(I have a feeling I'm going to regret this...)
In the discussion in my previous entry the question arose (raised by our own esteemed Zippy) whether the present evils of society (evils from a conservative perspective) are traceable to certain notions present in the American founding such as equality and freedom. Zippy states his position quite clearly, here:
Lets suppose I made the following statement:
"Freedom and equal rights are just heuristic rules of thumb that help people get along without fighting. As rules of thumb they rank about where platitudes like 'be nice to strangers' ranks, and should never be allowed to interfere with important decisions. They are not important founding principles of our country. When more important matters come up, they need to be set aside."
A right-liberal is someone who finds it difficult to agree with that proposition. He doesn't have to find it impossible: just difficult enough that his own orientation, discourse, and decisions in practice assign freedom and equal rights the priority of governing principle rather than heuristic.
If people don't want more liberalism - this can be viewed as a simple observation, not a prescription - they need to explicitly reject liberalism's status as the default principle of appeal in politics. That is, they need to eschew appeals to freedom and equal rights to resolve political issues, and treat such appeals by others as illegitimate: not as wrong interpretations of what freedom and equal rights "really mean": different kinds of liberals agree with each other that freedom and equal rights are supreme political principles, and disagree with each other over the implications. That simply perpetuates the problem: we've established what we are, and are merely haggling over the price.
If someone really wants to see Zippy, Jeff Singer, Tony (now our blog colleague), Jeff Culbreath, and others go at it hammer and tongs on the thesis that these problems stem from the principles of the founding (and if you're really a glutton for punishment), you can read the lengthy discussion from about a year ago beginning approximately here. To my mind one of the more interesting attempts to pin the blame on the Founders was made by Jeff Culbreath rather late in that thread. Jeff C. attributed to the more "Jacobin" founders an extremely strong thesis to the effect that "maximizing liberty is an unqualified good." I comment a bit on that thesis (mostly leaving aside the question of its historical plausibility) and on an attempt to relate such a principle to abortion (which was the topic on hand at that point in the thread) here.
Now, in this post I'd like to talk a bit about equality. The question is this: Should we say that there is no notion of "equal rights" that can or should be thought of as an important principle?
First, I tend to agree with contemporary people of trad-con sympathies when they fret over the rather sloppy way in which a phrase like "equal rights" is thrown around. After all, since we know that we are surrounded by people who are likely to think that such a phrase means support for feminism and for the homosexual agenda (among other things), and since even such topics as the wisdom of the 1960's Civil Rights Acts should be things conservatives can discuss among themselves and take different views of, why make some sort of big, flag-waving slogan out of a phrase like "equal rights"? If you put in all the qualifications you'd have to put in, in light of current issues, it wouldn't work as a slogan anymore, so why bother?
Even a phrase like "equaltiy of opportunity" is somewhat unsatisfactory. For example, does "equality of opportunity" mean that a Christian businessman who is trying to create a certain business culture and climate that does not undermine his moral values might be morally obligated to hire a homosexual living openly with his partner as the company's Vice President? After all, you have to give him an "equal opportunity," right?
The fact is that the whole issue of "discrimination" is incredibly fraught, which makes even "equality of opportunity" problematic in various not-implausible scenarios.
Having said all of that, here is the other side: There are important good things that people can mean by "equal rights." Some of them I think were in the minds of the founders of our country. Others came along later, particularly after the abolition of slavery and rising concern over things like lynchings. And all of them, I believe, are still in the minds of people who talk about equality.
To my mind good American civic education consists, inter alia, in teasing out these various ideas and in teaching young people to discriminate among them and to have, well, the right opinions about them. Probably we won't all agree about what all the right opinions are, and that's even when "we" includes only self-identified conservatives. But it seems to me in any event more profitable to state clear theses that could plausibly be meant by some phrase such as "equal rights" and to discuss whether these theses are true or false than to try to defend a large-scale historical proposition that blames the inclusion of, "All men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence for the development of the abortion regime or the passage of homosexual "marriage."
So, let's look at some true propositions related to "equal rights." I'm not claiming that all of these are "in the Constitution" (though some are). I'm not saying anything about the doctrine of incorporation or about how or whether the courts should or should not enforce these principles. I'm just saying that I agree with them and that they can plausibly be thought of as outworkings of a legitimate concept of "equal rights." Roughly, these seem to me to be related to the important notion of "equality before the law."
--America doesn't have a hereditary, lifelong king and will never, while being constitutionally the same country in any meaningful sense, have a hereditary, lifelong king.
--America's government doesn't bestow or recognize aristocratic titles as in England and other European countries.
--In America, a person's punishment for a crime should not be lessened based on his blood-line or celebrity status.
--In America, law enforcers and prosecutors should not, and especially not systematically, ignore crimes or refuse to enforce the laws, particularly laws against direct personal and bodily harm, threats, etc., because they sympathize with the lawbreakers' dislike of or desire to harm members of particular groups.
--In America, law enforcers and prosecutors should not, and especially not systematically, ignore crimes or refuse to enforce the laws, particularly laws against direct personal and bodily harm, threats, etc., because they fear reprisals from the lawbreakers or those sympathetic to them or because they fear labels such as "racism."
--American laws should not increase penalties for crimes based on the membership of the victim in a specially designated racial, religious, or other similar politically favored group.
--The American legal system should never place whole classes of human beings entirely outside the protection of laws against serious and direct personal harm such as killing, grievous bodily harm, beating, torture, or private imprisonment.
This isn't an exhaustive list, obviously. But it's hard work wording things really carefully, so I'll leave the list at that for now.
I'm inclined to think that when mainstream conservatives do what Zippy describes as "treat[ing] appeals by others...as wrong interpretations of what freedom and equal rights 'really mean'," what they are doing is treating such interpretations--say, a feminist's attempt to say that "equality" requires that she have the right to abort her child--as wrong statements about what "equal rights" should mean. And there, I agree with them. While I'm sympathetic to the idea that "equal rights" is a very broad phrase and subject to many different interpretations, especially nowadays, I also am not prepared to say that in no sense is it an important concept and that in no sense does it have something to do with what "America stands for." I don't throw it around myself, for all the reasons given, but when other people throw it around, instead of trying to get them to eschew it and treat it as something so vague as "being nice to strangers," I'd prefer to get them to get more specific, to talk about theses like those given above, and to restrict themselves to those theses and other similar ones. Then, if they really insist on doing so, they can point to such a list of clear and specific statements and say, "That's what I mean by being in favor of equal rights."
And it's pretty obvious--or should be, because I constructed the list deliberately for this purpose--how such theses are meant to support what are widely considered to be conservative positions on several timely issues.
In the course of trying to get my fellow conservatives to be more specific, I have no doubt that a number of touchy subjects (even among conservatives) will come up. I already mentioned the 1964 Civil Rights Acts. Even raising the possibility that they might not have been the wisest idea would be considered heresy by many conservatives. Other conservatives have already capitulated on the wonderfulness of special homosexual protection by anti-discrimination laws. Others consider themselves "feminists for life" and are all on-board with much of the 1970's feminist agenda. Pressing people to be more specific is hardly a matter of trying to blend into the crowd of the mainstream conservative movement as we find it in 2011.
On the other hand, what I am proposing does avoid a root and branch rejection of all talk of equality as "right-liberalism" and hence completely wrong. And since I don't reject all talk of equality, I think that hits it just about right.