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Equality & Servility

There are dangers in the democratic trends of democracy.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By MARK BLITZ
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Minogue’s argument is unfailingly intelligent. His emphasis on individual coherence and commitment, however, might lead one to think that he favors rootless choice and self-invention. This judgment would be incorrect, for he has in mind responsible moral life within a given (although impermanent) complex social world. One wonders, nonetheless, whether his overall defense of individualism is adequate theoretically, or sufficiently compelling practically. I worry that his grounding of his view through brief discussions of John Austin, Hegel, and Oakeshott leaves individual freedom unanchored. 

One gap in Minogue’s discussion is his distance from the importance of natural rights. The virtue of an argument that clarifies the presence of natural rights is that it shows the preference for freedom to be more than a prejudice because it gives it a reasonable basis. Natural rights describe an inalienable authority that each can recognize in himself because of his own unavoidable power to reflect, prefer, and choose. This authority can be occluded, and it is difficult to convert it to concrete liberty to, say, possess property or vote. Still, individual natural authority, or freedom, is not a variable possibility that one can wish away but a universal power among human beings that they can notice in themselves.

The existence of individual natural rights is not the whole truth about human happiness and choice. Still, the need to execute one’s equal rights in a regime of effective, limited government gives rise to the responsibility and deliberation that Minogue admires when he invokes the moral life. One can, of course, take demands disguised as rights too far, and this is properly one of Minogue’s concerns. Yet it is also true that a natural ground for rights provides a standard that allows us to understand them correctly as the basis of our own self-reliance rather than as rewards we exact from others. 

The wish to expand and defend freedom, moreover, has shown itself to be an inspiring practical cause. It is an “idealism” that can counter today’s false idealisms, as it countered yesterday’s tyrannies. It gives us something to fight for and to honor, a pride and even reverence beyond mere material success or traditional loyalty. 

A second gap in Minogue’s account concerns the status of what we choose to do with our freedom. Minogue’s discussion is too remote from the question of how to judge reasonably the goods we should select. Coherence and responsibility are not enough in themselves to orient us, or to provide a worthwhile or happy life. They trade on an implicit grasp of what is good about the generosity, honor, friendship, and knowledge to which one commits oneself, and on an implicit sense of how to pursue and enjoy these goods in an ordered and measured way. This implicit understanding must sometimes be surfaced and subjected to the universal light of reasoned reflection, even if the effect of such general discussion is often dubious. 

The key is to learn to think well enough about ourselves to recognize and defend our freedom, and to grasp enough of what is good to use this freedom prudently. Minogue’s forceful, persuasive, and illuminating book helps us to accomplish this task.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of the forthcoming Plato’s Political Philosophy.

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