In what follows, I do not think I am taking issue with Locke’s own understanding, merely with his public teaching, a teaching that today appears incapable of accomplishing what it accomplished in former times. Also, while it is a reply to Tom West, it is not an open letter to him, but an essay meant for the blog.
Why I Criticize the West Coast
I think West agrees that Locke’s teaching, much less the founders’ view of natural rights, isn’t understood any longer. In his seminar at Georgetown Law, he even points out how little understanding there is of the natural rights theory of the founders amongst our political class.
I have watched colleagues try many times to get students to understand the Lockean and Jeffersonian meaning of equality, and to see that Jefferson was not inconsistent. I try to do this myself. What has happened again and again is a class of students goes away thinking they are patriotic for loving the founders, but who merely think the founders were the precursor to Lincoln who was the precursor to MLK. I swear, if I hear MLK mentioned as a relative equal of “Jefferson and Aristotle” one more time I am going to lose it… At the most, the students are inoculated against some of the crazier varieties of leftism. But who cares if they like the “founders,” if the “founders” they love are more left-wing than Eisenhower? They do not understand freedom of association (the right to exclude) unless you are very frank about what that means. Really, you have to be offensive or they will not follow the argument through.
They will not accept that Jefferson believed blacks were inferior to whites and should be excluded from republican society. The students I have talked to only ever really accept … they think “well, yes, the founders were consistent—but they were morally wrong to hold onto their slaves nonetheless.” Not one in ten of a West Coaster’s best students will admit that it was morally justifiable for Southerners to hold onto their slaves in lieu of being unable to repatriate them. Lincoln beats Jefferson every time, unless they simply refuse to acknowledge who Jefferson was. In other words, these lovers of the “founders” do not have that self-assertion that made the founders who they were, and do not even admit self-assertion is a virtue in the most basic concrete terms. Exclusion is inequality. Treating “the other” unequally is racist and Hitlerish. A good West Coaster will teach the students that the founders were anti-slavery, but the students will come out thinking the founders were anti-racist, and hell, even anti-sexist to boot.
In other words, the doctrine of rights and consent cannot accomplish today what it was intended to accomplish, but that does not mean the purpose of Lockean liberalism was ignoble.
The Inconsistency in Locke’s Public Presentation of Natural Rights
(aka, Tom West Accepts the Amalgam Thesis)
What I was pointing out in my post on West’s book were inconsistencies in the public teaching of liberalism—inconsistencies that West himself points out! In brief: rights are practically worthless if they do not command some respect, but under the stress of necessity no sane or reasonable man would blame another for violating the rights of a stranger—as Jefferson points out in his letter to Colvin where he talks about the ships meeting at sea, or in his letter to Holmes where he points out the plight of the Southerners.
Now, if our natural rights represent an ideal, a goal, then that’s another thing entirely—men in desperate situations at sea, or men finding themselves amidst a sea of slaves and willing agitators, can take their bearings by the theory of natural rights, namely, they can see how they should like to live if they ever escape the present necessities. They should like to live in a commonwealth where everyone is good enough, reasonable enough, independent enough not to need to violate the life, liberty, or property, not only of their fellow citizens (although this would be their first goal, and usually the principal means of escaping necessity) but of anyone whosoever. So … the goal is being able to respect the rights of your fellow citizens and avoiding the need to exploit people outside of your society.
But if this is the goal… then why is it also taught by Locke as the baseline? That is, why does he teach that men who violate the rights of others are morally bad men, when that is not the case. Only men who violate the rights of others under very strict and, frankly, fortuitous conditions, are men who “fall beneath the law.” The “quarrelsome and contentious” are the bad men, not the men who violate the rights of others—but Locke is much louder about violating the rights of others than he is in discussing the vices of the quarrelsome and contentious, or the virtues of their apparent opposite, the rational and industrious. I know if you read Locke esoterically, taking into account, for example, his use of the phrase “enough, and as good left” in the fifth chapter of the Second Treatise, you can see he permits the self-assertion of a man who has no recourse but the exploitation of others if he is going to be a freeman. Yes, he permits it esoterically. But exoterically that is not the case. And it is the same game in A Letter Concerning Toleration: you are a bad man if you use the law against a religion, but only when all the religions are Lockean, that is, when all the religions are willing to teach reasonable teachings and promote the general welfare of the commonwealth rather than narrow sectarian interests. Instead of elaborating on the lineaments of the true, aka, Lockean religion, he emphasizes again and again that the bad religions use the law against their enemies. At the very least, the baseline has been the great takeaway, the “lesson learned” by readers of all backgrounds except, in some cases, the West Coast Straussian.
