Monday, May 26, 2003

More on Service

My post on national service, which really didn't discuss any of the various ideas out there (such as Senator John Kerry's) so much as just ask why it is such a hard idea for some people to accept, prompted an exchange with Roger Sweeny, who pressed me on a few points central to the whole debate. With his permission, I'm posting some of our exchange here. First, Roger wrote:

"Of course, there is 'social duty.' We pay taxes. We obey most laws. In times of great emergency, when the alternative would be awful, we submit to compulsory service. And that's okay, if not the best of all possible worlds. But gratuitious requirements are not okay....One gets the feeling (okay, I get the feeling), the real motivation is to send a message, 'Compared to the government, you are selfish and immature. Therefore, we will force you to spend a year or two doing things you otherwise wouldn't. If you don't like this, it just proves how selfish and immature you are. Once you get out, you will see how right we were and how wrong you were, and you will do the same thing to people now younger than you.'"

In my response to Roger, I restated one of the points I made in response to Jacob Levy's original post; namely, how and why does this become a matter of the "government" telling the student/citizen/individual/etc. to do something, or to live up to some standard, or to prove him or herself in some way in the first place? Isn't it plausible to conceive service requirements as a matter of "the nation" or "the community" or "the society" asking/expecting something of the individual? When the issue is framed in the way Roger's statement implies, at least as I read it, all I can see is an immediate, I think unreasonable, dismissal of the possibility that various groups (national, federal, municipal, etc.) within civil society might themselves have some sort of authority or normative force. Isn't it possible that the government can be a valid voice or agent for various collectives, even national collectives, which have legitimate expectations and demands? Of course, one can very seriously argue: no, it isn't possible for the government to have such a voice, because it is illegitimate for any collectivity larger than the individual--a club, a fraternity, a city, a culture, a nation--to have any moral worth. In which case, any discussion of national service really would automatically come down to a political struggle between state/government and the free individual. That's an important libertarian argument, and certainly not one I can easily ignore. But to leap, as I think too many libertarians do when confronted with talk about "obligations" or "duties," to the dark language of "state ownership" is, I think, unfairly ignoring the equally important communitarian argument. But Roger had a response to that as well:

"It is the power of the government that makes the people do the service. We are talking about things that people won't do voluntarily. It is government that decides what they shall do, where, for how long, under what conditions, with what compensation, etc. If you are talking about a looser arrangement, then government is deciding what groups can require what people to do what, under what conditions, etc....Of course, it is legitimate for a 'collectivity larger than the individual--a club, a fraternity, a city, a culture, a nation--to have any moral worth.' But when governments decide which collectivities have which powers over which people, government is involved. Many people tithe to a church because they consider it an obligation. If tithing is a legal requirment, government then has to decide which are legitimate churches, who belongs to what church, how to deal with people who disagree with their assignment or wish to belong to no church, and what the rate and mechanism of contribution should be. (I feel towards national service much the way I feel toward an established church. Proponents say--or said in the case of the church establishment--that it makes for a better society, people treat each other better, are better citizens and better people. I don't think those empirical statements were true. And requiring people to join one or one of a number of churches is profoundly illiberal.)....I think that to a large extent, people should be allowed to live their lives as they see fit, not as others think they should. People's own plans for their own lives should be interfered with only for major reasons. Something like stopping Hitler. None of the justifications for 'national service' that I have seen come close. They are vague and unconvincing. It's not a matter of absolutes. It's a matter of prudence. A required year or two of 'national service'? In the words of George Herbert Walker Bush, 'Wouldn't be prudent.'"

