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Harry Jaffa, Michael Anton, and Me

In response to my brief review of an article and book by him, as well as a review of a book by “Bronze Age Pervert,” Michael Anton has written a long attack on me. I do not propose to comment on all of his remarks but only on a few likely to be of interest to ...

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In response to my brief review of an article and book by him, as well as a review of a book by “Bronze Age Pervert,” Michael Anton has written a long attack on me. I do not propose to comment on all of his remarks but only on a few likely to be of interest to readers.

Although Mr. Anton and I differ on a great many matters, I should like to express full agreement with him on this: “A better, truer conception—both theoretically and practically—is to accept that only human beings have rights; no government—state, local, federal or central—ever can, or ever has. The purpose of government is to act to secure our individual natural rights, and a properly limited government will also be prevented from acting in contravention of our rights.”

I agree with him entirely that human beings have rights, and governments do not. Mr. Anton says, “I find it frustrating, but amusing, to see confirmed once again a great libertarian blind spot. The only way their conception of a just politics—maximum individual freedom, minimum state power—makes sense at all is if you assume that individual human rights are real. Yet libertarians often attack the idea of individual rights as an engine of state power even as they stridently advocate for investing rights in states! I have never quite grasped why ideologues hostile to state power wish to grant rights to their great boogey-man.”

I do not believe that states have rights, if by this is meant moral rights. Further, I am not a partisan of the Confederacy, as Mr. Anton suggests I am. Slavery is unconditionally wrong. Mr. Anton says, “The implication from Gordon’s laughter at the notion that group rights could possibly pose theoretical or practical problems is that he must believe one or the other. Knowing what I know about libertarians and their interpretation of 19 th century American sectionalism, I suspect that Gordon means to insinuate the latter. Well, why not just say so? I realize that in increasingly woke America, wearing one’s Confederate partisanship on one’s sleeve is more dangerous than it used to be, but there are ways around that. Gordon could simply point to the ‘concurrent majority’ politics championed by minority parties in Europe and trust that his knowing readers will get the hint.”Nowhere do I laugh at the notion that group rights could pose a problem, and Mr. Anton’s insinuation is entirely of his own making.

Where then do I differ with Mr. Anton about rights? I hold that neither he nor his mentor Harry Jaffa has presented a good argument that human beings have rights. He says, “Gordon’s fourth paragraph is a simplified account of Jaffa’s teaching, with at least one notable error. “Jaffa,” he writes “teaches rule by wise philosophers like himself, but that is another story.” A story Gordon made up. I have read everything Jaffa ever wrote, most of it more than once, and spent three years talking to him nearly every week (and during the school year almost every day) and I never heard him say anything remotely like this. When he said—and he said it often—that ‘no one was naturally the ruler of another’ — he meant it. He might have been wrong about that, but to make progress in discovering whether or not he was would require a philosophic investigation, something Gordon doesn’t even hint at nor seem interested in.”

Mr. Anton says I have “made up” my remarks about Jaffa on rights, but I have written a long article supporting my opinion. What about the claim that Jaffa taught rule by philosophers? Here one must attend to the fact that Mr. Anton is a careful writer. (By the way, I do not mean by saying this to give him a “backhanded compliment”. I actually do think he is a careful writer.) Mr. Anton says that he has read everything Jaffa wrote, but he never heard him say anything remotely like the thesis of rule by wise philosophers. Note that he does not say that nothing Jaffa has written states or implies this view. As he knows full well, among students of Leo Strauss, of whom Jaffa was one of the foremost, the superior status of the philosopher is a much-debated issue, not to be swept under the rug by Mr. Anton’s brief dismissal.

In a revealing remark, Mr. Anton says, “In Gordon’s fifth and sixth paragraphs, the simplifications devolve into caricature. He apparently believes it is enough to ridicule certain ideas: knowing readers will get the joke and laugh along; the unhip aren’t worth trying to persuade.”

I do not “ridicule” these ideas, nor do I put “sneer quotes” around group rights. Jaffa did indeed draw parallels between Calhoun and the Nazis, and if Mr. Anton finds what I say ridiculous, his quarrel is with Jaffa and not with me.

