“Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” (Federalist, #51)
My friend Tom Hoefling, National chairman of America’s Independent Party, called to my attention today a thoughtful piece by Ken Blackwell (former Ohio Secretary of State and recently among the candidates for chairman of the GOP) about the “politics of division…at play within the conservative movement.” In his political career Ken has shown himself to be a man with considerable respect for principle, and one who is willing to give issues of moral principle, like respect for innocent life, the priority required for our survival as a free people.
In his essay, he rightly admonishes conservatives to remember their common and unifying commitment to the primacy of individual rights. “The place of the individual vis-à-vis the state is the root of commonality for all conservatives, and the basic disconnect between conservatives and collectivists. Government exists not to confer rights, but instead to secure rights.” He rightly declares that “the common enemy of all conservatives is the centrality of the state instead of the individual in our political system.” He admonishes conservatives to “wake up to this common opponent…”
There can be no doubt that unity is an essential ingredient for success in political, as in military, conflict. Recognizing the common enemy can certainly contribute to such unity. Of course, on the verge of route, when the forces of the enemy loom large in seeming triumph, such recognition can also be the source of discouragement and demoralization. At such times, it has often been more likely to contribute to unanimous retreat or surrender than to a determined stand against the exultant foe.
But if, in the face of that exultation, one hardy soul picks up the fallen ensign of their cause, and braving the taunts and deadly missiles of the enemy lifts it again aloft, that reminder of the common good the soldiers fight for, and the common hope it represents, sometimes has been enough to turn the tide of war. People will stand, even against overwhelming odds, when roused by positive and deep commitment to the common good for which they stand.
In this regard I often think of Madison’s words from Federalist #51, with their implied warning to the friends of liberty, that justice is the ultimate aim of political life, for the sake of which even liberty will be sacrificed. This should remind thoughtful advocates of individual rights that all such rights are rooted in a claim of right (that is to say, justice). If that claim is not successfully defended, rights will not be preserved.
Ironically, at least in their rhetoric the advocates of socialist collectivism seem never to forget the primacy of justice. Whatever the soporific density of his tendentious economic theories, there are passages in the writings of Karl Marx that burn hot from the fire of his outrage against the inhumane abuses of the Industrial Age. Though by and large they reject Christianity and deny divine authority any relevance to law or politics, the politicians of the left constantly appeal to the sense of justice as they demand programs for the poor, equity for the workers, and respect for the downtrodden and contemned. Leftist ideology often produces massive suffering and death precisely because it gives such weight to the political goal; the end that justifies any and every means; the requirement of justice so absolute that in its presence individual life and suffering lose any and all significance.
What has fueled the undeniable victories of the left, so costly to humanity? A false assertion of individual rights that acts without respect for the deep injustices caused by unbridled lust for wealth, pleasure and self-idolizing power. From the brutalized peasants and urban laborers carelessly offended by the old, so-called aristocracies, to the miners and industrial laborers callously abused by the builders of nineteenth and twentieth century industrial empires, the adroitly highlighted tragedy of these injustices recruited the strength of revolutionary movements around the world.
The socialist revolutionary sees government power as the only means to curtail these abuses. To end the exploitative repression of the many by the few they erect an over-arching bureaucratic power that represses all equally. Those who will not conform to the paradigm of government repression, they simply eliminate. The toll goes beyond the many millions dead, however, to encompass the death of the human spirit, and the energy and creativity that fuels the search for knowledge and technological development. Government expands its control until the whole of society conforms to its requirements, and in the process becomes a cancerous mass, no longer living yet pulsating with life.
Between the extremes of dissolute individualism and cancerous government repression, the American founders made out a third alternative, a middle ground upon which individuals who respect the possibility of human community empower a government that respects the possibilities of individual existence. While admitting the necessity for government to restrain individual abuses of freedom, they respected the need for self-reliant individuals to restrain the abuses of government. The result is a form of government that relies upon the force of individual character to provide the motive power that constrains individuals from abuse. The just government of individuals (their freedom to act without abuse) achieved through self-government (their willingness to impose constraints upon themselves.)
Of course this idea of self-government makes no sense in the absence of an understanding of justice that makes clear the boundaries of freedom (that is, the actions that mark the limits beyond which freedom becomes abusive.)
The Declaration of Independence reflects the ingenious and elegant reasoning through which the founders expressed and established such an understanding. As justice is the freedom to act without fear of abuse, just government must derive its authority from a corresponding act of freedom, one that represents the pure self-determination of a will that in no way infringes upon the will of any other. But such a pure act of self-determination (acting of itself, and therefore in no way infringing upon another) is not possible for any contingent being. Only the being that is in and for itself is capable of such freedom.
The conceptual possibility of justice therefore arises from our acknowledgment of the existence of such a being, authorizing the claim of freedom made by every individual. The Declaration refers to the self-subsistent being from whose existence the possibility of justice arises as the Creator. Yet because the existence of this self-determining being is essential to every individual claim of freedom, respect for the consequences of its existence becomes the limiting condition for that claim, the conceptual boundary within which every free individual must operate, or else surrender their claim to freedom.
