John Locke, Closet NeverTrumper?

The fissures that led to the crackup of modern conservatism run deep. The most visible sign of this reality was the election of Donald Trump, which pitted certain elite conservatives against the majority of conservatives who make up the Republican base. Elite NeverTrump conservatives, who argue to this day about the president’s supposed unfitness for office, have made common cause with progressives to undo the results of the 2016 election. These Salon conservatives are united in their hatred of Trump and his voters and seem to agree with the progressive consensus of globalism, identity politics, and corporatism.

A majority of Americans who identify as conservative instead voted with independents and Democrats for Trump, seeing his agenda of restricting immigration, crafting fair trade deals, and championing an interest-based foreign policy as a vital corrective to the manifest failures of both parties over the past few decades. For this group, neither party has accumulated a record that reflects their priorities. Democrats have successfully forwarded their agenda of fundamental transformation in all areas of public life while Republicans watched impotently and even sometimes helped to advance the Democrats’ radical program.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Yoram Hazony contends these problems on the political Right are symptoms of deeper troubles. Trump’s election was the result of a centuries-long battle between classical liberals, whom Hazony sees as forebears of the NeverTrump cause, and Anglo-American conservatives, who are more Trumpian in their outlook.

Liberalism’s Crisis
Classical liberalism in Hazony’s understanding derives “from Hobbes and Locke,” whose “aim was to deduce universally valid political principles from self-evident axioms, as in mathematics.” In the 20th century, this “rationalist” view of politics supplied the foundation for Austrian economics practiced by Ludwig von Mises and the Friedrich Hayek. They argued for the spread of “individual liberty and economic freedom” not only in the United States but the world over. As Mises claimed in his 1927 magnum opus 
Liberalism, “Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.” This thinking in Hazony’s view eventually led post-Cold War neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol to argue for a foreign policy based on exporting the principles of classical liberalism abroad.

By contrast, Anglo-American conservatism—according to Hazony—comes to us from Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, and other lesser-known figures. This “tradition is empiricist and regards successful political arrangements as developing through an unceasing process of trial and error,” Hazony explains. Anglo-American conservatives are “deeply skeptical of claims about universal political truths” and understand “the importance of traditional Protestant institutions such as the independent national state, biblical religion, and the family.”

As Hazony argues, from Iraq to the 2008 financial crisis to the “disintegration of the family,” deep concerns have emerged over the future viability of classical liberalism. Trump and a resurgence of nationalism around the globe represent “if not a conservative revival” then at least a potential return to a conservatism based on “experience” rather than “17th-century rationalist dogma.”

Misreading Locke
Hazony’s argument about the split on American Right is plausible enough. But his attempt to read history through our present time
obscures more than it clarifies.

For one, he misreads Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Far from being a progenitor of modern liberalism (and therefore NeverTrumpism), Locke should be a guide for anyone who wants to Make America Great Again. After all, which political philosopher did the American Founders cite most? Locke. Who was the source of many of their key insights? Locke.  Natural rights, government by the consent, and the role of government in securing the equal rights of all citizens? That’s Locke all the way.

Certain conservatives and progressives sometimes accuse Locke of dismissing the need for duty; that he’s concerned almost entirely with self-interest. In fact, his writings are replete with teachings about the duties we have to our fellow man, our families, and ultimately to God. In fact, Locke’s argument is built upon a law of nature that indicates, through the use of reason, what duties we have to ourselves and to others.

Reason is Not Enough
A concern for morality also animates Locke’s conception of freedom.
“Freedom then is not . . . a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws,” he writes in the Second Treatise on Government. Locke’s views, then, are diametrically opposed to the notions of radical autonomy and third-wave feminist sexual ethics that are in vogue today.

Hazony argues Locke “asserts that universal reason teaches the same political truths to all human beings.” But he overlooks the crucial caveat that Locke recognizes: while such truths are accessible to anyone capable of reason, not all men have an equal capacity to use their reason. Locke would have thought it preposterous to think that the use of human reason would be widespread throughout a single civil society, much less worldwide. This is why he argued that religion, civil society, and a public sentiment that supports reason are all crucial to the perpetuation of human life. Vague hopes that the proliferation of human reason alone is enough to maintain civil society are folly—and something Locke clearly rejected.

Curiously, Hazony also faults Locke for his supposed neglect of “the family.” But Locke devotes his First Treatise and Some Thoughts Concerning Education to the vital differences between paternal and political power and the importance of childrearing and having a stable marriage between one man and one woman. The family, Locke says, is important from a political standpoint because it is the only way civil society can be preserved for future generations.

Parents are bound “under an obligation to preserve, nourish, and educate” their offspring. Locke rails against “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” and thinks that “easy and frequent [dis]olutions” of marriage would “mightily disturb” the very foundations of civil society. Today, Locke would be considered a radical social conservative and be targeted by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hatemonger.

Misunderstanding the Founding, Broadbrushing Liberalism
Though Hazony does not directly discuss the American Founding, by implication he would have to view it as partially suspect at best since much of the founders’
political theory comes from Locke. What would he make of the founders’ reliance on the laws of nature and of nature’s God and the self-evident truths—the “universal political truths” he argues have helped bring disaster upon our nation—on which they justified American independence? And how would he understand Lincoln’s statesmanship, which was based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and its central idea of natural human equality?

