History

Liberalism v. Republicanism and the American Founding

On page 161 of “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom wrote: 

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property. Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals? 

As interesting and important as Allan Bloom and the other Straussians are, they do tend to have their blinders. They write like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau — their shared ground, and their disagreements — are the only important philosophers who impacted modern liberal democracy. But there were others. 

So when Bloom asks — “Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire private property?” — he was referring to the Lockean-Madison “liberal” vision that prevailed during the American founding. And Bloom ascribes the sentiment — “Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals?” — to Rousseau who indeed adhered to such a critique of Locke’s notion of property.

But Rousseau was not the first. In fact, this dialog had been taking place prior to Rousseau where various notable European “civic republicans” (many of them British) made the case for economic leveling often using biblical arguments.

Eric Nelson wrote an entire book about those “civic republicans” and their Hebraic arguments. Of the many things of interest that Nelson notes is that James Harrington — one of the key Hebraic republican figures — made not only biblical arguments but also more secular Platonic ones. It could be that the later more philosophical type figures ran with the secular arguments, not the biblical ones. 

As Nelson ended the relevant chapter in his book on page 87:

But for most, the Biblical warrant for agrarian laws disappeared from view, leaving only the Platonizing edifice Harrington had built on top of it. Redistribution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find a home in republican political theory, not because it had been authorized by the divine landlord of the earth, but because it was thought to secure the rule of a naturally superior elite. For contemporary republicans, this must seem a deeply unsettling provenance.

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