Topic: Political Philosophy

From the Rights of Englishmen to the Inalienable Rights of All Men

Daniel Hannan writes in the Wall Street Journal today about Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary will also be celebrated at a Cato conference next week. Alas, he persists in an error that I regret to say he’s made before.

Hannan is a great advocate of liberty and particularly of English liberty. His patriotism is admirable in an English representative to the European Parliament. But he fails to grasp the shift in the idea of liberty that took place in America in the 1770s. Hannan, I think correctly, celebrates Magna Carta as the great foundation of ordered liberty, of what I have called the greatest libertarian achievement in history, bringing power under the rule of law:

As Lord Denning, the most celebrated modern British jurist put it, Magna Carta was “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

It was at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215, that the idea of the law standing above the government first took contractual form. King John accepted that he would no longer get to make the rules up as he went along. From that acceptance flowed, ultimately, all the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted: uncensored newspapers, security of property, equality before the law, habeas corpus, regular elections, sanctity of contract, jury trials.

But he goes wrong when he glosses over the change in thinking that occurred around 1776 in the American colonies:

The American Revolutionaries weren’t rejecting their identity as Englishmen; they were asserting it. As they saw it, George III was violating the “ancient constitution” just as King John and the Stuarts had done. It was therefore not just their right but their duty to resist, in the words of the delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, “as Englishmen our ancestors in like cases have usually done.”

Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights. On the contrary, they were very clear that they were fighting for the privileges bestowed on them by Magna Carta. The concept of “no taxation without representation” was not an abstract principle. It could be found, rather, in Article 12 of the Great Charter: “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.” In 1775, Massachusetts duly adopted as its state seal a patriot with a sword in one hand and a copy of Magna Carta in the other.

I recount these facts to make an important, if unfashionable, point. The rights we now take for granted—freedom of speech, religion, assembly and so on—are not the natural condition of an advanced society. They were developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words.

When we call them universal rights, we are being polite.

It’s true that the colonists came here with the spirit of English liberty running in their veins. They brought with them the books of Locke and Sydney, the examples of Lilburne and Hampden, the writings of Edward Coke. In the 18th century they read Cato’s Letters and William Blackstone. They petitioned Parliament and the king for their rights as Englishmen. 

But the Declaration of Independence marks a break in that thinking. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write “an expression of the American mind,” he did not appeal to the rights of Englishmen. Instead, the Americans declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (emphases added)

They appealed not to the British Parliament nor to King George III, but rather to “the opinions of mankind…a candid world…the Supreme Judge of the world.” Hannan glosses over this when he makes reference to 1774 and writes, “Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights.” True, not in 1774. But by 1776, when Thomas Paine published Common Sense, in which he defended “the natural rights of all mankind” and denounced kings as “ruffians” and “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti,” and the Continental Congress made its case on the basis of the unalienable rights of all men, American thinking had changed. Americans declared their belief in universal rights and their independence from a nation that denied those rights.

As I was researching this post, I found a similar argument from Tim Sandefur a year ago. Alas, Hannan persists in making this error year after year. Besides citing the argument of the Declaration, Sandefur presents in evidence the thoughts of John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the Constitution:

English liberties had failed [the Patriots]. From the omnipotence of Parliament the colonists appealed to the rights of man and the omnipotence of the God of battles. Union! Union! was the instinctive and simultaneous cry throughout the land. Their Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, once—twice had petitioned the king; had remonstrated to Parliament; had addressed the people of Britain, for the rights of Englishmen—in vain. Fleets and armies, the blood of Lexington, and the fires of Charlestown and Falmouth, had been the answer to petition, remonstrance and address.

Independence was declared. The colonies were transformed into States. Their inhabitants were proclaimed to be one people, renouncing all allegiance to the British crown; all co-patriotism with the British nation; all claims to chartered rights as Englishmen. Thenceforth their charter was the Declaration of Independence. Their rights, the natural rights of mankind. Their government, such as should be instituted by themselves, under the solemn mutual pledges of perpetual union, founded on the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration…. The omnipotence of the British Parliament was vanquished. The independence of the United States of America, was not granted, but recognized. The nation had “assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature, and of nature’s God, entitled it.”

