Locke to My Heart


The esteemed Ed Feser chimes in:

Hi Jonah,
Having recently published a book on Locke (with the creative title Locke) I can’t help but briefly chime in.  Three points:
1. Re: classical liberalism vis-a-vis conservatism, it seems to me your claim about their relationship is too strong.  Michael Novak has usefully distinguished liberalism from liberal institutions.  A conservative can value many of the institutions associated with classical liberalism — the rule of law, constitutional limited government, the market economy, etc. — while rejecting the philosophical foundations classical liberalism would give them.
2. Since those foundations are deeply problematic, my own view is that conservatives should reject them.  I summarize some of the relevant points in this TCS Daily article adapted from my book on Locke.  (In general, liberalism — again, as a philosophy, as distinct from some of the political institutions associated with it – tends to rest on metaphysical assumptions that are modern (Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al.) as opposed to classical (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas et al.).  I provide a thorough demolition of those modern metaphysical assumptions in my forthcoming book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.)
3. I don’t think it’s helpful to frame the discussion in terms of individualism vs. collectivism.  That’s a false alternative.  To my mind conservatism understands human beings to be neither atomistic individuals related only by contractual bonds, nor mere elements of some amorphous blob called “society” or “the community.”  Man is a social animal by nature, and has obligations to others that exist prior to any social contract.  But the immediately relevant unit of society here is the family, not “the community” as a whole.  Since the family is closer to the level of the individual than to the level of society at large, this puts conservatism closer to classical liberalism than it is to either socialism or modern liberalism, but it is still misleading to think of conservatism as either “liberal” or “individualistic” in the relevant senses.

My very quick responses below, in order:

1. I don’t dispute for a moment that a conservative can reject the classical liberal argument for those things while still agreeing with those positions. However, I’m not so sure that gets us very far in the American context, as we are nonetheless conserving classical liberal positions. Motives are fascinating things in arguments such as this, but I don’t know that as a matter of practical politics we can easily distinguish between a conservative who adheres to (classical) liberal positions for classically liberal reasons or for “conservative” (i.e. non-classically liberal) ones. I’m not trying to change the rules mid-game here by bringing up practical politics, but I think the point has relevance. Most American conservatives do not split these hairs. They simply know as a matter of conviction, culture and conscience that liberal institutions are right, good and American. The intellectual pedigree or rationale for these institutions may or may not interest them, but whether they do or not, he is still a conservative. 

2. I’ve got to read more of Ed’s stuff before I comment. Sounds great (I’m a big fan of Feser’s for the record).

3. As odd as it may seem to some, I basically agree here. I’ve been noodling a long essay on this subject (dunno who to write it for, hence can’t figure out how long to make it) but here’s a brief take out on how I come down. 

As I often say when I do this Locke v. Rousseau or Individualism v. Collectivism thing, I think we’re all a little Lockean and we’re all a little Rousseauian. We all believe in both the sovereignty of the individual and the importance of the collective. What distinguishes left from right in this regard isn’t the natural human desire for individual respect (thymos?) nor the natural human yearning for community. Again, these yearnings are written into the human heart. Where the left and the right come in is how you (mis)apply these yearnings. The Party of Rousseau — we’ll call it that for fun — seeks to use the State to maximize and totalize its conception of community. Everyone wants to live in a family. Everyone wants to belong to a community. The Party of Rousseau commits the category error of believing you can make the State into the your family or use it to make your nation your village. This is what Mussolini’s famous definition of Fascism amounted to. “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state.” The conservative and the classical liberal (or libertarian) alike understand that that is an impossibility — an undesirable impossibility. So when I’m talking about individualism versus collectivism, please know that I’m referring to statist collectivism. 

Anyway, I go on about this point in this post from a while back.  

Oh, and for those interested, Ed’s essay on Hayek and Tradition (it’s a PDF) was immensely influential on my thinking, particularly as I was writing the chapter on the tempting of conservatism.  

And I do love all the email from folks who know more about this stuff than I do. 


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