In reflecting upon political theory, it is fascinating to watch the activities of Republican Congressman Ron Paul in his attempt to win the Republican leadership, both in 2008 and now again for the 2012 election. An impressive aspect of Paul’s campaign is his emphasis on the need to return to the original vision of the American Constitution. Although it is doubtful the American founders were (almost) pure libertarians like Paul, the case is very strong that America’s current welfare, warfare, and corporatist state has wandered considerably from their original vision.
Of course one does not need to move beyond those founders themselves to see that this “difference of opinion” on how much power government should have was already a subject of debate in their day. Thomas Jefferson was a clear advocate of libertarian-like principals of non-interference by government, and limiting its powers to only those necessary to maintain the liberty rights of individuals. Alexander Hamilton represented more commercial interests, and argued that the limited terminology of the constitution was a necessity of its nature as a founding document, and was not intended to prevent interpretations of general clauses like “promoting the general welfare” as justifying more extensive government powers.
These arguments were used in Hamilton’s time to begin the government support of special corporate interests that continues to our day and in the 1930’s by Roosevelt to bring in the New Deal welfare state. Similar interpretations of the general welfare have claimed the “requirement” of interference by the United States with the activities of many countries outside its borders, and its “policing” of the world.
The Case for Liberty
But I do think Jefferson’s interpretation of the Constitution (and therefore Paul’s) is more convincing. The American experiment was clearly intended to establish the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and not the entitlement to provision of every possible need or corporate/state interest we see touted today. The terminology used in the Declaration of Independence is clearly drawn from the writings of John Locke, who envisioned political society to be a social contract between the individuals it consists of and their government. Those individuals bear within themselves a natural right to freedom, and no government has the right to interfere with their pursuit of their vision of well being without their permission. The justification of the State for Locke was a function of this voluntary social contract entered into by its citizens.
So I think Paul is politically justified in calling America back to the simplicity of its original constitutional commitments, and that makes a very good case for his campaign as an American politician. But this is a very different thing than saying that the original American founders were justified in their claims of natural rights as the valid basis of government. The social contract argument presented by Locke and others fails on the very simple fact that individuals born into the society it allegedly founds never have the chance to agree to it, and have no real opportunity to opt out. Arguments suggesting they have are quite unconvincing.
Compounding this general challenge are the much broader issues presented today by the realities of postmodern thought. Even if social contract theory did succeed as a basis for claiming universal consent, this would leave open the more fundamental question of the existence of inalienable rights in the first place. America’s political foundations were based on the assumed success of the Enlightenment project, which argued for the natural rights of the autonomous individual on the basis of rationality and the “self-evidence” of its conclusions. Individualism has prevailed in the United States since that time, because of the assumed success of this project.
But it is believed by most today that the Enlightenment project failed. Postmodernism is really that project’s post-mortem. Intellectual skepticism has concluded that moral and intellectual foundations cannot be established on the basis of Reason, and that therefore there is no truth. This results in the apparent validity of intellectual and moral relativity. What’s true for you is not necessarily true for me. What’s right for you is not necessarily right for me.
I believe this conclusion is somewhat premature. The simple fact that the claim there is no truth appears to be a truth claim, should be enough to give us pause on the declared success of postmodernism’s critique. But I don’t wish to argue this here. I think most of us can agree with postmodernism that if there is truth, it is very difficult to pin it down in such a way that no disagreements will be forthcoming. What I wish to suggest instead is that we accept postmodernism’s conclusion, at least provisionally, and reflect on what this must mean for political theory.
America was established on the fact that its founders held truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Postmodernism says this claim fails to be convincing. It appears there are many truths, many visions of how to live, and none of them have a clear precedence over the others. They all have valid claim to our consideration. And even if they cannot all be true, it is far from absolutely clear which one is, if any of them are.
What does this mean for political theory?
Fascinatingly, it appears to suggest the original vision of the American Constitution is still correct. The sole purpose of government is to secure individual liberty and the pursuit of one’s own vision of the good. This is the only thing that can truly be justified by postmodern conclusions. Since we don’t seem to be able to argue for one vision of life over another successfully, there seems no justification for establishing a government that would enforce one such vision above the rest. Instead, the main justification for government (if postmodernism can justify anything at all), is that government should be established to allow each of us to pursue his own vision of truth and goodness, without being interfered with by others, and without interfering with others as they do the same.
Postmodern Political Society
But this is exactly the libertarian, liberty based position advocated by the original American Constitution (and now by Ron Paul), as implied by the Enlightenment justifications provided by Locke and other Classical Liberal theorists. Even though their basis for this conclusion fails, its very failure is why its conclusions should be adopted. Government should be limited to the role of ensuring citizens respect each other’s right to live their own vision of the good life, since no one such vision can be justified beyond question. It should not be used to enforce one such vision above the others, or to require assistance from any citizen to help his fellow citizen pursue a vision that is not his own. This would clearly rule out the current welfare, warfare and corporatist state of America, as well as the welfare and corporatist states of Canada and various European nations.
I recognize these quick conclusions would require further argument to show how such institutions truly exceed what postmodern relativism implies is legitimate. But the above is a brief outline of what I believe a justifiable postmodern political theory would look like.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)