Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Does Community Always Exploit?

Jacob T. Levy, whom I've disagreed with before regarding community service, has come up with another, very subtle, very smart anti-communitarian argument in his latest TNR column, which takes up the "tax the poor" accusation which has enjoyed a long life in Democratic circles, and shows how the otherwise disturbingly regressive notion that the poor need to contribute "equally" to the financing of the nation actually falls in line with a host of other claims about making burdens "equal" across society and not allowing any group to opt out of such, all in the name of preserving communal solidarity. I suppose calling it an "anti-communitarian argument" isn't quite fair; after all, Jacob's column simply aims to reveal a consistent (as he puts it) "communitarian and social democratic" line of thinking, rather than to rebut said thinking. In fact, he even allows that claims made along these lines are "the universal price of political life" and "sometimes....unavoidable." But the way he frames the argument he (very insightfully) clarifies plainly reflects his basic (perhaps Kantian?) libertarian disposition--and hence, casts all sorts of efforts to draw collective boundaries into the same general category: namely, as efforts that always "involve an element of exploitation." I can't really disagree with the way he works out the overall line of thought; it's that final categorizing which I disagree with.

The basic conceit behind the Wall Street Journal's original complaint with the unequal distribution of tax burdens in our country--in other words, with the degree to which our income tax is fairly progressive rather than otherwise--was that, as more and more people disappear from the tax rolls, through exemptions and whatnot, the fewer people there are whose blood will "boil with tax rage," and hence fewer people willing to press for tax reform and smaller government. It's a smart, though crazy, claim: we want to lower our taxes, and in a democracy that means we need to call into existence the popular pressure to lower taxes, and so to keep that pressure to lower taxes strong, we shouldn't lower taxes (at least, not any more than we already have, and certainly not on the sort of rabble that are likely to make popular demands in the first place). The point Jacob draws out of it, however, is its similarity to an argument he heard made on the left during Steve Forbes's 1996 primary campaign: that a flat tax with a very high personal exemption (which Forbes proposed) would bump so many middle and low-income people from the income-tax rolls that the of sense of obligation to support government services would significantly disappear from those classes of people. Social solidarity and the poor's sense of shared belonging would thus diminish. Leaving aside the possibility that such a tax arrangement (or indeed, any progressive tax structure) might actually be presented in terms of extending and building solidarity (i.e., by constructing connections and a sense of dependency and obligation between social classes) rather than as an escape from it, Jacob comes up with other examples of the left demanding social unity at the expense of individual preferences or situations (like poverty): discussing a revival of the draft (everyone needs to be equally threatened with the possibility of war if we are to truly develop a consensus about its costs), opposing to school vouchers (everyone needs to experience our--often lousy--public schools, so that those who are not financially or socially able to pursue a life beyond them can rub shoulders with those who can), and, of course, stamping down any attempt to make Social Security means-tested, or otherwise even remotely less than a universal insurance program.

These are all excellent examples (I particularly liked Jacob's trenchant comments on the left's frequent opposition to home schooling, charter schools, and other sorts of school choice arrangements, as I find myself frequently divided on these topics). But do they really add up to the same thing? Or more relevantly for his overall point, do they all necessarily involve the sort of "exploitation" which the "tax the poor" argument does? Jacob thinks so: "The 18-year-old conscript killed in a war he opposed in order to discourage politicians from starting wars, the child kept in a failing school in order to persuade her parents to support a better public school system, and the professional coerced into a low- or negative-return Social Security system in order to keep the entire system politically viable...the working-class parent whose taxes are kept high in order to expand support for tax cuts. As individuals, each would be better off if allowed to opt out. But, in each case, that individual's welfare is subordinated to the collective goal. 'We're all in the same boat,' runs the political message of shared citizenship. But the policy imperative is to keep us all there, chained to our oars if necessary."

