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Is Ocasio-Cortez Right About Rights?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Civics, Conservatism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 29, 2018 at 8:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review. 

Colin I. Bradford writes fawningly that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, reaffirms “the centrality of the individual, individual rights, liberty, and freedom in which respect, trust, fairness and responsibility loom large.” He depicts Ocasio-Cortez as the embodied union of individualism and collectivism, someone who, in his words, “sees the individual as both a solitary being with certain inalienable rights and as a citizen and member of society.”

There’s much to unpack in Bradford’s frightfully grand statements, but let’s briefly consider some historical context for them.

“Modern Western ‘democracies,’” says John W. Danford, “are actually better described as liberal commercial societies. They rest on principles of individualism and individual rights—especially legal rights—which are more fundamental than democracy, and also much newer.”

Individual Rights Came from Christianity

The belief that humans by their nature possess “rights” against which governments may not transgress has not always been commonly held. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) made the compelling case that natural rights theories are distinctively Christian in origin. He presents the ancient pagans as tribal and patriarchal, characterized by fierce loyalty to kin and clan and lacking conscientious differentiations between public and private life. (The operative differentiation was between public and domestic life.) Inequality was accepted as a given; the notion of rights was practically nonexistent. What mattered was the family unit: secure lineage, child bearing, and glorification of the paterfamilias as the powerful hero. Cities emerged from familial corporate associations around which property relations were structured according to class hierarchies.

Correlated with the rise and spread of Christianity in the West was the proliferation of the concept of the individual as a rights-bearing creature with inherent dignity, which any legal order properly so called must recognize and protect. The teachings of Jesus Christ and St. Paul redirected political thought away from the material, phenomenal world and toward the afterlife, eternity, and the soul. The message that grace through Christ was available to anyone, not just rulers or the highborn, underscored the autonomy of the individual, the self-aware subject. A Christian emphasis on personal moral agency and responsibility, moreover, undercut Greek and Roman aristocratic culture and its attendant traditions of ancestor worship.

Siedentop contends, therefore, that Christianity, not the Renaissance, was the fountain of individualism. If the Enlightenment was the height of philosophizing about the relationship of the individual to society, then it was also the natural outflow of earlier eras shaped by Christianity. This narrative runs counter to the portrayal of medieval Christianity as closed and authoritarian and of the Enlightenment as predominately secular. It illuminates Danford’s description of modern liberal societies as fundamentally committed to individual rights embedded in the law.

Mutual Submission, Similar Ethics

A distinguishing feature of Enlightenment thinking was social contract theory, which is particularly important to the Anglo-American legal tradition as manifest in Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789–91). These documents enshrine the principles of equality under the law, basic human dignity, rule of law, consent of the governed, popular sovereignty, and natural rights.

The most celebrated delineations of social contract theory belong to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. A simplistically synthesized account of their three hypothetical origins of political society runs like this: humans once existed as free agents in an ungoverned state of nature and eventually banded together in protective social units to enforce claims to property and defend against outside threats; voluntarily entering into these social units required individuals to give up unfettered liberty by consenting to the authority of a superintending body—a government— that exercised only those powers to which the individuals in the society corporately assented, either expressly or impliedly.

The social contract for a mature, successful society involves a collection of individuals wise enough to appreciate the reciprocal advantage of mutual submission and similar enough in ethics and morals to prescribe the proper scope, limits, and structure of the approved ruling authority. The U.S. Constitution, in theory, represents a social contract: a pact between citizens and its rulers that restrains government, divides power, and sets competing interests against one another with offsetting effect.

U.S. Supreme Court “Expansions”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, began in the twentieth century to evaluate claims of unremunerated, allegedly fundamental rights in light of the history of judicial safeguards. A purported right was deemed presumptively fundamental if it enjoyed an established tradition of formal recognition by Anglo-American courts. Under this interpretive scheme, when the Supreme Court determined that an alleged right was nonfundamental, the alleged right would not be incorporated (via the doctrine of substantive due process) to apply against the states. The Supreme Court, however, gradually recognized particular suspect rights within broader categories of long-established rights. The so-called right to privacy, for example, that had valid antecedents in the common law was repurposed to include phenomena unknown at the common law.

