Conservatives, Liberals and Communitarians???


Jeff White
May 15, 2003, 11:25 AM
New Republic
May 19, 2003
Pg. 27

An Army Of The Willing

Why conscription does not serve community.

By Richard A. Posner

In the theory of the state that John Stuart Mill sketched in On Liberty, the government's role is to provide an unobtrusive framework for private activities. Government provides certain goods, such as national defense and (in some versions) education, that private markets will not provide in sufficient quantities. But beyond that it merely protects a handful of entitlements (property rights and some personal liberties) that are necessary to prevent markets from not working at all or from running off the rails, as would happen, for example, if there were no sanctions for theft. Limited government so conceived--the conception most commonly called "nineteenth-century liberalism," to distinguish it from modern welfare liberalism--has no ideology, no "projects," but is really just an association for mutual protection.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and with scarcely a beat skipped during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the United States--by such means as widespread privatization and deregulation, welfare reform, and indifference to growing inequalities of income--has been experimenting with a partial return to nineteenth-century liberalism. This development is obscured by the fact that the left believes in personal but not economic liberty, and that the right believes in economic but not personal liberty, and that the Millian center, which believes in both forms of liberty, has no articulate presence in either of the major political parties. But since the left has been notably unsuccessful in restricting economic liberty, and the right has been largely unsuccessful in restricting personal liberty, what we have in fact, though it is rarely acknowledged, is an approximation, though a very rough one, to a Millian polity.

The most sweeping intellectual challenge to our reviving nineteenth-century liberalism comes not from the dwindling band of socialists, with their narrow focus on economic issues, or from the social or religious conservatives, with their narrow focus on abortion, homosexuality, religion, and a handful of other purely "social" issues, but from the communitarians. These political theorists think that liberalism as practiced in the United States today is causing people to lose all sense of communal responsibility. They argue that people are becoming self-preoccupied and thus indifferent to the claims of the community. As evidence they point to our high rates of crime and divorce and out-of-wedlock births; and to our declining rates of participation in communal activities such as voting; and even to the prevalence of commuting and the popularity of television-watching because these (the first especially) tend to be solitary activities.

For many communitarians, the demon is commodification--the substitution of market services for non-market services. Private prisons, private tutors for four-year-olds applying for admission to $17,000-per-year New York City kindergartens, Duke University's sale of freshman places to rich kids, professional dog walkers, the auction of the electromagnetic spectrum, and surrogate-motherhood contracts: these are some of the gaudier examples. Of greater significance is paid child care, though those communitarians who are liberals in the modern sense do not care to dwell on this point. No longer do mothers feel morally obligated to take full-time care of their children themselves, or grandparents to step in for a busy or absent parent. The purchase of child care is now a legitimate option. The care of the elderly has to a great extent been shucked off to retirement and nursing homes supported by Social Security. And no longer is military service an obligation of citizenship. There is no draft; the army is a career like any other. Preoccupied with money-making and other private projects, many people evade taxes and jury duty, and in most elections fewer than half the eligible voters bother to vote.

To the practical-minded, the communitarian movement founders on a dearth of useful suggestions for reversing--or even just slowing--the dismal decline that the communitarians bemoan. Most of their proposals echo those made by others on grounds unrelated to communitarianism. One does not have to be a communitarian to want safe, clean parks or high standards in education. Their distinctive proposals tend toward the quixotic, as in Robert Putnam's proposal for an annual Jane Addams Award for "the Gen X'er or Gen Y'er who comes up with the best idea" for restoring social capital; or to the unlovely, as in Michael Lind's program of "liberal nationalism," which proposes restricting immigration and using tariffs to prevent foreign countries from competing with us on the basis of lower wage rates in those countries. But the dominant communitarian note is banality, as when Putnam in Bowling Alone says (in italics--so important did he consider the point), "Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of a glowing screen and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens."