Daniel Hannan is a thoughtful, forceful, and eloquent advocate of liberty under law. But he needs to read the Declaration of Independence and respect what it says, that the United States of America, though inspired by the tradition of English liberty, was founded on the self-evident truth that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that those rights reside in all men and women in every country of the earth.

 

Insuring John Galt?

Caleb’s latest podcast is an interview with Charles Murray on his new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission. You can watch the podcast below or download the audio here. Be forewarned: if you’re like me, you’ll be Kindle-ing the book before the interview ends.

The word “provocative” is applied to far too many books these days, and often to books that should instead be called “wacky.” Murray’s thesis fully earns the former adjective, and perhaps a touch of the second–and I write that as high praise.

He argues that American government today is so far divorced from the nation’s founding principles of limited government and individual liberty that it can’t be returned to those principles through normal political action. No presidential administration, congressional turnover, or set of SCOTUS appointments will restore the Commerce and General Welfare clauses. Thus, he writes, supporters of liberty should try to effect change through carefully chosen but broadly adopted acts of civil disobedience against publicly unpopular regulations. Some examples that come to my mind: people could become part-time Uber drivers, or cash businesses could routinely make deposits of $9,999, or parents could include cupcakes in their schoolchildren’s packed lunches.

Left and Right in China

There’s an ideological divide in China, and it’s basically statist vs. classical liberal, as Tyler Cowen puts it.

Based on 171,830 responses to an online survey, Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu “offer the first large scale empirical analysis of ideology in contemporary China.” They “identify one dominant ideological dimension in China.”

Individuals who are politically conservative, who emphasize the supremacy of the state and nationalism, are also likely to be economically conservative, supporting a return to socialism and state-control of the economy, and culturally conservative, supporting traditional, Confucian values. In contrast, political liberals, supportive of constitutional democracy and individual liberty, are also likely to be economic liberals who support market-oriented reform and social liberals who support modern science and values such as sexual freedom.

This is interesting in several ways. First, of course, it means that China is no longer ideologically monolithic, as it was at least officially in the days of Maoism. And a significant number of people seem to support what we would call classical liberal or libertarian values – “constitutional democracy and individual liberty, … market-oriented reform … modern science and values such as sexual freedom.” The online survey isn’t scientific or representative enough to estimate the prevalence of each ideology.

Second, it’s refreshing to see ideological views lined up in a coherent way. Libertarians usually find the standard American ideologies inconsistent. Today’s “liberals” (unlike classical liberals from Locke and Smith and Mill to Hayek) tend to support democracy and at least some forms of personal and civil liberties, but not free markets. Today’s conservatives support free markets but have tended to oppose civil rights, drug decriminalization, and sexual freedom. In China those who support “the supremacy of the state and nationalism” also, quite understandably, support state control of the economy and state support for traditional values. That’s a bad package, but at least it’s coherent. And so is the opposing liberal ideology.

Repeal, Not Reform, Is Necessary for the Bloated Welfare State

The United States is effectively bankrupt. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures the United States faces unfunded liabilities in excess of $200 trillion. Only transforming or eliminating such programs would save the republic.

The Left likes to paint conservatives as radical destroyers of the welfare state. Instead, some on the Right have made peace with expansive government.

Particularly notable is the movement of “reform conservatism,” or the so-called “reformicons” who, noted Reason’s Shikha Dalmia, “have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right’s long-running commitment to free markets and limited government.”

The point is not that attempts to improve the functioning of bloated, inefficient programs are bad. But they are inadequate. Yes, government costs too much. Government also does too much.

