Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Community, Conservatism and Liberal Redistribution

Last week, when I wrote my post on "bad labels," I was sort of responding to a couple of different blogs: a comment by John Holbo on conservatism, and one by Will Baude on libertarianism. My basic point was, from my point of view, the dominant divisions in our political life here in the United States seem built around groupings which I find, personally, shakey at best: on the one hand (the "liberal" side) you have redistributive, interventionist economic policies joined with cultural laissez faire; on the other ("conservative") side, you have economic laissez faire hooked up with community-minded, interventionist cultural policies. This is overly broad, of course, but it's also true enough to make people as different as Will and John notice it, in their own fashions. My secondary point was a more personal one: while there aren't enough libertarians out there to really change the terms of debate in America today, at least they are very much present (certainly in the blogosphere at least!); communitarians like myself, however, have to content ourselves with being marginalized as a bunch of desperate socialists and fascists. This led me to complain, in both my post and in the comments section of John's website: "Try to find a social conservative who is willing follow through on their cultural beliefs to a demand for stability and equity in the fabric of the economic order. Or worse, try to find an economic redistributivist who understands that achieving fairness in society requires a collective concern for the moral prerequsites for said society. Unfortunately, you probably won't have much luck."

While I was out of town for a few days, the discussion continued. My post was linked and responded to by Will, Stephen Dunn, and several others who went off into an interesting thread on the problems, and possibilities, of voting one's conscience--as opposed to just holding one's nose and embracing the options given--in our first-past-the-post, plurality voting system. Important as that topic is, I'm more concerned with clarifying my original claim, which both John and Walt Pohl followed up on in John's comments section. Or rather, I need to clarify one particular part of that original claim--the part which asserts that, just as cultural conservatives ought to recognize the necessicity of some kind of economic intervention to any preservation of cultural mores, economic liberals ought to recognize that their redistributionist intuitions require a vibrant communal context in order to be practicable, or even coherent. This latter part they both disbuted; as John put it: "The first of these failings [you mention] does seem hopeless to me. That is, if you are a social/cultural conservative, you have just got to distrust capitalist creative destruction. Otherwise you're incoherent. The second has its risks but strikes me as not patently hopeless. You can be a redistributivist without being a communitarian."

Well, can you? Obviously, as I acknowledged above, I'm being overly broad here. (Aren't we always when we discuss these matters?) But let me try to put it this way: You're committed to the idea that people ought to enjoy some kind of basic equality in their goods and opportunities. (You're some sort of egalitarian, in other words.) You see a people that suffer from grave inequalities--massive inequities in civil rights, standards of living, incomes, social acceptance, etc. You assert that, since a great many of these different elements of social differentiation were unchosen, the result of events entirely outside of one's control, dependent upon luck, and the product of arrangements (whites being favored over blacks, more and better options for schooling available for the wealthy rather than the poor, etc.) that no one would rationally choose unless they already knew exactly how they would fair in life's lottery, there is no basis to claim that any of, or at least a certain portion of, the existing inequalities our essential to the persons who possess/enjoy them, and consequently egalitarian concerns can justify redistributing them among the people as a whole, on whatever basis. Of course, I'm describing John Rawl's "original position" theory of justice. Rawls's redistributive argument is an extremely powerful one. But notice how it operates on the basis of a somehow already-existing "people." Who are the people who suffer from inequalities? Americans? But in what sense does this argument differ for those born south of, as opposed to north of, the Rio Grande? How can the inequalities which characterize the United States's relationship to Mexico be accepted if they are, from the perspective of the individual, arbitrary? Many liberal egalitarians, noting this obvious point, extend Rawls's (and other) redistributionist schemes in a global direction: all forms of national division thus become enemies to the individual-based egalitarian conviction. But this, of course, just multiplies problems enormously. Most crucially, it makes the "people" whom Rawls originally imagined to be an ever more thin, ever more disparate, ever more broad and disconnected (one might even say "arbitrary") group. Rawls himself noted in A Theory of Justice that "social life is a condition for our developing the ability to speak and think," and that such a social matrix depends upon "the collective efforts of a long tradition" (TJ, p. 522). But where can we find such social traditions, where can we base our "peoplehood," if the fundamentals of egalitarian politics (rational choice behind a veil of ignorance) excuse us from such?

Rawls realized this early on, which is why in his writings after TJ he spoke more and more about justice as a "political" conception which assumed a kind of "citizenship" on the part of all those who embraced its principles. But this puts Rawlsian (and, again, other) liberal redistributionist schemes in a bind, as David Miller insightfully explains:

"In [Rawls's] earlier presentations of his theory...justice is identified as the set of principles that rational individuals could endorse to fix the terms of social cooperation....In later presentations, however, Rawls signal[ed] that the principles of justice are developed for people who are already citizens of a liberal-democratic state: they are supposed to think of themselves as citizens, and Rawls aims to show them what they are more concretely committed to when they adopt this perspective....It may strike us straight away that this is a particularly cerebral view of citizenship. A citizen is just someone who subscribes to a certain set of principles. Rawls appears to assume that citizens are always citizens of some national society...but this assumption is kept well hidden in the background, presumably for fear that if it were to be brought out into the open, it might cause trouble for the distinction between justice and [particular] conceptions of the good....Once you adopt the liberal conception of citizenship, as Rawls understands it, then you are committed to a certain way of justifying social and political institutions, but [the] problem [is] to see why people [or, "a people"]...could be induced to give it priority....Rawls argument here appears to leave a liberal with only two alternatives. The first is to retreat to a pragmatic defense of liberal institutions....The second alternative is to go on to the offensive, admit that liberalism is a distinct and morally contestable way of life, but declare that it is valuable and worth defending politically." (Miller, "Citizenship and Pluralism," in Citizenship and National Identity, pp. 45-49)