But Jacob is wrong in thinking that all of these individuals are similarly being "used." He is treating huge differences in kind--differences that can be well-elaborated philosophically and sociologically--as mere variations on a single, collectivist impulse. His use of "exploitation" as a way to communicate the commonality between all these collective enterprises masks the legitimate communitarian difference between enlisting individuals in program where both means and ends can be expressed in terms of wholes, and enlisting individuals in schemes which, by their nature, cannot be (and should not be) wholly equalized. Take the draft for instance, since generally speaking I favor it and Jacob doesn't. What is happening when someone is drafted, and sent to fight in a war? Is it really a matter of an individual (who might well "get killed in a war he opposed") being subject to a task appointed by some other agency? But that would assume that there are individual actors or forces who are outside the collective, reaching into and subjecting some portion of it to tasks that "they" have decided are necessary to everyone's survival. In other words, it assumes that there is kind of an antagonism from the get-go; that those who make war and those who decide on war are already distinct somehow, and that if one makes the other conform to their wishes then one is a "user" and the other is being "used." But the whole point of a universal draft would be to eliminate such distinctions. If everyone (roughly speaking) has to perform national service, then there is a shared experience that eliminates (or, at least, one would hope, minimizes) the antagonism which Jacob's model assumes to always be present. By being part of a fully shared world, the burdens of that world are no longer understood as that which one could "opt out of" and still, in fact, be in the shared world. To reply to fully shared burdens by saying "I'm being picked on!" means you have already reduced all your fellow citizens to mere potential pickers. Am I saying that if the draft existed on the level I am describing it that no individual would ever feel herself abused by it? That those who suffer losses in some collective project wouldn't ever assess those losses in terms of individual costs (time, money, opportunity, life)? Of course not--solidarity is never (and shouldn't ever be imagined to be) the same as uniformity. But it would mean that fighting in a war, even dying in a war, couldn't be described in terms of "exploitation." Achieving the goal of "partiotism" or "social consensus" (not to mention "national survival") could not then be fairly described as an individual being used as a means, being subjected to a collective end. Rather, the shared community itself would be the means and the ends.

Obviously, this a communitarian ideal, and I'm under no illusion that it can be called into exist just any place, overnight. And yes, I realize that I'm not distinguishing between communities here. But that fact that something seems implausible or wouldn't always be morally defensible does not mean that its operation must therefore be filed under the "exploitation" banner along with all sorts of other anti-individualist policies. My point is simply to argue against Jacob's way of framing the issue, which is very insightful, but which also overreaches. Thus, to address his specific examples: so long as one's community is anything besides a, perhaps, Amish-style argarian one, there will be economic differences and inequities which will divide the community, and thus require certain levels of "picking" in order to achieve certain collective goals (equal opportunity, economic justice, etc.). A strategy to equalize burdens which, from the standpoint of such goals, should not be strictly equalized, simply for the sake of engendering rage against the system as a whole, can certainly be called "exploitive." Regarding the public school system, I'm open to possibility that defending it in terms of "developing civic identity" or such, at least as it currently stands, might also be fairly labeled "exploitive." (I think that there are a few, relatively simple--though admittedly costly, in terms of both dollars and the careers of bureaucrats committed to what I see as skewed forms of both localism and centralization in public school arrangements--that could go a great distance towards creating a more equitable and thus more legitimately "socially-justified" school system, but that's another post, and leads us into all sorts of questions about what a community can make shared, and what it cannot.) I strongly doubt Social Security deserves that label however, and I know national service doesn't.

It's a great little essay, wonderfully succinct, built around an important insight, and made even better by his concluding comment that the "final thing to notice about this kind of reasoning is that some form of it is common to virtually all political philosophies." That is certainly true. But I just don't like how he assumes that, therefore, all political philosophies (but of course, especially communitarian ones) should "always be [enacted] with a bit of bad conscience." That we should always be aware of how politics can go wrong in communities is certainly true. I doubt, however, that it follows that every form of boundary-drawing and identity-building necessary implicates us in a sense that we are violating someone's essential interests. There is the possibility that (some) wholes are actually greater than (some) parts, after all.