So I learned a lot at the political science convention and saw many postmodern conservatives. Let me begin by saying a word or two about the last panel on Sunday morning.

1. Our Jim Ceaser (a distinguished panelist) has often said that the job of “we Straussians” or, better, “we American Straussians” is to use NATURAL RIGHTS to defend NATURAL RIGHT. How best to do that? (I agree with Jim that “tradition” or being a traditionalist isn’t enough. We have to turn to nature these days to think properly about who we are and what we’re supposed to do.) (That doesn’t mean I’m either a Straussian or a “neocon.” I might be a Thomist, after all! And, to begin with, the term “neocon” is exhausted and/or discredited, and even the remaining neocons should hire a “branding consultant” to give them a new way of describing themselves.)

2. Well, my (Aristotelian) opinion is that it’s best to begin with the begin with the opinion about natural rights and natural right around in our country these days. When “we libertarians” talk about natural rights, we mean Lockean rights. That makes libertarians these days the most natural and least natural Americans. They defend their natural liberty against the artificial and coercive governmental impositions. But they’re also all for the techno-overcoming of the nature that’s indifferent to each of our existences and is out to kill and randomly torture us.

3. The opposite of the libertarian, it seems to me, is less THE STATIST than THE PORCHER, who invites us to live a more natural or totally organic way of life according to a (simpler or less intense) division of labor closer to nature. When libertarian Ronald Bailey reads Leon Kass reads on the need to reflect on the violence biotechnology might do to our natural enjoyments and natural fulfillments, he complains: “Leon Kass is out to kill me (meaning deprive me of biotechnology that might overcome nature’s intention that Bailey soon enough be replaced by another member of our species).”

4. So for our “natural rights” libertarians the natural standard is freedom, and that means freedom from nature. Nature, as the Lockean says, provides us almost worthless materials, and that’s why we gotta get sweating or real productive to invent our way out of what only seem to be natural limitations. If “natural right” means positive or purposeful direction toward a life according to nature that displays who we are at our best and most happy, there is, of course, no Lockean or libertarian natural right. For Strauss, “natural rights” are somewhere in between NATURAL RIGHT and HISTORY, pointing toward the latter more than pointing back toward the former (although undeniably there’s some pointing in both directions). (So, as far as I can tell, here’s the criticism of Lockean Michael Zuckert of Heidegger: Martin says modernity=technology and that’s bad, but Michael says modernity=technology rightly understood and that’s good. Notice how the Porchers agree with Heidegger here [partly (via George Grant) through the indirect influence of Strauss], and notice how my view is that modern=technology or “mastery” and nothing but is either a dogmatic denial or a unrealistic dissing of the Christian contribution to what’s good about being modern. Here I encourage you to read Tocqueville or our philosopher-pope or David Walsh or Ralph Hancock or even neo-Calvinists/Puritans like Marilynne Robinson or Matt Sitman.)

5. What about the “spontaneous order” or “equilibrium” people, you might ask? They’re not Lockean, and they share the Marxian/19th and 21st-century illusions about the state whithering away and people reveling unobsessively in freedom—choosing whimsically or “preferentially” from an unlimited menu of hobbies. They’re not even Randian, because they don’t celebrate the uninhibited rule of the productive over the whiners.

6. Bottom line: The order celebrated by the true Lockean is invented in response to natural scarcity and natural misery. Words are weapons to preserve and enhance the individual in a basically hostile (natural) environment. “Natural rights” means that God created us to use our hands and especially our minds to make for ourselves what He didn’t give us—a providential world.


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Articles by Peter Lawler


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