The tendency of the Supreme Court in the twentieth century to expand (and, in some cases, to limit) the scope of alleged rights reveals, I think, that a privileged group of robed lawyers are inadequately equipped to philosophize about rights. The validity of alleged rights accrues socially, from the bottom up, when they can be traced over time to long-standing, if not immemorial, usage, customs, mores, and traditions, and when their practical applications have been tested by successive generations. Certain rights are natural, that is, prior to government promulgation, but their intelligibility is deeply historical, rooted, contextual, situational, and embedded.

Rights or Privileges?

One could argue, and Siedentop suggests, that Christianity’s institutionalization of rights discourse created the conditions necessary for secularization, in effect that Christianity ushered in a culture that led to its gradual removal from civic society. Siedentop postulates, in other words, that the success of Christianity eventuated its demise in the Western public sphere. The story of rights discourse in U.S. Supreme Court decisions lends credence to this perspective, revealing that prevailing notions of rights have grown to encompass what were once merely privileges.

If institutions follow culture, however, then a constitution that contemplates individual rights is only as good as the people it controls: a populace without extensive virtue will weaken or decline regardless of its organizational governance and administrative framework. Christianity may not have promoted ideas that caused its erasure from our governing institutions; rather, the people of the United States may have drifted away from the Christian ideas that made those institutions effective and stable.

Bradford recognizes that “individualist values of liberty, property rights, freedom and sovereignty worked well in the 20th century as the foundations of competition, free markets, democracy and the nation state.” Yet he sees these concepts as inadequate today, lacking something he believes Ocasio-Cortez can supply, to wit, a form of collectivism that in his representation facilitates community and social harmony. He simply fails to see that the unique individualism that emerged out of Christianity generated the community and social harmony he now desires.

There is no individualism absent the recognition that every human life, anywhere and everywhere, is precious and important. It follows from that premise that no one may violate the rights of others who themselves have not violated another’s rights. This principle, extended to society writ large, creates the conditions necessary for community to flourish. Individualism in Christian societies aided the growth of cities, institutionalized the dignity of the human person as a bearer of rights, and challenged rather than empowered abusive government. Ocasio-Cortez should not hope to eradicate this kind of individualism, for it has accomplished more good for humanity than the socialism she purportedly embraces.

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Making Legal Education Great Again

In America, Civics, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Liberalism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 30, 2017 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here and was published by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Legal education has become a surprisingly regular topic of news media for several years now. Most of this commentary has focused on enrollment and matriculation problems, bar passage rates, accreditation standards, student debt, and the job market for recent graduates. These are pressing issues that raise vexing questions for law school administrators, and they warrant the attention they’ve received.

Little attention, however, has been paid to curriculum, except as it pertains to those issues. And not just curriculum, but subject matter within the curriculum.

There are certain subjects—let’s call them “the permanent things”—that always have and will interest scholars of the law because of their profound influence on legal norms and institutions: history, philosophy, literature, and theology. Whether they belong in law schools or some other department, whether they prepare students to become practice-ready or not, these topics will remain relevant to subsequent generations of jurists and legal scholars. There will be a place for them somewhere within the world of legal learning and letters.

Law school faculty and research centers have expanded over recent decades to include studies of these humanistic fields. As long as these fields populate law school, there’s a felt need for rigorous liberal education in them.

Ordered liberty in the United States has historically rested on a commitment to religious faith and pluralism, fidelity to the rule of law, and traditional liberties grounded in the conviction that all humans are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. These values characterize the American experiment. Our society is built on them, and its continued vitality depends upon maintaining and promoting our commitment to them.

Yet these values are ridiculed and attacked in universities across the country. When they’re taught, they’re often treated as products of a morally inferior era and thus as unworthy of our continued respect. And because these values aren’t seriously or rigorously taught, students lack working knowledge about them and are therefore unprepared for the kind of civic engagement that young people desire and demand.