But there is a deeper problem with communitarian thinking than the lack of a constructive agenda. Its diagnosis of the nation's ills is empirically off. We know this because in recent years, at the same time that the ties of community as they are imagined by communitarians have been fraying, the ills to which that fraying was thought to give rise have been abating rather than increasing. Crime rates have fallen, as have rates of abortion, teenage births, and births out of wedlock; welfare dependency has declined; racial tension is significantly reduced. The causality is complex; but the communitarians owe us an explanation for why their predictions have been falsified. A possible answer that they will not like is that commodification promotes prosperity and prosperity alleviates social ills. Think of the social and economic implications of abolishing life insurance, which commodifies human life; or re-instituting the draft or imposing other compulsory national service, which would deprive the economy of a significant slice of its productive labor; or ending Social Security and child care subsidies in order to strengthen the family. Not that many communitarians would endorse all these measures, but nothing in their theory tells them when to stop turning back the clock.

In a lecture in 1998 titled "What Money Can't Buy," Michael Sandel observed that "to turn military service into a commodity--a job for pay--is to corrupt or degrade the sense of civic virtue that properly attends it." To Sandel--here following Rousseau, who had said, "I hold enforced labor to be less opposed to liberty than taxes"--the volunteer army is a prime example of rampant and destructive commodification. The suggestion is perverse. Conscription could be described as a form of slavery, in the sense that a conscript is a person deprived of the ownership of his own labor; and slavery is the ultimate commodification, because it treats a human being as a salable good. Michael Lind likewise had it backward when he opposed the volunteer army (which he had called a "mercenary" force) on the ground that "in a republic, as opposed to the old-fashioned despotic monarchies, the citizens participate, they are the owners of the state, the state does not own them." But surely it is conscription that treats the persons conscripted as if the state does own them. There are circumstances in which military service is an obligation of citizenship, but ownership is a poor metaphor for obligation. The state that asserts an unlimited right to the enforced labor of its people is not participatory, it is despotic.

The volunteer army was not the brainchild of Milton Friedman and other commodifiers. We have had a volunteer army for most of our history, conscription having long been resisted here, as in England, as a Continental practice associated with Napoleonic militarism. The volunteer army was re-instituted when there was no longer a felt need for a mass of (inevitably sullen) cannon fodder. The criticisms of it by the communitarians are refuted by the public response to it in the recent war with Iraq. Only the Iraqi minister of information described our soldiers as "mercenaries." No American was heard to say that since our soldiers are paid to risk their lives, we should regard the death, the wounding, or the capture of them with the same equanimity with which we regard the occasional death and maiming of race-car drivers, lion tamers, and mountain climbers. No American was heard to say, and I doubt that any American thought, that one reason to regret heavy American casualties was that it might force up the wages necessary to attract people to a military career. The armed forces are regarded with unstinted admiration, and the recovery of the handful of captured American soldiers was greeted with national rejoicing. To contend that the voluntary character of the American military degrades the concept of American citizenship would strike most Americans as daft.

It is true, as Sandel has emphasized, that the enlisted men and women in the armed forces (as distinct from the officers) are drawn primarily from the lower middle class and so are not a perfect cross-section of the American population. He regards them as "coerced" by economic necessity to volunteer, just as if they were drafted. This is far-fetched, and a similar sentiment was expressed by Representative Charles Rangel of New York in April when he remarked, "If our great nation becomes involved in an all-out war, the sacrifice must be equally shared. It is apparent that service in the armed services of our nation is not a common experience for our youth and that disproportionate numbers of the poor and members of minority groups compose the enlisted ranks of the military while the sons and daughters of the most privileged Americans are under-represented or absent. We must return to the tradition of the citizen-soldier." This, too, is far-fetched. The true consequence of the demographics of the armed forces--a consequence that communitarians should applaud--is that the nation's admiration for these scions of the lower middle class helps to bind the different income classes together. The military prowess of the United States is recognized to be the joint product of the technological and organizational prowess of wealthy corporations, high-paid executives, and highly educated scientists and engineers, on the one hand, and the courage, competence, and high spirits of the young people from the other side of the tracks (to make the point rather too dramatically) who dominate the enlisted ranks. I suspect, by the way, that many television-watchers found the privates, non-commissioned officers, and junior officers more impressive than the generals; and this was an egalitarian lesson delivered by commodification. "The general critique of the 1990s was that we had raised a generation with peroxide hair and tongue rings, general illiterates who lounged at malls, occasionally muttering 'like' and 'you know' in Sean Penn or Valley Girl cadences," Victor Hanson Davis has remarked. "But somehow the military has married the familiarity and dynamism of crass popular culture to nineteenth-century notions of heroism, self-sacrifice, patriotism, and audacity."

