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?

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