One Matthew Peterson over at The Claremont Institute has taken up the Pantagruelist and crunchy challenge. He takes issue with both Caleb Stegall’s article, which I have commented on before here, and my New Pantagruel essay.

One distinction that needs to be made before the discussion goes any further is one between the crunchy arguments of Rod Dreher and the more trenchant critiques of the Enlightenment inheritance made by Caleb and myself. Strictly speaking, “crunchiness” may have many points of contact with some of the arguments Caleb and I have made, Caleb himself was cited in the book and has been a leading participant at the CC blog, and I have been a keen promoter of a proper understanding of what crunchy conservatism means, but this should not allow Mr. Peterson to conflate as he does Rod’s critique of modern conservatism with the rejection of the general liberal tradition that I believe Caleb and I espouse in one form or another.

Mr. Peterson writes:

It is all too easy to critique the problems we see in modern America by simply blaming them on our regime and the entirety of the “liberal tradition.”

This is a curious thing to say about Rod’s book and the other crunchies at the blog, since I don’t get the impression that most have been doing much of blaming the “regime” or the “liberal tradition” for the problems we see. One of the unusual things about the CC blog and the book, and why it has elicited such fierce reactions, is that it proposes that the fault is in ourselves: that we, as conservatives, have more or less dropped the ball in living up to our principles. To the extent that American conservatives have been prone to these sorts of compromises because of the liberal inheritances of their national political tradition (that is, because of the preeminence of individual autonomy, choice and self-interest among modern conservatives who will, when cornered, describe themselves as “classical liberals”) and the disintegrative effects of the liberal tradition, it might be said that crunchy conservatism is indicting an excess of liberal influences on contemporary conservatism. But that is a far cry from “simply blaming” liberalism for these problems.

As much as I would very much like to provide a more extended answer to the criticisms Mr. Peterson has put forward, time today does not permit me to try to explain at very great length the parts of my essay that seemed so unclear to him. In short, I would answer that I am perfectly familiar with the theory of consent expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and I would reiterate (perhaps tersely) that the fact that Jefferson wrote it and that Locke (and, yes, Sydney) believed the same thing makes it no more compelling or true if we believe on historical evidence, for one thing, that no government has ever been established by consent of the governed and that “the people” are not sovereign. It is a pleasant fiction to believe that “the people” are sovereign, but a fiction all the same.

Consent of the governed is a nice idea, in the way that the state of nature is a nice idea: if either had a basis in human experience, they might make for useful concepts in ordering a polity. However, I believe they rise and fall together. To my mind, an affirmation of historically chartered liberties, rather than “rights” established in a law of nature, is the only way to understand and preserve the constitutional inheritance that I, for one, still greatly value. Perhaps Mr. Peterson has taken my criticism of the consent of the governed for a denial that the Founders endorsed this theory? I don’t make any such denial. What I was saying in the quote Mr. Peterson cited in particular was that Locke and Rousseau say fundamentally similar things about contractarian theory, and American conservatives have operated for quite some time on the assumption that Rousseau’s social contract is a ludicrous, ahistorical abstraction invented by a philosophe and forerunner of the French Revolution and Locke’s consent theory is just a description of the way things really are.

To make this unwarranted distinction seem more plausible to Christian conservatives, there have been numerous efforts to blur Christian natural law and a modern law of nature (Mr. Peterson makes just such an effort with frequent recourse to Aquinas), as if the doctrine of the Fall could be blurred into the idea of the state of nature, and thus make Anglo-American Enlightenment ideas amenable to Christians, even though these ideas contradict certain basic Christian understandings of the human condition and society.

There were parts of my essay that were probably fairly dense and in need of more unpacking, and I will be glad to do that in the future. At the same time, my initial impression is that Mr. Peterson’s objections to Caleb’s article and my essay tends to confirm one of the main points of my essay about how American conservatives understand the relationship of Anglo-American Enlightenment thought and French Enlightenment thought. American conservatives allow themselves to criticise and dismiss the more “radical” French Enlightenment thought, but do not see these criticisms as in any way affecting the validity of the claims of the Anglo-American Enlightenment tradition (it is also worth noting that Jonathan Israel, historian of the early Enlightenment, has located the radical Enlightenment as much in English thought of the 17th century as in the French of the 18th).

