Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Slow for the Summer

Once again, I'm not blogging much. I'd like to think that will change at any moment--there is much I'd like to write on Habermas's recent essay on European identity, for instance (the best translation of which can be found here)--but in all likelihood I'm going to be swamped until the end of June, if not longer. We've just moved into a new house, and now I'm teaching a couple of courses which both meet for two hours every day through the end of the month. After that, we'll be leaving for three weeks to visit relatives out west (Washington state and Oregon). And in the midst of all this, I have to get some work on my book done. I'm going to have to adjust my schedule (and my expectations) if this summer is going to be productive at all. Eventually I'll fall into blogging pattern that works; but I can't promise when that will be--maybe not until August. Sorry.

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.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

The Service You Owe

So, once again, we have a national service plan on the table (this time, proposed by Democrat John Kerry), and once again, libertarians dislike it. For instance, Jacob T. Levy, describing national service as "the bad idea that never dies," writes it off as an obviously outrageous imposition, "a basic signalling device as to whether someone thinks individuals belong to the state or vice-versa." And once again, as I've written before, the assumption is that the whole ball game boils down, as far as libertarian thinkers are concerned, to the individual vs. the state. In many, 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? In other words, why not establish, as Kerry suggests, a national/community service requirement for students who graduate from a nation's or a community's own high schools? The government provides many services to individuals, and individuals pay taxes to support the government; but does that fully exhaust all that is necessary for a well-run society, a healthy community, a liveable neighborhood? Why can't groups have a part in this process? It always seems to be the same complaint, again and again, whether you are talking about the draft or AmeriCorps or anything related: the government can't or shouldn't ask anything of me that doesn't arise from my own voluntary choice, premised upon my own individual calculation of benefit. To which I say: by dragging the government into it, you make into something it's not; you make it into a question of political liberty, when actually it should be a question of social obligation.

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 recepient of authentical 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 could claim "community" status (a state-wide draft? a municipal one?). Second, Jacob implies that nothing socially beneficial can come from the state's asking, that while such an arrangement might plausibly reflect civic republican virtues (which he eschews anyway), in can never aspire to "Tocquevillean civil society volunteerism" (which is, a guess, to be preferred). But on this point I beg to differ: there is much evidence (nicely summarized in this article by Theda Skocpol) that state involvement (and state mandates) is essential to just such civil-society-building-voluntarism. Very simply, she concludes, "the early American civic vitality that so entranced Alexis de Tocqueville was closely tied up with the representative institutions and centrally directed activity of a very distinctive national state." I don't see why it would be, or we should expect it to be, any different today.

Political Philosophy and the Cool Name Theory

I'm sure I've heard this theory somewhere before, but Micah Schwartzman (welcome back Micah!--how were finals?) has brought it up here (permalinks bloggered; it's the first post on May 20th). Basically, he writes, "to make it into the canon of great political philsophers, your name has to be amenable to a suffix like "ism," "ist," "ian," "ite," "an," etc. Consider: Plato(nic), Hobbes(ian), Locke(an), Hume(an), Kant(ian), Hegel(ian), Burke(an), Marx(ist/ism), Mill(ian), and Rawls(ian)." I think that's basically right, though I'm not sure I've ever heard of any theoretical camp taking on an "ite" suffix. (Does "Luddite" count? I don't think so.) He correctly observes that--especially in what is, as the Invisible Adjunct constantly reminds us, an academic world increasingly driven by market values and commodification--making it into the canon is going to depend upon more than just one's ideas: you've got to be able to sell yourself. And that means philosophers and theorists who have less than easily manageable names (MacIntyre, or Kymlicka, for example) are probably at a disadvantage in the competition for Intro to Political Theory immortality (MacIntyrian? Kymlickanian? I guess they work, but they just doesn't, you know, flow). He posits a couple of corollaries: the "common-name" problem (under which he says Charles Taylor--Taylorism?--won't make it), and the "already-taken" problem (i.e., Smith has already been taken). I'm not sure that the common-name issue is that big a deal; I mean, if you've got an interesting or influencial enough set of ideas, undergraduate students and scholars alike will make allowances for the dull label (I mean, John Stuart Mill?). An additional corollary which he doesn't mention, but related to one of the objections to the CNT which he mentions, is the difficulty English-speakers have with turning names which end with vowels (except silent ones, of course) into nouns. Consider Jean-Jacque Rousseau. I have seen in journals and books over the years, "Roussean," "Rousseauan," "Rousseauian," "Rousseauesque," and "Rousseauist," and probably some others. Not as ugly as what is usually done with Aristotle (most commonly, in my experience, "Aristotelian," reflecting a perverse demand that the name be re-written so the preferred suffix will work), but you get the idea.

Micah also asks how things are handled in Continental philosophy, and whether the CNT is "Anglocentric." Well, obviously since were talking about English suffixes here, it is unavoidably Anglocentric in that sense. But generally speaking, I don't know: I think the same dynamics of appropriation apply. "Nietzschean" and "Gadamerian" both clearly pass the test (though I think "Heideggerian" or "Levinasian" might as well; perhaps it's just a matter of taste). But then there's those pesking vowels again. Derrida? "Derridean"? "Derridanian"? It's a problem.