End the Personal Bribes Members of Congress Are Getting Not to Reopen ObamaCare

The U.S. Constitution vests the legislative, executive, and judicial powers in separate branches of the government that are supposed to police each other. But what if one of those branches violates the law in a manner that personally benefits the members of another branch? That’s what has been happening since the day ObamaCare became law in 2010. For more than five years, the executive branch has been issuing illegal subsidies that personally benefit the most powerful interest group in the nation’s capital: members of Congress and their staffs. A decision today by the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee not to investigate those illegal subsidies shows just how difficult it can be to prevent one branch of the government from corrupting members of another branch.  

It is no secret that executive-branch agencies have broken the law, over and over, to protect ObamaCare. King v. Burwell challenges the IRS’s decision to offer illegal premium subsidies in states with federally established health-insurance Exchanges. University of Iowa law professor Andy Grewal recently revealed the IRS is illegally offering Exchange subsidies to at least two other ineligible groups: certain undocumented immigrants and people who incorrectly project their income to be above the poverty line. Treasury, Health and Human Services, and other executive-branch agencies have unilaterally modified or suspended so many parts of the ACA, it’s hard to keep count – and even harder to know what the law will look like tomorrow. Even some of the administration’s supporters acknowledge its actions have gone too far

The longest-running and perhaps most significant way the administration has broken the law to protect ObamaCare is by issuing illegal subsidies to members of Congress.

Senator Whitehouse Declaims

On the floor of the Senate last night, on the eve of Earth Day, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse went after the Cato Institute—among others, including the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal—for our having accused the senator and his friends in the environmental movement of “having a widespread faith in the government’s ability to solve problems.” We plead guilty. Not only do we believe those folks are of that faith—the evidence is plain, even if the evidence supporting the faith is lacking—but we believe also that it is a self-serving faith, because it drives them to find ever more problems to solve, problems most of us never knew we had.

But it’s a letter that then-Cato President John Allison recently sent to Sen. Whitehouse and others in Congress that seems most to exercise the good senator. As the C-SPAN transcript puts it:

cato also sent us a letter in response to our inquiry, telling us we cannot use the awesome power of the federal government to cow cato and others. cow? according to the “wall street journal” editorial page, which, sadly, has become a front for the fossil fuel industry, we were – quote – “trying to silence the other side.” although i have to confess, mr. president, it is not clear how the other side would be silenced by simply having to reveal whose payroll they’re on, which is all we asked. let’s be clear our letter didn’t suggest that industry scientists should be silenced, just that the public should know if those scientists are being paid by the very industries with a big economic …

Ah. There we have it. We’re in the pockets of Big Oil. Never mind that the facts show otherwise, that Cato’s donor base is wide and composed almost entirely of individuals animated by the idea of a free society under limited government.

But that’s not the main point, not really. Rather, it’s the assumption of Sen. Whitehouse and his friends that they, whose outlook depends so much on government funding, fairly dripping with the taxpayers’ blood, have the cleanest of hands and the purest of motives. Yet why should we believe that the avaricious individuals these folks call on government to check, suddenly become virtuous when they have the monopoly power of government in their grasp, to say nothing of the public till at their disposal? If ever scrutiny were warranted, I should think it on that side of the ledger.

Henry Butler: George Mason Law School’s New Dean

Our friends over at the George Mason University Law School have a new dean this morning—and he’s one of their own, Henry Butler, Foundation Professor of Law at George Mason and Executive Director of the law school’s Law & Economics Center. Late last evening, George Mason Provost and Executive Vice President S. David Wu sent out a notice of the appointment to a wide circle of the law school’s friends.

Over the years, Henry has contributed more than once to Cato’s work.  And in 2009 we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of Henry and the late Professor Larry Ribstein, challenging, among other things, the method through which members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board were removed under the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley Act. In 2010, citing a violation of the separation of powers, the Court would find that method unconstitutional.

Following in the footsteps of Dean Daniel Polsby—and especially, before that, of his mentor, the late Henry Manne—“Henry II” has a great foundation on which to build. The first Henry brought the law school into national prominence. Dean Polsby secured that accomplishment by adding stellar members to an already impressive faculty, many of whom we have worked with and published. With Dean Butler now at the helm, we look forward to more such cooperation in the future. Congratulations Henry.