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Nerding out with some good, old-fashioned political theory.
Hello everyone! Welcome to the Self-Evident newsletter. I have to tell you, I am burned out with punditry this week. So, fitting the name of this newsletter, it’s fun to take a break from the horse race and just discuss some good old-fashioned political theory and the self-evident, first principle considerations of free society. So, I’m going to discuss some Hobbes, discuss the fundamental demands of justice, and touch on the age-old debate between prescription and reason.
The Eclectism of Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes, perhaps only rivaled by John Stuart Mill, maintains a curious position in the history and development of classical liberalism. Hobbes’ writings, exemplified by his most well-known work Leviathan, demonstrate an exhibition of a certain eclecticism that both provided foundational ideas germane to the very origin of classical liberalism while also introducing philosophical counterpoints that undergird classical liberalism’s early challenges and, to this day, feeds approaches to government that not only disagree with the broad points of classical liberal thought but provide defense for its antithetical detractors.
Crucially, Hobbes first conceptualized social contract theory and offered an important counterpoint to Rousseau’s later claim that "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains" by stating that before the development of society and government, “the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This counterpoint provides a foundational premise for the claims of classical liberalism.
Hobbes was an institutionalist who recognized the benefits of organized society and the necessity of sound government in the face of fallen human nature and the violence and tyranny of anarchy. Man may be born free, as Rousseau and Locke correctly assert, but it is their own fallen nature that first challenges and threatens that freedom, not government. “Governments are instituted among men” to “secure rights” because natural rights are hopelessly threatened by what Hobbes described as a “war of all against all.” Men were born free, but they did not live secure in that birthright until government established the rule of law. Government can be and often has been abused toward tyrannical ends, but this is evidence of man’s fallen nature corrupting the purpose of government, not evidence of a universal tyranny established by the simple existence of government, as Rousseau suggests.
Hobbes’ predicating theories on human nature and the social contract, then, were largely right, and he laid the foundation for Locke and others to build on. He was simply wrong in his prescriptions and failed to extend his critique of human nature to the excesses of unlimited government power wielded by fallen men.
Fundamental Demands of Justice
Speaking of social contract theory, one of the basic responsibilities of government under both Hobbesian and Lockean conceptions of social contract theory is to “establish justice.” But what is justice? Is justice simply a question of process, of the establishment of a method by which a society adjudicates crime? Or, is there a deeper fundamental agreement between society and victims of crime that must be upheld for justice to exist?
Under any fair consideration of fundamental justice, its two chief concerns boil down to 1) the protection of innocence and 2) the promise of restitution to the victim. In other words, the process of justice is determining and punishing guilt. (While the rehabilitation of criminals can be a worthy goal, it has, quite frankly, no part in this basic consideration of fundamental justice, and often falls more into the purview of modern conceptions of social justice).
Given these two chief concerns of justice, we can define injustice as coming in two forms: 1) punishing an innocent person for a crime not committed and 2) failing to provide restitution to a victim.
We do a relatively good job in American society of avoiding the first form of injustice, given our many protections and processes for the accused to ensure the protection of innocence. But increasingly, we are dramatically failing to safeguard against the second form of injustice. We are even to the point where certain legal and socio-economic schools of thought, to which growing enclaves of legal academia and scholarship and many attorneys-at-law, judges, and legal activists ascribe, suggest the real victims of crime are not victims at all while the clearly guilty are afforded the designation of victim based upon certain "models of oppression.” In these “theories of equity,” the responsibility for crime has been shifted away from the perpetrators of crime toward “systemic” impulses that act upon them, and the claims of restitution from those who have experienced an actual violation of their life, liberty, or property are ignored.
This is not only a miscarriage of justice but a failure to abide by the basic social contract of organized society. In the mists of time, individuals gave up their means to secure arbitrary justice in exchange for the promise that society would secure and provide justice according to consistent and constant rules. This notion is referred to as the rule of law (mentioned in the previous section). If victims have no sense of justice, they become compelled to distrust the system, or even to take justice into their own hands. In such circumstances, the basic building blocks of civil society collapse. We become the inverse of John Adams’ vision and devolve into a nation of men, not laws.
Justice is the basic promise of organized society. It suggests, indeed demands, a fundamental debt is owed to victims of crime, a promise of restitution for violations of life, liberty, and property. That debt must be paid, or the basic provisions of the social contract are violated.
An Overreliance on Prescription
Moving from the origins of classical liberalism and considerations of its premises flowing from the ideas of social contract theory, the final thing I’d like to discuss in this newsletter is one of the many schisms that exist between traditionalism and individualism within the broad schools of thought that exist in the classically liberal, and classically liberal adjacent, world. Let’s talk a bit about the debate between prescription and reason. (Some of these musings will be familiar to fans of Frank Meyer).
Prescription is elucidated thus by Russell Kirk:
“How has the human species collected and condensed the wisdom of its experience, the written part of which we call history? Chiefly through tradition, ‘prejudice,’ prescription—generally surer guides to conscience and conduct than books or speculation. Habit and custom may be the wisdom of unlettered men, but they come from the sound old heart of humanity.”
