Americans should argue with Madison, but we should also take his words seriously when we do so.
The three replies to my essay are thoughtful discussions of important issues, and I thank the respondents for writing them.
Professor Weiner correctly suggests that to rely on great men is a mistake. A polity will not endure if it allows significant decline and constantly requires for its salvation an excellence that is always rare. It will soon lack what it needs, and will unwittingly empower subversive pretenders. But we may nonetheless sometimes need active prudence: we cannot ignore the liberal democratic statesmanship of a Lincoln or Churchill, or even of a Thatcher or Reagan. Such statesmanship involves enterprising and not merely compromising or ameliorating activity. The actions of these statesmen were intended to help restore, or prevent the destruction in war, of the effective power of equal natural rights: significant and sometimes outsized action is necessary to bring about change whose effect is restorative. Reform need not produce something new but can shape new material and situations into the old order so that the old order may flourish. Prudence is not merely or primarily caution but is practical intelligence that is grounded in supporting and expressing virtue of character. In our liberal democratic case, this character is allied to equal and rationally justified natural rights, and not only to local communities and practices.
Professor Muirhead rightly remarks that something is wrong both with today’s Progressives and conservatives. In my judgment, the danger is greater with the Progressives, for they are the ones who now rush to replace equal individual rights with a “liberty” that effectively means government-aided self-direction with selves defined in terms of currently favored group characteristics. The corresponding equality then means the types of substantive equalizing that happen to be favored by those in control. The result is an ever more powerful and arbitrary government. The defects of our conservatives are more easily corrected, for their understanding of equal rights, responsible character, and strong families and institutions is on the right track, even if many conservatives do not always acknowledge what government must do to help secure equal rights, or are too fond of their property. Many Republicans, after all, are still Reagan Republicans, but even Bill Clinton is no longer a Clinton Democrat, let alone a Truman or even a Kennedy one. Parties are still capable of forming and organizing views and sentiments, as Professor Thomas suggests, but if the ground on which they are organized shifts sufficiently from equal rights properly understood, party change comes closer and closer to regime change, and party splits grow.
Professor Thomas properly indicates that our current dilemmas do not arise simply from our misunderstanding of natural rights. They are nonetheless deeply affected by this misunderstanding. Intelligent education about the grounds of natural rights, about the difference between natural rights and complete license, and about the difference between equality in rights and equality simply is necessary. What other rationally defensible and politically accessible view allows us both to respect religion and to restrict its and its opponents’ most extreme claims, an issue with which Professor Thomas is especially concerned? Correctly understanding natural rights is insufficient to resolve our dilemmas because we also require virtue of character. This understanding cannot secure such character, but, together with more tough-mindedness about the need for individual responsibility and less obtrusive government, it can help to advance it. A correct understanding of natural rights also cannot take the place of foolish or constricted opinions about what to do with one’s rights, or with the weakening of family and religion to which equality in rights in some measure contributes. Political health is precarious and one must recognize the subtlety of what contributes to it and the limits one faces in attempting to secure it. Ordinary and typical measures are often wise. Still, there are dangers that party government, or a ‘prudence’ short of statesmanship, may sometimes be unable to meet. A regime of equal liberty may need to be protected by those with unusual abilities.