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Hot Dogs, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Blowin’ Stuff Up

July 4th the Birzers acted like typical Americans. We ate hot dogs, fresh fruit, and freedom fries. We read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s take on the Declaration of Independence. And, we blew lots and lots of stuff up.

Throughout the day, an unease plagued me, though I certainly loved all of the actual doings of the Birzers. What exactly was my family really celebrating: the America that was; the America that is; or the America that could’ve been.

As I rarely tire of saying (oh, Birzer!, can it!!!), no one can criticize some thing or that thing or this thing or any thing as effectively as a conservative can and usually does.

It’s what we do best.

It’s in our very blood, in our souls, and in our intellect—we want to figure out what should be conserved, what should be forgotten, and what should be reformed. This is what a conservative does and should do—despite what many radio and TV personalities have done under the umbrella of “conservatism.”  In fact, what they’ve done is commodify a beautiful thing, thus deconstructing and undoing it. Their conservatism is not the conservatism of a Socrates, but the conservatism of a Pericles. They don’t want so much to obey the god as they do gain and increase power. Indeed, they would love nothing more than to execute those who worship the transcendent.

As true conservatives, however, we have a more serious problem—much deeper than the perverse who claim our name and adulterate our very civilization in some plastic, money-grubbing, and lipo-suctioned fashion. The corrupt will always be with us.

This major problem is one of which we simply have never solved. Buckley tried to explain a possible solution with a cute aphorism: claiming that he just wanted to stand “athwart history” to yell “Stop.” Sadly, while certainly humorous, this quip is unrealistic. It was unrealistic in the 1950s, and it’s even more unrealistic six decades later.

Creation is so very, very hard, while destruction is so very, very easy. Those who merely yell stop will be crushed or ignored or mocked very quickly. Additionally, it’s never enough to yell “stop.” Some things need to stop, others need to go, and some need to pause before going.

In the free world, as we know, much of the destruction is creative, as Schumpeter thought it might be. Think of Apple.  Apple’s technology is built on a humane aesthetic. The Mac of today outdoes the Mac of yesterday, and we benefit immensely from this. Or consider what’s happening in the field of energy. Revolutionary would be an understatement.

But, much more of the destruction is…well…destruction. In particular, imagine what the last four administrations have done to the U.S. Constitution.

What are we to do?  Yell “stop.” It’s cute, but it will get us no where. The world is moving so very, very quickly and in such a fragmented way that we can barely keep up. Just as we analyze some problem, the public is already fascinated with a new issue and our criticism seems already a bit crusty, a bit old-fashioned, a bit out of step. And, it is.  At least according to the eyes of the world.

For the vast majority of Americans, there really is a rational ignorance. It’s far easier to think about what brilliant thing Apple is releasing this year than it is to remember that our current president fully supported—without Congressional approval, and, hence, unconstitutionally—the group just overthrown in Egypt.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the brilliant Friedrich Hayek, drawing upon the even more brilliant de Tocqueville from a century earlier, often talked of “creeping socialism.” Socialism is, for us in 2013, a rather deceptive term.  Almost every one advocates some form of progressivism in America.  Almost no one advocates—at least openly or systematically—any form of socialism. Fascism, perhaps, but not socialism. But, if we take de Tocqueville’s “democratic despotism” or Hayek’s “creeping socialism” loosely, symbolically, we can fully understand what they meant.  And, there seems to be no more creeping—just lots of leaping. In almost every single way, we are less free than we were five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago.

A few voices, here or there, such as W. Winston Elliott III, Senator Cruz, Senator Paul, Representative Amash, Mike Church, Carl Olson, Jim Otteson, Sarah Skwire, Larry Reed, Daniel McCarthy, and others lead a loyal opposition. I am deeply honored to serve with and next to them (three of them have no clue who I am—which is fine).

Indeed, most powerfully, Elliott has recently (Joy Cometh in the Morning) made a call to put away our whining and moping, to see a new redness, a new yellow, a new green, and a new blue through the glistening of a new dawn.

To this I say: “Amen.”  Winston, lead the way.

A Modest Suggestion

Let me make a modest and, at this point, somewhat underdeveloped suggestion. But one, I hope, is far more effective than Buckley’s “Stop.” I would suggest that for real conservatives (and assorted allies) to make any difference in this world, and any difference we make will take generations to take hold, we must claim not just the American founding but the very essence of the American founding.

That is, while it’s wonderful to praise the Declaration and the Constitution, we must recognize the principles that took generations and generations to understand to allow these two documents to exist by the 1770s and 1780s. And, please note, I’m certainly not excluding the Northwest Ordinance—perhaps the height of all political philosophy ever made manifest in this world or any other.

Here as I make my suggestion, I have to be careful, as I know that certain very good and brilliant segments of those I’m claiming as allies will immediately react by believing that I’m making a “neo-con” or “liberal” suggestion.

Nothing, I beg these readers to consider, could be further from the truth.

So, I’ll just state it.  I believe that as conservatives (and assorted allies), we must develop to a very, very deep extent and with as great a breadth as possible, a real understanding and appreciation for natural rights.

And, I don’t mean this in the sense that most neo-cons means these as Lockean and Jeffersonian abstractions. And, I don’t mean rights in the liberal sense of “I have a right not to suffer from my allergies; so the state must mow the grass everywhere.”

I mean natural rights–mysterious and known only through a glass darkly, but an inherent dignity clinging unalienably to each human person, past, present, and future, regardless of the accidents of birth.

