CJay Engel

October 23, 2019

Clarifying Remarks: Ideals, Natural Rights, Rationalism

After my previous long article in which I unravelled my prior commitment to what I called "modernist libertarianism," discussion transpired that requires me to make a few things clear.


I believe that ideals are important. I believe, with Richard Weaver and the Augustinian tradition, the modern age suffers from an obsession with "scientific facts" and a fetish with the empirical. The ideals guide us; they connect us with the world of Truth that exist outside the fogginess of our human condition.

The purpose of ideals within the context of socio-political analysis, however, must not be abused. The thinker who spends all his time constructing, in his head, the framework of the best of all possible worlds, often fails to appreciate what must be done in the present, given the tools that he has and the cascading nature of priorities and values.

Thus, if I am ever critical of certain tendencies among my generation of thinkers, it is never that I deny the importance of ideals, it is rather that I do not think there is enough acknowledgement and discernment about the nature of man, social change, and systems in the pursuit of betterment. It is this point that needs to be especially drawn out, in my opinion, in libertarian personalities. As someone who spent years in this area, I understand that there is a tendency to spend the majority of one's time in the construction of solving Utopia's particular puzzles.

But actually dealing with human society, in all its complexities, sentiments, attachments, dreams, systems, customs, values, and threats, requires a realist examination. It requires a knowledge of the concept of trade-offs, unintended consequences, priorities moral and material, and so forth. It requires a suppression of what James Burnham called the socio-political analysis of "wishful thinking."

Rationalism in Socio-Political Affairs

I haven't yet discussed the theme of "rationalism," that traditionalists distrust. But I will, because it is important. What rationalism, in this context, certainly does not refer to is the importance of the intellect, of being guided by reason and wisdom. Against emotive politics in the age of titillation and appeal to unrestrained jealousies and envies, we must always be guided with wisdom and intelligence.

Rather, what "rationalism" refers to in this concept, basically, is social and economic planning. The conservatives (the real ones, not the Neo-conservatives) are wary of the artificial construction of some social arrangement that should be politically pursued against the slow and organic development of society over time. When we think of "planning," we often think of the economic planners that Mises and Hayek dedicated their lives to defying; especially in the area of central banking. But there are other sorts of planning. The war in the Middle East and the pursuit of the implementation of democracy in foreign lands, for example, is another instance of planning.

Other examples are closer to being sensitive for libertarians: borders, the legalization of hard drugs in light of the current federal mandate for hospitals to treat patients without question, the eradication of the welfare state in light of the fact that an entire generation depends on this and their children and grandchildren are all too saturated with debt and bills to help. The libertarian "answers" are often black and white; the real world ramifications and difficulties of decisions, however, are not.

More on this later, as it becomes more important.

Natural Rights:

If I were to summarize my take on natural rights, it would be as follows.

First, the majority of natural rights arguments in post-enlightenment history have argued for a far broader conception of natural rights than many of the readers of this site realize. The relegating of natural rights so as to make them strictly negative is an improvement and refinement. This makes for a situation where most arguments for rights in political life have nothing to do with our real rights. They are, as Burke thundered against the French revolutionaries, invented, artificial, and fake rights.

Second, I do agree that there are rights that are held by virtue of our humanness, the fact that we are created imago Dei. They are to be a bulwark against tyranny. While it's easy to quote Rothbard or someone on the negative and propertarian nature of these rights, I want to be quick to note that property rights were the only rights that Russell Kirk, the conservative enemy of the libertarian movement, affirmed (see Brad Birzer's biography of Kirk, page 253). In this sense, rights belong to all humans.

HOWEVER, the reason traditionalist conservatives are so focused on the particularity of rights over against the universality (internationalization) of their enforcement and realization has to do with five central considerations:

1. Their application can have a socially distorting effect in light of the fact that we live in a very imperfect world. Thus, the application of rights will need to take into account the traditions, norms, systems, values, priorities, and political dynamics of particular regions.

2. Their interpretation varies from philosopher to philosopher and therefore different social orders (jurisdictions) will deal with these variances according to their own way of understanding.

3. The definition of these rights can be applied differently in different social settings and contexts and to different types of disputes and tensions.

4. The enforcement of these rights can be radically different from community to community (should we imprison, fine, or exile, or execute?)

5. The enforced restrictions (laws) on these rights, for the sake of the social order, will have differing meanings and extensions depending on the society.

6. The adaption and account for change in the application, interpretation, definition, enforcement, etc will be undertaken differently for different jurisdictions.

7. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, since few people, in the great scheme of things, actually care about figuring out what these rights are, the abuse of the rhetoric of rights (as we see since the Enlightenment and especially since the Progressive Era) can have devastating consequences.

It is almost inevitable, argues Burke and all those who stand firmly in his tradition, that mass upheaval for the sake of rights will bring into the spirit of revolution a mass of people who have a quite different understanding of what their "human rights" are. Unfortunately, you will only discover this fact as the smoke is clearing.

Thus, natural rights can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and if not applied prudently and with caution and wisdom about the nature of man and his passions, the result can be devastating. It can lead to a furtherance of injustice and political domination. The task of any man who finds himself in a position of influence is to apply what is natural, what exists in the realm of Ideas, to real life. Such a task comes with it great temptation and great stakes. This is why Burke considered the actual, chartered, and customary rights of the English, which imperfectly reflected the natural order, to be something grounding in an age of spirited upheaval.

Much more on this in time!

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

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