Mark Blitz II Transcript

Table of Contents

I: Natural Rights and American Government 0:15 – 27:24
II: Criticisms of American Liberal Democracy 27:24 – 1:02:33

I: Natural Rights and American Government (0:15 – 27:24)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined today by my old friend and teacher, Mark Blitz, Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, author of important books on Plato and Heidegger, and also on liberal democracy, which I thought we would talk about today. Welcome, Mark.

BLITZ: Thank you.

KRISTOL: Freedom. I thought we could talk about freedom. America is about freedom, I think. Is that true, incidentally? People say that all the time. Is that true, and how did that happen?

BLITZ: Yeah, it is about freedom. And the heart of it is individual and natural rights, and you can basically substitute the word freedom for rights, if you’d like. Look at the ground of the country and the Declaration of Independence, which speaks, of course, of natural rights, speaks of liberty. The Constitution is meant to be a structure of government that secures individual rights for all of its citizens. So really the ground of the US is freedom because it means to secure as a country, we mean to secure as a country individual, natural rights.

And it’s also in a certain sense a theoretical country because this notion of basing government on individual, natural rights, rather than on tradition, rather than on history, rather than on ethnic differences, rather than on groups is really fundamental. It comes from the thought, ultimately, of John Locke and some of the thinkers preceding him as well, which tried to defend the natural existence and importance of individual rights. If you look at yourself, you understand you have the capacity, which can’t be taken away from you, to reflect and to choose and to decide. You can’t always act the way you’d like, but you have independent choice and independent reflection. And preserving that for everyone is really the key to the country.

KRISTOL: So that really is the – it sounds highfalutin, and I guess one of the criticisms is, well, people say that, but really it’s a capitalist system or we’re socially conditioned and all that. But you think the core belief is there has to be, there is, an individual autonomy and dignity that is real.

BLITZ: Absolutely. Something that you can see in yourself. Just by reflecting on yourself. It’s not something that you need really to argue. It’s as they say, “self-evident.” Obviously, there are certain things, which block you, prevent you from seeing it so clearly. Traditionally, what blocked you was certain theological or religious views, but if you look at yourself, you see you have this individual right to, and freedom of, choice and decision and ultimately, of action.

You also see that you have it equally with others. That kind of equal individual freedom is really the only ground for sensible equality and sensible government because it prevents you from, first of all, thinking of yourself in religious terms or ethnic terms or gender terms or any group terms. Those can become important to you if you choose them to be important, but at the public level the defense of individual right and freedom is the heart of things.

KRISTOL: And you think it’s a solid ground despite the many criticisms that have been made of Locke, let’s say, and political philosophy over three centuries. And beforehand, so to speak. People who weren’t Lockean. It’s not just a thing we want to say we believe, but it’s a real –

BLITZ: It’s not just a thing we say we want to believe, though because of all that’s happened in thought and action afterwards sometimes that what people think. Yes, it’s a solid ground, if you consider the formula of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It’s not the whole truth about human beings, but it is part of the truth, a genuine truth about human beings. It’s the most solid and substantial ground of actual equality.

We’re obviously not equal in a series of concrete characteristics that we have. We have different talents, it’s obvious. Different skills, it’s obvious. But what is equal about us are these equal rights, and the ground of it is to observe yourself where you see this freedom of direction. This self-direction that you have. This choice that’s always before you. This judgment that you can always exercise about which way to go or not go. It’s hard to see how there could be a more solid ground, actually, for equal political common life. Obviously, it’s not enough to say this to determine your own individual choice. You have a million concrete choices, but it’s the basic ground for common political equality. And it’s a solid one. In some ways, the only solid one, I think.

KRISTOL: Modern psychology, modern philosophy – you don’t buy the argument that it’s kind of discredited that?

BLITZ: A lot of those arguments come from the dislike of the term natural. The notion that somehow these rights or these freedom or this self-authority, you might say, exists among all human beings, and it’s not made by us. But it’s not made by us. We are what we are, not as we’ve self-created ourselves. These rights cover all of us, and they’re essential to us because without having such rights and such freedom we really can do nothing else basically for ourselves.

Something essential that’s not made by us, that in a way covers all of us, that’s what one means by natural. And the evidence for that, as I’ve in a way just given it, is every bit as great, indeed much greater, than the evidence against it. The notion that we have these natural rights has faded from view because of the attack on the notion of nature, intellectually and philosophically from the 19th century on. And then that, of course, seeps down into everybody’s thinking after a while. But those arguments are not correct.

