depends almost entirely on the institution or enterprise in question. The federal government should be almost entirely Lockean. Local governments or organizations can and should be more Rousseauian so long as the right of exit is preserved. But that’s a subject for a longer essay I’m noodling.
As for Locke not being a conservative. Eh. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. It all depends how you want to define conservatism in his day and age — and ours. But conservatives in the United States of America are certainly trying to conserve much of Locke’s project (unless you honestly think Locke’s spirit was entirely absent at the American founding). Again, I’m repeating myself, but: Conservatism is certainly about more than classical liberalism, but a conservatism that does not seek to conserve classical liberalism simply isn’t worth conserving.