When Did John Locke Become The Enemy? 


Post-liberalism has suddenly become all the rage these days, a cause célèbre in a burgeoning number of conservative journalistic circles. Conservatives should be exceedingly careful of giving a fatal sanction to damning critiques of The Enlightenment and classical liberalism. Here’s why.

When did it become fashionable for conservatives to bash the European Enlightenment? 

Or, to phrase the question another way, when did conservatives start celebrating intellectual eviscerations of the philosophical tradition undergirding the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the “Gettysburg Address”, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?

Of course, American universities have long promulgated a steady potpourri of Anti-Enlightenment Leftist sentiment since the 1960s, disseminating a bevy of illiberal and postmodern notions—sometimes Marxist bromides about “false consciousness,” sometimes banal citations of Foucault about “power/knowledge” or how reality is a “social construct” that desperately needs to be “deconstructed” for reasons that seem to change every few years.

However, Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, Hume, Voltaire, and Baron de Montesquieu, to cite a few, are our philosophers. Their origins might be English, Scottish, or French, but many of their ideas are imbedded in the foundational documents of this nation. Jefferson thought Locke was one of the greatest men to have ever lived. Madison harnessed the ideas of Smith in the most famous of The Federalist Papers’ eighty-five essays, The Federalist No. 10. Montesquieu was quoted more than any other philosopher during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Hamilton was powerfully influenced by Hume’s reflections on commercial republicanism. 

“Inalienable rights,” “separation of powers,” the First Amendment freedoms, and a robust commitment to free enterprise and private property rights are all inextricably tied to what is unique and, yes, exceptional about the American Experiment. This bundle of practices and beliefs are typically associated with what is known as classical liberalism. 

Our Founding Fathers were classical liberals. When they wanted to hurl insults at one another, they would paint someone as an illiberal “monarchist” (Adams and Hamilton) or “anarchist” (Jefferson and Paine). Webster, Calhoun, and Clay were classical liberals. Abraham Lincoln was a classical liberal who labeled the Declaration of Independence “the apple of gold” and the Constitution a “picture of silver.” TR, FDR, LBJ, and Ronald Reagan were classical liberals—maybe not iterations modern Republicans would necessarily embrace, but still ardent believers in the classical liberal tradition underlying the American creed itself.

The formation of America, among other things, was a philosophical experiment in democratic self-government—an attempt to organize society from the bottom up, centering the locus of power not on the divine right of monarchs or the ecclesiastic diktats of established churches, but on the backs of ordinary human beings in possession of “natural” or “inalienable” rights who were rational and capable of exercising moral agency.

Until quite recently, American conservatives were almost universally committed to conserving the principles of the American founding—what Lincoln describes in his First Inaugural Address as “the mystic chords of memory.” Progressive college students might obnoxiously wear Che Guevara t-shirts on campus, but conservatives wax poetic when talking about Washington crossing the Delaware or reading the lyrical words of Jefferson in the apotheosis of classical liberal philosophy, the Declaration of Independence. Americans pulse with shame and pang with regret when reading Frederick Douglass’s, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” because we cannot deny the chasm between our liberal ideals and the presence of human bondage in our national history.

This tradition now seems suspicious to some. Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute, succinctly describes this phenomenon: “Postliberalism is having its moment on the political Right in America.”

Let’s hope the moment is brief. 

The argument of the post-liberals is now familiar.

A regime that champions individual liberty as its paramount virtue will eventually alienate itself from religious traditions, family connections, or any hint of community obligation. Liberalism, with its heavy emphasis on individual autonomy and sovereignty of the self, has encouraged its adherents to aggressively nurture every craving under the banner of choice and identity. The results have been a disaster. Civil society has become morally bankrupt, endlessly sexualized, and politically nihilistic while gorging on electronic titillation without end, effectively ruining our brains and corrupting our souls in the process.

A broader and more damning critique is that liberalism is an ideology without a meaningful telos or guiding purpose and is, thus, inherently chaotic. There is no aspirational truth, no grand project, no transcendent meaning. Liberalism is a political project that intensely relegates meaning to the personal realm. Fulfillment is not reached through politics or other locales of the public square. We are not collectively serving a divine monarch or supporting the ecclesiastic writ of an established church.

Thus, liberalism is built on the lower but firmer ground of universal rationalism and rights-based individualism.

I am actually quite sympathetic to these critiques; in fact, I wrote an entire book chronicling how a cult of radicalized individualism has ensnared the souls of young people, hollowing them out by imperiling the quest for deeper meaning and purpose as young Americans today find themselves increasingly alienated from faith, patriotism, marriage, family, and friendship.

But John Locke isn’t our enemy. As Hoover Institute senior fellow Peter Berkowitz has noted, “Lockean ideas are inextricably woven into the fabric of America’s national political culture.”  

Citizens in a liberal society don’t need to fight religious crusades or take part in utopian political projects to find some measure of happiness and fulfillment. We might be “men without chests,” satisfied with simple pleasures and localized ambitions, but this is actually a good and desirable outcome. We might just want to play tennis two nights a week. We might just want to read romance novels and save for a time share on the coast. We might want to move to Tennessee and lose thirty pounds by hiking on mountain trails. 

Many of the scholars who write these books and critiques are men and women of great genius and soaring erudition. Their books and articles are read by the high priests of modern American political culture. Their words echo. Their voices were magnified and given the sanction of prestige by famous right-leaning newspapers and magazines. Their scholarship is impeccable, and their credentials are second-to-none.  

And yet, there is something this high school teacher knows that they don’t: If post-liberalism becomes the orthodoxy on the American Right, this nation is in real trouble. Who will be left to teach and defend the guiding principles of the American republic? Who will tell the story of why the nation is worth defending and renewing for another generation?

What will it mean to be an American if we don’t believe in the “Laws of Nature?” What if we don’t believe in “inalienable rights” and “equal protection of the laws?” What if the universal chalice from which all Americans drink—“that all men are created are created equal”—runs dry and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” is deemed hopelessly naive? This is what is ultimately at stake. 

We live in a time Edmund Burke feared most, when tradition is airily abandoned and liberty descends into licentiousness. If cars are crashing too often in our society, the solution is to teach people how to become better drivers, not to decry the development of the car, itself. Classical liberalism isn’t perfect, and it is certainly vulnerable to excess.

However, as Winston Churchill famously remarked about democracy, ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.

The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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