Saturday, September 13, 2008

Eggs in the Age of Enlightenment

Imagine my surprise on Thursday evening when, at the ServiceNation forum on public service, John McCain decided to talk about Locke's political theory and its impact on American law and society. It sounded kind of elitist to me, but it would have been nice if he'd at least made some sense.


Here are the two clips:

1) "I do believe we’re a unique nation, and blessed with certain in alienable rights that we want to extend to the rest of the world. But I think that we probably still have that opportunity."

(I've used a transcript from CNN, which misrendered "inalienable" as "in alienable".)

2) "We’re the only nation I know in the world that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creators with certain rights. And those we have tried to bring to the world. And we have not so much militarily, but through example, through leadership, through economic assistance."


Let's put aside until another time the psycholinguistics of what McCain was trying to do throughout his half of the forum, and focus instead on his reference to one particular concept in American legal history: the concept of "inalienable", or natural, rights. The use of the words "inalienable" and "creator" is deft, for two reasons. First, I would venture to guess that most Americans have heard the phrase to which McCain alludes, even if they don't know where it comes from. (It's in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . .") Since the phrase is so firmly entrenched in our collective gut, it's not subject to argument or dispute. Second, they invoke the idea of a mission from God.

Now, the folks who drafted and debated that passage (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Mason among them) got their inspiration from the Englishman John Locke (who didn't weave it out of whole cloth), so there was nothing uniquely American about the idea when it was put to paper in 1776. But didn't McCain miss Locke's whole point? The "natural rights" idea is that there are certain core human rights that are God-given, and not derived from government; that government essentially lacks jurisdiction to deprive people of those God-given rights ("it becomes necessary for one people . . . to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them"); that one legitimate purpose of the social contract by which people form governments is to protect the exercise of those God-given rights ("That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"); and that if the offenses to natural rights have been repeated and serious enough, then it is not only the right, but the obligation, of people to restore their rights ("But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.")

To put it bluntly, one underlying premise of the Declaration of Independence is that these "unalienable rights" are not some kind of American export. They're something that people are born with everywhere in the world, but they need to grab it for themselves when they've finally said "Enough!" McCain's mistakes were in thinking that we have a monopoly on those rights, and that it is our obligation to export them. The real concept is that everyone has always had those rights and will always have those rights, but if they want to exercise those rights then they have to take action on their own. So, while under this political theory a case can be made for dissidents to overthrow governments that interfere with the exercise of natural rights, that same theory does not support the case for intervening in places where we're not invited, nor does it support the moral case be made for refusing to lend assistance to dissidents when asked to do so (i.e., there's no justification for turning a blind eye to dissidents in China or Saudi Arabia).

Furthermore, I am confident that the people of many, many other countries (the G-7 and the EU, for example) would take issue with McCain's accusation that they're not "concerned" about equality and that the US is both unique and superior on human rights issues. McCain's statement in this regard was simply ignorant jingoism.

Lastly, despite the fact that Locke's political theory and its expression in the Declaration of Independence are nice history, we shouldn't forget that after 1776, the government rapidly retreated from the principles embodied in that document, and instead crafted (after the failure of the Confederation) a constitutional structure that permitted government erosion of so-called "natural rights"; those "natural rights" simply do not find expression in mainstream American law. For McCain to refer to the concept as though it is viable and operative is simply misleading. Perhaps he is confused by the fact that we have a memorial by the Tidal Basin where the words (partially bowdlerized) are written in bronze. I went there a couple of weeks ago and noted that you can't park your car there because of Homeland Security concerns. Perhaps they should rename it the Monument to Irony. McCain's view is revisionist and counterfactual, although (regrettably) he is not outside the mainstream in his misunderstanding of US history.

(PS -- A note on the title of this post. In the movie Swingers (1996), the characters walk into a diner where there's a sign that says something like, "Breakfast served any time." One says to the waitress, "I'll have my eggs in the Age of Enlightenment.")

Posted by Craig Albert

10 comments:

Chris said...

"To put it bluntly, one underlying premise of the Declaration of Independence is that these 'unalienable rights' are not some kind of American export. They're something that people are born with everywhere in the world, but they need to grab it for themselves when they've finally said 'Enough!'"

Cf. W: "Liberty is not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to mankind."

"McCain's mistakes were in thinking that we have a monopoly on those rights, and that it is our obligation to export them."

I agree that it's weird to suggest that rights are both inalienable and contingent. But if we're inclined to interpret McCain charitably, we could read him as saying that America is blessed with a foundational commitment to certain inalienable rights. That's contingent, even though the rights themselves exist necessarily.

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