Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Levin Defines Conservatism

As any responsible writer will, Mr. Levin, within the first several pages of Liberty and Tyranny spends some time defining his use of the word "conservatism". Levin traces the philosophy of modern conservative to, along with the philosophers mentioned in my last post, Edmond Burke, a British statesman and thinker. Burke believed in the "interconnection of liberty, free markets, religion, tradition, and authority."

The Founding Fathers believed, and according to Levin so do modern conservatives, in God-given natural rights. That's a whole other discussion. In what sense do we have have God-given rights? But for the sake of an intact summary of Levin's definition, I'll post separately on that at a later time.

Levin continues his definition by noting a conservative's recognition of a harmony of interests. This is a phrase used by Adam Smith to refer to the "spontaneous order" I wrote of in my last post. The idea is that societal rules have gradually evolved to promote peaceful and productive co-existence. Levin includes three other terms that describe this, terms he continues to use throughout his book: ordered liberty, social contract and civil society.

Within this civil society, according to Levin, a conservative acknowledges and operates under certain assumptions.
The individual... is a unique, spiritual being with a soul and a conscience. He is free to discover his own potential and pursue his own legitimate interests, tempered, however, by a moral order that has its foundation in faith and guides his life and all human life through the prudent exercise of judgment.
An individual within a civil society, Levin continues, has a duty to respect the idea that the above mentioned rights also apply to other individuals. One may not behave in such a way as to trespass upon these rights of others.

The right to pursue the acquisition of private property is also a necessary corollary of liberty. An individual's property "represents the fruit of his own intellectual or physical labor." Usurping one's right to private property "enslaves him to another".

A civil society must also ascribe to a rule of law which is "just, known, and predictable, and applied equally albeit imperfectly." Such rule of law serves as "a check against the arbitrary use and, hence, abuse of power."

Levin summarizes his definition of modern conservatism, "the civil society has as its highest purpose its preservation and improvement."

All the above italics are Levin's.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What I Thought I Knew, but Don't

On the second page of Liberty and Tyranny, Mark Levin summarizes the primary influences that effected the ideas of the Founding Fathers. He mentions Adam Smith and spontaneous order; Charles Montesquieu and separation of powers; and John Locke and natural rights.

I am always amazed at how little I know. I consider myself a fairly well-rounded individual. I had the blessings a good solid elementary education; a good college prep high school curriculum; and two years worth of college classes in political history. When I dropped out of college I also made a pact with myself to always read and learn. So I've continued to read about political philosophy since that is a subject I really enjoy. But alas, there is always more to learn. Much more.

I always associated Adam Smith with free market capitalism and the invisible hand. But I didn't even know what spontaneous order was until I pulled up a couple of web sites. And I've even read the section on Adam Smith in The Worldly Philosophers within the last few years. I see there is a free online Cliff's notes for that book. Perhaps I should bookmark it, so that next time I pick it up I can remember what I'm supposed to get out of it.

Then we continue on to Charles Montesquieu. I have this vague familiarity associated with his name. But I really had no clue who this guy was until I looked him up. Thank goodness for Wikipedia. I know it's not a recommended research tool, but still, it gave me enough info to realize that yes, in fact, I did learn about Montesquieu at some point. Boy, this brain stuff is hard work at this point in my life. I always thought James Madison cooked up the separation of powers all on his own. I even read a young adult biography of Madison recently and don't remember a reference to Montesquieu. I'll have to go back and check on that. But then, maybe the book was not that detailed. After all, I guess the reason I read my kids' books is because I don't have the extra memory available for too much detail. Those memory bytes are filled with with the flotsom of life in a twelve person household.

Now John Locke I do remember. I even remember him from grade school. Don't ask me why. I remember having a discussion with my teacher about the difference between natural law from a Biblical definition, the law written in our hearts; and the Locke's use of the word to refer to the ethical code that can be extrapolated through reason. I didn't really get this at the time, however. Perhaps my teacher did not, either. I also associate with Locke the term social contract, which, to show off my new knowledge, is the "spontaneous order" into which society evolves when people surrender a part of their freedoms to a governing body for the purpose of promoting the common good.

But Locke's ideas of Natural here is where I start to get my hackles up. I have a hard time with the way our framers used the term rights. As a Christian, I don't really think we have any rights. We have gifts from God, privileges, blessings...but rights?

Because I am not as astute and well read on this as I'd like to be, I kind of have to trust others on this. I've argued/discussed this with many people whose opinions I respect. The closest I can come to making the word rights fit into a Biblical framework is the way my husband explained it. According to him, Locke (and further along Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence) used the term rights to refer to those things which we have through the flip side of the commandments. For instance, we get our right to life from the fifth commandment; the right to a stable marriage from the sixth; from the seventh, the right to possessions and so on.

I've read a bit more on this lately and I think the word used in ethics for this sort of flip side rights is secondary rights. Probably there is someone who can (maybe needs to?) clarify this for me. I am not sure I go for it, but I let myself function in kind of a suspended belief for the purpose of discussing these things. Pastor Jesse Jacobsen has written on this same subject on his blog, The Plucked Chicken. He's had several posts in which natural law is mentioned, but this one I linked I think goes into the most detail.

So now, after writing this post and reading a whole bunch of on-line stuff in order to write it, I feel smarter. Whether it will stick with me for the long haul or not, I don't know. But it's always fun to feel smarter for as long as it lasts, right?

New Series of Blog Posts

I have been reading Mark Levin's new book, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto. Yes, Levin is a conservative talk radio personality. Yes, he is a bit obnoxious on the air. OK, sometimes more than a bit. I know that sometimes that is enough to discourage a person from reading a certain author's writing.

But here's the thing, besides being a sometimes very obnoxious radio host, Mr. Levin is a constitutional history scholar. I read his book, Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America, several years ago. That book is a summary of the primary court cases the rulings of which have fundamentally changed our county. How can a person write on this topic and still hold the interest of the regular guys? I don't, know, but in Men in Black, he certainly held mine. So many things made sense to me that I had previously wondered about.

I am not very far into Levin's Liberty and Tyranny. But I keep having these thoughts that I want to bounce off someone. So as I have these thoughts, I will try to post them. I'd like to hear what anyone else has to say. So please read and comment as I do this series.