Thursday, September 18, 2003

Reifying Community?

Jacob's challenging TNR essay has given rise to a lot more commentary in the blogosphere than just my own response yesterday. Most, however, seem disinclined to actually tangle with the important issue(s) he raises. I suppose partly this is simply because liberal bloggers really don't think it's worth the effort to examine their own arguments (which I agree with, I should note) against those who apparently oppose an equitable and progressive tax structure, and contemplate how those they disagree with might actually be invoking a line of thought which they otherwise have some sympathy with. For instance, Kevin Drum reminds us that the only real liberal argument against the "tax the poor" meme has nothing to do with who is trying to build social solidarity where, and has everything do with the fact that "the poor already pay a lot of taxes" and that "the Wall Street Journal is completely full of shit." I'm not sure how Jacob will respond to that, but I'm sure it'll be worth reading.

Regarding my particular take on his argument, I await Jacob's response. In the meantime, a question from Nate Oman makes me think I need to try to clarify something I said further. Nate writes that, he is "at a loss...as to how one is to make sense of [my] statement that 'the shared community itself would be the means and the ends.' Surely what is needed is an argument about why the particular unpleasantness a person suffers is particularlly justified. Put another way, we need an argument that explains why a person properly should be used as a means to this particular end. However, I don't see that denying the existence of this ends-means trade off by reifying the community gets us much of anywhere." His comment is, I suppose, a properly liberal one (philosophically speaking) to make: as Nate sees it, all I did was state that, sometimes, the ends-means "trade off" doesn't (or at least needn't) exist, and thus we shouldn't assume that every policy aimed to secure social ends must be burdened with the "bad conscience" of "exploitation." If you require, as Nate does, a particular argument as to why, in any given context, any particular person is "justified" in being "used," then you have already, as I said about Jacob, assumed that the justification-requiring individual, the individual who is or may be about to be used by some other agent or individual, is always already a presence in every context, and that anything which doesn't acknowledge this fact is "reifying the community." I think I could just as well ask how we ended up "reifying the individual," but that just produces an ontological stand-off (which may end up at anyway, but still...). So let me, instead, try to be particular.

In my response, I talked about the draft and/or national service. What is the end of such a program? In extreme cases, the survival of the community (nation, polity, whatever). In less extreme cases, its civic health, its level of public engagement, its sense of social solidarity and mutual support. In every case, these are collective goals: the community is the end in mind. How can these goals be achieved? Singular individual actions, even heroic ones involving great sacrifice, won't do it (though they are, of course, to be celebrated). Neither will money do it (though that, of course, will probably also be necessary). The only thing that can do it is people, putting their bodies, their time, their talents, their interests on the line (sometimes literally). In other words, equal and collective action is the only plausible means towards this end. Hence, when it comes to participating in a sufficiently collective project like a universal draft, the means by which the draft operates is also the ends to which the draft is addressed. Now, there are many other "collective" policies--say, a community's tax policies. As I wrote before, assuming that the community in mind isn't a Hutterite or Amish or 19th-century Mormon-style agrarian/communal society, you're probably going to be talking about a market-based economy which has produced varying levels of wealth. What is the end of tax policies? To provide for the educational, health, environmental and defense needs of the community. Can equal, collective action serve those ends? No, because we aren't talking about a context in which everyone is equally available to teach everyone else's kids, oversee everyone else's workplaces, etc. So governments take on the job, meaning they hire people to do it, meaning they need money. And since not everyone has the same amount of money, not everyone is going to be able or should be expected to contribute equally (depending, of course, on the degree to which you may or may not embrace various theories of economic justice, etc.). Hence, this particular context demands an entirely different kind of "collective project," one in which no amount of reification can ever entirely paper over the particular consequences of the means and ends.

I recognize and agree with some of the ways in which philosophical liberals point out the special dangers which come from "reifying community," dangers which individualism is supposed to take care of (and admittedly, often does). But I'm uncomfortable with arguments which suggest, even if only implicitly (which is the case with Jacob's piece), that this "reification" is always problematic, and can never truly be a solution to the "costs" of political life on its own terms. I guess my response to Nate would be: the problem with asking for particular arguments to justify "using" individuals for particular ends is that, in some particular situations, there aren't any, or at least needn't or shouldn't be any, "users" or "used." For example: as I'm not a communist, I don't believe we should deny or ignore individual reality when it comes to questions of taxation or economic policy--it would be stupid to pretend some aren't being "picked out" for different uses than others in pursuit of social economic ends. But not all policies depend upon individual tax bills. Some depend upon different kinds of efforts, more "embodied" collective efforts shall we say, and in those cases, strictly speaking, "individual reality" is neither the most accurate, not the most responsible, way to talk about what is being aimed for, and what is being done.