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Playing for Kekes

Moderate Conservatism: Reclaiming the Center
by John Kekes
Oxford University Press, 2022; 256 pp.

John Kekes, who taught for many years at the State University of New York at Albany, does not agree with the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s Brand that “the devil is compromise,” at least where politics is concerned. The thesis of Moderate Conservatism can be seen as an extended commentary on that disagreement. Kekes is a value pluralist who values many different things, including the rule of law, liberty, justice, and property, but these goods are not fully compatible, and none has overriding importance. “Moderate conservatives [like Kekes] deny that there is or can be a political GOOD that reason requires all societies to accept and follow” (emphasis in original). That being so, we must compromise, weighing the gains from each of the values against its costs in others. How do we do that? There is no universally valid answer to this question, but particular societies have their own ways of coping with the problem. In the United States, the Constitution has stood the test of time in providing a reasonable framework that enables people to resolve disputes about values. We must be wary of ideologues who, in the grip of abstract and untested theories, seek the revolutionary overthrow of these institutions.

Kekes ignores something that most readers of the Mises page will find obvious. The US government is engaged in a massive assault on our liberties. Seeking compromises will not end this assault. We must take action to eliminate the Leviathan state, and an appeal to the Constitution does not suffice to accomplish this. People interpret the Constitution in different ways, and there is no consensus on the government’s proper scope and powers. Kekes has conflated two very different issues: First, should there be a violent revolution against the government, or should changes take place according to legal procedures? Second, is there a generally accepted agreement on an ordering of values that allows for only a limited range of disputes? To clarify the second issue with an example: Is there an agreement that there should be some government welfare programs and some foreign aid, or is there no consensus on whether foreign aid or welfare programs should exist at all?

Kekes wrongly assumes that there is such a consensus. After making some good points about the limits of egalitarianism, he says:

I think that what egalitarians really have in mind is that America should aid poor countries in need of it. This is a plausible claim, provided we forget about the implausible ideal theory in which it comes packaged. In point of fact, meeting that claim has been a longstanding American policy whose justification does not depend on the egalitarian ideal theory. The policy is called Foreign Aid. It has been routinely provided since the end of World War II.

Kekes confuses what the government has done for a long period of time with what everyone accepts. Isn’t Kekes aware that there are many people who reject foreign aid altogether, not just a few extremists, and for whom the fact that a policy has been in place since World War II is decidedly not a recommendation of it?

Kekes says this about liberty:

The limits placed on our liberty are a price we pay for living in our society. And this means that there are other goods we value apart from liberty, goods that make it reasonable for us to give up some of our liberty. Such political goods may be . . . the protection of public health [by compulsory covid vaccines?], the prevention of monopolies from charging exorbitant prices, making false advertising a criminal offense . . . and so on.

I know quite a few people who don’t believe that we need these limits on liberty to live in society. With what justification does Kekes exclude them, proclaiming a consensus where none exists?

Kekes is caught in a dilemma. He excludes “ideal theories,” which seek a philosophical foundation for rights. There is no such philosophical foundation, he says; rights are conventional, dependent on consensus within a particular society. If, though, there is no such consensus in our society, Kekes is stuck. He can’t escape by appealing to the existence of conflicting values. To note that we sometimes face choices between values is by itself the merest banality. It doesn’t tell us how to resolve these conflicts, nor does it constitute an ontological argument that conjures up a consensus about settling these conflicts where no such consensus is empirically evident.

Kekes’s failure to resolve his dilemma should lead us to look more closely at his rejection of philosophical foundations, and one such rejection is of particular interest to Rothbardians. What does Kekes have to say about natural rights?

What seems to be meant by natural right is that we have some basic needs and their satisfaction is a minimum condition for our well-being. Natural rights, then, are supposed to be our rights to pursue such satisfactions. And then the rights are supposed to impose a corresponding obligation on others not to prevent us from trying to satisfy our basic needs. I agree that the satisfaction of basic needs is a minimum condition of our well-being, that it is good to satisfy them, and that it is normally bad to prevent others from satisfying them. I also agree that our basic needs derive from our nature that we share with other members of our species. If this were all that was meant by natural rights, the existence of natural rights would not be problematic. But its defenders claim more. They claim at least that we are entitled to non-interference with our natural rights. I can make sense of this only on the assumption that we live in a society whose laws, conventions, or customs create our entitlement. I fail to see how anyone could be entitled to anything outside of one society or another. Nothing entitles a chimpanzee to its food. There are rights, of course, but they are conventional, not natural in the sense that defenders of natural rights intend.

Rights are conventional, Kekes says; they don’t have philosophical foundations. What is supposed to be the argument for this claim? Apparently that rights rest on social conventions. Kekes has stated the view he holds about rights, but he hasn’t argued for it. It’s just supposed to be “obvious.”

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David Gordon
David Gordon is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He was educated at UCLA, where he earned his PhD in intellectual history. He is the author of Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on Exploitation, Freedom, and Justice, The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,An Introduction to Economic Reasoning, and Critics of Marx.
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