Feature 11.16.2022 4 minutes

Mobbed by Consent


Rights unfettered by natural law are also undefended by it.

Most states in today’s U.S. periodically undertake the task of revising academic standards for their public schools. Recently, in one such exercise, a member of the commission charged with reviewing the standards for social studies moved to omit the first sentence and a half of the Declaration of Independence—all that stuff about the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, self-evident truths, and unalienable rights that governments are instituted to secure. Sounded like a violation of the separation of church and state to him.

Instead of learning such unconstitutional heresies, the reformer suggested, students should begin their study with the phrase, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”

Under this proposed dispensation, “consent” means assent—freedom from those bothersome constraints imposed by anyone or anything beyond the inclinations of the consenting parties—which Daniel J. Mahoney here wittily calls “the categorical imperative of individual choice.” Kant, however, might not be amused—or, if amused, sardonically. Hardly an orthodox Christian or even a natural law man himself, even he wanted religion to live within “the limits of reason,” not in accordance with the limitless scope of human desires.

“Consent” and “choice,” redefined as desire, define much of modern “individualism,” whose non-negotiable imperative is “I want what I want.” In one sense, modern individualism fits neatly into modern democracy. “Who died and left you in charge?” is a rhetorical and egalitarian question that shuts down a lot of arguments, neutralizing unwanted commands.

Still, democracy is above all a name for a sort of regime, a ruling order: authority may no longer be allowed to come from above, but it does come at you from all sides, as the experience of high school (with or without a curriculum that includes the Declaration of Independence) emphatically teaches. What democratic egalitarianism gives—entitlement to dismiss all opinions but one’s own—it readily takes away, inhibiting any expression of opinions at variance with those around us, on pain of social ostracism. Regimes include and exclude: democracy is no different than any other in that way. So I have my rights—until I don’t.

Rights are insecure in contemporary American democracy, because they are neither limited nor defended by the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. Our individual agency can only withstand the assault of other people’s collective agency if each is beholden to some absolute standard, rather than the mere unfettered will of the majority.

When rights conceived as inherent in individuals meet societies organized democratically, the result has been not rugged but harried and timid individualism, as described by Tocqueville. Overwhelmed by the loud importunities of the crowd, the intimidated individual withdraws from public engagement, the only effective means of securing rights. Against this, Tocqueville famously commends the American practice of civil association, whereby individuals form small but sturdy local organizations—clubs, churches, schools, political parties—still democratic but humanly scaled, agents of resistance against the weight of mass democracy.

So long as federalism was respected and natural rights upheld, this worked tolerably well. Self-government in civil associations and town meetings guaranteed that people argued with people they knew about things they knew about. The power of the knowing eye-roll kept most people with the bounds of common sense.

But for a century or more, natural rights wielded by self-governing citizens active in civic associations and local governments have slowly yielded to claims of “historical” rights advanced by a variety of Marxist and Marxisante thinkers. To conceive of rights as historical, evolving in accordance with vast historical forces said to be physically and even morally irresistible, is to reintroduce the “massifying” and isolating effects of democracy under an increasingly centralized administrative state.

This in turn trains citizens to hope for a defense of their rights not by themselves and their elected representatives but by the only institutions powerful enough to manage such forces—the administrative state itself and the equally bureaucratic modern corporation, often in collusion with each other and always with the increasingly fearsome resources of digital technology at their disposal.

Under this new regime, citizens are not really wanted. Indeed, they are inconvenient. Travel down an American highway to see the proliferation of billboards touting marijuana dispensaries and online gambling. A satisfied, stupefied, and indebted populace can no longer want to declare its independence, feeling more threatened than fortified by such notions as the Laws of Nations and of Nature’s God, taking license for liberty and self-will for self-government.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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