A notable omission in the communitarian criticism of the volunteer army is the failure to consider that a professional army (a term synonymous with volunteer army) is likely to be much more effective militarily than a conscript army under current conditions of warfare. How much military effectiveness should we give up to promote the communitarian vision? The communitarians have not told us. There is a subtler significance of the shift from a conscript to a professional army that they also ignore. As David King and Zachary Karabell pointed out in The Generation of Trust, one reason for the enhanced esteem in which our volunteer military is held compared to its conscript predecessor is that when labor is hired rather than conscripted, the employer must persuade the labor pool that working for him is attractive. When it could no longer rely on the draft to fill its ranks, the military conducted large-scale advertising and marketing campaigns to attract recruits and had great success with its slogan "Be All That You Can Be." Most of the people who saw the ads were not potential recruits, but they, too, were impressed, and so the ads helped to change the negative image that the public had of the military as a result of the Vietnam fiasco.

So here was another dividend of commodification, and not an adventitious one either. For one of the differences between allocating resources, human and otherwise, by means of the market (which is all that communitarians mean by "commodification") and using coercion to allocate them is that the former method fosters cooperation. Indeed, it fosters a form of community. Unable any longer to obtain labor by force, the military was compelled to transform itself into an institution that people would respect and trust. Bonds forged by trust replaced bonds forged by fear of punishment. It is what one might have thought communitarians would have wanted.

Richard A. Posner is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. His most recent book is Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (Harvard University Press).

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May 15, 2003, 12:15 PM
What is also not mentioned is that for many of the "lower middle class," for whom a military hitch or a career is a very attractive alternative to hanging out around the hometown in a dead-end job or the temptation of street crime, the all volunteer military provides one with the means and tools for class mobility.

I take myself as an instance of that transformative effect. When I was 18 I didn't want to go to college though I could've probably borrowed my way through. I joined the Navy for four years. I earned my GI Bill benefits while I was picking up the discipline to eventually excel in college. I weighed re-enlisting versus rejoining the civilian world and left the service as an E-5. I went to college on my GI Bill and graduated magna cum laude. I went to law school and didn't do quite as well, but well enough to graduate, pass the bar examination, and land my present position. I could hardly be called "lower middle class" today, unless of course, someone catches me at the dragstrip on the odd weekend in a Moto Guzzi or "USS Goldsborough" ballcap.:D

For certain, if my son decides to test himself in the military, he will likely be a member of that pool of talent from which officers stem. But isn't that how it should be? From the beginning of this nation, the military has been a social elevator whether one starts as an enlisted person or as an officer from a less than "respectable" background that lacks much of a pedigree. Such force has worked for Alvin York, Audie Murphy, various Presidents, a host of congressional members, business leaders, and countless people, such as myself, who quietly move up the social and economic ladder while some of my friends from back in high school still live the ultimate "mullet" lifestyle. (Not that there is anything wrong with that).:D

May 15, 2003, 12:23 PM
The fundamental problem with the communitarians is that they confuse the community with the state.

The government is not the sole organizing force within a community - and should not be.

Qute the contrary - the government should be the organizing force within the community only in certain strictly-prescribed arenas - law enforcement and national defense.

In all other areas, the organization of the community should be done by voluntary organizations, without the force of government compulsion.

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