Sadly and somewhat strangely, as the “right” as splintered over the last five decades, a notion has developed that our greatest founders—Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk—rejected the idea of natural rights. This is simply and demonstrably false.  Neither man ever rejected natural rights. They embraced the idea of natural rights, while rejecting the Lockean and Jeffersonian claims to know what specific natural rights are. Without going into detail, Kirk argued on several occasions that the foundation of all natural rights as the right to property.

But, this is a discussion for a different time.

For now, let me state—we need something to hold us together, something to transcend the immediacies of the moment.  Yelling stop is fun and clever, but it’s ultimately ineffective. As conservatives, we must move beyond merely criticizing.  We have this down, and we do it better than anyone.  Now, we need to use our very love of the past to find things that work here, there, and everywhere.  The Aristotelians and Thomists have shown the past for establishing a real understanding of the Natural Law.  It is now our duty to do the same for Natural Rights.

To start over again

So, back to the beginning.  If the innumerable celebrations of the 4th are to mean what they should mean—if all the hotdogs consumed, Declarations read, and fireworks blown up should have significance—let them find significance in what America did best: it showed that each human person has dignity and that each human person has the right to his or her own person. It offered a third of a continent in which to let men be men.  If America is to have a mission, it should not be through the extension of power, but through the extension of dignity and love. We should not crush the world; we should offer—freely—a leaven for 7 billion human persons of the world.

[This piece is dedicated to the friendship, wisdom, and leadership of Winston Elliott—Brad]

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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6 replies to this post
  1. Given that the language of rights and equality from the Declaration are used to justify all powers, not only the “just powers” of government, Dr. Birzer couldn’t be more right than to advocate for a renewal of interest in natural rights and an appreciation for the problem of natural right. I fear this is a tall order.

  2. Good stuff. Kirk agrees with Weaver agree on property–and I agree with them. But what do we mean by property? My toothbrush? My latest gizmo from Apple? We need to make a distinction, between personal property and productive property. Today the vast majority of productive property is in the hands (hands?–how about robotic claws) of the multinational corporations. A functional and creative conservatism must have both a metaphysical basis–the right to productive property, and a physical basis–actual productive property. It is the instantiation of the right to property that is lacking for the cubicle-dwellers of the modern world .

  3. Where do I sign up?

    Buckley did say Stop but that did not encapsulate his plan of action. Throughout his long career Buckley offered innovative ideas that promoted freedom, smaller government, and adherence to the United States Constitution. As a young man he used his candidacy for Mayor to promote “new” ideas to role back the welfare state and to bring innovation to the governing of the city. A month ago, Mayor Bloomberg took credit for introducing bicycle lanes throughout the city. He probably had no idea that candidate Buckley was the first to present and advocate this idea over 50 years ago. In his book Four Reforms Buckley offered solutions to the problems of crime, welfare, and education. There are many more examples of Buckley moving far beyond a platform of yelling stop. There is much we can learn from Buckley. Buckley understood the value, the necessity of promoting conservative ideas and principles to the public at large. He understood the necessity to build a house organ where conservatives could think out loud develop policy and then he urged them to take their ideas to the American public. I recommend reading If Not Us Who? a recent biography of Bill Rusher to get a sense of how Buckley encouraged his staff to engage the world outside the offices of National Review. Of course, Buckley’s appearances on the Tonight Show, Firing Line, etc. showed Buckley practicing what he preached. One last point. Buckley understood that a conservative’s job was not the same as supporting the Republican Party. As a very young man I proudly volunteered to support his candidacy for Mayor of New York on the Conservative Party line.

  4. I’d like to reinforce Mr. Roth’s comments with a hefty quotation from Buckley’s 1985 essay “Redefining ‘Smart,'” a piece that shows the careful thinking behind the sloganeering that Dr. Birzer chides. Responding to the initial sparks of technology and information, Buckley writes, “In the age of the knowledge explosion, the struggle…should not be so much to increase our knowledge (though that is commendable even if we recognize, fatalistically, that we fall further behind every day) as to isolate those things that no data that have been discovered have ever persuasively challenged and–here we approach an act of faith–no data will ever plausibly challenge. These are known, sometimes, as the ‘eternal verities.’ A secular version of one of these verities is that no one has the right to deprive another man of his rights. Let the discussion proceed over exactly what that man’s rights are but not over the question of whether or not he has rights. But in order to carry on that discussion, we need to share that common vocabulary that reaches out and folds protectively into a common social bosom those common verities. If, next Monday, all Americans were to suffer an amnestic stroke, forgetting everything we had ever known, what is it that would be required before we reassembled–if ever–around such propositions as are asseverated in the Declaration of Independence and in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?” A few lines later, Buckley ventures a partial answer to his own question: “The Renaissance man is, I think, someone who bows his head before the great unthreatened truths and, while admitting and even encouraging all advances in science, nevertheless knows enough to know that the computer does not now exist, nor ever shall, that has the power to repeal the basic formulas of civilization.” Buckley yelled “Stop!” for two reasons: first, he wanted to tell the world that the course of history is not inexorably collectivist; second, he wanted us to take some time to breathe, reflect, and, in nautical language that Buckley might appreciate, chart a new course.

  5. I second the motion that we promote natural law, natural rights, and natural duties, and bring out the historical basis for these tenets, and the enormous influence they had in the composition of the Constitution. The basis for these tenets can easily be shown to have a very long history of success around the world. In the end, the Constitution itself stands as virtually immutable and timeless if properly presented, and it is an effective embodiment of Natural Law with a 230 year history of success. Positive Law should follow Natural Law or at least not violate it.

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