-Russell Kirk, The Journal of the History of Ideas, 1953
The idea of prescription, then, is built on the respect of tradition, of the developed mores and norms of society. It is a reverence for what is, with the acknowledgment that such things as market forces, the hand of providence, or simple trial and error have moved the evolution of society along beneficial paths, even if we don’t always grasp their worth or understand their nature. That last bit is crucial to the basic concept of prescription, that its provisions do not need to have rational explanation to have value. The provisions of prescription, like Chesterton’s fence, should be assumed to exist for a good and beneficial purpose unless expressly demonstrated otherwise rather than assumed to be arbitrary and capricious until their value is demonstrated and proved.
But for all the just defenses of prescription, and my personal adherence to and respect for the doctrine, I tend to believe that there is a risk in the overreliance on prescription in conservative thought. My concern is both that, if it stands alone, bereft from and hostile to reason, it can uncomfortably mirror the left's idea of an "arc of history," to which we must simply succumb or end up being on “the wrong side of history,” and that, in times of radicalism and revolution, a sole reliance upon prescription is not sufficient to conserve its provisions from theoretical challenge.
The constant dichotomy presented by so many well-intended conservative writers between prescription and reason is understandable. It makes sense to a large degree. But I think this constantly restated dichotomy has inadvertently boiled a fatal flaw into the conservative framework that has now sunk deep into its sinews and weakened the project, even though it was intended to provide it strength.
The promotion of the concept of prescription, among other things, was meant to provide conservatism the strength of being connected to the deep roots of tradition and provide it a bulwark from attack by utopian and unconstrained political theories through establishing a cohort of supporters who naturally and reflexively aided the conservative effort out of respect for the way things are, the way things have worked, the hesitancy to allow the new and untested to disrupt the ordered and established. This is the strength of natural conservatism.
But what happens when history and contemporary politics have moved on from the prescription the conservative seeks to conserve? As the conservative project has increasingly become one of renewal, often more so than one of conservation, the conservative has been forced to defend the provisions of a prescription from an era in the past, an era increasingly far beyond living memory.
The prescriptions of today are the welfare state, administrative bureaucracy, Keynesian economic planning, progressive democracy, the imperial presidency, etc. In our day and age, the natural conservative instinct now bends in favor of the opponents of political conservatism. Because, for however much conservatives are concerned with conserving what remains of the American constitutional order, we are challenging the status quo of a sociopolitical order that has now existed for well over a hundred years and has grafted itself into the fabric of the Republic and the minds of the people.
In short, it is the long tendrils of Leviathan and centralized, unrestrained government to which the people have now long grown accustomed, not the constitutionally restrained, decentralized form of limited government that most schools of American conservatism value. We are now predominantly making a case for a body of historical antecedents rather than defending a host of contemporary traditions.
In times of upheaval and revolution and in eras of serious, sustained diversion from prudent government and the generational embrace of ill-considered utopian zeitgeists, and even in normal times to avoid complacency, a conscious conservatism is needed. This entails a process of reason that connects what is with a theoretical framework of what ought to be that can conserve the provisions of prescription from challenge and renew its provisions when wounded or dismantled.
Reason and prescription need not be enemies, nor should they be allowed to be considered as such. Indeed, if prescription is to be defended and renewed in times of radicalism, reason must be brought to bear to defend prescription through theoretical frameworks that build a cohort of conscious conservatives. Such a cohort would not merely be reflexive defenders of what is but would provide a powerful intellectual force able to stand toe-to-toe in the battles of theory and philosophy, championing both what is with the weight of history and what ought to be with the theoretical power of right reason.
This is the proper and most effective formula for opposing radical notions and efforts that know not the important foundations they threaten to destroy. Embracing the affinity of prescription and reason and rejecting the notion of their natural discord gives us the strength that Douglas Bush referred to when considering the idea of right reason in John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The spirit of man and the revealed word of God together proclaim unshakable truths."
Speaking of political theory, in the two months we’ve been operating the Freemen News-letter, we’ve had some excellent contributions that have illuminated more than a few dusty, ignored corners of political thought, and shined a light on some of the great thinkers of conservatism and classical liberalism.
-Early last month, Jacob Hibbard provided a thorough essay that explored classical liberalism, Catholic integralism, and Latter-day Saint political traditions.
-Shortly after, Ben Connelly gave us an argument for the political viability of Burkian and Hayekian thought, pushing back against the assertion of their supposed fundamental conflict.
-Near mid-month, we had two treatments on Russell Kirk, first by Barney Quick discussing the need for “absolute conviction that there are immutable verities,” and a second by Scott Howard, sharing a prescient warning by Kirk that “a civilization deprived of the religious tenets it was built on cannot survive.”
-And finally, both this week, we had two intriguing treatments on political theory, the first by Nathan Brown describing the “fusionism before fusionism” of Adam Smith’s and Edmund Burke’s overlapping interests, and the second by Fusionist Sun Devil, who put together an extended consideration of FA Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty.
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Stay Free My Friends,
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in Political Philosophy and Public Law, American History, and Constitutional Studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley
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