While founded upon universal truths, the United States is also very clearly a distinct nation with a distinct people. This is not an either/or proposition as Hazony’s argument seems to suggest.

It’s hard to argue, as Hazony does, that the term “liberalism” covers everyone from Locke and the American Founders to modern presidents such as Barack Obama. Locke and the founders thought government’s purpose was to protect natural rights. Obama thinks government should lift up the least among us based on race, class, and gender and hurt those thought to have gotten ahead at their expense. Consequently, government has the duty to ensure every person has an equal start in the race of life.

But what if modern liberalism is a phenomenon distinct from the political theory of Locke and the American founders? As Thomas G. West has argued plausibly, the “post-1900 transformation in the American understanding of justice is better explained by the rejection of the founding principles.”

Americans interested in advancing the American experiment shouldn’t have to be of two minds about our nation, even looking to re-found it on another set of principles. The attack of progressive elites on Western Civilization is as much an attack Locke, the American Founding, and our very way of life. All available resources that have supplied vitality to the West should be marshaled against the progressives’ determination to transform us into their warped and stunted image.

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9 responses to “John Locke, Closet NeverTrumper?”

  1. I am far more convinced of the veracity of the WSJ opinion piece that this essay is responding too. The Thomas West / West Coast Straussian argument for John Locke as a principled conservative seems to fly in the face of his clear embrace of the social contract theory and of the general rationality of human nature. Both of these ideas should be anathema to any conservative.

    Perhaps it is true that he believed that the family is important for the well being of a society. His definition of family, however, undermines the classical and Christian idea. The Lockean family is merely an artificial, consent-based creation; not a natural unit, and certainly not the starting point of legitimate government as most Christians theretofore had argued. Locke ultimately opened the floodgates for the current persuasion of absolute individual autonomy in all matters be they political, religious, or familial.

    • The Founders were classical liberals in the Lockean tradition, albeit not exclusively or dogmatically so. The Declaration of Independence could have come almost directly from parts of the Second Treatise on Government. They did accept Montesquieu’s views on laws. They did not accept Edmund Burke’s ideas and while skeptical of reason divorced from reality, and recognizing the value of morals, were radicals in a way that modern conservatism is not.

      Human rationality is a fact; automatic exercise of that faculty is not. The Christian concept of the family, marriage and sexual mores would have been instantly recognizable to a Roman of the Republic, or to Jews of any period, and in no way require a religious foundation to be seen for what they are. As to Alexander Hamilton, he was the odd man out of the Founders in many respects. I would suggest that our current political mess reflects his views far better than those of his more Lockean counterparts.

      I would suggest that conservatism’s fundamental problem is that its efforts to blend a religious and individualist world view is inherently unworkable, and its recognition that people do not reason infallibly (a fact) is not an indictment of reason nor a reason for embracing a religion, pre-modern world view. That said, Locke based his views on natural law and was not an atheist.

      • The ideas that you expressed are interesting, though I cannot say that I am convinced.

        It has never been in doubt that most of the Founders were influenced by John Locke, and it is true that the Second Treatise casts a long shadow over the Declaration of Independence. The merit of this, however, is certainly dubious. How can a constitutional republic survive when all the authorities that make life livable, such as the family, the church, and the local community, are thrown into question? Locke’s liberal regime would hold that man’s natural condition is as an individual and that we can legitimately re-found any authority existing above our head if it does not further the individual good.

        Additionally, Locke falters because of his epistemology. His view of man as a “tabula rosa” or a blank slate, malleable and subject to change based off of our experience, throws out the reality of original sin and leads to the kinds of theories espoused by men such as Rousseau, Hegel, and even Marx. Not to mention, his empiricism is completely incompatible with the idea of natural rights stemming from a transcendent Creator existing anywhere and always, apart from history.

        The great accomplishment of the American Founding was that Locke’s radical liberalism was tempered by the more deliberated and conservative founders such as Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. Though they did not reject the ideas of government by consent, natural rights, et al (ideas, by the way, established before Locke in the Protestant world by men such as Samuel Rutherford), they created a Constitution which balanced power and worked to stifle the results of human sin–not ignore it in the Lockean way.

  2. I can’t think of a more circular, jargon-filled, and useless piece than this one. It wouldn’t pass muster at any decent college (of the handful that exist). The boys at American Greatness really need some good editors. Sheesh.

  3. As a graduate of Hillsdale College, Mr. Sabo undoubtedly knows that “classical liberalism” is quite different from “liberalism” as the term is used in modern America. Though they share a few common premises derived from the Enlightenment, they are in other respects almost completely opposed to each other.

    However, Mr. Sabo’s phrases such as “Far from being a progenitor of modern liberalism (and therefore NeverTrumpism), Locke …” risk obscuring that vital distinction.

    Classical liberalism emphasizes liberty and the rule of law, regardless of their results. Contemporary American liberalism emphasizes equality of results, regardless of liberty, of the rule of law, and even of reality itself.

  4. Sabo does justice to Locke’s social thought. He doesn’t realize that Hazony is also wrong on Locke’s epistemology. Locke isn’t in the rationalist school of thought that saw all knowledge as deductive from innate knowledge. Locke is often called the founding father of British Empiricism who eschews innate ideas and acknowledges that different cultures exist with different philosophies. When Jefferson asked about the origin of the ideas in the Declaration he noted they are part of the liberal tradition of “Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sydney.” American founders were Whigs, not conservatives.