Thursday, April 07, 2016

Tensions Within the Synthesis of Originalism II: "For the Land is Mine"

"For the Land is Mine" is the title to Chapter 2 of Eric Nelson's book. I found it in a Word document from Brown University. There Dr. Nelson notes other scholars -- Philip Pettit of Princeton and Michael Sandel of Harvard -- who have also stressed the egalitarian nature of "republican" ideology (as contrasted with the individualistic nature of "liberalism").

I was recently reminded that “few American Whigs in the 1770s saw any conflict between what they read in Locke and Montesquieu and what they read in the Bible." In fact it's a feature of Whig thought that it served as a "unifying" ideology. As Thomas Jefferson noted to Richard Henry Lee, "All American whigs thought alike on these subjects." He did this while sourcing Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Sidney along with "harmonizing sentiments of the day." Yes harmonizing was needed. The four named sources didn't always agree with one another on all important matters of "public right."

Those of us who study Leo Strauss often hear about the break between Aristotle (Ancient) and Locke (Modern). Nelson focuses on the (arguable) break between Cicero and Algernon Sidney. Cicero was one of the ancient Roman republicans. These republicans, according to Dr. Nelson, "had accorded enormous respect to private property rights, and had exhibited a particular horror of coercive attempts to redistribute wealth."

One thing I stress is that the Ancient Hebrews didn't have a republic. They had some kind of idealized theocracy, where, if you believe the tale, God was directly in charge by virtue of direct interaction with man. They eventually got a King which God warned against. The concept of "republicanism" is entirely a creation of the ancient Greco-Roman tradition.

Yet Nelson's figures CLAIMED that the Hebrews had a "republic." (This claim would resonate with Thomas Paine and the American Founders). And in the process of "revising" or at least "re-understanding" the biblical record, they also broke with the ancient Roman position of Cicero which looks more like something the promoters of laissez faire economics would endorse (Milton Friedman, et al.). 

Rather, the British republicans, notably James Harrington, but also others, endorsed an equality of wealth holding that was if not proto-Marxist (which would demand equality of holdings) but proto-Rawlsian (which accepts in principle inequality of wealth, but sees a role for government in redistributing wealth to provide for a more "just distribution"). 

Indeed, Marx didn't invent radical economic egalitarianism. Neither did Jean Jacques Rousseau. Thomas More, whom Dr. Nelson specifically names, anticipated both of them (I won't discuss possible ancient sources for the concept). On "Utopia" both wealth and poverty were abolished. Though it's difficult to tell whether that book's claims are meant to be taken seriously or as satire.

One big difference between Marx and Rawls on the one hand and the earlier economic levelers on the other is that the former attempted to make either atheistic or secular arguments for their theories, the latter rest their principles on religious claims. 

Thus, those whose politics, at least on economic matters, are left of center -- especially those of the "Religious Left" -- might find something of interest and inspiration in the works of Dr. Nelson's British republicans who greatly influenced America's Founders.

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