KRISTOL: The Declaration, the two implications, as I recall that the Declaration takes from this – All men are created equal with these inalienable rights – is government by consent of the governed. The right to say something about how you’re governed, self-government. And then the purpose of government – or a purpose, maybe the main purpose – is to protect, to secure these rights, to protect these rights. Talk a little bit about the consent side and the securing rights side. How much does it tell us about how to organize the government? Is it just a broad but very important limitation? How much guidance does it give?

BLITZ: Consent of the governed comes from the fact that the only natural authority, and therefore, the only authority that you can justify reasonably, ultimately, is this natural individual authority or this natural individual right. Therefore, you have to understand government to be something chosen by the individuals who belong to it. Consent is just another word for choice or election in the broad sense. Nothing can govern you properly unless in some way you can be understood to have chosen it. As opposed to notions that you can be properly governed by those who are or who think themselves to be more intelligent or wealthier or more pious and more pure or simply more powerful.

KRISTOL: Or of a certain ethnicity or race.

BLITZ: Or of a certain ethnicity or race. Any of those things are illegitimate as grounds for properly governing you because the only true authority is individual authority. You have to be understood as having selected in some way those who govern you as opposed to all of those other differentials. And that’s absolutely fundamental. That’s what consent means, and that’s what consent of the government means. It doesn’t just mean, although it also means, you have to have popular agreement, if you’re going to do anything politically. It really means that the source of justifiable authority is individual choice because individual authority is the only natural authority.

These other authorities, which are all forms of inequality, are ultimately incorrect as grounds for governing you. Greater wisdom of a certain sort might be the sensible thing for you to choose when you have a choice about going into a business with someone or hiring someone, but nonetheless unless you’ve made the choice no one else has the right to govern you. That’s the heart of consent of the governed. From that you develop various systems of periodic consent through elections.

KRISTOL: But it allows for a broad – and I want to come back in a way to the question of how best then to structure a government that preserves these rights – it allows for a broad range of structure. Supreme Court or no Supreme Court? Two-year terms or six-year terms?

BLITZ: If you look at the American Constitution, the root of authority is in individual authority, but then you do have to worry about the question of the right kind of government. Why is government intelligent government? For the purpose of the securing those rights, and the mechanisms for doing that can be very varied.

In our country, we have this kind of constant election cycle. There’s always some election or another going on but with different constituencies. The House, the Senate, the President. Then we have this institution, the Supreme Court, which is even more remote from that. So the mixture –

KRISTOL: And the federalist system of state governments.

BLITZ: And the federalist system of state governments. So the mixture of all that comes from an attempt to have free government based on individual consent, which is also reasonable government, or wise government or intelligent government, and also limited government. Limited in the sense that the purpose of government is to secure individual rights.

KRISTOL: Let’s look at that side of it. The consent of the government, which there is a wide variety of ways to hopefully make it wiser rather than less wise. It’s not simply whatever the people want.  We’re supposed to – is right by definition. It’s legitimate, I guess, but it’s not correct.

BLITZ: That’s the difference. Unless the people have chosen, you’re not in authority legitimately. A remarkable thing in this country is that we accept legitimacy of people who right before they’re actually elected many of us thought were terrible. Something like half of us voted against. That’s the power of legitimacy, however, because it’s important to have that kind of security in government rather than continual revolution.

That doesn’t guarantee intelligent government, for sure. The securing of individual rights –

KRISTOL: Talk about that. What are, you know – some libertarians want to say it’s an unfree government if it deprives you of this, this and this right or taxes you too much. And other more collectivist types will say, as long as there are elections – How much of a –

BLITZ: The goal has to be to secure as much individual choice and freedom as you can within the ongoing day-to-day life that people have. But you have to do that equally because you’re securing equal rights, not just my rights. That’s what you always have to think about in any public policy, it seems to me. The standard is, am I securing rights equally? Am I securing as much individual choice as I can?

Obviously, taxes are legitimate because government needs some wealth in order to secure us abroad. Government needs some wealth for public projects, which are better done by a public authority than a private authority. Government needs wealth in order to secure individual rights equally. Police, crime, the right kinds of economic regulation. Those can go pretty far, but nonetheless the standard is always the securing of equal individual rights. So everything that government does simply as government isn’t illegitimate, nor is it necessarily wise, but the wisdom of it has to ultimately come back to securing individual freedom. That’s the purpose.

What is human happiness? What is human excellence unless it’s connected to doing things for yourself? Form your own character, with your own freedom. That’s the heart of things. For that to happen, sure, you need certain things taken care of by others you choose, but ultimately unless you’re doing things for yourself, taking your own responsibilities, relying as much as you can on yourself and those closest to you, what is the point or the purpose of government? Or in a way of human life?

