You are here

Universal Will

Something minor can sum up a situation. An example is a recent comment by George Will (referenced by Lawrence Auster) to the effect that America is founded on John Locke, not Jesus Christ, so America is not a Christian country and it’s illegitimate to disfavor Muslim immigration.

There we have the whole of what passes for educated conservatism today: America is a “proposition nation,” with the proposition something John Locke is thought to have said. It follows that America is not a particular complex society made up of particular peoples with their own histories, beliefs, loyalties and relationships, the well-being of which would require taking such concrete realities into account and fostering what benefits them, but a legal structure set up in 1787, based on universal principles of liberty, equality and property, and dedicated to the exclusive triumph of the principles upon which it is founded.

Instead of a nation, country or civilization as traditionally conceived, America thus becomes an institutionalized ideological movement dedicated to remaking all social relations everywhere on individualistic contractual lines. Global markets and neutral rational procedures become the only public authorities allowed to exist, while historically developed cultural and religious values are reduced to purely private interests. To oppose massive third-world immigration becomes anti-American, because it tends to preserve a society dominated by people with a somewhat coherent historical identity and culture, and therefore interferes with the sole triumph of Lockean principles.

Such a view strikes me as unbelievably perverse. America is not an ideology, it’s a country that at one point adopted a form of government that could in fact be changed. The federal government was established for particular practical purposes as a limited federal union among thirteen political societies. Such a background, which excluded most public concerns from federal purview, made the contractual emphasis evident in the 1787 constitution easily comprehensible. I would expect the Universal Postal Union to have an even more strictly contractual orientation. By contrast, state constitutions, which establish governments of more general jurisdiction, call quite freely on divine sanction and providence even today.

What has happened since 1787 is that the powers and self-assumed responsibilities of the American federal government have grown, to the point that they now encompass the purification of all human relations in the name of civil and human rights, and the political salvation of mankind in the name of spreading freedom and democracy. Nonetheless, the basis on which those responsibilities are understood and exercised has remained the same: contractual and procedural neutrality. What were once procedural points characteristic of strictly limited government have therefore become substantive universal principles to be forced on all social relations everywhere. The result is something utterly senseless and inhuman. Why identify it with America and treat it as a religion?



After reading Will’s reference to Locke, I looked up Michael Oakeshott’s little essay on Locke, in which he observes that the liberalism of Locke is “dead.” Is Will’s invocation of Locke genuine?

Here’s what Oakeshott said:

“Liberalism is Puritanism made respectable, and nobody contributed more than Locke to this piece of ‘rescue-work.’ Locke’s doctrines of toleration (a limited toleration), of liberty (a reasonable liberty), of individualism (not a fanatical individualism), of the sovereignty of the people (to be exercised sometimes) and of property, are the seeds from which modern liberalism sprang. And perhaps ‘the rights of nationality’ and ‘the perfectability of the human race’ are the only ideas of importance which have since been added to liberalism. Locke believed in science, in freedom, in progress, in property and the pride of ownership, in stability, in moderation, in compromise, and he believed that truth (liberal truth) is great and will prevail; and it is because of his formulation of a view of life no less than of politics governed by these beliefs that he is counted the father of liberalism. Others, no doubt, before him had been liberals, others have done more than he in the practical application of these ideas, but no one has possessed a more comprehensive grasp of this least comprehensive of views.

“Locke was the apostle of the liberalism which is more conservative than conservatism itself, the liberalism characterised, not by insensitiveness, but by a sinister and destructive sensitiveness to the influx of the new, the liberalism which is sure of its limits, which has a horror of extremes, which lays its paralysing hand of respectability upon whatever is dangerous or revolutionary. And liberalism was for Locke as much a part of his temperament—Locke “who never said anything which could shock or injure anybody”—as a thought-out view of life and politics.
—————————————————————“Now, whether or not we should remember this side of Locke’s character and work with gratitude must, I suppose, be a matter of opinion. But it is at least remarkable that at the present time the gospel of Locke is less able to secure adherents than any other whatever. At one time it seemed that liberalism, under the stimulus of the romantic movement, might be transformed into something less boring and upholstered; but the spirit of Locke prevailed. And it appears likely that the fate now of this liberalism is to die of neglect. The moderate individualism of Locke has no attraction for those who have embraced a radical, an Epicurean individualism. Locke’s “steady love of liberty” appears worse than slavery to anyone who, like Montaigne, is “besotted with liberty.” Democracy, parliamentary government, progress, discussion, and “the plausible ethics of productivity” are notions—all of them inseparable from the Lockian liberalism—which fail now to arouse even opposition; they are not merely absurd and exploded, they are uninteresting. Not a little, indeed, of the revolt against so-called Victorianism is in fact a revolt rather against Locke and his legacy of liberalism. This liberalism may have given us our liberties (though that is doubtful), it may be a view of things which will come again, but just now it is not one which commands attention or indeed respect. I am not, of course, referring merely to liberalism in politics and liberalism as a social gospel. The liberalism of Locke has invaded other interests than these; but everywhere it is equally dead. The liberalism, for example, which made a revolution in theology respectable and determined its limits is no less dead than that which sponsored the respectability of democracy. And everywhere what has been fatal to liberalism is its boundless but capricious moderation.”

NOTE: Of course, if Oakeshott is right (and I would trust Oakeshott before Will) that Locke’s politics is an apology for puritanism, and if the United States is grounded on Locke, then the United States was founded on Jesus Christ.

I don’t know how genuine anything Will says is. He’s a media talking head and his position requires him to place himself in talking head product space. As for Locke, he may have been dead in Oakeshott’s circles, but he’s been influential in America and still has some appeal among populist American conservatives.

Dunno about the “based on Locke” => “based on Jesus Christ” theory. Islam and Marxism are also Christian heresies. Were the governments of Ayatollah Khomeini and Pol Pot also based on Jesus Christ?

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I was indulging Will’s superficiality in facetiously rebutting him.

I find most efforts to conclude, … “The United States was founded upon …” to be generally futile, unless one is prepared to take some serious time to acknowledge all the various influences that were in operation, although puritanism and its political expressions were clearly within the effective historical stream.