On almost any political topic we can expect these days to find talk of ‘rights’. We hear of human rights, women’s rights, fathers’ rights, civil rights, gay rights, polygamy rights, immigrants’ rights, religious rights, animal rights, the right to choose, the right to life, etc. And if a particular right does not now exist, be patient; it is probably only a matter of time before it does. An entire ‘rights industry’ has sprung up. Pick a cause, and someone will find rights to defend therein.
Whence does this avalanche of rights come? Prior to the Enlightenment, we heard very little of ‘rights’ as they are now construed. There previously existed natural law, whose legitimacy existed in nature and God. God’s law was the basis of society, to which the religious laws of the state conformed and from which the legitimacy of rule was derived. But natural law is quite different from the modern rights inundation.
Cicero provided the first systematic articulation of natural law (1). He associated natural law with right reason, with the mind of God, and finally as something already instantiated in Roman law, history and custom. Traditional Roman laws accorded with nature, and it was custom (mos maiorum) that nourishes these laws for citizens. The average citizen did not need to perform an algorithm in his head to determine right action. He had only to defer to customary practice.
Mos maiorum underlined most Roman moral thought. The mos maiorum, however, was not an abstract ideal to overturn historical precedent. It was historical precedent. And not only was this their moral tradition, it was also their ancestral tradition. It comprised the customary, time-tested ways of their ancestors as transmitted by blood and progeny. The modern rights industry, however, sees history not as a manifestation of time-tested truths, but rather as one of oppression. These new ‘rights’ are not products of history and ancestral tradition. Rather, they are convenient tools to overturn and abolish historical precedent and ancestral custom.
Modern rights are creations of the Enlightenment. Created by philosophes, rights were perpetuated (often violently) by revolutionaries, Jacobins, and other radicals. Some based them in nature; others, in the god Reason, or yet others, in the state. But they all adhere to a Procrustean universalism. These rights are “natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable” said the revolutionary French National Assembly in 1789. These ‘rights’, always in opposition to long-standing tradition or community custom, require large governmental, if not international, force to institute their authority.
For these new rights to exist, they had to supplant the older authority, often with the help of a centralized government to do so. Natural rights eventually replaced ancestral traditions, statute supplanted customary law, and entitlement usurped obligation.
Universal rights have permeated most aspects of modern life, even Christianity.
Although the Bible never criticizes inequality or even the institution of slavery, Christians today find an entire plethora of civil and human rights in scripture. Pope John Paul II often championed human rights, although 19th century popes dismissed rights wholesale as perversions of the Enlightenment. And now Protestants have also furthered the baptism of the rights industry. Peter Toon, in “Christianity & Subjective Human Rights” states:
“[C]onservative Protestants and biblically-minded Evangelicals…have absorbed much of the ‘rights talk’ of Western culture. This can be seen via a careful analysis of some of their modern biblical paraphrases where ‘rights talk’ comes into the translation” (2).
And as Christianity has conformed to the rights industry, so has the other great bulwark against the Enlightenment: conservatism. Although the Old Right opposed the emerging rights industry, modern ‘conservatives’ have largely been co-opted. So-called conservatives have been compelled to replace tradition with abstract rights.
Much of what we hear today in terms of political debate is but the pitting of one Enlightenment right (eg, liberty) against another (eg, equality). So-called conservatives rarely evoke tradition or ancestral precedent, but rather seek to play the rights industry at its own game – where the left has the inbuilt advantage. The neoconservatives, using the bogeymen of historicism and relativism, have supplanted traditional conservatism with a liberal rights-based ideology.
Leo Strauss spent considerable time and ink refuting ‘historicism’, which has become the bête noire of much neoconservative journalism. Open any neoconservative publication and you can probably find an attack upon either relativism or historicism. In his essay, “The real cabal”, Sam Francis noted:
“The attack on ‘historicism’ is intended to reject the Burkean appeal to tradition…. [Straussians] seem to deny the distinction and adopt an antihistorical universalism based on natural rights that leads them to embrace what is, at bottom, the worldview of the left.”
Not that moral relativism is a good thing, but any form of moral relativism becomes so riddled with contradiction that hardly anyone (except a few postmodernists) takes it seriously. But an historical consciousness can both elucidate and sustain certain truths. Traditional historicism, such as one finds in Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, provides the signposts for those seeking to conserve certain traditions and institutions. In reality, historicism poses no real threat and complements universal truths.
The real enemy for the neo-Jacobin, as Claes Ryn has pointed out, is “the ancestral” (3). They want to replace the real America, with its British and European past, with a theoretical construct, a proposition nation, based upon liberal, abstract ideals.
And not just the past, but the present too must be transformed. Genophilia, the word Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming has coined for instinctive attachment to family and tribe, must be expunged (4). This time-honored loyalty, the basis of older, more conservative civilizations, has no place in the liberal proposition state of the neoconservative – at least not in any Western country. All conservative loyalties must make way for the abstract ideals of the Enlightenment.
Although Strauss himself claimed the ancients as a source of authority, his portrayal of the Greek and Roman thinkers is devoid of any real content. The Greeks were proudly an ethnocentric people. Athens was organized upon tribes, and Roman morality was based upon ancestral custom. Strauss’s political society, however, made of ‘natural right’, resembles more the modern rights industry than anything we would associate with Plato, Aristotle or Cicero. He uses the ancient world as a backdrop upon which he superimposes modernist rights theories.
And the students of Strauss have furthered the assault upon Western civilization with Enlightenment abstractions. Harry Jaffa seeks to “celebrate revolution” and invent “radical break[s] with tradition”, while Michael Ledeen supports “creative destruction” and endless war in the name of democracy (5).
Strauss’s current acolytes are more interested in utopian rights and nation building than sustaining traditional European-American customs and values. Rather, they seek to supplant tradition with radical absolutes. Anne Norton aptly summarizes their lack of conservatism (6):
“Appeals to history and memory, the fear of losing old virtues, of failing to keep the faith with the principles of an honored ancestry, came to seem curious and antiquated. In their place were the very appeals to universal, abstract principles, the very utopian projects that conservatives once disdained.”
With friends like this, who needs enemies? Conservatives, the one-time sworn enemies of the rights industry, have been supplanted by rights peddlers. And other than pockets of orthodox Christians and traditional conservatives, the rights industry no longer confronts any opposition. Liberals and neoconservatives alike (is there any difference?) are in lockstep advance to further the enshrinement of a Procrustean liberal universalism.
Hopefully, as the rights empire expands, it will reach ‘rights overstretch’. As the causes become more absurd, so will the rights. Like overpopulated bacteria eating each other in a petri-dish, competing rights will turn upon each other and ensure the fall of the rights industry. Then perhaps we will be able to build from the remaining fragments of our assailed traditions.
Matthew A. Roberts writes from Kansas City, Missouri. This article has been reprinted from Quarterly Review with permission. Photo of “Pope Dementia” of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
1. Republic 3.33; Laws 1.18-19; Laws 2.8-10; Inv. 2.162
2. Peter Toon, “Christianity & Subjective Human Rights”, Touchstone 11, no. 6 (1998). Also available online at www.touchstonemag.com
3. Claes G Ryn, “Where in the World Are We Going?” (Lew Rockwell, 4 April 2006) www.lewrockwell.com
4. Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), p58
5. Claes G Ryn, “Jacobin in Chief”, American Conservative, 11 April 2005. Claes G Ryn, “Which American?” (Lew Rockwell, 5 May 2004) www.lewrockwell.com. Michael Ledeen, “Creative Destruction” (National Review Online, 20 September 2001) www.nationalreview.com
6. Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p174