It is this baseline teaching that, today, produces the undesirable effect in the students, of turning them away from the virtue of self-assertion and towards the moraline drug of egalitarian anti-racism, of accelerated abolitionism, whereby they willingly permit themselves and their fellow citizens to be robbed of their property, their liberty, and yes, their lives, for fear of failing to show obeisance to the “other.” I mean for goodness’ sake, decent citizens actually get themselves murdered because their sense of shame does not permit them to take precautions for themselves or their children. While this is of course rare, it does happen, and in any event, the lesser evils abound. White parents willingly accept the legal and social subordination of their children in education and the job market every single day. “Well Jimmy might’ve achieved more, but goodness, I simply cannot judge that black kid, whose life has been so hard because of racism. He deserves a chance to develop as well. Jimmy will be fine. He is white after all.” Someone immediately call social services on this woman!
And if anyone calls me paranoid or insecure for pointing this out… I don’t care. That is what is always said. Yes, that is the status of self-assertion in today’s America: it is almost always interpreted as neediness or petulance, while ingratitude and insolence pass for “courage” and “justice.” So I will be accused, god forbid I get doxed—but what else am I to do?
The Lockean baseline—do not violate the rights of others or you are a bad person!—has this anti-racist effect unintentionally. Locke was taking aim at different evils.
Whereas in our time, we face “the appalling problem, when one comes to actual cases, of getting men to distinguish between better and worse.” Locke faced a corrupted ruling class suffering under a different moral delusion: “That subjects or foreigners, attempting by force on the properties of any people, may be resisted with force, is agreed on all hands. But magistrates, doing the same thing, may be resisted, hath of late been denied” (sec 231).
A careful reading of the Second Treatise shows that natural rights serve the purpose of assertive but rational self-interest, in much the same way Hobbes taught a more Royal Self-Interest (I think it is time to bring back Hobbes and the Cavalier Poets!).
Let me try to throw what I mean into bold relief: for Locke, the teaching of natural rights, the natural equality and freedom of all men in the state of nature, and the necessity of consent are various ways of approximating the rule of wisdom in a time of mass society. In West’s book, the section he mentions in his comment to my post, he quotes Jaffa saying that consent “as mere acquiescence of the will” is not enough, and that “prudence” is essential to success as opposed to the merely doctrinaire view that if you get the doctrine of rights correct—if all your citizens are orthodox ideologues—you get the whole of government correct (PTAF 52). In that same section, West downplays the role political theory (the “form”) can play, to emphasize the importance that “matter”—geography, ancestry, manners and customs (mores)—plays. It is at this point, and only at this point, where West will admit the “amalgam” thesis has any traction: “to the extent [that you need the “matter”] the amalgam thesis is correct.”
This weakness—and I think West agrees that admitting the amalgam thesis is a weakness, though I am guessing here—is a necessity for natural rights theory because of the Lockean tendency to promote the “baseline” I discussed earlier, rather than the Jaffa-West refashioning of it, that is, Jaffa & West more openly teach the elitist side of the theory whereas Locke eschewed it on account of the practical difficulties England faced in 17th century. Our founders mostly followed Locke, in their combat against certain religious superstitions and, obviously, in their Revolution against the Crown. But it is perfectly possible to have a theory of Natural Right without an amalgam, if you are willing to do the admittedly dangerous and often imprudent thing of openly saying “the absolute rule of wisdom” is the best form of government, as Locke knew full well. Then your theory can take into account the excellencies of men, however varied those may be, and provide a very full description of the “cycle of regimes,” over which the enlightenment philosophers are relatively quiet as compared to the ancient.
In sum: Locke esoterically teaches the rule of wisdom, but promotes a baseline teaching about consent and the rights of life, liberty, and property. In this public teaching, consent approximates wisdom by going some way to ensuring the rulers have the best interests of the commonwealth in mind, and the natural rights approximate wisdom, by going some way to ensuring that moral vanities do not cloud men’s thinking about politics. But this public teaching—the baseline teaching whereby it is morally wrong to violate the rights of others, rather than “not ideal”—suffers from the need for an amalgam, a need that can easily be overlooked in order to produce egalitarian moral blindness and accelerated abolitionism.
In a future essay, maybe … (I should really be writing “professional” articles to advance my “normie” life…) I will explain how to read Locke esoterically.
 West points this out when he says “The founders (and Lincoln) looked up to the laws of nature and of nature’s god. In this sense, the founders’ America was defined in 1776 by its anti-slavery principles, in spite of the fact that slavery was then legal in every state.” (PTAF 65)
 It is indeed a “based” section, for those of you wondering: (PTAF 50-54).