What Are the Paleoconservatives Conserving?

Michael Anton writes:

There is less dividing Paul Gottfried and me than I would have expected, which is good. For when the orc hordes—at Sauron’s urging—come for both of us, they aren’t going to discern, much less care about, any academic differences over this or that statement from the American founding era. They are going to see us identically as enemies to be exterminated.

I also welcome this chance to reiterate some points that bear repeating. To those bored with the repetition, I can only say that what I learned in politics apparently applies to intellectual debates as well: if you want your message to break through, you can’t repeat it often enough. This exchange also gives me the opportunity to take a few more whacks at Cracker Jack Claremontism, which can’t be beaten often enough.

The Claremont-Hillsdale School does indeed hold that all human beings “have inalienable rights to life and liberty.” Gottfried continues from here that this “did not mean that for the founders ‘all men’ were equally entitled to citizenship or that all human beings were equally fit to exercise that right.” And he’s absolutely right. Only Cracker Jack Claremontism holds to that silly view. Anyone who’s actually studied the founders (and if we’ve done nothing else, we’ve certainly done that) knows that it’s false.

A Separate and Equal Station
Among the Powers of the Earth

Let’s take these two issues separately. The first is membership in the political community. We may say that, for the American founders, their government’s exclusivity as a political community internationally mirrors the principle of freedom of association at the domestic level. Just government originates in the social compact—that is, a compact in which men freely choose to form a government for their mutual protection and benefit. At the founding of such a government, agreement on membership must be unanimous, and in both directions. That is, no one who doesn’t want to be in the compact can be forced to join, but also no one whom others don’t want to take in can be allowed to join either. The social compact is invitation only.

It remains so in perpetuity for newcomers. Children born to members of the existing compact are automatically made members but may, if they later choose, renounce that membership via emigration. No one from outside the compact, however, may join it without the consent of its existing members. As Gouverneur Morris, the man who actually wrote the U.S. Constitution, put it: “every society, from a great nation down to a club, has the right of declaring the conditions on which new members shall be admitted.”

In other words, in recognizing the universal ground of individual rights, and in choosing to rest the legitimacy of their new government thereon, the founders were not saying or implying that Americans had any obligation to extend the enjoyment of such rights to the rest of mankind. Much less were they making any attempt to do so. They were simply explaining the ground of their revolution and the basis for their new government.

The Declaration of Independence is quite clear on this point. In splitting off from Britain, the American people “assume[d] among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” “Separate” means just that. We’re a nation. You can’t join our nation unless we, collectively, invite you. You may have, by nature, the same rights as we have, but our government secures only our own rights, not yours.


* This piece is very inside-baseball, addressing political-philosophical conflicts between traditional conservatives (which Gottfried (one of their prime representatives) and Anton both refer to as paleocons), and Straussians (a term Anton interestingly avoids), who historically have often associated with/been lumped in with neocons, though they’re not identical with other neocons and have in fact been getting better of late.

Straussians heavily emphasize the Lockean-liberal-inspired opening language of the D of I, especially as interpreted/magnified by Lincoln. This is the orientation of the 1776 Commission. Traditional conservatives are leery of this, seeing such language as too ideological and actually helping to drive modern liberalism. They don’t see a definitive American “Founding” occurring at a particular point in time, but a British tradition that was shaped by American experience and eventually resulted in the Constitution adopted in 1789.

The most pertinent underlying question is whether emphasizing the D of I helps or hurts conservative efforts.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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