KRISTOL: But a progressive income tax. Public schools. All kinds of things that equalize the playing field a little bit – that’s fine in terms of – may be prudent, may be imprudent, but it’s fine in terms of the fundamental natural right? Securing rights framework of the government.

BLITZ: You need to –

KRISTOL: Or conversely not equal. Not equalizing as much as some other people want is also fine. These are all within the spectrum of acceptable –

BLITZ: Sure. Because you need to provide people the tools and opportunities so that they can exercise their own freedom.

You need to provide people the tools and the opportunities so that as citizens there’s a chance that they’ll act intelligently. So education is a public responsibility, but you can perform this public responsibility in many ways. School choice, charter schools are every bit as legitimate as a bureaucratic public school system, but often a bureaucratic public school system is what you need to do. The goal is one thing, and the public responsibility is one thing, all to be differentiated a bit, however, from the literal public division of services.

One of the things that has happened, maybe in the past 30 or 40 years even, is a recognition that you can deal with your public responsibilities as a government, but often less directly than actually through bureaucratized public services. Progressive income tax? Not unreasonable to expect those who are wealthier to pay more. The danger, obviously, is that you begin to so reduce the incentives for work that you destroy the whole purpose of having a progressive income tax to begin with, which is to get yourself as much as you need.

When John Locke thought about these things, one of his goals was to allow the accumulation of greater property among those that are more reasonable, or rational, he said, and industrious. Hard-working. You want to do that, but you also the need to find the right way to have that distributed so that you’re preserving rights equally. No magic formula for doing this in terms of policy, but nonetheless that standpoint, I think, is fundamental in figuring out what to do politically.

KRISTOL: Just to take this example, and some greedy people are going to get a lot of money, and some lucky people, and some people who cut corners but don’t get caught by the law. And I suppose the answer to that from a sort of Lockean, if I can put it that way, point of view, or the point of view of the basics of securing free government is look, this is sort of the price – you try to make it – this is the price you pay. I guess people do balk. It’s not just. Look at the current rich people in the US. Are they all industrious? Do they all deserve it? What’s the common-sense answer to that?

BLITZ: So maybe two versions of a common-sense answer. It is a good thing if people remember how much luck is involved in success so they have a degree of modesty about their own success. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to think that somehow the path you’ve taken is exactly the right path and there’s not a whole lot of luck involved. There’s almost always a lot of luck involved. As I said, that should make you modest.

In a way more fundamentally than that, greed is a vice, so you should do something with what you’ve accumulated. That is also good for others as well as being in a way good for yourself. You can’t really succeed unless you have enormous good luck. For any length of time, unless you have a certain set of virtues of character. Industriousness but also a kind of responsibility where you develop the habits, which enable you actually to be successful. When you really think about that and develop that, you also worry about the common good. The common conditions for excellence. Politically, you worry about the right way to use your freedom. Therefore, you think about education, you think about art. And the more that people think about that, the more wealth that they’ve accumulated can actually be used for common public purposes. I think that’s important. It’s not enough just to say greed is okay.

And it’s not enough simply to talk about it in terms, literal terms of justice. It’s a question of what you do with the wealth you have in order to aid the common good, as you understand it. It’s an expression of your own responsibility. Not if somebody else tells you about it. Not as government wants you do it, but as you yourself understand it.

And that’s why you’ve had in this country always a huge tradition of philanthropy. A wonderful book about all this is Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin is the first great example of someone who made a lot of money and made himself successful financially and then engages in a variety of actions that serve public goods but not in a direct political way. Founder of the University of Pennsylvania, founder of a public hospital, founder of a notion of a kind of public safety, street lighting. Founder of public libraries. Franklin is a marvelous model for what you should do if you happen to be successful. How to exercise your responsibility.

So that’s, I think, a crucial kind of answer to this question of the inevitable financial inequalities, which occur once people have some freedom. Because they have different talents. They start in somewhat different places, however much you equalize opportunity, and you have this feature of luck and chance and good fortune.

KRISTOL: And it seems to be implicit in your answer, though also a kind of anti-utopianism as no actual society is going to be perfectly just in the sense that – some people will be doing better than they deserve or really deserve. I don’t know how you judge that exactly. Others will be doing worse. You have to have a certain kind of hardheaded appreciation that – And I suppose the subsequent argument would be if you try to micro-adjust things according to some notion of justice, you end up infringing on freedom and probably messing it up, making it even more unjust because you don’t have perfect knowledge of what could be done or should be done.

