The United States of America is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and
So too are Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
So why is the United States, unlike these unfortunate countries, not
suffering tribal turmoil? Why are we and most of our fellow citizens at
least moderately safe in our homes, possessions and persons?
I certainly do not wish to suggest that we have achieved an acceptable level
of personal safety and domestic tranquility, or that one can not identify
enormous room for improvement. In numerous countries we find noticeably
greater civility and tranquility among the citizens -- New Zealand, England,
Switzerland, The Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries immediately come to
mind. Continuing racial tensions, the conditions of our inner cities, the
impoverishment of our children, are national scandals. And our continuing
love-affair with firearms makes each of us about sixty-four times more
likely to be killed by gunfire than our British cousins. (See
Up the Usual Suspects," this site).
Even so, we Americans are separated by one-hundred and thirty-five years from
our one and only civil war. Our Constitution is the oldest continuously
operative political charter in the civilized world. There is no armed
rebellion against the government, or armed conflict by one racial, ethnic or religious faction
against another. Occasional acts of violence against the government or the
social order, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, are universally recognized as aberrations,
and the belief of the perpetrators that such acts will "set off"
a mass rebellion against the established political order are immediately
delusional. Principled civil disobedience, such as the civil rights
movement of the sixties, succeeds on the foundation of the common principles of
political morality, in particularly equal rights and human worth, as proclaimed
in our founding documents. Racial segregation collapsed when the aggrieved
victims dramatized the moral contradictions of their oppressor's doctrine. "Separate but equal" was thus proven a moral absurdity.
Thus, we enjoy moderate "domestic tranquility," thanks to our shared
concepts of justice and personal worth, and our sense that we belong to a
unified community -- we are all, despite all our differences, compatriots -- we
are "Americans." Accordingly, in our fortunate society, we are
bound by "civic friendship" in what John Rawls calls a "well-ordered
All this advantage is now under threat by an emerging ideology: that of the
The Well-Ordered Society
The personal moral probity of each citizen (or, more realistically, of most
citizens), is a necessary condition of a well-ordered society. But it is
Suppose that several families comprised of saintly individuals, unknown to
each other, were to simultaneously enter an uninhabited region and set up a village.
While each was trustworthy, each would not know if his next-door neighbor were a
saint or a scoundrel, and so each would prudently be on his guard. Thomas
Hobbes saw this "state of nature" as a desperate situation, to be
solved only by the surrender of individual personal freedom to the
"sovereign," who would then impose peace and order on the
Historical experience suggests a more benign solution. For as each
individual in our hypothetical settlement becomes better acquainted with his
neighbors, as each learns that they share conceptions of justice, fair play, and
mutual respect, bonds and expectations of trust are established. When
interests compete and conflict, mutually acknowledged modes of
adjudication are applied, leading to amicable resolutions. The
"well-ordered society" emerges and is maintained.
In short, "good order" is established, not only when I act morally,
but also when I understand that your conduct is governed by the same principles
of justice and the same respect for the dignity of persons. But that is
not quite enough: for in addition, each must understand for himself and recognize in the other, this mutual obedience to moral principles and this
immediate sentiment of mutual respect. I not only know that I will treat
you fairly and honorably, but you also know that I will do so; and conversely, I also
know, as you do, that you too will treat me likewise.
Perhaps the closest achievement of this ideal is found among mutual-interest
communities. For example, when I encounter a stranger on a wilderness
trail or on a wild river, I feel no threat and fall immediately into a friendly
conversation. In stark contrast, I would never be so foolish as to walk
alone at night in Central Park or South Bronx, where I would, for good reason,
fear the worst from my next encounter with a stranger.
Clearly, what we are describing here is an ideal and flourishing
-- an association of individuals sharing, "in common," moral ideals,
sense of justice, and a respect for the humanity of each and of all. Each
member recognizes the community -- "our club," "our profession,"
"our faith," "our country," and (dare we hope)
"our planet" -- as an entity of value apart from the totality
of constituent individuals.
In failed communities such as Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda, tribal
loyalties blind the individual to the worth, even the right to life, of
The Private Society
In contrast, there is a conception of "society" that has little use
for shared communal values. Rawls calls it "the private
society," and describes it thus:
Its chief features are first that the persons comprising it .. have their
own private ends which are either competing or independent, but not in any
case complementary. And second, institutions are not thought to have any
value in themselves, the activity of engaging in them not being counted as a
good but if anything as a burden. Thus each person assesses social
arrangements solely as a means to his private aims. No one takes account
of the good of others, or of what they possess; rather everyone prefers the
most efficient scheme that gives him the largest share of assets. (A Theory
of Justice, 1971, 521).
Margaret Thatcher endorsed "the private society" with stark
simplicity and brevity, when she proclaimed: "There is no such thing as
society, there are only individuals and families."
A moment's reflection will indicate to us that this is the kind of
"society" described by the neo-classical economist and recommended by the libertarian. (See, respectively, our "The
New Alchemy" and "With Liberty
this site). To the neo-classical economist, society is
exemplified by "the perfect market" populated by egoistic "utility maximizing"
homo economicus. To the
libertarian, popular government has no legitimate function other than
the protection of personal life, liberty and property.
