The Future of Our Liberty Is Confusing

by Peter Augustine Lawler

In light of Diana Schaub’s persuasive argument that it would be unconstitutional for a House to select a speaker who wasn’t actually a national legislator, I suspended my campaign to become speaker. Given that no member of the House (including Paul Ryan), apparently, will be able to command the requisite 218 votes, I’ve decided that extraordinary times sometimes require extraordinary means not explicitly forbidden by the Constitution. So my campaign is back on.

The Scruton conference at Rhodes (hosted perfectly by Dan Cullen) was a model of open-minded and fearless discussion. One issue: Let’s say our written Constitution is basically Lockean, and so it was built on a theory that Locke knew perfectly well was not a full and adequate account of who we are but would work, as theories do, by abstracting from inconvenient truths in the quest for political effectiveness. Basically, mission accomplished; our Constitution works to secure our liberty like no other. What happens when we forget the limits of that theory and think that all human behavior can and should be accounted for according to contract and consent? And, as a result, embark on a project to Lockeanize everything. Or reconstruct all human relationships and so forth in terms of rights. Do we need a new theory, so to speak, given that we don’t really know of a theory that will generate a better form of government?

And, as our Jim Ceaser noted, the Founders were and weren’t Lockean. They repudiated, to some extent, the idea of government originating as a contract by persons in the state of nature with the more top-down idea of Founding. Now Machiavelli and Hobbes are pretty clear that “founding” and “contract” are ways of looking at the same change we can believe in from different points of view. And “founding” especially seems to abstract from the preexisting human content- – the various inheritances — that shaped and limited the possibilities of our Founders, who weren’t, after all, creating something out of nothing. All the human content that is America doesn’t originate from them. At this point, I can say something really conservative, but not today.

I’m writing to you from one of the exceptionally functional hotel computers at the Hyatt Regency in Greenville, SC.  With my wife (Rita), I’m on the way to Belmont Abbey College, right off Interstate 85 just before you get to Charlotte, N.C.  I’ll be speaking there tonight at 8 on “The Future of Our Liberty Is Confusing.”

Here are five PowerPoint concepts I’m gong to lay out at the beginning:

1. Things these days, as most days, are getting better and worse. Better and worse for everyone in some ways, but in others better for some (the cognitive elite) and worse (the lower middle class) for others.

2. All reputable social and political analysis deploys selective nostalgia.

3. The more libertarian we get in some ways, the more securitarian we get in others.

4. Few things are more repulsive than privileges without responsibilities.

5. Technological progress is neither good nor bad but a gift that is, most of all, an intricate test of our free will.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.