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Natural Rights Individualism and Progressivism in American Political Philosophy
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Book description

The essays in this collection investigate two political traditions and their critical interactions. The first series of essays deals with the development of natural rights individualism, some examining its origins in the thought of the seminal political theorist, John Locke, and the influential constitutional theorist, Montesquieu, others the impact of their theories on intellectual leaders during the American Revolution and the Founding era, and still others the culmination of this tradition in the writings of nineteenth-century individualists such as Lysander Spooner. The second series of essays focuses on the Progressive repudiation of natural rights individualism and its far-reaching effect on American politics and public policy.

Reviews

'The insolvency of our national government and several liberal Democratic states, Detroit's bankruptcy, and the continuing struggles of European welfare states suggest that the Progressive answer, whatever it may be, is not as viable as our dominant intellectual culture has thought … The essays present scholarship from a range of disciplines, including intellectual history, political science, American history, philosophy, and law … such collaborations help to redress the imbalance of views in higher education and our elite culture, which is an element of our worsening cultural insolvency.'

Paul O. Carrese Source: Claremont Review of Books

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Contents

  • The Ground of Locke's Law of Nature
    pp 1-50
  • View abstract

    Summary

    This chapter deals with John Locke's teaching and his theory. The real ground of Locke's teaching is found in his understanding of the conditions of human happiness. Locke gives us two arguments that profess to explain how we know that we are governed by the law of nature, and part of what that law requires of us. Locke's awareness of inequality of parts leads him to revise the ground of the teaching of the law of nature regarding "the equality, which all men are in, in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another". Locke provides as little evidence for his divine workmanship argument as he does for his argument from equal talents. Locke's treatment of the parental desire to have children, "propagating their kind, and continuing themselves in their posterity", is similar to Aristotle's. Locke shows that nature by itself is too ambiguous to guide human life.
  • Montesquieu's Natural Rights Constitutionalism
    pp 51-81
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    Summary

    Montesquieu is most famous for his contribution to the study of political psychology and political architecture. Jean-Jacques Rousseau charged that Montesquieu limited himself to the sphere of positive right and David Hume thought him a rationalist on the model of René Descartes's great Augustinian admirer Nicolas Malebranche. Montesquieu makes clear that organized political society and despotism come much later in time and tend to be coeval with the discovery of agriculture, the institution of property in land, and the invention of coinage. The way of thinking about constitutionalism that Montesquieu bequeathed to the American Founding Fathers was based on an understanding of the state of nature, of objective natural right, and of subjective natural rights fundamentally similar to but not identical with that found in Locke's book. It stands to reason that if we want to understand the present discontents, we should take note of Woodrow Wilson's argument.
  • The Idea of Rights in the Imperial Crisis
    pp 82-103
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    Summary

    In order to explore what early Americans meant when they claimed certain rights, this chapter examines the arguments they made against Crown and Parliament in the imperial crisis (1763-1776), a period often slighted in the scholarship on the American Founding in favor of the seminal events of the 1780s which culminated in the federal constitution. The pamphlets of Stephen Hopkins and Richard Bland, along with the resolves of the colonial assemblies and a specially constituted pan-colonial congress, contain strong evidence for the existence of a coherent and widely shared understanding of rights in British North America in the first phase of the imperial crisis. In a series of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania published in colonial newspapers, John Dickinson insisted that the Townshend duties were in fact taxes because they were enacted for the sole purpose of levying money, rather than to regulate trade within the empire.
  • On Declaring the Laws and Rights of Nature
    pp 104-138
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    Summary

    This chapter focuses on the core text generally recognized as the symbol of America's revolutionary mind and moral theory: the Declaration of Independence. It elucidates the common understanding held by most Americans about concepts such as the laws and rights of nature, while also recognizing those areas where they disagreed. Many eighteenth-century Anglo-American statesmen and jurists understood that the purpose of statutory law was to embody and reflect the law of nature. Following John Locke (1632-1704) and later Enlightenment philosophers, colonial Americans typically defined the law of nature as a dictate of right reason. America's Revolutionary Founders also used the doctrine of natural, unalienable rights in the decade after 1776 as the immovable foundation on which to anchor and permanently fix their constitutional structures. The chapter examines how Jefferson and his fellow Revolutionaries understood what a natural right is.
  • Lysander Spooner: Nineteenth-Century America's Last Natural Rights Theorist
    pp 139-176
  • View abstract

    Summary

    This chapter articulates the ideas of the last powerful advocate of natural rights in nineteenth century America. To provide some context for Spooner's natural rights doctrine, it describes briefly some of the views of two other radical libertarian advocates who were writing in England around the time that Spooner began to address questions of political and legal theory in the late 1830s-Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) and the early Herbert Spencer (1820- 1903). The chapter considers the views of the early Herbert Spencer. Beginning with his anti-slavery treatises and culminating in his essays on natural law and natural rights, Spooner staked out his position as the most philosophically engaging, forceful, and Lockean voice among the individual anarchists. The representation that Spooner offers is remarkably like Hodgskin's critique of legislation, with the crucial difference that Spooner is in position to distinguish sharply between law, i.e., natural law, and legislation.
  • Progressivism and the Doctrine of Natural Rights
    pp 177-195
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    Summary