A decline in civic education has caused misunderstanding and underappreciation of our foundational norms, laws, and liberties. Religious liberty is mischaracterized as license to harm and on that basis is marginalized. Economic freedom is mischaracterized as oppression and is regulated away. Well-positioned reformers with good but misguided intentions seek to fundamentally transform the American experiment from the ground up. They work to limit foundational freedoms and increase regulatory power.

Without well-educated lawyers and civil servants equipped to resist these reformers, the transformation of America will result in the destruction of the freedoms enabled by our founding generation. We cannot allow this to happen. The Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, for which I serve as executive director, therefore seeks to educate the legal community in such areas as natural law, natural rights, religious liberty, economic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, and other liberties that find expression not just in the American but in the larger Western jurisprudential tradition.

I define “legal community” broadly to include law students, law professors, public policy institutes, political theorists, judges, and businesses in addition to practicing lawyers. Because my center is housed in a law school, it’s well positioned to instruct future lawyers while bringing together faculty from different disciplines who are steeped in liberal education.

Numerous organizations promote these values in the political arena, but few attempt to reconnect foundational values with the law. The Blackstone & Burke Center aims to fill this gap by bringing together scholars and students committed to American constitutional government and the common law foundations of our cherished liberties. Our target audience will include law students, judges, and civics groups.

For law students, we offer the Sir Edward Coke Fellowship. We’ve accepted our inaugural class of fellows, who, beginning this fall, will study formative texts in Western jurisprudence in monthly seminars that supplement their core coursework. Next semester, we’ll read and discuss works by Aristotle, Grotius, Hayek, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Robert P. George. The center will be a key networking opportunity for fellows seeking careers at foundations, think tanks, universities, and public policy organizations.

Fellows will also help to organize a judicial college for state jurists. Thanks to the Acton Institute, Atlas Network, and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, the Blackstone & Burke Center possesses the grant money needed to host its first judicial college in October. Professor Eric Claeys of Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University will direct this event, the readings for which include selections from not only cases (old and recent) but also Aquinas, Locke, Blackstone, and Thomas Jefferson. The readings for judges are extensive, and the seminar sessions are meant to be intensive to ensure that judges get as much out of the experience as possible.

The center will also provide basic civics education to local communities. For several years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute issued reports on the poor state of civic literacy in the United States. The National Association of Scholars recently issued a detailed report on the inadequacies and politicization of the “New Civics.” The current issue of Academic Questions, moreover, describes the sorry state of civics knowledge in the United States and the tendentious methods and institutions that teach political activism rather than deep learning.

Against these alarming trends, my center organized and hosted a reception featuring a U.S. Library of Congress interactive Magna Carta exhibit, which was displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court for three weeks and now remains in the possession of the Alabama Supreme Court Law Library. The reception included prominent judges, business and university leaders, lawyers, and the general public.

For example, Chief Justice Lyn Stuart of the Alabama Supreme Court and Judge William “Bill” Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals delivered remarks about Magna Carta during the reception, and young people conversed casually with judges about the legal system, federalism, and the challenges and opportunities facing the legal profession in the 21st century. This fall, the center is cosponsoring an event with the Foundation for Economic Education on the campus of Auburn University to explore the relationship between law and markets, and I hope to see as many high-school students as college students in attendance.

Legal education is strikingly different today than it was when Thomas Jefferson apprenticed under George Wythe, or when Abraham Lincoln read law before receiving from a county circuit court certification of his good moral character, then a prerequisite to practicing law.

Nevertheless, legal education looks much the same as it did in the late nineteenth century, when Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School, instituted a curriculum, pedagogy, and case method that came to characterize “the law school experience.” If there’s been a paradigm shift, it’s been toward more practical aspects of legal education such as clinical programming. Yet many lawyers remain ignorant of the history and philosophical conventions that shaped their profession over centuries.

The Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty is a modest corrective in that it doesn’t seek to remake legal education or demolish longstanding practices and procedures in one fell swoop. Rather, it does what it can with the resources and tools available to strive to renew an America where freedom, opportunity, and civil society flourish. In the long run, I think, these reasonable efforts will have powerful effects and far-reaching benefits, both within the legal academy and beyond.

Civics Education and the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty

In Academia, Civics, Conservatism, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 26, 2017 at 10:49 am

A version of this piece will appear in Faulkner Magazine. 

