We describe the most fundamental principles of American politics in terms of “rights.” According to the Declaration of Independence, which constitutes the philosophical foundation of American politics, it is “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; That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” etc.
These truths are, in a sense, “self-evident,” insofar as nobody dares to question them or even to interpret them in any kind of subtle or limited way. But anyone observant of the political realities cannot fail to see that we do not absolutely respect these principles; indeed, it would be impossible to do so. Everyone has a right to life in some sense. But people are still aborted and executed and killed in wars, and we recognize these things as to some extent inevitable and even necessary. We all cherish and believe in our personal liberty. Yet we consent to significant, even involuntary abridgements of our liberty for various important and unimportant reasons. And of all our inalienable rights, surely our individual pursuit of happiness is the most constrained.
It is also not at all clear that governments do in fact come into existence to secure these rights, nor that they do in fact gain their legitimacy though the consent of the governed, nor, finally, that human beings are created in a state of equality. 20th-century conservative French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel suggests that the opposite is the case:
Man appears, a screaming bundle of flesh, the outcome of mating. He is utterly helpless, his existence hangs upon the nursing he receives. (Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Pure Theory of Politics, Liberty Fund, 57)
Without the prolonged and costly help of others, we perish. Jouvenel argues that the institutions of society and childhood run together; that these institutions exist for the sake of children; that a lengthy period of childhood and youth is essential to forming the human being as a social animal; and that the more advanced the civilization, the longer this period of nurture is prolonged.
In other words, order evolves not as a simple compact among equals but as the complex human response to the inescapable fact of our biological and social inequality.
Describing every political reality in terms of “rights” creates conflicts when the rights of different people or groups are found to be in tension or opposed to one another. The unborn child’s right to life and the mother’s right to procure an abortion is a stark example. These rights are completely opposed and cannot be reconciled. Any political solution requires one or both parties to relinquish their claim of right. (We speak figuratively, since the individual unborn child is not yet able to comprehend or consent to political agreements about himself.)
The established view of rights and personhood may change. The same people who penned the Declaration of Independence did not see fit to extend its provisions to the class of people held as slaves. A slave’s right to self-ownership and political self-determination was totally abrogated under the provisions of the novus ordo seclorum.
Since then, this unequal and disadvantaged class has won political equality only through much struggle and blood, casting doubt on the truth of the Declaration’s ideals. Are they actually true, or are they a conveniently pliable fiction for the maintenance of our liberal republic?
Recently I have become aware of two small but potent advocacy groups, both concerned with the problem of the inequality and unequal rights of children. Both groups have formed in reaction to their adverse experiences as children and adolescents. One is a group of young adults who grew up in the homeschool movement. The other comprises people who grew up in households of same-sex couples.
The first group is organized by Ryan L. “Riot” Stollar, a homeschool graduate, and centers on a blog, Homeschoolers Anonymous. The blog publishes personal stories which expose dark tendencies in certain sectors of the homeschooling movement over the past few decades, particularly where fundamentalist religious beliefs and other extreme views colored the movement.
The second group is organized by Robert Oscar “Bobby” Lopez and tells its stories on his blog, English Manif, as well as the Witherspoon Institute blog and other places.
Members of both groups believe they were harmed by their parents’ lifestyle choices. Stollar’s group is concerned with the way ideologies of parenting and education have negatively impacted them in various areas, including education, psychosocial adjustment, sexuality, and life and career prospects. Lopez’s group similarly describes the effects of growing up in households of same sex couples as including profound social and sexual maladjustment. People in both groups at times display obsessive and even neurotic behaviors and perhaps some degree of social maladjustment in the way they are so willing to publicly air their family grievances.
But it is hard to blame them. Both groups express a similar purpose in speaking up about their experiences — a desire to confront, not so much their individual parents in most cases, but the wrong assumptions and ideas which they believe influenced their bad childhood experiences. They seek public awareness of these issues so as to protect future generations of children from being hurt in the same way.
While the homeschooling movement was profoundly child-centered in the way it embraced the value of personal, individualized instruction to meet each child’s unique needs, when brought in contact with dangerous ideology it could become a means for perverse parental wish-fulfillment and unhealthy control. Some parents neglected their children’s education in pursuit of a spiritual mandate. Others, wishing their children to avoid their own sexual regrets, imposed inhumane rules and emotional controls on their adolescent children’s romantic lives.
The children raised by same-sex couples also claim that their parents’ chosen lifestyle was detrimental to their healthy development and adjustment as children. Those raised by lesbian couples lament not only the lack of strong father figures, but also their parents’ ideological unwillingness to admit that this was even a real need.
Both groups share experiences of being shown off as poster children for their parents’ alternative lifestyles. “The kids are all right!” their existence seemed to prove. “No,” they now tell us, “we weren’t all right, and we’re still suffering the consequences.”
Ryan Stollar and his friends now find themselves in conflict with their parents’ exercise of rights. Proponents of homeschooling often refer to parental rights when defending homeschool freedom on the political level. This means that parents have the right to make determinations concerning their children’s upbringing and education. They see these rights asserted in the face of the all-devouring apparatus of government indoctrination and control typified by the public school system, and are committed to protecting their children from the Minotaur. While the homeschool graduates who write for Homeschoolers Anonymous often appreciate their parents’ motivations and many of their choices, they also see, especially in the “Christian patriarchy” subculture, a lust for control and domination of children — an unwillingness to allow children the right to begin to make their own life-determining choices even into adulthood. (Most if not all of the disgruntled homeschool graduates now sharing their stories were raised in this patriarchy subculture.)
