I’ve learned one thing from listening to Phillip Blond’s recent talk at Georgetown: I’m no Red Tory.
My turning point came about halfway through the lecture. Blond had thrown out a few zingers here and there, to nervous titters from the audience — You’ll hate me for saying this, but I like it when a woman doesn’t have an abortion! or whatever the line was — but I hadn’t yet grasped what he was getting at, which seemed a grab-bag of localist communitarianism, the desiderata of socialism, and a sort of arch anti-anti-anti-PC that didn’t play as well as it should have, I suspected, outside the United Kingdom. “You’re supposed to be outraged when I say this, and I know it, and just look at me saying it!” is rather dull early-90s fare, isn’t it? Hardly the stuff of a new conservative movement.
But then came this, in the course of discussing why liberalism had been so awful:
The emerging liberal argument was simply this: If we cannot agree upon the good then we must found our society not upon the good, but on an idea of rights… This is the pre-eminent, disastrous political move.
That is, the idea of rights is the pre-eminent, disastrous political move of the last four centuries, during which time all of human society apparently went to hell in a handbasket. Yes, he implicates Locke by name. The handbasket I threw in for good measure. It seems it’s been all downhill, improbably enough, since the glorious Wars of Religion.
More seriously, I think Blond makes two mistakes. First, he appears to conflate society with the state. And second, he denies that Locke was articulating a vision of the good at all. Both are serious errors.
First, let’s consider the conflation of society and the state. Lots of people do this. It’s almost forgivable, what with the state’s great intrusiveness in recent history. But it is not a correct usage. Consider: Would we say that our “society” is funded by taxes? Certainly not. Only some parts of it are — the state parts. Other parts of society may benefit from state services, and arguably we all do, but this is by no means the same thing. Likewise, we would never say that society is forbidden from establishing a Church. Only the state is forbidden from establishing a Church. Again, the two are not the same.
The state plays by special rules, both because all identifiable subsets of society play by their own special rules — and because the state constitutes an especially dangerous subset of society, the coercive apparatus. We have to be especially careful about the rules of coercion, because there are just so many ways that coercion can go bad.
It’s right, therefore, that the state has some pretty strict constraints on what it may or may not do. And it’s a major category error to look at those constraints and imagine that they are the only meaningful elements in our society. Much of the sting of Blond’s claim comes from what appears to be a subconscious slippage: Look at rights-based government. Isn’t it sad that our society is so limited? Shouldn’t our society aspire to be more and greater than this? How sterile, how impotent we are!
But society is not government, and government is not society. Of all people, one would hope that Tories should recognize this. Government is constrained because there is nothing particularly noble about what it does. It seizes property. It arrests people. It puts them in cages. It kills. Even when government claims to distribute largesse, these are its fundamental methods. We make this subset of society small and constrained not in the hope that the rest of society should also be small and constrained, but so that everything else will grow to fill the void.
Blond seems to see the constraints that characterize liberal government, and the parallel constraints on freelance coercion, as mostly devoid of normative content. He goes on to say that these are our souls, and thus our souls are empty. In other words, he’s playing a shell game.
Rights are claims against government. They are also things that I agree to give up doing, although I may find them personally appealing — like my strong impulse to hit you in the face, or my desire to get ahead in life by cheating my customers. I relinquish my plan to shut down your obnoxious press or church. I give up the intellectual hubris that says I can force you to think the same way I do. We all give up certain things equally, because anyone claiming these things makes life either unfair or unlivable. We give these things up because in their presence “society” can only be said meaningfully to exist for the strong or the clever.
Our society, as opposed to our government, is not founded on the basis of rights. But our society does accept rights as a side constraint, even as it is founded on a wide variety of values that we as individuals regard as good. Thanks to rights, we can each pursue our values to (much of) our own personal satisfaction, leaving many different visions of the good in our wake. These visions will be socially compatible even while they are individually incompatible.
This is also why liberalism has one of the strongest claims around to being a universal politics — you can have a liberal government made up of Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or anything else. You can even mix and match, provided that everyone agrees to renounce the political means when dealing with their neighbors.
That’s Locke’s vision of the good — Blond’s second mistake — and try as I might, I can’t see this as a flawed vision of the good, let alone as not being properly a vision of the good at all. It’s a vision that banishes power in favor of liberty.
It’s therefore entirely backwards for Blond to claim, as he does, that “as soon as you have a rights-based society, you have a society based on power.” On the contrary, a society that respects individual rights has agreed to renounce power whenever possible, to force power to justify itself, again and again, by something more than mere tradition or appeal to authority.
Blond is only correct, I think, when he speaks of welfare rights, or of entitlements — the right to a job, or a free house, or a government bailout, or a subsidized insurance policy. In those cases, we are indeed looking at a society based on power — on coercion, rather than on its strategic renouncement. As a conservative critique of liberalism, I agree with it. It’s also nothing terribly new, and it applies only to modern and not to classical liberalism. Making common cause with the Red Tories would mean looking the other way at all of the other stuff, which is a lot to ask.