    Progressive thinkers were revolutionary in their ends, not in their means. Political communities gravitate to a central principle of right. If, as Progressives asserted, the doctrine of natural rights was the reigning idea among the public, its elimination would create a vacuum. Progressives never doubted the primacy or ascendancy of the natural rights doctrine for the American Founders. These nineteenth-century critiques of the doctrine of natural rights, especially the challenge coming from Darwinism, were in the background when Progressives came on the scene. The doctrine of natural rights, at least within high intellectual circles, was already moribund, in large part because it could no longer draw on the prestige of science, as it had at the time of the Founding. When it comes to the question of foundations, liberalism is under challenge today from the outside and is troubled and conflicted from the inside.
  • Some Second Thoughts on Progressivism and Rights
    pp 196-219
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    Summary

    The overriding reason that Progressives were so often dismissive of rights claims and arguments is that they wanted to create a national democracy and they saw a rigid adherence to the prevailing norms of the U.S. The liberal establishment increasingly justified its rule in non-ideological terms by appealing to purportedly objective and value-free procedures and practices. The democratic left charged that the liberal establishment excluded many important groups and interests in policy-making. Beginning in the 1970s, deregulation was pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Originalism as a constitutional hermeneutic serves better as a critique of an entrenched judicial and congressional liberalism than as a guide to conservative governance. The constitutional originalism provides a source for a public philosophy of sufficient prestige and power to become a basis for a reconstituted public and the restoration of popular sovereignty.
  • Freedom, History, and Race in Progressive Thought
    pp 220-254
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    Summary

    This chapter explains why the eugenics agenda is so natural an outgrowth of Progressivism. The Progressives' conception of "positive" freedom, and the derivative notions of history and the positive state, was principally inspired by early nineteenth century German idealism. In stressing the primacy of the "social good" or the "general welfare" over individualism or individual rights, in short, the Progressives were, first and foremost, stressing the primacy of a new individualism over the old. The Progressives' redefinition of freedom in idealistic or "positive" terms literally transformed the Founders' theory of government, and, thereby, the principles informing the formulation of public policy in America. In embracing the idealists' conception of positive freedom, and the process of historical development or "social evolution" through which the ideal of freedom progressively unfolds, the Progressives also accepted the idea that the different races of the human family are advancing at dramatically different rates.
  • The Progressive Era Assault on Individualism and Property Rights
    pp 255-282
  • View abstract

    Summary

    The Progressive Era of the early twentieth century witnessed sustained condemnation of individualism and individual rights. The intellectual currents of the Progressive era called into question the individualist values of classical liberalism, and paved the way for the political triumph of the New Deal. Most historians agree that John Locke had an enormous influence on the Founding generation. Locke's classical liberalism, with its focus on natural law and the rights of individuals, was reflected in the Declaration of Independence as well as the constitution-drafting experience at both the state and federal level in the years following the American Revolution. The rapid changes in American society at the end of the nineteenth century stimulated the Progressive movement. Drawing upon Darwinian theory, Richard T. Ely rejected the Lockean concept of natural rights and denied the existence of natural law. This chapter considers the impact of progressivism upon constitutional jurisprudence.
  • Saving Locke from Marx: The Labor Theory of Value in Intellectual Property Theory
    pp 283-317
  • View abstract

    Summary

    This chapter discusses John Locke's argument for his labor theory of value in order to expose the strawman attack on his property theory by contemporary philosophers, especially within intellectual property theory. It addresses how legal scholars have misunderstood Locke's labor theory of value as a normative argument for a property right in economic value. The shibboleth of economic value within critiques of Locke's labor theory of value by philosophers is addressed on its own terms. The chapter identifies the textual and philosophical context in which Locke claims that "mixing labor" creates value in things that one can claim as one's property. It explains how Locke identifies the ultimate source of property in value-creating, productive labor. The chapter also talks about the ultimate source and meaning of Locke's concept of value. Locke endorses some ideas in his labor theory of value that are shared by Karl Marx.
  • Roosevelt, Wilson, and the Democratic Theory of National Progressivism
    pp 318-334
  • View abstract

    Summary

    America's original Progressives, rising to prominence at the turn of the twentieth century, sounded the theme of democratic reform. The Progressive push for democratization is complicated by the fact that the Movement was also the launching point for the modern administrative state. For Theodore Roosevelt, the Constitution's Federalist Framers had obsessed about majority tyranny and thus erected a system which enshrined minority tyranny. Like Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson believed that the American system of government was too undemocratic and, also like Roosevelt, he pinned blame on the Framers' obsession with a highly individualized and abstract notion of liberty. In thinking about administration in this way, as a means of reconciling democratization with expert governance, Wilson thought in terms that have proved to be more relevant to contemporary American government than Roosevelt did. Popular presidential leadership, championed by both Wilson and Roosevelt, has proved to be a central feature of American politics.
  • On the Separation of Powers: Liberal and Progressive Constitutionalism
    pp 335-364
  • View abstract

    Summary

    This chapter explores an aspect of the Progressive critique of liberal constitutionalism, the focused Progressive attack on the separation of powers as the essential feature of constitutionalism as embodied in the American Constitution and endorsed by the American Founders, and by their intellectual authorities John Locke and Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. Woodrow Wilson's adumbration of the politics-administration dichotomy is a direct result of his analysis of the tasks facing modern democratic states. These tasks are stated as: the efficient accomplishment of the tasks of positive governance, and democratic responsibility. Wilson's political thought attempted to coordinate three entities, the genuine needs of the nation, public opinion, and policy output. Wilson makes a powerful case for rethinking the separation of powers. In brief, that case includes rejection of what we might call the infrastructure of the doctrine in the liberal theory of natural rights, state of nature, and social contract.

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