Our country has suffered a decline in civic literacy.  From 2006 until 2011, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) conducted annual studies that evaluated the civic literacy of students and citizens.

The results were discouraging. Most Americans were unable to pass a basic test consisting of straightforward, multiple-choice questions about American heritage, government, and law. One of the ISI studies suggested that students knew more about civics before they began college than they did after they graduated college.

It’s not just students and ordinary citizens displaying civic ignorance. Our political leaders have demonstrated that they lack the understanding of law and government befitting their high office.

Judge Arenda Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently began an opinion by stating that the Constitution declared that “‘all men’ are created equal.” This line appears in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

Senator Chuck Schumer told CNN that the three branches of government were the House, the Senate, and the President. He not only failed to mention the judicial branch, but also treated the bicameral legislature in which he serves as if it were bifurcated into separate branches of government.

Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee, while criticizing the alleged unconstitutionality of proposed legislation, claimed that the Constitution was 400 years old.

These anecdotes suffice to show the extent to which Americans no longer respect their founding principles or the framework of government established in our Constitution.

That is why the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty was founded at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. We seek to promote the principles of the common-law tradition and American constitutionalism so that the next generation of civic leaders will make informed, thoughtful decisions about the future of our country.

Ordered liberty in the United States has rested on a commitment to religious faith and pluralism, fidelity to the rule of law, and ancient liberties grounded in the conviction that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. These values characterize the American experiment. Our society is built upon them, and its continued vitality depends upon maintaining and promoting our commitment to them.

Therefore, the Blackstone & Burke Center will educate students, teachers, judges, and political leaders in the areas of religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and economic freedom. We will coordinate educational programs, research initiatives, and judicial conferences that examine the norms and nurture the institutions of ordered liberty.

We believe that the principles and ideas of the American Founding are worth conserving and celebrating. Our vision is to help renew an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.

The Blackstone & Burke Center has recruited of board of advisers consisting of internationally recognized thought-leaders such as Judge Andrew Napolitano, Senior Legal Analyst for Fox News; Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Dr. James R. Stoner, Hermann Moyse Jr. Professor and Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at Louisiana State University; Professor F. H. Buckley, George Mason University Foundation Professor at Antonin Scalia Law School; Dr. Don Devine, former Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the Reagan Administration and Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies; Dr. Ingrid Gregg, past president of the Earhart Foundation; and Dr. Daniel Mark, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Professor at Villanova University.

In our first few months of operation, we organized and hosted a reception featuring a Library of Congress traveling Magna Cart exhibit, which was displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court for three weeks.  Judges, business and university leaders, lawyers, students, teachers, and the general public attended the reception to commemorate and learn about Magna Carta, and Acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart of the Alabama Supreme Court and Judge William “Bill” Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals delivered remarks about Magna Carta.

The Blackstone & Burke Center received a grant from Liberty Fund, Inc., to gift the entire Liberty Fund book and media catalog to the law library, as well as a grant from the Association for the Study of Free Institutions to bring a prominent speaker to our campus next fall.

The Blackstone & Burke Center also established a formal affiliation with Atlas Network and, through Atlas Network, partnerships with such organizations as the Acton Institute, American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Cato Institute, Center for Competitive Politics, Claremont Institute, the Federalist Society, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Freedom Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, the Independent Institute, Institute for Justice, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University, Liberty Fund, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Mont Pelerin Society, National Review Institute, Pacific Legal Foundation, the Philadelphia Society, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Reason Foundation, State Policy Network, Students for Liberty, the Fund for American Studies, Young Americans for Liberty, and more.

Finally, the Blackstone & Burke Center received a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation under the auspices of the Philadelphia Society to direct a professional development conference on academic freedom at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Pennsylvania. Attendees included graduate students and university administrators from across the country who shared an abiding interest in the meaning, purpose, and characteristics of intellectual exchange in university settings.

We at the Blackstone & Burke Center look forward to a promising future as we inspire and educate new leaders in the principles and foundations of ordered liberty. To learn more about the Blackstone & Burke Center, visit our website at www.blackstone&burke.com.

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