Speech at JBS National Dinner
I was privileged to give a talk in the afternoon at the JBS annual meeting. Nice folks, and interesting comments afterward.
Report from the front: Universities
I have been a conservative for all my life. Just what that means, we could talk about if you want. It is possible we disagree about what it means.
My work experience:
Federal Trade Commission
University of Texas
Duke, Chair now for six years
I am cautiously optimistic, even openly optimistic, about the state of higher education in the U.S. today.
This is a consumer-driven business, and people are paying enormous amounts of money for what amounts to a political indoctrination questioning and criticizing American values. For years, universities have taught bad economics and collectivist politics.
As a consequence, lots of parents, and even students, have started looking for alternative sources of education, other ways of learning what they need to know.
Duke hasn’t really seen a drop-off in applications, much less in enrollments. We still have an extraordinary number, and diversity, of remarkable students. I teach at least one overload class every semester, just to spend time with the students. When I first got to Duke, it took me two years to begin to get good teaching evaluations. The students wanted more readings, more challenging material, and harder tests. And they said so, in the evaluations.
Some universities, including Brown (through the excellent work of John Tomasi): rent a conservative. 200 students, 9 pm on a Friday. Want to hear a professor say something they disagreed with. “I have NO IDEA why you are wrong.”
Conservative students complain they are oppressed. I have little patience for that. It’s true that there are some instances of active, malicious oppression. But mostly faculty are just expressing a liberal view, and students don’t like it.
I’ll tell you who should be upset: Liberal students! Liberal students ought to sue the faculty of their university for breach of contract. Conservative students get to play against the first team, many of America’s best liberal minds. Conservative students learn to argue, to defend themselves without becoming angry, to understand and dissect the opposite view.
What do liberal students get? They get patted on the head, and told, “Good little liberal! Here’s a biscuit!” I was in a meeting of faculty department chairs where one chair, apparently believing she was among friends, openly said, “I don’t feel like I have to talk to the liberal students much. They already have it right. So I spend my time on the conservative students, educating them about the truth. But there are so many of them! Sometimes in my classes I have 3 or 4!”
So, in my mind there is a paradox working here, but it is working on the side of good. It is the liberal students, recognizing that they are being denied the (pardon the pun) “faculties” of critical reasoning that are starting to drive a backlash against leftist hegemony in the academy.
At its base, an understanding of something fundamental, something that good citizens figure out on their own: in a republic, there are two principles, tied together tightly. The first is liberty; the second is responsibility.
It is not enough to memorize the “correct” positions. A good teacher, at any level, teaches the student to think, and reach his own conclusions. We have to have enough confidence in the idea of America, and the principles on which it was founded and on which it has prospered, to believe that students will understand.
The bad news is the left hasn’t done this. They teach students that America is a failure, a racist institution without hope of fairness or justice. But they don’t teach reasons.
So, the good news is that the left hasn’t given persuasive reasons. I personally believe it is because they don’t have any, but I don’t need to argue that.
Garrison Keilor: At his confirmation, taught to recite from memory the answers to questions that have plagued philosophers for thousands of years.
John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”: There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
He goes on, later:
There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned.
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. …. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them
The task, the proper task, of the university is to educate a republican citizenry, one that is self-reliant and at the same time committed to its responsibilities for the defense and preservation of the nation.
What the universities have taken as their object instead, is a perversion of this mission. We are by and large teaching students to be citizens in a democracy, to spurn responsibility, to shun self-reliance, and to question their own natural rights to liberty and property.
What is the difference between the nation and the state?
Frederic Bastiat describes the state as follows:
The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else. (The State, 1848, same year as Comm Manif)
In a democracy, we all decide for each. The fight over the border is lost. What border? The border between what is mine and what is ours.
The first step in solving any problem is, “What should we do?” What should we do about homelessness? We should take money from those who have, and give it to those who have it not.
In a constitutional republic, we first take the step of writing down a set of things that the government cannot do. These are explicitly, consciously designed to thwart democracy, to run majority rule aground on the shoals of the law of liberty. There are many, many things I can do, without interference from the we.
In addition, in a republic I am responsible for my own choices. There is no conjuring the genie of the state, a Santa Claus figure who magically creates resources with the help of civil service elves. When we say, “The state should pay for that” it is nothing but a satisfying, even seductive way of justifying theft.
There is another difference. In a republic, the citizen is armed. Not because the police force will fail to protect us, though it will. A republican citizen is armed because he takes responsibility for the defense and protection of his property, his neighborhood, and his nation. Saying that the genie, “the state”, will protect us is no different from saying that the state should provide us with food and shelter.
I am not saying there should be no army, no police, no fire protection. We don’t live totally independently. But in a republic we are ultimately responsible, both for how we conduct ourselves and for how our government conducts itself.
In a democracy, the will of the people is the expression of the ballot box. No matter that craven demogogues distort issues, and that most people would prefer to watch “Survivor: Rocky Mount!” instead of study issues.
In a republic, the will of the people is embodied in the founding agreement, the Constitution. It “constitutes” the nation, in the most fundamental way. The actions of the legislature, which rarely or never reflect the will of the people, are at least constrained by the will of the people. The Constitution puts boundaries, builds walls of protection, not around what government can do for us, but against what government can do TO us.
So, in a republic, our liberties are the foundation, and our responsibilities as citizens are the reason we have a voice in choosing a government. Our membership in a nation means we are part of an organic body of tradition and shared values that commands our obedience out of loyalty.
A democracy is a collection of citizens who perceive themselves as having no responsibilities, only claim on the collective. Belonging to a state means that the citizen has pledged his property, and his earning power, to the collective welfare of all, and the consent of all is required before he can keep any of it. The state commands our obedience through force: anyone who resists the will of the people will be crushed.
The U.S. was founded as a nation. The responsibilities of citizens were clear, their loyalties paramount. Our liberties were carefully spelled out, and enumerated against encroachment by an expanding state.
At some point, it is hard to say just when, we lost sight of the centrality of our liberties, of the necessity of shouldering our responsibilites.
The idea that we should take care of each other, out of a sense of responsibility and shared national destiny, is at the core of what it means to be a republic.
The idea that we must take care of each other, out of sense of awe of the power of the state, and a right of entitlement to collective property, is at the core of what it means to be a democracy.
And, as was pointed out in John MacManus’s DVD lecture, Overview of America, when a democracy falls it does not fall up, back toward a republican form. It falls down, to dictatorship. American universities must begin to arrest that fall, and to restore the idea of America, a republic of America. I thank you for this chance to report a bit on my own assessment of how we are doing in that restoration.