Meanwhile, Bobby Lopez and his friends also believe that when their parents pursued what they believed was their right to enter into domestic partnership with whoever they chose, their exercise of freedom infringed on their children’s right to a normal childhood — their right to be raised responsibly by their natural mothers and fathers.
Whether their target is the patriarchy or the gaytriarchy, each of these groups has formed in reaction to a concept of parents’ rights which subordinated the rights of children. Their proposed solution? A competing concept of rights that places the rights of children ahead of the parents’ rights.
It is a superficial truism to observe that “competing” rights must be “held in balance,” even though every theory of rights has a way of hedging or disguising this fact. To say it outright is to admit that particular rights are not absolute and do not necessarily obtain over other considerations.
The political reality, then, is not the existence of rights, but the existence of something else — call it “justice” — which we try to approach by means of the language of rights. The rhetorical power of rights is not in the idea of a right in itself, but in that right belonging to a person. This is why Locke gets closest to the reality when he says that rights derive from a person’s belonging to himself. The individual human being is sacred over and against any other consideration.
But part of the individual’s sacred humanity is found not only in his self-belonging, but also in his belonging to others — in the mutual claims that he and others have upon one another. Again, Locke recognizes the reality and tries to limit it by bringing in the idea of “duty.” Parents have a duty to their children, until children reach adulthood. Parents do not have a right to their children, nor do children owe anything to parents besides obedience until they attain majority. At this point, duties end and rights take over. Parents certainly do not have a right to be supported by their children in old age; as Locke would have it, if they want their children to support them in old age they must establish bonds of affection and gratitude beyond what duty requires.
The parents (or putative parents) of those involved in the Homeschoolers Anonymous and English Manif groups might accuse their adult children of undutiful, un-filial behavior. But in a Lockean analysis this accusation carries little weight, since the undutiful behavior of the children consists in pointing out the parents’ own failure of duty toward their children.
Yet this idea of duty is makeshift, an attempt to fill in the gap between rights and reality. Duty is the Victorian nursemaid who nurtures pre-political man, out of sight, in the invisible upstairs nursery of society, until he or she may “come out” to take on an adult role. This concept of rights Jouvenel ridicules in a trenchant passage:
“Social contract” theories are views of childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood. Society is not founded like a club. One may ask how the hardy, roving adults pictured could imagine the solidarity to be, had they not enjoyed the benefits of a solidarity in being throughout their growing period; or how they could feel bound by the mere exchange of promises, if the notion of obligation had not been built up within them by group existence. (Jouvenel, 60)
Jouvenel argues that freedom is not an abstract right but an inescapable quality of human life, even in cases where the individuals are enslaved or utterly dependent. Freedom and dependence exist in one and the same person. So also, what Jouvenel calls “solidarity” is not a compromise in order to protect man’s liberty from violence as much as possible. It is a natural human propensity, fostered from infancy, to rely and be increasingly relied upon in social connection with others. The family is society in miniature. The adolescent graduates, not from dependence to independence, but from the dependence and solidarity of the family to the larger relationships of interdependence and solidarity typical of the well-developed society.
What injures children — the real sin of the patriarchal parents and same-sex couples now suffering a backlash from their erstwhile dependents — is subjecting the natural form and purpose of the family to ideological and self-serving purposes. The fault of the new generation is that they perpetuate the cycle of reaction by affirming a different set of “rights” instead of returning to a true view of family and society as they really exist.
What I think a new generation of political people needs to understand and affirm — conservative, liberal, porcher, third-way socialist, whoever — is the ultimately pragmatic nature of political rights and the need for a better governing political concept. We talk on and on about our rights, but the talking has more effect than the rights. This is unstable. Unless we want to be ruled by rhetoricians, we need a better political concept; one that can actually lead to peace and human flourishing.
Some may object to this essay as a mischaracterization of John Locke and his ideas. Really, has anyone has ever read Locke “rightly?” Did he even understand his own mind? To ask this is perhaps the intellectual form of a low blow, but it’s hard to avoid when facing Locke, who loads his logic with so many incompatible ideas, like ballast in a top-heavy ship.
Locke is often profound, but also very naïve. After 300 years of development and interpretation of his work, the only alternative thesis to naïveté is a deliberate intention to conceal the core of his philosophy. This is one reading of Locke which actually does better than most at bringing out a coherent synthesis and examining the political effects of his ideas. But after reading Locke and knowing a bit about the writer, it’s repugnant to imagine him personally guilty of a deep Machiavellian perversity. No, better to say, in chorus with Jouvenel, that Locke was a political virgin, a naïf, uniting pure and noble ideation with absurd mistakes and incoherent leaps. We do well to learn from his errors, but not to imitate them.
Thomas Holgrave is a dilettante conservative political philosopher and whatnot. He publishes The Hipster Conservative, although he is not necessarily a hipster. He is also, perversely, an Episcopalian. Not much else is known about him.