The Enlightenment ideals of reason and individualism spawned a political revolution that resulted in constitutionally limited republican government that recognized individual rights as preceding government. In theory and largely in practice, this new concept of government swept away all manner of state omnipotence and tyranny over the individual. Henceforth, the government would serve as as protector of the sovereignty and liberty of the individual. This political philosophy reached its highest and most consistent expression in the American Declaration of Independence, the philosophical framework that led to the creation of the United States of America.
But, for the last hundred years or so, reactionary political forces of omnipotent government have been steadily rolling back the Enlightenment from American society, largely in and through the field of economics. This roll-back, by and large, is not being accomplished by openly repudiating the Enlightenment. That wouldn’t fly in America, yet. So how does one roll out a statist economic agenda without openly repudiating the Enlightenment that stands in the way? One way is to simply wrap the statist/socialist/collectivist agenda in the veneer of the Enlightenment.
“If you can’t beat the Enlightenment openly, pretend to join it.”
In a piece titled The Enlightenment Keeps On Winning, James A. Haught, editor emeritus of West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, employs a variation of this tactic.
Money laundering is defined as “The process of taking the proceeds of criminal activity and making them appear legal.” In a kind of idea laundering, Haught smuggles in modern “liberal” or “progressive” statism among a list of genuine accomplishments of Enlightenment-spawned classical liberalism, thus taking the proceeds of anti-Enlightenment political policies and making them appear enlightened. How does Haught accomplish this idea laundering?
Here are excerpts from Haught’s opening paragraphs:
If you study history, you’ll see episodes that changed civilization.
Around three centuries ago, major thinkers began advocating democracy, human rights and personal freedoms. Their period became known as the Enlightenment. It launched the long-running liberals-versus-conservatives conflict still driving much of today’s politics.
Note the absence of the term individual rights. Note the prominence of the term democracy.
Haught cites Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire and America’s Founding Fathers, whom he termed “brilliant radicals,” as leading thinkers of the Enlightenment.
I remember a kind of exercise teachers would present to young children, designed to sharpen the children’s powers of perception, that features an exercise to single out one item that doesn't belong in the picture. For example, the teacher may show a picture featuring a cow, a horse, a zebra, a deer, and a house, and ask, Which of these doesn’t belong in the picture? What if someone asked, which name doesn’t belong on Haught’s list of Enlightenment thinkers?
The first question that jumps out at me is, what is Hobbes doing among these Enlightenment luminaries? I must state at this point that I am not a philosophy expert or historian. That said, I do not consider Hobbes to be an Enlightenment thinker, if by Enlightenment we mean the political ideals of individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government (though he may be considered among Enlightenment thinkers in other respects).
Hobbes believed men are incapable of governing their own lives and, if left free, society would devolve into perpetual violent conflict. Thus, the people, or subjects, must agree—for the sake of peace and civility—to give up their right to govern themselves, and assign to the state the absolute power to act for them. Hobbes advocated a totalitarian state ruled by an “absolute sovereign” chosen by a vote of the people. Once chosen, the sovereign’s powers are irrevocable. (Somehow, Hobbes believed that people incapable of governing themselves are somehow capable of picking a ruler to run their lives. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’re surrounded by modern liberals touting essentially the same thing.) Hobbes called his state Leviathan.
Locke rejected this Hobbesian view of human nature. He believed that as long as they are protected from the occasional predators who exist among them, most people are capable, by virtue of the individual’s unique power of reason, of managing their own affairs and living peacefully among each other. So he advocated the opposite of Hobbes; a social order of individual sovereignty based on individual rights, in which the state’s only function is to protect men’s rights to govern their own lives. He also did not favor democracy understood as absolute majority rule. He believed that the vote was important but limited, being only a means of choosing the elected officials whose job it is to carry out government’s function of protecting the people’s right to govern their own lives, not to choose the omnipotent rulers to run their lives. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, referred to these rights-protecting powers as “just powers.”
Hobbes and Locke both agreed that human society needs a government. But their view of government’s responsibility couldn’t be more opposite. We’ll see Haught’s reason for Hobbes’s inclusion shortly as we continue with his article. Keep in mind, as we read on, Haught’s previous reference to the three centuries-long “liberals-versus-conservatives conflict still driving much of today’s politics”:
The Enlightenment not only produced modern democracy, it also laid the foundation of liberal political values still winning victories today. For three centuries, by fits and starts, Western progress has been mostly a chronicle of progressives defeating conservative resistance. Reformers repeatedly toppled old privileges, hierarchies and establishments. Look at the historical record:
- Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.