Mr. Peterson objects to Caleb’s critique of the social contract by claiming that somehow this critique cannot extend to the “regime” in which he lives. With Locke and Sydney we have one contract theory, and with Rousseau we have another. If I gave the impression in the essay that these two are absolutely identical, I erred. But that they are similar in most important respects should not be in doubt. When they do give it some thought, American conservatives believe, as Mr. Peterson does in his posts, that these two positions are not in the least similar and that they do not stem from fairly similar assumptions.

Here is Mr. Peterson again, quoting Caleb:

“When, in the wake of religious wars, old Christendom attempted to do away with political theology altogether by demythologizing history (and the state along with it) and by rationalizing all order as nothing more than a social contract, it made the conscious decision to rely on positive law—law established by man according to procedural rules previously agreed to by social contract—alone.” Maybe so, but surely Caleb is not referring to the regime in which he lives? Has he read the Declaration of Independence? What does he think of it? At another point he borrows a phrase from Voeglin referring to the “immoral swindle of consent” that further begs these questions.

Perhaps Mr. Peterson can explain how the “regime” in which we live possesses a political theology that imbues the state with some sort of sacrality or some other trait that would suggest something more at work than consent-based agreement, or demonstrate how our regime does not actually rely on positive law alone. There is a certain mystical adoration of the Founding and the Declaration of Independence at Claremont, but that does not a political theology make.

Turning to my essay, Mr. Peterson quotes me and remarks:

For instance, Daniel says that “the rights of Englishmen our ancestors claimed were, in the sweep of history, fairly new and based on contractarian and rights theories just as speculative and ahistorical in their own way as any imagined in France.” Algernon Sidney would certainly disagree with him—as would the many Founders who quoted and respected Sidney’s writings—as his arguments make frequent references to the likes of Aristotle and other thinkers that Daniel doesn’t think are part of “liberalism.” In fact, the Founders themselves gave us many specific arguments concluding that some of the rights formerly known as the “rights of Englishmen” are in fact based in the laws of nature and nature’s God, supported by both reason and revealed truth.

Perhaps I should have been more clear. I did not think it would be very controversial to claim that the rights of Englishmen claimed by our Founders were fairly new in the late eighteenth century. Taking the long view, rights that had been formally confirmed only roughly 150 years before Concord in the Petition of Right are fairly new on the historical scene. Arguably, to the extent that the Petition of Right only re-confirmed existing guarantees, we could trace these rights farther back in time (though at each step we would find, as Filmer demonstrates very effectively, that these rights are legally binding because they are confirmed by the Crown). The contractarian theory justifying the rebellion against Charles I, say what you will about that rebellion, was even newer than this guarantee, and Sydney was one of the men engaged in justifying a rebellion in which he had taken part. The entire discourse of right of rebellion was, in the form our Founders encountered it, almost entirely a 17th century one.

With apologies to my alma mater of Hampden-Sydney, Sydney had every incentive to latch onto fashionable philosophical ideas about consent of the governed, as this was the only thing that could justify what he and the other Roundheads had done. He not only quoted from Aristotle, but went to great lengths to disprove Filmer’s arguments with recourse to an extended discussion of the Old Testament. None of which makes his claims true. I do not dispute that some of the Founders cast their defense of the rights of Englishmen in terms of natural rights and the law of nature and “nature’s God,” and it does not surprise me when this is just how Sydney had cast it a century before. My point would be merely that the only rights with any substance or reality were their rights as English subjects, and also that it would be my guess that the only kind of “rights” that actually do have any meaning for most people are those guaranteed by custom and law, because these chartered liberties are the only sort that are tangible and evident.