Today’s conservative is the new liberal. With the so-called liberals of our generation advocating for policies like state-imposed censorship, young conservatives assume the mantle of classical liberalism. We look back to the founding era, affirming the protection of individual liberty from the grasping overreach of government.
Between Liberty and Licentiousness
Like the liberals of previous generations, we must grapple with where to draw the line between liberty and licentiousness. In fireside chats and round table discussions, I have encountered three possible solutions: radical libertarianism, rejection of individual rights, and prudential compromise. Each of these deserves (and has accumulated) shelves of books of consideration and discussion, but I will only briefly address why I have personally found them unsatisfactory.
My political sympathies lie with the ideologically pure. I respect the libertarians who adamantly pursue a principle to its extreme conclusion rather than risk compromise, even when I disagree with their conclusions. I can empathize with well-meaning liberals of the past century who shrugged and said, “Sell pornography! Speech must be free.” That logic led to legalizing infanticide, however. Our own century faces the danger of running on a track without rails, too, if we can’t find a more nuanced understanding of rights than to protect the individual at the expense of everything else.
“It’s not about rights at all!” some conservatives have suggested, determined to restore a semblance of self-restraint to the conversation. “Rights don’t exist—only obligations.” I never found this line of reasoning very persuasive, perhaps because I doubted its efficacy in reorienting the public discourse. Much like the conservative thinkers who distinguished between “negative” and “positive” rights, we paint ourselves into a corner, ceding too much ground to our opponents, if we throw rights overboard.
Alan Greenspan made a winsome case for the middle ground in his memoir, The Age of Turbulence: “Compromise on public issues is the price of civilization, not an abrogation of principle.” He argues that without compromise, we must forfeit the project of good governance entirely. Greenspan’s mixed reputation highlights the weakness of this position: When a politician excuses compromise on the grounds of prudence, it too often smells like a screen for self-serving hypocrisy or Machiavellian machinations.
Not Contract but Covenant
Adrift in these stormy seas, I encountered a life preserver in the work of Daniel Elazar, a specialist in the Jewish political tradition. In a dense discussion of political theory as revealed in the Old Testament, Dr. Elazar produced a definition of government that immediately resonated with me. Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel charts a course towards upholding liberalism without crashing on the rocks of licentiousness.
According to Dr. Elazar, the Israelites founded their nation not by a social contract but through a covenant: “a coming together of basically equal humans who consent with one another through a morally binding pact supported by a transcendent power.” The “covenantal” model of government affirms equality and rights without surrendering moral law or legal limitations. Dr. Elazar achieves this balancing act by incorporating a divine presence into his definition.
Covenantal government prevents the abuse of rights by distinguishing between licentiousness and “federal liberty.” Dr. Elazar defines federal liberty as “the freedom to freely hearken to the law.” We consent to abide by the terms of the covenant, rather than guarantee each other “the freedom to act as one pleases as long as one can survive the consequences.”
The modern American might protest that the freedom to do good is not freedom at all, but Dr. Elazar draws a convincing distinction between compulsory obedience and “hearkening,” which he defines as “a form of consent whereby the individual receives an instruction and…makes a decision to accept and follow it.” Covenantal government affirms the freedom of man to give his consent while permitting consequences for destructive and unlawful behavior.
The key feature of covenantal partnerships is that “there are no rights that are not derived from obligations.” There is no illusion of a free lunch in Dr. Elazar’s system: What one party receives, the other must give. Demands derived from appeals to individual rights encounter natural boundaries.
Covenantal government offers another inherent limitation on individual liberties: Mutual obligations “keep rights conditional on one’s maintaining one’s covenant.” When a criminal violates his obligations under the covenant, for instance, he also forfeits his expectation of protection under the covenant.
Cutting the Knot
With a covenantal understanding of government, we can acknowledge circumstances that would deny protection for a fundamental right while continuing to uphold that right’s inalienability. These conditions offer a brightline for resolving dilemmas like the death penalty or even imprisonment for convicted criminals who were born with the right to life and liberty.
Dr. Elazar has articulated an interrelated framework of rights and obligations that cuts through the knottier questions of liberalism. His reasoning, but in particular his reasonableness, gives me hope that conservatives can advocate for liberty without falling prey to liberal excess.