Roger's analogy to an established church is a though-provoking one. The experience of the Western world with established churches, with all their impositions and relationships to the people they were identified with, is that they have invariably involved questions of state--and so to the extent that the analogy holds, it would seem unlikely that any sort of cultural or communal justification for service could avoid being equally driven by political expediencies and realities, which would undermine, or at least qualify, whatever authority one might be willing to otherwise grant the culture or community. In other words, just as there wasn't--and isn't--so much an "English church" as there was--and is--a "Church of England," so also there can't be any way to use national service to "link patriotism with an ethic of public responsibility," as E.J. Dionne put it, which wouldn't mainly just be a way of linking patriotism with whatever partisan tasks the ruling government at one point or another wants done. (Incidentally, the Dionne column, on the money as usual, rightly notes that fundamentally this is not a Democrat-Republican debate, but a libertarian-communitarian one.) Of course, the analogy may not hold--the obligations of national service need not function in the same way as the obligations of church memberships or tithes, and thus may not be as susceptiable to political critiques premised on human liberty. Maybe state church's cross a line that state service would not; maybe service could plausibly remain grounded in the "American people" rather than the "American state." Still, he makes a challenging point. And in any case, his warning that attempts to diagnose and treat America's "civic" or "cultural" or "communal" needs must be governed by a sense of prudence--by a strong awareness of what the risks, costs, and goals are--is certain correct. As he also wrote:

"[In America], people contribute to their community every day. Not just by contributing to government through taxes but in myriad little ways that add up to something gigantic. In 'The Moral Sense', James Q. Wilson points out that even though police are rarely to be seen, most people most of the time have absolutely no fear of being robbed or physically attacked. There are thousands of things everyone does every day that make it possible to live together in relative harmony. If people did things based on a calculation of 'what is in my this-minute self-interest?', social life would be impossible. But they don't!....A capitalist society requires a very real, very profound kind of public-spiritedness....It requires citizens to say, 'I have my life and my property. You have your life and your property. I can do what I want with mine and you can do what you want with yours. I have no right to take your life or property or tell you what to do with it and you have no right to do the same to me. If I agree to do something for you, I will keep my promise, just as I know you will keep any promises you make to me.' Actually, it doesn't require citizens to say that; it requires citizens to act as if they believe that. It is a matter of behavior, not talk. As Wilson says, people do not learn morality because they are taught it; they learn morality because they live it....I think these things are remarkably important. They are also missing in much of the world. Just as fish supposedly don't notice the water they swim in, I think we don't notice these behaviors, these expectations that we have every day. We don't have to worry about so many things so we don't worry about them. But they are precious, and they are 'service' in a very real way. They are a major reason we have a vibrant, prosperous society and Russia or Afghanistan or Iraq or Argentina does not. I don't see a lack of service that needs to be remedied in the USA. Much more do I see a lack of this kind of 'service' in many of the poor parts of the world....Voluntary choice is a damn important thing. And all too often the alternative to voluntary choice is not public-spiritedness but interacting by force."

Roger is absolutely correct to bring this up--no public-spiritedness campaign, no national service program, could ever or would ever replace the associational spiritedness which arises because of the norms and mores which the American people have (thus far) internalized. And if it could be shown that such national projects diminish associational spiritedness, I would be absolutely in the wrong if I continued to defend them. However, I think the very best you can say is that the evidence is mixed. Granted, the example of a few of the nations which Roger mentions--such as Russia and the rampant crime and corruption which has followed the collapse of communism, or Iraq and the looting which exploded upon the end of the Hussein regime--would give one reason to pause: surely at least part of the reason those cultures seem to lack the reservoir of voluntarist, law-abiding, associational, social capital and trust which makes a free society and economy is exactly that, in the past, "service" has always been mandated and defined by and through the agency of the state: civil society atrophied in response. Would national service programs move us in that direction; would they undermine the associational strength of the groups the American people form? Perhaps. But I think there is also good reason to believe that associational spiritedness in the United States was stronger when there was an involving and reciprocating state playing its part in backing up the authority or voice of said groups, whether national or otherwise (the draft is the best example, but not the only one). In other words, mandatory "public-spiritedness" might actually increase the amount of subsequent volunteering in society. Of course, Putnam's work has been strongly criticized, and some of those criticisms have stuck. As of right now (perhaps mainly just because of my communitarian philosophical orientation), I'm not convinced that teaching "voluntarism" necessarily undermines it. But I appreciate the efforts of people like Roger Sweeny to explain to me why I'm wrong.