Every exercise of individual freedom must therefore show respect to and for the being whose existence accounts for the possibility of individual freedom. But where human beings are concerned, the individual is one of many, each of whom must be taken into account. The Declaration reflects the need for this accounting when it concludes that, to be legitimate, government must be based upon consent.
Of course, the Declaration’s reasoning requires a concept of the Creator that goes beyond any simplistic analogy with the activity of human artisans. The Creator not only produces the result, He constitutes it, so that apart from Him its existence is inconceivable. The endowment of unalienable rights is therefore an act of sharing in a sense that goes beyond any merely objective exchange. It connotes, like all expressions of love, the active and continuous presence of the giver. But if the present in its very substance involves the presence of the giver, nothing can be made of it that is inconsistent with His being. The freedom that the Creator originates in this way continues to exist only insofar as it corresponds, in every way, to what He is. All else is not freedom, but abuse.
In light of this reasoning, freedom cannot be understood, much less respected and preserved, without reference to its source. False proponents of freedom who say they care about freedom, but who reject the need to address the question of justice that arises from its abuse, open the way for leftists who exploit their apparent indifference to human misery. They cite it to discredit the concern with individual rights, which they portray as a cover for greedy ambition. The false proponents of freedom also encourage the neglect of character, and character education, which turn the dissolution that results from abusing freedom from conceptual possibility to self-destructive reality.
During the Bush era Republicans suffered more and more acutely from this vulnerability, until it finally resulted in their decisive defeat. Such success as they enjoyed came mainly from the false impression that they cared about the just basis for freedom. Sadly, what they really cared for was the support they could harvest among voters who wanted to enact their faith in the Creator God. When pushed to it, however, Republicans by and large tacitly ceded the high moral ground to the left. They did not act boldly because they cannot, or will not, rely on arguments that refer to and respect the origin of free will, which is the Creator God, without whose authority human assertions of freedom are in vain.
Translated into common sense terms, this becomes an issue of trust. As a rule it makes no sense to trust that bad people will do good things, and this includes people who have no concept of good that goes beyond what gets them the goods they desire. In the hands of such people power is likely to be abused whenever such abuse serves their advantage; and the abuse is likely to continue until they themselves are disadvantaged by it. Under such circumstances, individual freedom seems good only to people who do not fear the tyranny of those more powerful than they, or else have made a bargain that accepts such tyranny so long as they can practice it on their inferiors.
This is the compact that has, by and large, characterized the oppressive, oligarchic rule of the powerful few, who associate on these terms in order to oppress the majority of the people. Most of the latter, however, lacking any sense of their own effective power. On account of that sense of deficiency, they seek assurances against the abuse of power in the form of mutual restraint, rather than mutual license. That assurance takes the form of moral education and self-discipline, in light of a standard of right action application to all, regardless of their power. Then individual rights and liberty may flourish. However, when individual character is neglected, and the assumption of self-indulgence prevails, the desire for security against the abuses that inevitably result feeds the expansion of external government power and control. People who do not restrain themselves must be restrained by other means.
Some conservatives pretend to want limited government, but reject the premise of justice that makes sense of rights and liberty. But that premise provides the only consistent foundation for a self-disciplined understanding of freedom, which can then serve as the basis for moral education. Moral education, in turn, builds the people’s confidence in the prevalence of the sort of good character that, in the absence of a pervasive apparatus of enforcement, assures timid, relatively powerless humanity against harm.
In light of this I have understood for a long time why leftists promote every form of licentious desire and behavior. They know that the breakdown of moral constraint leads to the exultation of government power. It took longer for me to realize that conservatives who reject or downplay the importance of issues that affect moral self-discipline and character are the fifth column of totalitarian ideology among the sincere proponents of liberty. At best they see the forms of representative government based on individual rights as a pleasant mask for authoritarian paternalism: well intentioned elites nobly obliging themselves by deciding what is good for the hapless masses. Where socialists aim for a world in which all adults will be slaves of the state, such so-called conservatives envisage a world in which all are its obedient children. Of course both groups exempt themselves from the perpetual dependency they will inflict on others.
There have been enough flourishing empires in human history to prove that many people are happy to be fairly well-treated slaves, and even more are pleased to live as well cared for children. Unfortunately I cannot think of one such despotic empire that did not in the end use the slaves or children as wolves use sheep. Americans have been free of the slaughter pens for long enough to be careless. So they are giving in to the delusion that free individuals, without moral conscience, will nonetheless respect those who are enslaved by passion or indolence. They are buying into the alluring deceit that an all powerful government will kindly serve rather than ruthlessly exploit the needs of disarmed and dependent subjects.
But in a society of individuals who need such government power to control their abuses, where shall they be found who will not abuse its power? The crisis of our times demands that Americans of goodwill think this question through. especially those that acknowledge the authority of the Creator, as our Founders did. America’s moral heart can still be rallied, but not by false premises of unity that leave the nation’s standard of moral principle in the dust. Citizens must be found who will not run in the same the same direction as the pursuing enemies of freedom, whatever label those enemies claim to wear. We must turn, stand fast and rally round the standard which the Declaration emblazons with the name of the Creator, God. For only beneath that standard may the meek rest assured that the “rights” we fight to save are those that justly serve the right He has ordained.