In other words, if you're going to make a redistributivist argument, then one way or another you're going to have to address the particularity of the people who experience that redistribution. You can't just call them all "liberals," because even if participation in a joint political project in the real world really did only depend upon consent (there goes the Mexican-American border! we're citizens of the world now!)--which of course it doesn't--you still have to explain how it is that there is a rational public culture which would respond to your consent; indeed, which would make your consent even intelligible. There has to be some attention paid to the generation of, the parameters of, the presence of, the particularity of the social contexts within which the liberal imagination can find a home. Of course, not all redistributive egalitarians are Rawlsian, but I think this sort of argument can be easily made against most every possible liberal scheme.

Now, it's important to acknowledge that in all this, I may not have made much of a point at all. As Walt wrote: "What you're saying can be interpreted to either be a) obviously true, or b) controversial. (By obviously true, I mean, a world where everyone agrees that the most desirable thing is to stick it to the other guy is not one where the value of equality is going to make much headway. A controversial interpretation would be one that required, say, everyone to be a devout Christian.) Which do you mean?" A fair question--is there any sense in which this claim against cerebral Rawlsianism is anything more than an sociological observation? That is, is it "communitarian" in a strong sense: does the particularity which liberal redistribution assumes really have to be deeply particular, and require some sort of truly collective affirmation and defense? If not, why claim that liberal and/or social democratic ends require anything that might be conventionally called "conservative" and/or "communitarian" at all? The latter may require the former (i.e., perhaps you must be willing to intefere with unjust socio-economic arrangements in order to prevent the market from messing up the community), but maybe the former doesn't need the latter (i.e., perhaps any community, just so long as it involves some bare minimal rule of law and degree of tolerance, can sustain the social requirements of socio-economic intervention).

I think this is wrong; to think so is to put put the cart before the horse. What's at stake here is understanding the difference between, as Charles Taylor put it, ontology and advocacy. Rejecting certain ontological presumptions does not necessarily dictate what sort of political society one will pursue; however, it will profoundly affect the way you will pursue that society (and hence put certain "side-constraints" on one's pursuits, but that's a secondary point). Certain thinkers like Will Kymlicka, who no one would describe as "conservative," have done a tremendous amount to bring the communitarian/culturalist argument into dialogue with liberal egalitarian social goals, and show how what he calls the "liberal culturalist" position can clarify some of the complications which redistributivists face without embracing a communitarianism whose particularity is uncomfortably (to a liberal, anyway) essentialist. I'm very sympathetic to Kymlicka's work; as I've written in the past, rejecting philosophical liberalism hardly means rejecting the enormous value of the practical, negative role which liberal critiques of communities, power structures and forms of government have played over the last several centuries. Still, I must admit, when pressed, to be arguing for something more "controversial," more "essentialist," than otherwise. Taylor wrote, in a wonderful little essay some years back in Critical Review titled "Can Liberalism be Communitarian?," that while Kymlicka's basic move certainly broadens the Rawlsian or Dworkian tent, it still fails to address the "thickness" of "all really existing cultures"--cultures which do not exist concomitant to a individualist commitment to make everyone equal participants in a particular peoplehood, but which are regarded as good in themselves, as they are, simpliciter. I tend to suspect that, fundamentally, such simple communal convictions--expressions of faith, really--are the horse that must come before the cart. In the mostly secular societies of the modern West, the sort of cultural/national/religious/civic "faith" (complete with social norms that presuppose and work to affirm that faith) that grounds the modern individual who imagines herself capable of taking a laissez faire attitude about practically anything is so far in the background that it's practically invisible. But it's there. Does this mean I think we all have to hang tightly on to our "Judeo-Christian heritage," for example, if we're to have social justice in the U.S.? Depends on what you mean by "tightly." No, I don't think that being a liberal citizen in America requires an embrace of orthodox Christianity, any more than I think that being a liberal citizen in Singapore requires a genuflection before Confucianism. But I do think that those who believe that a simply rational, cerebral affirmation of citizenship in this people or that people will be grounds enough to subject that people to liberal purposes are confused. One way or another, those purposes (and while I have, in this post, dealt with only liberal, redistributivist ones, obviously any number of others would also fit the bill) must be found in "us"; and that means that we need to be able to say, in some sense or another, that they are part of an existing "us" even aside from our efforts to articulate them. Which means, even if you don't embrace your community, you should always be prepared, as a liberal, to begin there. (In the Singaporean context, consider Daniel A. Bell's wonderful immanent critique of Confucian authoritarianism, made all the powerful because of its acknowledgment of the local particularity the Confucian community.)