Friday, July 15, 2011

Will Wilkinson on Faith and Freedom

Will Wilkinson is a capital l Libertarian (ie: he is closer to Ayn Rand's philosophy than Charles Murray) who writes a great blog at The Economist. He penned "Newt's theology of exceptionalism," after attending an Iowa speech by Gingrich. Wilkinson raises some points that merit pondering and I think demand a response from a faith-based perspective (bolding my own):

Mr Gingrich recurs constantly to the Declaration of Independence's premise that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". Sometimes he uses it as a shibboleth of Americanism...Sometimes Mr Gingrich pushes deeper and explicitly attacks the secularism he sees lurking behind the 'Obama model'... Mr Gingrich himself implicitly acknowledges, the mere fact of divinely-endowed rights gets us nowhere. It's the widespread belief in rights that really constrains the power of government. It would seem, then, that a conception of rights acceptable to believers and sceptics (sic) alike offers a bulwark against tyranny superior to a vision of rights attractive to believers alone. At the very least, it seems plausible that an account of rights based on a grasp of the empirical conditions conducive to fair, mutually-beneficial social cooperation offers an equally sturdy basis for effective limits on state power. As evidence for this proposition, one might point to countries such as Denmark, which are far more secular than America, but whose citizens are at least as free as Americans.

Wilkinson here brings up the divide between (classical) liberals and (religious) conservatives: One group believes in individual liberty because it's proven "empirically" to be the best way to limit state power and foster mutual cooperation; the other believes in individual liberty because we are all created in the image of God, who is the ultimate source of Truth. Atheist classical liberals run into the problem of evil and the absurdity of life, which raises questions of the definition of justice. If there is no source of Truth, how do you determine what is right or just? What makes an individual life so sacred? Evangelical Christians have little problem here, God is the source of Truth and the Bible spells out where the ultimate source of our rights comes from. Ordering our society around the basic principles of God's revealed order is the best way to see the community flourish. (I'm putting this crudely for brevity, philosophers like William Lane Craig have worded it much more eloquently).

Wilkinson takes offense at Gingrich's implication that anyone who is not of the same faith-based perspective must be a progressive out to undermine individual liberty. Hence, his Denmark example (the Heritage Foundation ranks very secular Denmark ahead of the U.S. in its ranking of Economic Freedom).

Mr Gingrich went on to argue that the judiciary's consistent failure to rule in a manner adequately reflecting the belief that "our rights come from our creator" justifies a congressional usurpation of judicial power. That is, Mr Gingrich argued that Congress ought to override judges who, when interpreting the establishment clause, fail to rule as if dicta in a strongly-worded letter to King George III had established an official American political theology. The mind boggles. American politics is not, as Mr Gingrich would have you believe, a Manichean struggle between devout, liberty-loving champions of heaven-kissed inherent rights and amoral bureaucratic predators ravening for power.

Wilkinson also takes issue with the sponsor of the Gingrich event, an organization very opposed to gay rights in Iowa:
"(R)eligious conservatives have often resisted the idea that citizens ought to be equally sovereign."

(This is why classical liberals like Hayek hated to be mis-identified as conservative). He also points out that liberals (read: American-definition liberals or progressives) often base their policies on classical liberal beliefs of individual liberty, even if classical liberals would disagree with the design of those policies:

It's not so clear that secular liberals are the enemy of the sovereign citizen... If Obamacare is misguided, it is also a sincere, morally-motivated attempt to ensure that all Americans are in a position to meaningfully exercise their self-sovereignty, to guarantee the worth of their rights.

But note Wilkinson's use of the phrase "morally-motivated." How can a secular society define morals in the absence of a standard of Truth? This gets back to the argument that since classical liberalism contains no telos, it will ultimately fail. Adam Smith's moral system maintained a divine judge that provides that moral guidance, but the whole of classical liberalism rejects this, relying instead on the empirics that Wilkson mentions above. (Correct?)

So, while I agree with Wilkinson on the one hand, I disagree on the other. I agree that it's possible to maintain individual liberty in a secular society. But I disagree that it's somehow possible to have a consistent definition of morality--including the morality of individual sovereignty--in that secular society. Thoughts?

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