- They tried to block voting by women, but they lost.
- The tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but they lost.
- The tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters, but they lost.
- They tried to outlaw labor unions, but they lost.
- They tried to prevent unemployment compensation for the jobless, but they lost.
- They tried to keep stores closed on the Sabbath, but they lost.
- They banned alcohol during Prohibition, but they eventually lost.
- They tried to sustain racial segregation, but they lost.
- They supported government-mandated prayer in school, but they lost.
- They tried to continue throwing gays in prison, but they lost.
- They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but they lost.
- They tried to halt the sexual revolution, but they lost.
- They opposed food stamps for the poor, but they lost.
- They fought against equal human rights laws, but they lost.
- They tried to censor sexy magazines, books and movies, but they lost.
- They sought to jail girls and doctors who end pregnancies, but they lost.
- They tried to block liquor clubs and lotteries, but they lost.
- They tried to prevent expansion of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but they lost.
- They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but they lost.
On and on, through recurring cultural battles, progressive principles that began in the Enlightenment have prevailed. For three centuries, liberals generally have won, conservatives lost.
What will be the next front in the culture war? Legal marijuana? Pistol registration? Free college? Whatever comes, it’s probably safe to predict the eventual winner.
Notice that Haught fails to distinguish between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Almost to the extent of Hobbes vs. Locke, the two kinds of liberals are worlds apart regarding the role of the state. Modern liberals, or self-described “progressives,” tend to believe, like Hobbes, that the state must regulate our lives to virtually any extent it deems necessary, for our own good. The state, therefore, must possess whatever powers are necessary for it to carry out its open-ended leviathan-esque mission. Classical liberals were aligned with Locke. One might call this equivocation liberal laundering.
Keep in mind that “liberal” derives from liberty. What is liberty?
The Enlightenment represents the embodiment of reason and its political corollaries, individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government. Rights are guarantees to freedom of action in a social context, not an automatic claim to material goods that others must be forced to provide, or a license to force others to deal with you. As Locke and the Founding Fathers understood, rights supercede democracy, or the will of the majority. Enlightenment’s intellectual leaders were not primarily democrats. They were primarily republicans, because they understood that democracy unconstrained by constitutional protections of individual rights is just another form of tyranny. As Locke, the discoverer of individual rights, understood, the consent of the governed does not extend to an electoral majority granting to the government the power to violate individual rights, which are inalienable. A rights-protecting government is an instrument of liberation. True liberals support these values and would never advocate socialist or regulatory welfare state programs, which violate the rights of individuals to act on their own reasoned judgement. Rights protect liberty. Liberty means freedom from coercive interference from other humans beings, including human beings in their capacity as government officials. Liberals protect liberty.
Modern so-called “liberals” are not liberals at all in economic matters. Quite the opposite. They are anti-liberals. In an ever-expanding circle encompassing more and more of the economic sphere, modern liberals are abandoning Enlightenment principles of limited government and personal freedoms and regressing toward Leviathan.
How does one reconcile Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, the Food Stamp program, and other forced redistributionist programs with liberal Enlightenment principles? One can’t. These are not classical liberal programs, but regressions to the pre-Enlightenment statism that held the individual as the subject of the rulers. Where is the protection for the individual’s right to use his money and property as he sees fit? Where is the Enlightenment justification for forced wealth redistribution? That these programs are instituted by elected government officials? But the Enlightenment holds that voters have no more right to authorize these programs than they have to pick up a gun and rob their neighbors directly.
On unions, where is the liberalism in government-backed unionism; i.e, legally forcing companies to deal with unions against their will, or workers being forced into unions against their will? It’s not about outlawing unions. It’s about the Enlightenment principle of freedom of association. Willing workers have a right to form a union and make offers to employers. And employers have a right to decide for themselves whether to contract—i.e., associate—with the union. An enlightened government neither outlaws unions nor outlaws companies’ rights not to recognize the union. No one ever advocated outlawing voluntary unions. “They tried to outlaw labor unions” is a euphemism for “they fought against government-enforced labor unions.”
