Dear Matt Walsh, Josh Hammer, Michael Knowles, and the rest of the “Common Good” Conservatism delegation,
You made your bed, now lie in it.
Several months ago, warring tribes of conservatism continued their battle over the proper use of government force, this time by means of a proxy fight over a proposed ban on pornography. As always with micro-level policy skirmishes, the true contention boiled down to the ongoing conflict between two groups who for decades were known as “traditional” and “fusionist” conservatives, more recently rebranded as “common good” and “rights-based” conservatives, respectively.
While I addressed the pornography debate and outlined these two camps at the time, as this is the defining (literally) clash of conservatism, it’s worth a revisit. Moreover, I’m not known to pass up an opportunity to say “I told you so.”
The central axiom of “rights-based” or fusionist conservatism is the plain and succinct assertion found in the Declaration of Independence: that the sole reason “governments are instituted among men” is “to secure these rights,” namely our God-given inalienable rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“Common good” conservatives such as Daily Wire’s Editor at Large Josh Hammer circumvent this justification through context-free rhetorical trickery. For example, Hammer points out that Thomas Jefferson was in France during the Constitutional Convention as supposed evidence that the other Founders rejected his views on government. It’s not like several signers of the Declaration also ratified the Constitution, or that the Framers had just fought a war for independence under the auspices of that Declaration.
“Common good” conservatives suggest that because the Founders were familiar with and partly influenced by Aristotle that they must have agreed with any quote Hammer can uncover, no matter how vague and generalized. For instance, suggesting that “a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only” neglects to clarify what “a good life” entails and whether this slogan alone can justify anything the Left believes a good life requires, such as universal free healthcare, a right to affordable housing, and a Green New Deal.
Moreover, any given philosopher’s influence over the founding generation does not inherently mean they agreed with everything that philosopher said (not like Hammer cares what Madison thought anyway). The Framers looked to Hobbes without adopting his Leviathan, and to Plato without seizing children to be raised by the state. The Founders, and “rights-based” conservatives, draw a clear boundary between the desirable and the dangerous of these philosophies: natural rights. But as Ben Shapiro recognized in his rebuttal to “common good” conservatism, “if you’re citing Plato’s definition of good government,” under a “whatever is necessary” standard, “you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself gradually drifting toward Plato’s Republic.”
Hammer commits a similar referential error regarding Edmund Burke, which is equally misguided yet more vital to rebut than the others, as traditionalist conservatives co-opted (and misrepresented) Burke’s views on tradition long ago and now do so with his emphasis on justice.
Burke is widely regarded as the original conservative, certainly one of the movement’s most noteworthy leaders. And while he did cite a necessity of preserving tradition, it was not tradition for tradition’s sake but specifically the traditions of Western Civilization, such as due process, which had proved essential to the pursuit of justice. “Common good” conservatives might glom onto this mention of a pursuit of justice, and indeed Hammer describes the pursuit of justice as the animating force of the Founders and the Constitution — but what did Burke mean by justice? Not “Aristotelian human flourishing” or a subjectively framed “common good” as Hammer describes, but “a constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society.” In other words, natural rights-based government, where no individual can use his freedom to violate the rights of others.
Thus, Hammer is right that “America’s Founding Fathers would have been baffled by the notion that the pursuit of justice or the common good is a governmental priority in any substantial state of tension with a governmental priority of securing negative rights,” but only according to their definition of justice, not Hammer’s. The Founding definition of Burkean justice as the securing of natural rights also explains Madison’s claim in Federalist 51 that “justice is the end of government,” constantly stripped of its heritage and transplanted into the manifestos of “common good” conservatism. In the proper context, Madison merely reiterates what his friend Jefferson articulated over a decade earlier.
Hammer’s distaste for a supposed “dying radical individualist strand of American ‘conservatism’” reveals the allegiance to collectivism inherent in a “common good” devotion to human flourishing. Matt Walsh has bemoaned any move away from the government advancing the common good as “limp, shallow, and ineffectual.” As to this tendency, Shapiro explained that “common good” conservatives embrace “the massive growth of government” if it aligns with their priorities because they “do not harbor the grave mistrust of government the Founding Fathers did.” Hammer confirmed his repudiation of the Founders’ suspicion of centralizing power into men’s hands when he recently tweeted that small-government conservatism represents “a lie against human nature.” In other words, Hammer, like most collectivists, believes that human nature is basically good. Most individualists, like the Founders, believe otherwise. In fact, in the same Federalist 51 that Hammer cherry picks for his misterpreted quote on justice, Madison famously mused, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Hammer, once again, appeals to Madison when it suits him yet rejects him wholesale when he can’t twist the words.
All of this introduction leads to a final, brief observation: all the leaders of the “common good” conservative movement like Hammer and Walsh have been among the fiercest opponents of statewide stay-at-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hammer has described the lockdowns as “madness,” and Walsh has questioned the government’s power to “preemptively shut down society, close businesses, churches, suspend the right to assembly, etc.” As comforting as it is to see Matt Walsh defend natural rights, this is exactly the kind of government action his philosophy admires: one that grows as big as desired as long as it seeks to achieve the common good. All of those advocating for the continuation of lockdowns and heavy restrictions have expressed as their justification the desire to save lives and protect health and safety. In other words, the common good. So why should this be a problem?
Hammer has dismissed concerns from friends of liberty like Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) about Fourth Amendment abuses like improper NSA surveillance and has even branded Amash a “libertarian zealot.” But all large-scale post-9/11 Fourth Amendment violations have been justified under the same umbrella of public health and safety. So why are they not a problem yet the lockdowns are? Is this not the “more muscular and morally assertive form of government” Hammer fantasizes about?
On Twitter, Matt Walsh satirized the Coronavirus responses, saying, “Remember folks. Everything in the Bill of Rights has an asterisk that says ‘unless there’s a virus.’ You can’t see it. It’s written in invisible ink. But it’s there.” Yet Matt Walsh believes that everything in the Bill of Rights has an asterisk that says “unless it goes against the common good.” So what’s the difference?
As with all those friendly to big government for their own devices, Hammer, Walsh, and the rest of the “common good” conservative movement embrace the levers of power when they have a hold on them but decry the same powers when used by those they disagree with. While they may call this philosophy “conservatism,” I think most of us would rightly call it “hypocrisy.”
This is the type of government you dreamed up, “common good” conservatives — one where the government can do whatever it wants in the name of what it believes is best for everyone. Don’t blame me if you don’t like what your worldview looks like in practice.