BLITZ: There are a bunch of difficulties. First of all, who is the impinger? The impinger is government, and nothing makes those who are actually managing the government wise about these questions. People always tend to forget this somehow. You have this great difficulty always of who’s making these judgments.

KRISTOL: The grass is always greener. This isn’t perfect so let’s fix it.

BLITZ: And human imperfection rears its head everywhere. That’s always a fundamental difficulty. The other difficulty with this question of who is going to decide and then thinking of it as government is deciding again goes back to the point that the purpose of our government is to secure individual rights, and happiness and excellence is something which requires individual judgement and individual choice.

You want to leave as much of that open as possible even though there are always difficulties. The broader question of justice is something, which indeed shows you it’s necessarily imperfect. Aristotle’s Ethics is a good place to look for this. Book Five of Aristotle’s Ethics. On the one hand, justice is equal to equals and unequal to unequals. So in a sense anyone can understand that, let’s say, the better violin should go to the better violinist. And the inferior one to the inferior violinist. You can see that in a way right away.

KRISTOL: Or if there is only one violin teacher in town he should spend more time –

BLITZ: On the other hand, what if that excellent violin is owned by someone who doesn’t play it well? The other ground of justice is property. What you own and what you’ve earned. And there’s always going to be some discrepancy between justice as ‘keeping what is your own’, and justice as ‘proper distribution of things to those who can use them best’. No perfect solution to that.

On the other hand, the right kind of responsibility in philanthropy helps. So that if you’re wealthy enough to buy a Stradivarius, let’s say, you should also arrange for it to be played by those who can actually play it. Which is what a lot of people do who own these things. If you’re wealthy enough to buy a Picasso, a good Picasso, you should arrange so that others can look at it, view it, and enjoy it. Again, an imperfect solution, but not a bad solution to this necessary discrepancy between justice and freedom even as holding on to what you own. And justice as distributing things so that they belong in the hands of those who can use them best.

KRISTOL: It does seem that a lot of the criticisms of liberal democracy since it was set up do come from a utopian – I guess we would call it utopian – critique. It seems to appeal to people, as though, it’s not, liberal democracy is not humanly fulfilling, it’s not perfectly just, it’s not perfectly equal. All these other things. What’s the answer to those critiques, I guess?

BLITZ: Nothing can be perfect, it’s a mistake to think that anything political can be perfect. And it’s even more the case that you can’t impose some view that you have of greater perfection and also preserve sufficient individual freedom. So one just has to recognize that.

You certainly also can’t enjoy the material wealth that we enjoy unless there’s a large degree of individual freedom. People to some significant degree have come to take that for granted as if it drops from nowhere. It doesn’t drop from nowhere; it comes from all of this fabulous human talent that you liberate in a liberal democracy by giving people so much free rein individually. The spiritedness, the entrepreneurial skills, the intelligence. The true understanding of the beauty of every human being comes in a liberal democracy when you see the enormous talents that people have once they’re allowed to express those talents. But that also means there’ll be outcomes and results that in some areas one doesn’t like. And that’s something one simply has to deal with.

It’s also the case that one has to remember that equality fundamentally means equality in rights, equality in individual freedom, equality in authority. The purpose of government is not equalize resources simply. It’s not to equalize talents simply. It is to allow people to secure and enjoy those rights, which then means some degree of concrete either equalization or, really more to the point, public provision, as we were mentioning, in schooling, in the right kind of regulations and access to the economic markets, and so on. That’s necessary. But again, it’s really for the purpose of allowing individual freedom, which is something that in principle is naturally equal to exercise itself. That’s, I think, central to remember. People talk so much about equality, but they don’t remember equality in what and why it is that it’s important and significant.

KRISTOL: And the threat to liberty of trying to fix these things people don’t like, too?

BLITZ: And they don’t recognize enough that it is a threat to liberty in a sense. Liberty also has risks. Over time, people become less easy with, and more disturbed about, the possibility of risks, which means the possibility of failure. So that part of freedom, where you do have to take a chance often, and the chance doesn’t always work out, often leads people to be themselves somewhat less concretely interested in liberty than they may be verbally and rhetorically.

On that, you know, that often does mean that the provision of resources begins to rise to a level that it constricts liberty more and more. But it happens piece by piece so people just don’t recognize it so carefully and clearly, or are even willing in larger numbers than, let’s say, at the beginning of the US republic to allow that to happen.

[Log in to read more.]

Sign Up to receive free access to subscriber-only content, including additional footage, podcasts, transcripts & more.

Not a Member? Register Now!

Already a Conversations member? Login