Haught correctly observes that the Enlightenment embodies the principle that rights’ purpose is to “protect each person from government and the tyranny of the majority”—and then proceeds to list government programs that contradict that principle! This contradiction is consistent with his Hobbes-Locke equivocation—and with the schizophrenic nature of today’s liberal-conservative divide.
Modern liberals are much closer to Enlightenment liberty on some social issues; e.g., gay marriage, abortion, birth control, and prayer in public school (church-state separation). Conservatives are kind of the mirror image of modern liberals. Modern liberals are primarily economic authoritarians. Conservatives are primarily social authoritarians.
From a liberty standpoint, Haught’s list makes no sense, combining as it does both victories and defeats for Enlightenment liberty. Haught’s list seems plausible, however, if you fail to distinguish between Hobbes and Locke, and between classical and modern liberals. Haught’s double equivocation is designed to smuggle in the statist economic agenda of today’s Left under cover real victories for Enlightenment liberty. Abolish slavery or recognize gay marriage? That’s Lockean Enlightenment. Institute Social Security or “free” college? That’s Hobbesian “Enlightenment,” even though the first advances individual rights and the second shreds rights. Everything modern liberals choose to do, in Haught’s fraudulent Enlightenment worldview, is a victory for Enlightenment. Any resistance to modern progressivism is reactionary conservatism. Either way, the modern Left wins. Haught both eats and has his cake. Anything in the modern liberals’ agenda, no matter how reactionary, gets laundered into a victory for the Enlightenment!
Don’t be fooled by it. Having mashed together Hobbes/modern liberalism and Locke/classical liberalism, it becomes clear why Haught snuck the unabashed authoritarian Hobbes into the Enlightenment framework:
While modern liberals can be applauded and supported in areas where they genuinely advance individual rights, such as regarding the decriminalization of abortion and defending church-state separation, it’s important to keep this in mind: Social liberty is less of a positive force for liberty than economic authoritarianism is a danger to liberty. The modern liberals’ pro-Enlightenment social strain won’t save America from tyranny. Why? Because political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom. Economics is the field of production and trade—the lifeblood of human survival. Once the government has a stranglehold on the individual’s means of supporting his life, all other freedoms become hollow.
The list of “Enlightenment wins” conflates genuine Enlightenment principles—i.e., liberty—with anti-Enlightenment reaction—i.e., a return to government as master and oppressor. How does one reconcile first restoring liberty to slaves to run their own lives, with advocating the seizure of his money to finance other people’s retirements, healthcare, education, or unemployment compensation? Replacing one form of involuntary servitude with another does not belong on a list of Enlightenment progress.
Here’s how I would amend the list:
- The abolition of slavery
- Women’s suffrage
- Freedom to use birth control
- Freedom of association, including the right to form unions
- Ending “blue” laws
- Legalization of alcoholic beverages
- Repeal of Jim Crow, Separate but Equal, and other government-enforced segregation
- Banning prayer in government schools
- Abolition of sodomy and other anti-gay laws
- Establishing equal protection of individual rights, properly defined, under the law
- Legalization of pornagraphic free speech
- Legalization of abortion
- Legalization of liquor clubs and lotteries
- Marriage equality
- Other genuine individual rights along with laws to protect them.
- Establishment of Social Security
- Establishment of “public” K-12 government schooling
- Government-enforced unionism (e.g. the Wagner Act, collective bargaining “rights”)
- Government-enforced unemployment compensation
- Establishment of Medicare and Medicaid
- Establishment of the Food Stamp and myriad other forced redistributionist “social safety net” programs
- The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare)
- Other “progressive/liberal” economic authoritarian initiatives like government-backed student college loans and grants, mandatory paid sick leave, minimum wage laws, et al.
- Establishment of the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies is another major enlightenment retreat.
Don’t be fooled by the author’s co-mingled listing of pro- and anti-Enlightenment pronouncements. The Enlightenment promise of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, justice, property, and the pursuit of happiness for the individual is facing a terrible reversal at the hands of collectivism, statism, and socialism. The reversal signals the withering of a Lockean America based on respect for individual rights and peaceful coexistence through voluntary trade, and the rise of a Hobbesian America based on collectivistic state domination over the individual.
Responsibility Depends on Individual Rights