The Magazine

To See Ourselves

'The willful, or sovereign, self is ... the cause of our troubles.'

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By MARK BLITZ
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Just as the equality and reason that shape and limit individual rights show liberal freedom's difference from tyrannical, willful, self-assertion, so, too, does unalloyed political mastery differ from the liberal state's sovereignty, for this seeks to regulate its own scope and methods. Liberal democracy carries within it an inherent tension between individuals and majorities, neither of which is altogether powerful.

Elshtain indicates some of this, of course, but does not make enough of it.

She is generally friendly to the merits of sensible liberal democracy. Yet her invariably thoughtful and sometimes courageous arguments do not always support her friendship. If we do not convincingly distinguish equal rights from individual willfulness, we risk contributing to the very license that rightly concerns her. If we do not see that countries based on equal rights require and promote certain virtues, and are thus not as morally neutral as they sometimes seem, we risk diminishing these countries, and our appreciation of their merits. If we do not account properly for human strength, self-assertion, competition, and our ability to shape nature's material, we risk a quietism that Elshtain might decry but against which her arguments (in my judgment) provide insufficient defense.

Our human goal is not just to love and be loved, but also to educate and be educated, and to stand up for ourselves. These goals sometimes conflict because we and what is ours differ from the perfections for which we strive. Perhaps these limits show us most clearly that, as Elshtain reminds us in this intelligent book, we are "less than sovereign."

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.