I am now teaching John Locke. Ostensibly, this should be one of the easier parts of the term: give them a bit of the First Treatise to make them appreciate the fine snark factory Locke could be when he wanted, and then move on to that font of the American Revolution, the Second Treatise. In practice, it's much more difficult than anything else in the sequence. No one, more than Locke, will write things which appear intuitive, obvious, and incapable of being adequately responded to. Pedagogically, this is not ideal. It also induces in me the tendency to think that there must be something wrong with that which is easily embraced by others--an instinct that, in this instance, is pedagogically helpful, since it helps concentrate my reading and teaching on the strongest possible objections to Locke's argument.
What stands out for me this time around is the centrality of rhetoric and the fiction of consent. Hobbes and Locke are both concerned with naming things properly according to a geometrical scheme that will allow conclusions to follow as in a mathematical proof. It's evident in Hobbes that this naming is in fact a form of re-naming, since a number of his definitions don't accord with common usage, but it's also true of Locke. The liberal project, for everything that is good and beneficial about it, does occasionally seem to be no more than fancy dress whose purpose is to disguise that centralized liberal (and eventually democratic) states are tremendously more powerful than the monarchical states they are replacing.* Worse, that power is more diffuse and harder to identify.**
Which brings us to Rod Dreher. One might think that this skepticism about the liberal project entails a conservatism that focuses on the importance of intermediate institutions to protect individuals against the state. Except, as it turns out, those institutions are subject to their own logic of preservation, which no less depends on disguising the reality of the power they hold. Thus, in the same day, Rod can mention actual problems with the function of Wall Street firms and the abuse crisis in the Catholic church and be describing the same thing in both cases: institutions take on a logic, and this logic is concerned more with self-perpetuation than anything else, no matter what the rhetoric might be. So it would appear, then, that the proper position if rhetoric is a problem is libertarianism: a moderate and reasonable skepticism about the claims to virtue of any institution.
And yet: the liberal state really is better than the monarchical state it replaces; firms and churches do actually do some good in the world.
*See, for example, criticism over the leaked White Paper on targeted killings, which, like the previous Administration's work on torture, appears to be a case of altering the meanings of words to the breaking point in order to justify an illiberal policy.
**(Filmer, for all his faults, at least thinks that power is one thing every time it appears in the world; Locke maintains that the nature of (legitimate) power differs depending on who is involved. On the one hand that seems truer, and on the other hand it seems to make it more difficult to answer his own central question: who has power?)