Bad Arguments For—And Against—Liberty
by Tibor R. Machan
In his December 18th guest column for The New York Times, Orlando Patterson of Harvard University lays in on George W. Bush and his neo-conservative pals for misguidedly pushing Western style liberalism on Iraqis. The gist of his point is that Bush believes that liberty is "written in our hearts," something supposedly learned from John Locke, and that simply is false.
Now if anyone has any knowledge about the philosophy of John Locke, two vital elements of it certainly stand out above the rest: First, Locke did not believe that anything at all was written in our hearts! He opposed innate ideas, such as those Descartes, the famous French rationalist, believed in. Second, Locke did believe in every individual's right to life and property, a right that implies that everyone ought to be free from coercion by other people. But this is not the idea that freedom is written in our hearts but the idea that freedom is the right way for us to live in human communities. It is right but there is nothing at all automatic about it, as Patterson has Bush think of liberalism.
The difference is crucial. Innate ideas, those supposedly written in our hearts, do not need to be learned. Their importance and value are supposedly intuitive, known without having to learn about them. Some people have believed in this—among them many contemporary philosophers who are called intuitionists. These thinkers hold that within us all there are innate proclivities in support of and against various ways of living and organizing life and these need to be unleashed and then we will be well on our way to right conduct and laws. The most recent major political philosopher who saw a significant role for intuitions in human affairs, the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, rested a goodly part of his case for the liberal welfare state on this idea. Professor Patterson, unfortunately, doesn't mention this. Instead he hangs the idea on John Locke, someone who is not usually invoked as a defender of the welfare state but of the free market, capitalist system of political economy, what with his strong support of the right to private property.
But Locke didn't defend his views by reference to intuitions. He realized that it is only if we "consult our reason"—if we think the matter through—will it become evident to us that individuals have a right to their lives and property and that this must be made part of a just human community. Nothing of this is intuitive; nothing is automatic; it is all hard work to figure out.
Assuming that George W. Bush's reference to freedom being written in our hearts is not just sloppy polemics but expresses his true belief, it doesn't come from John Locke. Saying it does makes a mockery of Locke's ideas and of the classical liberal tradition of political economy Locke helped get off the ground.
I do not know if Professor Patterson distorts Locke intentionally or through misunderstanding and ignorance but the distortion is significant and, if accepted, very damaging to the case for the free society. That case is an idea of justice, a normative position, one about how we ought to live within human communities. And there is nothing intuitive or automatic about that. Making it seem that such an idea rests on the quicksand of intuition is to belittle it, to besmirch it as a possibly sound notion about human community life.
As to the Iraqis and others in the Middle East, it may well be true that they would be much better off living in a fully free society, as would we all, but there can be a great deal that stands in the way of that happening. For one, they have contrary ideas of their own. And they have rulers and leaders who would very likely be opposed to freedom for all in that region of the world, so even if the bulk of the people would like to be free, those with power are not likely to let that happen. So, yes, George W. Bush & Co. are mistaken to believe that somehow all people, including those in the Middle East, intuitively embrace the free society. But they didn't pick up that error from John Locke!