Friday, November 21, 2003

Service to One's Own

I really have meant to write more than I have lately for a couple of weeks running now, but I just keep running out of time. And now here it is Friday afternoon and once again, I'm thinking I should put off blogging until next week. However, I've just discovered over at Winds of Change a very nice essay I missed from last Veteran's Day: Rob Lyman's reflections on "The Moral Duty of 'Tribal Patriotism.'" He succinctly touches on the collective responsibility to care for "one's own" that must, or at least ought to, characterize every sovereign democratic community: "[e]ach nation-state, or at least each democracy, is a tribe: we must hang together, or we will surely hang separately....I say that the citizens of each country have an obligation to protect each other which supersedes any obligations they may owe to those outside of their country." I'm not sure how far I would want to defend Rob's language: there are, after all, ways to talk about international commitments--and even the emergence of an "international community"--that do not necessarily undermine the national/tribal basis of human solidarity and trust (consider the challenging words of Tony Blair, for example). But in general, I can't disagree with anything he said.

Not unexpectedly thought, many other people did disagree with what he said. An enormous number of comments followed his essay; some were intelligent critiques, but just as many weren't. The next day, Armed Liberal posted a smart response of sorts to some of those who commented on Rob's essay; in it, he indicted the perspective of his critics as exemplifying "one of the defects I see in liberalism today; the notion that one can, personally, have clean hands despite the acts of one's [own] people. You get to that position, I think, because you have a fundamentally cosmopolitan viewpoint - you are an individual whose connections are equally [strong] to all other individuals...[meaning your] connection to the nation is therefore arbitrary and, most of all, chosen rather than accepted." I like how A.L. brought up cosmopolitanism there; it's a comforting illusion, and an old one, which can't ever be put down enough. Johann Gottfried Herder, who I've written about plenty, put it best over 200 years ago when he described the "saturated heart of the idle cosmopolitan," which "offers shelter to nobody."

More specifically, regarding "clean hands" and the very idea of collective or national or "tribal" responsibility, there was--again, not at all unexpectedly--a libertarian rejoinder to Rob's argument from Julian Sanchez. Julian's claims essentially amounted to presenting the (apparently to him) scandalous notion of democratic citizenship as substantively and logically equivalent to the sort of theological hive-mind mentality which presumably exists among Osama bin Laden's soldiers. A.L. once again very ably rushed to Rob's defense, pointing out that the well-understood logical claim that "we take on obligations by living in a society; some of the obligations are not of our choosing or making, but we bear them nonetheless" is hardly comparable to some kind of cultish anti-individualism. Of course, Julian's viewpoint is basically just the usual libertarian conviction that our choices are, and must be, all or nothing; either total liberty or soul-crushing totality. That there might be social groups, civic spheres, tribal allegiances, national ties, and collective entities that are neither necessarily subservient to absolute individual choice nor always opposed to it--indeed, that there might actually be communities that can, through our solidarity and service to them, actually enrich our individuality--never occurs to them. As A.L. puts it, it's "ahistorical, atomistic individuality," through and through.

The Winds of Change guys can handle their own fights, of course, but Julian's condescending dismissal of Rob's intelligent comments in favor of national duty and obligation put me in mind of some old posts of mine, written originally in response to some comments made by Jacob T. Levy, a libertarian who recognizes (unlike Julian, at least in this case) the complications of his position. The topic was the various national service proposals which some politicians like to float around (but rarely back up with full-funding: see Bush administration, AmeriCorps). But the argument quickly went beyond that, towards the whole idea that belonging just might entail service, and that a legitimate sovereign community can and should both expect and cultivate such service. I won't repost those old posts, but I will quote from them (the originals are here and here). First, a general comment...

"In many ways the libertarian position is an exceptionally powerful one, but I've never been able to grasp it's problem with social duty. Basically, I fail to understand why on earth these questions should always be framed as a choice between "belonging" to oneself alone, or "belonging" to the government. Don't you also belong to a neighborhood, a community, a society, or at least a segment of it? If so, why is it so appalling to suggest that, just as the individual is constituted in part by the social continuity she emerges from, so does the individual have obligations and duties to that social context which is her own?...Of course, the response is usually that such communitarian language is all fluff, because in the end, it still is the state which does the asking, right? Two rejoinders: first, such a response assumes that there cannot possibly be a national community on whose behalf the state speaks. There is, of course, a large body of communitarian argument which insists exactly that point; the nation, these thinkers claim, can never be the proper recipient of authentic social, collective obligation, because the nation is too large/too diverse/too historically compromised to ever actually aspire to being a "community." But these arguments are not being fundamentally engaged by libertarian talk about the individual vs. the state, since they would probably expect their response to apply even if mandated service arose from a social entity which "authentically" could claim "community" status...Second, [regarding the implication] that nothing socially beneficial can come from the state's asking....there is much evidence that state involvement is an essential part of civil-society-building-voluntarism."

And second, following up on that last point, in response to the legitimate libertarian complaint that sovereign duties will always undermine the associational spirit that communitarians like myself supposedly desire...

"[Of course] 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....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 associations, whether national or otherwise (the draft is the best example, but not the only one). In other words, mandatory "public-spiritedness" might actually contribute to and enrich subsequent volunteering in society."

Not that I expect anyone's mind to be changed by all that. Still, when you run up against the blogosphere in all its libertarian glory, you gotta do what you gotta do.