Making failed presidential candidate and radical NeverTrumper Evan McMullin look like the smart guy in the room is quite a trick. But commentators on one of McMullin’s recent tweets have done just that.
Defending his pal Jennifer Rubin, McMullin offered his definition of conservatism:
For me, “conservatism” has always meant the defense of our founding principles: liberty and equality. While those now aligned with contrary ideas may ultimately succeed in claiming the word for themselves, those principles remain right and I will ever associate myself with them.
— Evan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) December 19, 2017
There is a lot to criticize here—a general imprecision in language and the promotion of principles unconnected to present realities are all fair game. But in their zeal to reject McMullin’s epic levels of pomposity and ignorance, some of his critics have gone too far.
The conservative site Twitchy pounced on McMullin’s tweet, arguing that he has mistaken America’s Founding principles with those of Revolutionary France. How so? Because McMullin mentions “equality” and “liberty,” which are supposedly alien to the American political tradition.
Here are some of the critiques:
Equality was never a founding principle. https://t.co/rL9YvYDFJ4
— Mr X the Ever-Living (@GlomarNeverDies) December 19, 2017
Those are the French founding principles, genius. https://t.co/lmSs6N1V4J
— (((≠))) (@ThomasHCrown) December 20, 2017
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” after all was the motto of Robespierre and the Jacobin revolutionaries, right?
In fact, this is a complete misreading of the American Founding. Equality and liberty and the relationship between those two principles are central to understanding America—before, during, and after the American Revolution. Rejecting these principles because some people have misunderstood or misapplied them is exactly the wrong thing to do. Why cede such noble ideas to the likes of Evan McMullin?
Just take a look at the Declaration of Independence, whose first “self-evident” truth is that “all men are created equal.” In fact, eight state constitutions at the time of the founding featured similar language on equality. It is impossible to make sense of our revolution without grappling with the importance of this idea.
The Founders understood that whatever our particular differences may be—race, talents, religion, intellectual potential—all human beings, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings, are equal in that sense of being like creatures. It is unequal to the dignity of adult human beings that they should be ruled without their consent, so their equality demands government by consent.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter shortly before he died: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” The divine right of kings and rule by an unaccountable administrative state are both affronts to our natural equality.
Reconciling Equality and Liberty
Once we understand equality in this light, we cannot escape the importance of liberty in the philosophical and moral architecture of the American Founding. After all, the central “unalienable” natural right listed in the Declaration is “liberty.”
The Founders’ conception of liberty, as Thomas G. West has argued, was bound “within the moral limits of the law of nature”—a law that man cannot transgress without penalties that will be meted out by his Creator in the next world.
Modern sexual ethics based on a radically autonomous view of human action and the idea that we have the “freedom” to do whatever we wish as long we don’t harm anyone else—the “no harm” principle that is a cornerstone of libertarianism—are equally rejections of the Founders’ teachings. The difference between liberty and license is a difference in kind, not in degree.
Compare this to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. While the French Declaration also deals in universal principles, in contrast to the American Declaration of Independence, those principles are largely unconnected to man as he actually lives. They are not drawn from observations about the nature of things as they are.
The French Declaration casts aside prudence (asserting that “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments”), seeks to obliterate all of the people’s traditions, bases the authority of law on “general will” rather than seeking to draw out the enlightened consent of the governed, and rejects liberty rightly understood (“every citizen summoned or apprehended in pursuance of the law must obey immediately; he renders himself culpable by resistance”).
It’s no wonder that the American Founders were generally skeptical of the French Revolution. Even Jefferson began to have doubts as the guillotines continued to fall without any sign of stopping.
Abandoning—and Recovering—First Principles
However much traditionalists, paleoconservatives, Southern Agrarians, and other types of conservatives continue to argue that appeals to natural rights are the great evil to be avoided, these principles are not the problem. They do not account for the rise of our current crisis of liberalism or for the wrong turns our nation has taken.
Instead, our problems arise from a failure to defend equality and liberty as our Founders understood them. Our problem is that we have permitted the invoking of incoherent notions of rights that make no room for prudence. In this general thoughtlessness, we come dangerously close to demanding principles that resemble those of the French Revolution.
Human beings cannot function barring appeals to universals. Think of the miracle of the common noun, for instance. What does it mean to say one is sitting in a “chair” if there is no such thing in the abstract as “chairness”? We only understand each other because of observed reality and the necessity for a universal concept of chairs upon which humans can sit. Chairs may come in many shapes and sizes and varieties of luxury, but in their essential nature, they all share the purpose for which they were created.
The Evan McMullins of the world are not wrong on the face of it in their appeals to liberty and equality. They are wrong about what those principles are and what they mean for us today.
Supposing that a caricatured version of the 1980 Republican Party platform filtered through John Rawls’ teachings is the embodiment of these central American principles is an embarrassing failure to grapple seriously with American ideas. To toss a favorite phrase of theirs back at them, “It’s not who we are.” It has never been.
To defend the principles of the American Founding, we must first know what they are and then connect them to policies that speak to the circumstances we are facing today. Evan McMullin decidedly does not. Sadly, neither do many of his critics. We have to be better than both.
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