Mr. Anton says, “Gordon goes on to say that in my ‘account,’ ‘religion is allotted its place, but it is subject to suppression if clergy dare to contradict the “civil religion” of equality that everyone must profess.’ I can’t even guess which of my words he twisted to arrive at this travesty, nor can I discern what it’s supposed to mean, so let’s just keep going.”

On pp.36-37 of After The Flight 93 Election, which he says I haven’t read, Mr. Anton writes: “The existence of multiple faiths and sects requires that politics be grounded in a reasoned account of human nature that admits man’s inability to know the mind of God and respects each person’s natural right to follow his own conscience in matters of worship.[So far, so good. -DG] This means that only those faiths which recognize and honor the distinction between civil and religious law are compatible with republican government. Similarly, cultural traditions are to be tolerated insofar as they do not contradict natural rights, and celebrated and promoted insofar as they help sustain the habits necessary for republican government.” In other words, it is not enough that religious believers refrain from violating the rights of those who reject their religion. They must “recognize and honor” the distinction between civil and religious law that Anton’s account of the republican tradition requires. Perhaps I have made this passage up too.

Mr. Anton writes, “Silly me, I had been unaware that World War II destroyed any communities here at home. That must be what he means, right?” One way to destroy a community is to kill the people in it, and World War II killed a great many people. Could the war have been avoided? That is a question worth exploring. I think. In like fashion, the Civil War killed a great many people. Could it have been avoided, and slavery ended peacefully without the war? That is also a question worth exploring. In this connection, tariffs played a major role in bringing on the Civil War, as one can see clearly in Lincoln’s First Inaugural: “In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” I doubt this point will induce Mr. Anton to reconsider his economically illiterate defense of tariffs. On the whole issue, the outstanding book of Robert Ekelund and Mark Thornton, Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War is excellent.

Mr. Anton might respond to me in this way. “You claim that you support individual rights. But don’t you neo-Confederates in fact support nullification and secession, as Calhoun and his followers did? “My sole claim about nullification and secession is that there is a stronger basis for these within the American constitutional tradition than Mr. Anton allows. Here I rely primarily on the pioneering research of Professor Kevin Gutzman. Gutzman is by no means a “neo-Confederate”.

By the way, I should like to ask Mr. Anton whether he supports the Draconian policy for military occupation of the Southern states favored by Allen Guelzo, another follower of Jaffa.

In a manner I can only call disingenuous, Mr. Anton writes: “After the Flight 93 Election mentions the Civil War and World War II once each, in passing, with no attempt at analysis or evaluation. It cites neither Jaffa nor Jefferson nor Eisenhower—all figures said to be central to my ‘account.’” So what? He has often written about Jaffa elsewhere, and I did not make up the remarks about Eisenhower. In his review of BAP, Mr. Anton says: “We may phrase the central question raised by Bronze Age Mindset as this: must equality always and everywhere be the enemy of excellence, or vice versa? BAP’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!” But the American Founders didn’t think so. At the same time that they declared all men to be created equal, they also affirmed not merely the necessity but the nobility of the manly virtues. They sought to build a regime that honors strength, virtue, and justice simultaneously, recognizing some tension among those ends but seeing no inherent incompatibility. Nor can we dismiss this goal as merely aspirational on their part, as examples from George Washington to Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower show.”

I apologize to Mr. Anton for suggesting that he had a program to appeal to disaffected American youth. I did take him to mean something like this: “Movement conservatism has failed. We need to come up with better ideas. ” I do not think Harry Jaffa has better ideas of a kind that will attract youth. Whether Mr. Anton thinks so I leave to him.

David Gordon
David Gordon (born 1948) is an American libertarian philosopher and intellectual historian influenced by Rothbardian views of economics. Peter J. Boettke, in his Reason Foundation "Reason Papers," Issue No. 19, Fall 1994, describes Gordon as "a philosopher and intellectual historian who is deeply influenced by the Rothbardian strand of economics." He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.

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