Political Rights Demand Respect for Private Choices

As far as I know, I’ve never met David Tucker, but I had heard his name mentioned many times over the years by mutual acquaintances, and understood him to be a serious scholar and friend of the Claremont Institute. So I was dismayed by his unexpected, unfair, and nasty attack on the Institute last month. The sanctimonious viciousness of it was not altogether surprising. Woke Tourette’s Syndrome (a variant of Trump Derangement Syndrome), which causes the victim to start shouting “racist” and “white nationalist” at former friends and colleagues, can strike anywhere and at any time.

What did surprise and puzzle me was the intellectually superficial, or rather extremely illogical, quality of Tucker’s arguments. In his reply to Masugi, he writes: “By arguing for a natural right to discriminate, by arguing that there are grounds in nature to exclude people on principle from full political association because of their gender or skin color, [Thomas] West undermines the full force of the statement that all men are created equal.” Emphasis added.

Of course, neither West nor any other Claremont Institute scholar has ever argued any such thing, and Tucker provides not a shred of evidence in support of this libel. 

Apparently, Tucker is unable to grasp the distinction between private social discrimination and official political or legal discrimination.

In the political theory of the founding, which Professor West ably explains and defends (and which I had thought even a child could understand), the government must respect the equal, natural rights of every individual. Yet each person is free within his private life to choose the neighborhood where he lives, the church he attends, his friends, his business partners, etc. All these decisions necessarily involve the individual choosing some people over others, for whatever reasons he wants—even reasons that might seem from some theoretical perspective of perfect wisdom to be irrational. 

Who, after all, makes perfectly rational decisions when choosing a friend? This liberty to make idiosyncratic choices in our personal lives is how a free society works. Tucker—whether through ignorance or dishonesty—confuses this private freedom of association with what obviously would be unjust: the government treating people differently in their political rights.

To claim, as Tucker bizarrely does, that all discrimination is unjust would mean that one cannot even consider race or gender when choosing a spouse! The logical implication would be that the state should select your husband or wife, as in Plato’s Laws. Again, I would not have thought any adult—let alone a scholar who is supposedly familiar with political philosophy—could make such a boneheaded mistake. Yet Tucker reiterates his confusion on this point several times. 

Tucker’s error is so absurd, and so obvious, I want to quote him at length, lest readers think I am misrepresenting his views. In his original essay, after calling his former friends white nationalists, he writes:

Conservative nationalism is in fact white tribalism. It is a response to black, female, and gay tribalism and is justified by a newly declared right to discriminate. But is there such a right? Yes, argued Thomas West, another Senior Fellow at the Institute, in The Political Theory of the American Founding (2017). West claimed to find a right to discriminate in one of the most fundamental principles in American politics: consent. Because humans are equal, subordination—that is, government—forms legitimately only by consent. But when forming a government we are in fact free, among all those who might be our fellow citizens, to choose the ones we prefer—to, in other words, discriminate. West concludes that “the right to discriminate is nothing more than the right to liberty itself.” (In the course of his book, West repudiates liberalism, and gratuitously repeats arguments for the intellectual inferiority of Africans and the political incapacity of women.)

Is West right? It is certainly true that without choice, there is no liberty, and that choice requires discriminating among alternatives. However, the issue is not discrimination but the grounds of discrimination. Is there a right to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender? 

On the premise of a state of nature and the requirement for consent, which West accepts, there is no such right. In identifying liberty and the right to discriminate, West repudiates [Harry] Jaffa’s argument that both derive from the fundamental principle of human equality. Equality no more gives us a right to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender than it gave Americans a right to consent to the enslavement of others. Consent to either discrimination or enslavement contradicts the equality upon which consent depends. 

 The words—and apparently the very concepts—that allow us to distinguish “public” from “private,” or “legal” from “social,” or “individual” from “the state,” do not appear anywhere in his critique. The personal choices of free men and women, and the official actions of the government, are in Tucker’s imagination one and the same. He repeats this error in his reply to Masugi. Here is the full context of the line I quoted above:

Jaffa argues that any deviation from the full force of the claim that all men are created equal is a step toward justifying slavery and thereby destroying self-government. By arguing for a natural right to discriminate, by arguing that there are grounds in nature to exclude people on principle from full political association because of their gender or skin color, West undermines the full force of the statement that all men are created equal.

 Again, it is hard to know whether this conflating of political discrimination (which is what Jaffa meant) and private discrimination (which is what West was actually defending) is, on Tucker’s part, breathtaking ignorance or shameful dishonesty.

One last point regarding Tucker’s invocation of the authority of Harry Jaffa for his attack on Claremont. Since I just published a book on our late teacher, I can assure Tucker that Jaffa would not in a million years have considered it unjust or irrational to discriminate between a man and woman when choosing a personal physician, a nanny, a football player, or a spouse.

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