Freedom, Rights, and the Cruz Announcement

Sen. Ted Cruz, in his speech yesterday, seemed unaware that almost all of the issues he opposed were originally argued in the name of the same nominal “freedom” he advocates

By chance, I caught Senator Ted Cruz’s March 23rd address at Liberty University announcing his candidacy for President in 2016. Obviously, the audience at Liberty University was a friendly one. No one, of course, would make such an announcement before unfriendly listeners. It was a rhetorical address; basically, it was a call for America to return to its roots. The audience was challenged to “imagine” a much different and better America, one that has evidently slipped away from us.

Cruz promised to eliminate Obamacare, the Internal Revenue Service, and many bureaucratic restrictions on the economy. Though he mentioned the word “truth” once, in my recollection, he must have used the words “liberty” and “freedom” fifty times. He stated we should have a “flat tax” in which all we need to do is send in our tax returns on a post card. That reminded me of the old joke about a similar proposal from the present IRS, a two-step postcard tax return form in which all one had to do was “1) List your income, and 2) Send it in.” The many people whose jobs depend on the complexity of present tax returns can usually rely on job security because it is doubtful if taxing the people will ever be simple or cheap.

Cruz is certainly pro-life, pro-marriage, and family. He is for religious freedom, is pro-Israel, and wants border control that works. He cited Patrick Henry, General Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt, among others.

My problem with his address was the “liberty” theme. Cruz recalled that our “rights” are God-given, but he did not touch on the question of why, if God gave us “rights”, so much of what is wrong is due to “rights” rhetoric, legislation, and subsequent enforcement. In short, however carefully we must talk of “rights” as God-given, most of our contemporary thinking on “rights” is “Hobbes-given”, not “God-given”.

Hadley Arkes has often pointed out that it is a huge mistake for religious people to base their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage on “freedom of religion” rather than on reason. The main arguments against abortion and same–sex marriage, as against active gay life itself, are based in reason, not religion. The issue is not primarily one of religious freedom, though that too is under siege, but the reasonableness of these activities themselves.

Cruz, in his speech, seemed unaware that almost all of the issues he opposed were argued in the name of the same nominal “freedom” that he spent his time advocating. That is, we have two radically different views of freedom, but both sides use the same rhetoric to justify their position. By not emphasizing the truth side of freedom, Cruz seemed to leave himself open to the counter-argument. Thus, anyone is free to choose the opposite of any view of freedom. It all comes down to a kind of subjective liberty with no standards. No doubt, the advocates of modern “liberty” more and more show their own rejection of any view but their own.

One view of freedom is that we are free because there is a truth to be chosen and upheld. We cannot choose the truth unless we know what it is. And what it is is not something that can be otherwise than it is. The other view is that there is no truth, so that anything we select is permitted. In this view of liberty, no truth is relevant, except the “truth” that there is no truth.

Both modern cultural relativism and Islamic philosophy are based on the same notion that nothing prevents anything from being its opposite. Allah can make the opposite of any good evil or any evil good. Our courts, presidents, and legislatures claim the same power. Cruz appealed to the American Constitution and Founding as a stable basis for rejecting relativism. But it has not proved to be such a protection, largely because of the slippery notion of what is the basis of “rights”.

Thus, it is not sufficient today to “return” to the American founding. The America that is “the world’s greatest country”, as Cruz called it, does not in practice exist. We are a country explained more by Aristotle’s discussion of democracy, and within that analysis, as a country that accepts a liberty with no limits. When much of the country hears Cruz advocating “freedom”, they see him as a reactionary conservative and an enemy of relativist “freedom” whereas Cruz sees himself an advocate of a “liberty” that was guaranteed by the Constitution. But this Constitution has somehow departed from us. It is perhaps too much to expect a presidential election in which the case for a reasonable freedom is ever made, however much we may need it for our own souls.

We live in a time wherein much that is natural law has been overturned by law and legislation, themselves based on ways of life contrary to the human good. These latter ways of life now claim to be “settled” truths that cannot be challenged either by reason or will. The paradox of the Cruz candidacy is that those who most insist on freedom are now engaged in preventing any other freedom but their own from even being spoken.

The kind of freedom that Cruz proposes has in fact been unable or unwilling to recognize that the overturning of what was known as constitutional freedom has itself been accomplished in the name of unlimited or relativist freedom, now turned more and more to absolutism. This is the real enemy of reasoned freedom and what ought to be at the heart of any sound presidential candidacy.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 158 Articles

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.