More Burke, Less Locke

Ben Sasse addressed CPAC yesterday and Scott Clark has the video under the heading, “The Government Exists to Secure Natural Rights.”

I immediately wondered if this commits the federal government to granting amnesty to all the Mexicans living in America, legally or not. If everyone has rights naturally, and the U.S. government is committed to protecting those rights, how could it ever not protect the rights of anyone who winds up American soil?

Here‘s what Senator Sasse may have meant by that line:

Our founding moment is truly extraordinary. Our founders were making a claim about human dignity. Our founders were saying that everybody, everywhere—not just those who have been blessed to be born in this place—but everybody, everywhere is ordained with natural rights. Everyone everywhere is created in the image of God with natural rights, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.

Again, everyone has rights by virtue of being human (sort of like the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man — a universal, abstract ideal).

But another way of thinking about rights is to say they are protected by a constitutional arrangement and in order to receive such protection you need to be a member of a constitutional community. Here’s another statement from Senator Sasse:

People have been wrong about the nature of government and the nature of freedom, and we the people in America believe that our rights come to us via nature, and government is our project to secure them, so we the people give the government enumerated powers. We don’t ever wait for the government to give us an rights. We claim those by nature.

But what if the government has clearly enumerated powers and some of those mean that citizens enjoy the protection of that government. That protection is a form of liberty and rights. Citizens benefit from the government’s protection and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. But non-citizens don’t. That seems elementary (but I’m only licensed to do history.)

What might Senator Sasse’s remarks have sounded like if he were a reader of American Conservative:

Sasse’s case for classical conservatism was actually a defense of classical liberalism. For the senator, America is an exceptional idea invented by the Founding and “ordained with natural rights”. This Lockean interpretation of the American Revolution is not how classical (or small-c) conservatives understand the Founding. Classical conservatives certainly believe in conserving the achievements of the Founding, but they also know America is not an idea. America is a culture and a nation composed of many regional and local communities. It is from these communities that a sense of self-government is developed and citizens who can underpin limited government are forged.

Sasse also described conservatism as a “set of policy preferences” directed towards the reduction of the size of government. Classical conservatism is not merely a checklist of anti-government policies, regardless of how virtuous those policies might be. It is a philosophical temperament which sees politics as the art of the possible, values prudential reform, and puts concrete institutions before abstract concepts.

9 thoughts on “More Burke, Less Locke

  1. having a natural right doesn’t get you any favors from the federal gov’t. A Natural right boils down to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or property). The Feds do not come into the picture of privileging anyone over anyone else (if they are to make any appearance at all).


  2. As an historian, you surely recognized the paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence?


  3. Ironically, it was the Virginia Declaration of Rights that asserted natural human rights only were inalienable for men “who entered into a state of society”

    This allowed ongoing justification for denying the rights to enslaved or Indian persons. Probably a bad call.

    Wouldn’t be prudent to make such a call anymore.

    You don’t seriously want to say that noncitizens in this country can be deprived of life, liberty, or property at will do you?


  4. p duggie, not sure the Declaration of Independence is law.

    Plus, your question doesn’t include what we do with citizens who get jailed or Japanese-Americans who get interred. The Constitution binds government and citizens together in ways that exclude non-citizens and sometimes impinge on freedoms of citizens. Merely prating on a line from DofI doesn’t really take that reality into account.


  5. Beyond a basic search I didn’t do my due diligence on the above topic. As linking is not an endorsement, etc. etc.


  6. I wonder if there isn’t supposed to be a tension between the abstract ideal and the institutional need/reality. It seems to me you need both the security and tangibility of the concrete and the freedom to transcend it as needed or as talent grants ability to do it better. There’s also the opportunity for governmental entity or any constitutional institution to become abusive and there needs to be some release or seek relief from that ‘tyranny’.


  7. More thoughts. I think I doubt the idea that institutional integrity secures the prosperity of a nation, rather the talent of a population and the freedom of that talent and effort to ascend or inhabit it’s vocational gifting ultimately(penultimate) exalts or lifts a nation. It’s a real danger when institutional integrity squashes talent and effort. Eventually the talent leaves. In other words, we aren’t all created equal and the insistence of it in certain situations, weakens a nation. At other times, the gifted need to make room for the rights of others and recognize their reliance on them. A Union, if you will.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.