Conservative blogger calls for return to the classical conservatism of the Jacobins by mattsteinglass
March 2, 2009, 10:19 am
Filed under: Conservatism

Daniel Larison critiques fellow conservative Rick Moran for saying that the root insight of conservative political philosophy, the creed that the current conservative movement has lost track of and must return to, is that “man is born free”. It certainly seems wise for a conservative to keep in mind that “man is born free” is a quote from the opening clause of Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”, which isn’t really a document one would expect to serve as a touchstone for the renaissance of conservative political ideology. A couple of cites from Chapter 9 suffice to give the flavor of revolutionary France’s favorite philosopher:

However the acquisition be made, the right which each individual has to his own estate is always subordinate to the right which the community has over all: without this, there would be neither stability in the social tie, nor real force in the exercise of Sovereignty.

And the footnote a moment later:

In fact, laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much.

Of course one can always play pick-the-gotcha-quote with any philosopher. Still, “man is born free” really is problematic for contemporary conservatives, not just because of the way it relates to genuinely conservative attitudes towards tradition and familial ties but because of the way it relates to property rights. Rousseau understood that to believe that men are naturally free raises the question of why they should be bound to respect anyone else’s claim to possess a given piece of property, especially a piece of real estate. Rousseau’s solution was to say that all contemporary claims of possession really were arbitrary, because they were founded on irrational monarchical sovereignty. In a democratic state, however, the people would collectively be sovereign, individuals would enter into a social contract for their own and everyone’s benefit, and the legitimacy of the law would be founded on the state’s claim to represent the “general will”. The two problems with this are: what happens when someone wants to secede from the social contract? And, more significantly, what restrains the “general will”?

The latter question turned out to have murderous implications when Rousseau’s ideas were put into action during the French Revolution. And the reaction against that moment, particularly Burke’s reaction, was the foundation of conservatism. What we have here is a conservative calling for a return to his movement’s founding ideas, and proceeding to cite as his movement’s central principle the most famous line of that movement’s nemesis.


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