Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Harry V. Jaffa's Central Idea: Freedom is a gift from God

Harry V. Jaffa, a distinguished fellow at the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus of government at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate School says Americans are not properly justifying their arguments for freedom in today's Wall Street Journal.

As God's creatures, we owe unconditional obedience to His will. By that very fact however we do not owe such obedience to anyone else.

Legitimate political authority--the right of one human being to require obedience of another human being--arises only from consent. The fundamental act of consent is, as the 1780 Massachusetts Bill of Rights states, "a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good." The "certain laws for the common good" have no other purpose but to preserve and protect the rights that each citizen possesses prior to government, rights with which he or she has been "endowed by their Creator." The rights that governments exist to secure are not the gift of government. They originate in God.
So the rights of man are an article of faith. It gets better.

Our difficulty in pursuing a rational foreign policy in the Middle East--or anywhere else--is compounded by the fact that we ourselves, as a nation, seem to be as confused as the Iraqis concerning the possibility of non-tyrannical majority rule. We continue to enjoy the practical benefits of political institutions founded upon the convictions of our Founding Fathers and Lincoln, but there is little belief in God-given natural rights, which are antecedent to government, and which define and limit the purpose of government. Virtually no one prominent today, in the academy, in law, or in government, subscribes to such beliefs. Indeed, the climate of opinion of our intellectual elites is one of violent hostility to any notion of a rational foundation for political morality. We, in short, engaged in telling others to accept the forms of our own political institutions, without reference to the principles or convictions that give rise to those institutions.

According to many of our political and intellectual elites, both liberal and conservative, the minority in a democracy enjoys only such rights as the majority chooses to bestow upon them. The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution--and similar bills in state constitutions--are regarded as gifts from the majority to the minority. But the American Constitution, and the state constitutions subordinate to it have, at one time or another, sanctioned both slavery and Jim Crow, by which the bills of rights applied to white Americans were denied to black Americans. But according to the elites, it is not undemocratic for the minority to lose. From this perspective, both slavery and Jim Crow were exercises of democratic majority rule. This is precisely the view of democracy by the Sunnis in Iraq, and is the reason they are fighting the United States.

Unless we as a political community can by reasoned discourse re-establish in our own minds the authority of the constitutionalism of the Founding Fathers and of Lincoln, of government devoted to securing the God-given equal rights of every individual human being, we will remain ill equipped to bring the fruits of freedom to others.
So according Mr. Harry V. Jaffa, the alternative to the tyranny of the majority is some good old-fashioned religion.

What is astonishing about Jaffa's thesis is his utter unwillingness to come to grips with intellectual history. Why, if faith in God is the fount of all individual liberty, did it take mankind almost 1,800 years to get from the Sermon on the Mount to the Declaration of Independence? Why the Dark Ages? Why the repression of scientists such as Galileo? Why the Inquisition? Why the wars of religion? And why the First Amendment, which protects the individual's right not to have a religion, if all freedom springs from faith in God?

And why should our freedom (or anything else, for that matter) be accepted simply as an article of faith, with no grounding in any sort of understanding of the nature of man as a living organism with a free mind and a being that must take self-sustaining action to in order to survive and prosper? Is Mr. Jaffa, citizen of the freest nation in the history of mankind and beneficiary of the fruits of industrialization and unshackled enterprise, unable to find any rational justification for freedom in our nation's history?

It seems so. And in the process, Mr. Jaffa is conceding the debate to the ilk that says that individual rights are nothing but "nonsense on stilts."

Speak for yourselves, brothers. I find the case for my rights in human nature.

Two massively wicked articles out of the Wall Street Journal in as many weeks. This is an increasingly bad trend . . .

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