Monday, November 22, 2004

Comments Post #1: Christians, Libertarians, and Civic Obligation

As promised (though a couple of days late, as usual), here's my first round-up of comments, which hopefully will become an irregular but consistent feature. Enjoy.

My post on Alabama, Moral Values, and Education generated a lot of comments, thanks to the link from Crooked Timber. Several were critical of my assertion that any Christian who seriously wanted to see their mostly socially conservative values incorporated into, and reflected by, our social policies ought to be ashamed at the way the Christian Coalition simply dug in their heels at the prospect of Alabama potentially recognizing a public right to education. Thomas wrote:

"I live in a state with a constitutional guarantee of public education, and we've been held hostage by a state court for more than a year. Instead of letting the legislature fund education, the judge wants to dictate the acceptable level and distribution of funding, in order to protect the rights guaranteed. I'd vote to take that guarantee out of the constitution in a heartbeat, to get the case out of court and put the issue back into the political sphere. The political sphere will raise my taxes without doubt, but I'll know who to credit and who to blame."

That's a sentiment I can respect, if not fully agree with; as I noted in that post, Arkansas has been subject to litigation arising out of our state constitution's educational guarantee for over a decade, and no one is particularly happy with the results (not even the school district that started the original lawsuit, since in winning its case it has also been shown to be unsupportable insofar as equal funding requirements are concerned, and thus has been consolidated). I'm no fan of judicially driven politics. That said, I think there is an important civic aspect to the issue of what a state's constitutional language includes which is being ignored; namely, the idea that a state, as a body of people, ought to collectively reflect certain egalitarian priorities, including (I think) a guarantee of at least a minimal fair education. Such collective action out to arise popularly, I agree. But then again, for various avowedly Christian interest groups to work to stop popular changes in the language of a constitution doesn't sound any better to me either--in fact it sounds worse, because it seems to be not all that much different from working to prevent the establishment of any civic obligation to the poor whatsoever...which is kind of where other comments went. As TW put it:

"[A]nyone who thinks that they have a 'right' to vote themselves or another a subsidy paid for with someone else's tax dollars (regardless of whether they're willing to pay more themselves) is a thief, pure and simple. While arguably giving your own money by voluntary choice to a needy person is Christian, there is nothing 'Christian' about voting to raise the taxes of others in any sense of the word."

Harry's response to that was dead-on:

"TW is operating with a very odd sense of theft. Would it, for example, constitute theft to raise taxes in order to secure a fair justice system? Or to secure a police force sufficiently capable and non-corruptible to protect churches from fire-bombers? No; because we are all obliged to contribute to the maintenance of a system in which all our fellow citizens can have their rights secured . . . Of course, that can only be secured through a system of taxation, and no-one has the right to exempt themselves from contributing to the maintenance of a fair system of rights. The thieves, if you want to use that language, are those who vote to maintain low taxes so that they can refrain from fulfilling their moral duties to others."

I'm not a fan of "rights-talk" by any stretch of the imagination; still, the basic "fairness" that Harry is talking about here is an egalitarian principle deeply embedded in the Christian ethos (as well as many other philosophical and ethical systems). Given that the realization of this principle requires sharing, common concern, and collective action, to say that taxes--even taxes voted upon by the people, and taxes shared throughout the population!--cannot be considered anything other than "theft" leads me to believe that TW either 1) rejects the applicability of Christian principles to the modern world entirely, and thus either rejects Christian morality out of hand or rejects modern forms of organization and the state itself entirely (neither of which, given the context of his post, strikes me as likely), or 2) thinks that any and all "subsidies" (again, including those which strive to provide a common and fair system to all contributors), whatever their motivation, have to overcome some kind of logical barrier which automatically gives priority to one's possession of one's own dollars. In other words, public provision, whether or not it's morally defensible, is all fine and good, but holdings are still sacred. Which leads DJW to add:

"[T]here's something funny about political ideology here in the states. Namely, we're susceptible to ill-conceived, simple-minded libertarian rhetoric."

