"Fairness", Solidarity and Liberty

President Obama’s speech last Monday laid out his case for raising the debt ceiling and used “fair” or “balanced” twelve times in less than 15 minutes. There is an obvious political reason for his choice of diction–painting House Republicans as enemies of moderation and disconnected from the reality of the moment–but it has an important intellectual and moral aspect as well.

Conservatives and libertarians quickly dismiss principles of “fairness” and “balance” as a cloak-and-dagger show for grinding, leveling equality. But this is to miss the point–the desire for “balance” doesn’t desire balance for the sake of equality but for the sake of solidarity–a desire to see a reflection of one’s own experience or values in the rest of society. Envy or jealousy might be sufficient for the desire for solidarity, but they don’t exhaust it. The desire for solidarity or a desire for belonging are more akin to a secularized religious instinct that seeks to fill out the spiritual inadequacy of individual experience. One way in which this desire might manifest, then, is by recognizing the values and qualities of our individual experiences in the lives of those around us. And so we have the desire for community.
In the United States, with our peculiar sense of exceptionalism and national destiny, community can be a vehicle for progressive as well as conservative values. The difference between the two is that described by Leo Strauss in his great essay “Progress or Return“, the difference between the progressive or conservative community turns on the community’s place in time: the progressive imagines the community of the future, while the conservative yearns for the community of the past.
But the liberal communitarian is not what she once was. The classical liberal community was one in which advanced through economic growth, ameliorating the condition of all in society and rewarding the Protestant virtues of thrift, industry, and perseverance. Yet now the liberal communitarians, in particular the greatest beneficiaries of an individualistic political order, envisage a community characterized instead by “shared sacrifice.” From growth, advancement, and progress, we’ve turned to sacrifice, sharing of burdens, and fairness.
It’s instructive to remember the uproar Wall Street bonuses met with after TARP and the Bush-Obama bailouts. As Michael Sandel keenly observed, the outrage wasn’t so much directed at size of the bonuses or their apparent brazenness as their purpose–these bonuses seemed to reward recipients for their incompetence and catastrophic miscalculations. They rewarded failure. In our ordinary experience with capitalist, meritocratic, individualist values, to each according to his ability. Yet here a different set of rules seemed to apply, not necessarily as a result of cronyism or outright corruption as mystery–we heard that the size of bonuses was necessary given the scale of business, and banks had done the best they can in the face of an overwhelming financial “tsunami” that no one could quite understand. One set of rules for Main Street, another, opaque set of rules for Wall Street.
Irving Kristol warned more than 30 years ago that the bureaucratization of the American economy risked alienating capitalism’s support among the American public by blurring the connection between achievement and virtue. The great promise of capitalism, like religion, has been the promise of equality–no matter your condition, high or low, if you work hard and play by the rules, you will find success in life. Belief in this equality, this fairness, is the basis for the solidarity upon which a dynamic, restless, market-based society depends. Subvert this equality and we will find instead a great hunger for “fairness” and “balance.”
Wall Street is of course right in the formal, positive sense that their bonuses are justified by the rules of the economic game it must play. But formal, positive justifications have and will never support political economies–they commend no loyalties, they do not inspire reverence, and they do not summon the people to defend them against their enemies. Capitalism must be grounded on sounder stuff, and friends of free, market-driven societies should take notice.

Education and Individualism

I had the good fortune this past month to attend a weeklong seminar hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies entitled “Exploring Liberty.” The seminar introduced students to libertarian perspectives in philosophy, economics, law, and history, through the real purpose was clearly to recruit new minds to the libertarian cause. More than the discussions and lectures, which had their own appeal, the most revealing comment of the week came at the final Q&A with the seminar’s faculty panel.

The question, “What is your biggest problem with libertarianism,” could have easily fallen on deaf ears. The answer, however, exposed the kernel of thought that most troubles libertarianism: children. Indeed, the moral status of children and an accompanying theory of paternalism would be a huge difficulty for an ideology whose favorite epithet is “paternalistic.”
Because of its allergy to paternalism and coercive restraint upon the individual, libertarianism doesn’t give us a good story about how we should form or educate children (in the literal sense of “bringing out” or “bringing through” children into adulthood) because libertarianism is so individualistic. So someone like Walter Block, for example, is at his most comical defending the employer of child labor because his theory of education is so hopelessly barren. A child becomes an adult in Block’s view by acting in a way that befits an adult, e.g. selling his labor to an employer for a wage and living apart from his parents. The transformation of child into adult is a kind of “immaculate conception” whereby the child wills himself into adulthood, where the very performance of leaving home to seek employment serves as proof of childhood’s end. There is no theory of education here beyond the single, formative, self-begotten action that Block calls “adult homesteading” and allows children to “fire their parents” when they become too “onerous.”
The comedy of Block’s effort results from shoehorning an intransigent feature of human life into a constrictive ideology of individualism. But childhood isn’t reducible to the vocabulary of individualism because children must be educated, and education involves, well, coercion and indoctrination. What is more, education involves more than just parents. It involves a community and a culture–or a theory of what a community praises and blames. And the need to educate the next generation, or to answer the question “What will we tell the kids?” justifies the intuition that there are collective goods of moral importance in addition to individual goods.
Leo Strauss is said to have quipped (and he was a man of few quips) that all political philosophy is about education. I understand this to mean that the central motivation in political philosophy’s search for the best regime is the thought of how we want to raise or rule our children. Libertarians might better understand traditionalism, conservatism, and liberalism if they recognized that paternalism, rather than some misplaced political gesture, is in fact the central subject of politics.