David Warren–the Canadian blogger–is invaluable. He is erudite, thoughtful, and thoroughly Catholic–well worth reading on a daily basis.
He is also a pretty thorough critic of modernity, contending here, for example, that modern democracy is a kind of circus–and a dangerous one–while medieval political thought shows a kind of sanity that has been lost for a long time. Most modern Catholics, liberal or conservative, will probably not accept this view, but it is certainly one that is worth pondering.
For example, at one point in this essay, Warren suggests that within modern democracy
the individual has ceased to be defined as a soul, a “being,” with duties. He has been redefined as a cypher or “function” with “rights.” Where to the old Christian view, rights followed from duties in the same man, to our post-Christian view the arbitrary rights of one man translate to duties for unaccounted others. (My right to a free lunch translates to your duty to pay for it, &c.) In this sense, all modern political thinking is in its nature totalitarian.
This is, of course, a very strong statement. But he is on to something here. Given the strong streak of selfishness that exists in fallen man, any political order constructed around his duties (as opposed to his self-regarding rights) will run against the grain. This is the weakness in such an order that the architects of modernity were able to exploit to overturn it. At the same time, however, that tension between a political order based on duties and a human nature with strong selfish inclinations might have led to a certain moderation. Given our all too active self-interest, once we accepted a political order based on duties, we would be on guard against any unreasonably expansive interpretation of those duties.
On the other side, there is no such natural source of restraint once we embrace a political order based on rights. Rights have a tendency to expand exponentially because they are self-regarding claims. They work with and flatter our self-interest. Nobody can see any immediate reason not to present his every desire as a right.
But, as Warren reminds us, in the long run this process tends towards a kind of tyranny or even totalitarianism. We are constantly creating new rights, but these rights then impose duties on others, which of course means on ourselves and on everybody. The paradoxical results is–to borrow an expression from another thoughtful Catholic writer who has died, Joe Sobran–“everybody has more rights, but nobody is more free.”