Which I agree with completely. I appreciate Harry and others being willing to give the socially conservative voters who helped push Bush to victory credit for their beliefs, and look for ways to bring about some progressive consistency between what their religious and moral beliefs call for, and the best egalitarian traditions of the Democratic party. But this isn't going to be an easy transformation, assuming it's even possible. Dsquared thinks the evidence suggests, speaking of red-state religious voters, that:

"They're not lost sheep who have strayed into the rightwing fold despite being Christians, simply for lack of love from leftwing democrats. They're deeply rightwing people who have managed to reconstruct, on the basis of some pretty creative scholarship, a version of Christianity which accords with rightwing values."

On the other hand, following my The Democrats and My (Social) Hopes post, Nate Oman suggests that religious progressives like myself ought to concentrate on the Republicans rather than the Democrats:

"The Democrats are . . . institutionally incapable of moderating their position on abortion, civic religion, and the other sorts of issues that you would like to see the party change directions on. The chief reason is economic. The Democratic party survives on the cash of metropolitan elites, who while moderately friendly to progressive economics are desperate to keep the barbarian hordes from the heartland at bay. The party simply cannot afford to permanently alienate this group and it never will . . . From my point of view, the only route to the sort of politics that you would like see is to transform the Religious Right into a more economically progressive movement and then to get the Religious Right to transform the GOP. In this sense the Religious Right is much like the metropolitan elites who play money bags to the Dems; it is a constituency that the party cannot afford to alienate."

He could be right. My resistance to thinking this way, however, is grounded in what seems to me to be fundamental to classical liberal and libertarian thinking: that an individual's acts have an irreducible economic element to them. This kind of liberal decisionmaking posits socio-economic "spontaneity"--namely, the expression of individual interests--as the heart of all decent and free societies; to bring politics--the collective act of ordering society in accordance with ideas--into the mix is to threaten coercion. The doctrine of laissez-faire, so central to contemporary Republican party rhetoric, has identified spontaneous liberty (in the sense of accumulating or disposing of property) with moral action, whereas the Democrats, going back to through the Great Society and FDR all the way to the Progressives, have been the one major party which has provided intellectual shelter to a more positive conception of liberty. Obviously, I think the Democrats today have failed to recognize and reach out to the other positive thinkers in America's political landscape, but at least the tradition and the rhetoric is there; whereas for the Republicans, you've got to go back to Lincoln (though Teddy Roosevelt felt the lure of this older, more political notion of liberty to a degree). In other words, I think it's easier to change the perspective of liberal elites (like by helping them see the best that popular Christian morality has to offer, even if that obviously isn't often on display today) who at least supposedly accept the reality and the priority of the commons, then it is to change the whole economic worldview of mainstream conservatives, because for so many of them, as noted above, even the ethical demands of Christianity as they understand it appears to be, in some ways at least, subject to the test of property. Either way, it's not going to be an easy battle, but for the moment I'd rather take on libertarians nearer to home than farther afield.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

A belated response:

I agree that a state's constitution ought to reflect certain egalitarian priorities.

But that doesn't resolve the issue.

Consider a constitutional provision guaranteeing the security of all citizens in their home and property. That is egalitarian, and a worthy societal goal. After all, too many of our fellow citizens have to deal with the threat of violence in their neighborhoods and homes, and that danger is unequally shared.

But I wouldn't want a court to have the power to decide the appropriate number of cops to have on the street.

And I wouldn't want a court to set the number of cops without considering, for example, the money that needs to be spent on education. Or on roads. And so on.

When we guarantee only one, or a few, of the many egalitarian priorities, we provide a hook for a court to decide the appropriate balance--which is to say, the court fixes on the enunciated priority and ignores the rest. In our state, that means more money for schools, and less money for seniors. Perhaps that's the right balance, but the legislature, accountable to the people, seems a better place to determine that.
 

Posted by Thomas

smith said...

I agree that a state's constitution ought to reflect certain egalitarian priorities.

But that doesn't resolve the issue.

Consider a constitutional provision guaranteeing the security of all citizens in their home and property. That is egalitarian, and a worthy societal goal. After all, too many of our fellow citizens have to deal with the threat of violence in their neighborhoods and homes, and that danger is unequally shared.

But I wouldn't want a court to have the power to decide the appropriate number of cops to have on the street.

And I wouldn't want a court to set the number of cops without considering, for example, the money that needs to be spent on education. Or on roads. And so on.