26 June 2017

"Calvin and the Whigs" Part 3

(You can read parts 1 and 2 of my comments on Ruben Alvarado’s “Calvin and the Whigs: A Study in Historical Political Authority” here and here.)

My final observation will deal with one of the two men who dominate the conclusion of Alvarado’s study of the decline and fall of the Augustinian dialectic that had provided the framework for Western political theology and practice for a millennium. Alvarado discusses Hugo Grotius and John Locke at length but I’ll limit my comments to Locke, whose work more directly influenced the North American scene.

The short-lived ideology of royal supremacy in England had largely evaporated by the 1680s. The historical claims of Filmer’s Patriarcha were no longer credible. And, after the disastrous results of the English Civil War and the failure of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and Protectorate, hopes for a thoroughgoing Protestant reformation of society and politics were only a pipe dream. Nor, however, was the traditional Church of England up for the task of providing a counterweight to Parliament’s assumption of ultimate political power. It thus came to John Locke to provide a supra-historical theory to justify parliamentary supremacy.

In his “Two Treatises of Civil Government” Locke postulated his well-known “state of nature” in which all adults possess, by nature, a panoply of rights emanating from the right of self-defense. Of those, “property became central to the legal order.” Alvarado makes an interesting observation at this point: parental authority, to the extent it continues over adult children, is a function of the right to property:
The obedience to parents which one notices even from children of adult age is not essentially due to an innate parental authority but rather the indirect authority [read: power] parents wield through the disposition of their estate. The demand for obedience in certain matters is often a condition for reception of property by inheritance. It is this power which one so often confuses with parental authority.
The appearance of parental authority is thus collapsed into power over property and the feigned subordination of adult children eventually becomes habitual, a false consciousness, as it were.

By a short extension, parental power over property becomes the foundation of continuing political authority. Each new generation impliedly contracts to accept the existing political arrangement. How so?  “Because estates are subject to the laws of the polity, the acceptance of an inheritance thereby obliges one to submit to the laws of the commonwealth.” And who makes the laws of the commonwealth? The majority. 

One the one hand,
All of this is but the adaptation of the [then] current English parliamentarian and common-law institutional agenda to an a priori natural-rights theory. It is also the sellout of social order to the interests of property; for having eliminated the theocratic moorings of the social order, a new foundation was being established, that of property rights …
But on the other,
[Since] taxes are levied by the consent of the governed, of the majority … the will of the majority supersedes the will of the individual, and the liberty which individuals are supposed to have retained from the state of nature appears to have receded dramatically.
Not surprisingly, we have the tiresome and unresolvable political dialectic of contemporary American politics—individual property rights vs. a majoritarian reallocation of property—all framed in terms of promises of ever-greater economic growth, i.e., more property for everyone!

But what, in Locke’s schema, is the place of the Church? Although a Latitudinarian Anglican himself, in his Letter on Toleration Locke propounded a view that accorded with the Separatist take on the Church, that it was the voluntary gathering of like-minded co-religionists. There was no way that a church so understood could function as a meaningful counterweight to the supreme Parliamentary state:
With his ascription of supreme power to the legislative, Locke fell into the same trap as have all the political theorists following Bodin, who ascribe an absolute sovereignty to a human institution. There is simply no way to stand against that power except by revolution … precisely the situation [Augustinian ---> Medieval --> Reformed] constitutionalism was meant to avert.
Alvarado makes some interesting observations on other long-term effects that the Lockean understanding of legislative supremacy has had. You should read them for yourself. Suffice it to say that “Calvin and the Whigs” is a useful tool in the resourcement of early-modern Protestant thought. While no fundamental change to our current political settlement is in the offing, Alvarado’s book helps explain how we got ourselves where we are.

(For those interested in another review of “Calvin and the Whigs,” feel free to subscribe to AdFontes, the monthly journal published by Davenant Trust.

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