When this conception of "the private society" was celebrated a
generation ago by the novelist Ayn Rand, it was generally regarded as too
outlandish to be taken seriously. A kindred ideology, presented by Barry
Goldwater, was soundly rejected by the voters in the 1964 Presidential
election. Through the persistent and lavishly funded efforts of a few true
believers, the dogma of "the private society" has become the dominant
political ideology of our time. It is heard, time and again, in the
political and media complaints against the "evils" of "big
government," and also the rarely questioned faith that social problems
will best be solved by "the free market" unconstrained by "government
The Stakes in the Contest
The contrast between the idealized "well-ordered society" and the
"private society" is exemplified in most of the public and political
issues of our time. In public discourse, these competing positions are
designated (very roughly) as "liberal" and
"conservative." ("Very roughly" since, for example,
"conservatives" and "libertarians" are often mistakenly
associated with each other. However, while they both endorse "free
market" solutions to economic issues, they differ radically on issues
regarding personal conduct -- e.g., abortion, pornography, gay rights, drug
Consider, for example, the contrasting approaches to these public issues
(many examined at greater length in some of our editorials):
Criminal Justice: To the "conservative," the purpose of
incarceration is retribution and punishment. The offender is
to be separated from society as long as possible -- hence mandatory
sentencing, "three strikes," and minimal preparation for a
successful re-entry into society upon release. To the "liberal," the purpose
of incarceration is rehabilitation, so that the individual might be
successfully rejoin the community upon his release.
Gun Control: The conservative advocates a return to the frontier
system (more of popular legend than of history), with each individual his own
defender. Hence "concealed weapons laws" and "Second
Amendment absolutism." The liberal believes that greater security is to be
found in a disarmed society, where each citizen might be confident that the next
stranger he or she meets will not be "packin'."
Civil Society: In the well-ordered society, voluntary
associations of citizens flourish and proliferate -- groups of
individuals who come together as equals, face-to-face, through common faith,
through common interests (garden and kennel clubs, bowling leagues, Rotary and
Kiwanis Clubs, etc), and through shared concerns (environmental action groups,
political action groups, etc.). In private society, individuals are
regarded as autonomous "utility maximizers" -- as means (qua
workers or consumers) to further one's private ends.
Art and Culture: To the libertarian, an individual's taste in
art, music and literature is strictly that person's own business. Government support
of the arts or art education or public broadcasting, by "taking" the
property of one person through taxation to subsidize the preferences of another,
amounts to simple theft. The liberal is convinced that, left to
"market forces" alone, public taste will degrade and the popular
culture will be coarsened. Aesthetic taste and a refined intellect,
he insists, do not emerge, ex nihilo, from the mind of the growing child;
rather, these are qualities that are absorbed from the culture and acquired
through deliberate modes of education. Put simply, the cultural liberal feels that
it is better to live in the company of fellow citizens who listen to Mozart and
Beethoven and who are familiar with Shakespeare and Dosteyevsky, than to live
amidst individuals who know only gangsta rap and acid rock, and slasher films
and video games.
Primary Education: Until recently, the US public school system
was one of our most successful and unifying institutions -- until, that is
decades of miserly financial support and the declining status of the teaching
profession began to take its toll. Amidst the clamor of criticism today,
we have forgotten that earlier in this century, and at the close of the previous
century, the public school system was the gateway through which the flood of
immigrant and first-generation children learned of our history and our political
ideals, became fluent in our common language, acquired the skills to be
assimilated into our labor force -- in short, became
"Americanized." Thus the public schools were crucially
important instruments in the maintenance of our "civic
friendship." But now, rather than repair the public schools, the
conservatives propose to abandon them through "privatization" -- a
system of "vouchers" that would drain the talented and well-behaved
children from the public schools, withdraw the support of the parents of these
fortunate children, and leave the public system in ruins, thus casting away
the ladder of advancement out of poverty and destitution.
What does this have to do with "privatism?" A
recent event in my own community, replicated throughout the land, makes the
point. We recently had a school bond issue. In the local paper,
several citizens complained that the schools had no right to tax them, since
they had no children of school age, or (alternatively) that their children were
in private schools. The notion that the education of others' children was
a public benefit was furthest from their minds. Even so, fifty-five
percent of the voters cast their ballots for the bond issue, which was nonetheless defeated.
And why was it defeated? Because, in a previous "tax revolt"
(Proposition 13 of 1979), the voters of California decided that the majority
does not necessarily rule. Additional tax assessments, they decided, must
be approved by a two-thirds vote.
Higher Education: According to "the private society"
view, an individual's education is, of course, of advantage to
himself. However, no attention, much less public investment, need be
made to alleged "social benefits" of others' education.
Fortunately, this was not the opinion of the enlightened legislators in the
early twentieth century who expanded the system of public higher
education. A paradigm case was the City University system in New York
City, whereby a resident youngster of sufficient talent and motivation, however
poor, could continue his education through graduate school. Thousands of
doctors, jurists, engineers, and scientists from impoverished immigrant families
emerged from that system. Similarly, what Jefferson called a "natural
aristocracy of talent and virtue" took advantage of the University of
California system -- until recently, the finest system of public higher
education in the world. However, this was not good enough for the
"conservatives," and so public higher education in California has
become increasingly "privatized," as tuitions have soared, state
support has fallen, and a large part of the "slack" has been assumed
by corporate-funded research. And with the abolition of "affirmative
action" in California, still more talented and motivated youngsters, who
had the bad luck of choosing poor and minority parents, will be deprived of the
opportunities that might have been enjoyed by their parents or grandparents.
Government: To the libertarian, government "is the
most dangerous institution known to man" (John Hospers). "Big
government" whittles away at our "natural rights and liberties"
by imposing burdensome regulations upon our commercial activities
("capitalist acts among consenting adults" -- Robert Nozick) , and by
confiscating our property, through taxation, to support other people's children
(welfare), others' education (the public schools), and others artistic and
literary tastes (public broadcasting, museums, the National Endowment for the
Arts). To the liberal, government is the one institution which can
legitimately act in behalf of all, treating each citizens as an equal before the
law. Thus government can legitimately act to protect the numerous
poor and weak from the few who are powerful and wealthy. (See
the Umpire!", this site). At its best, government
protects the rights of each individual citizen and embodies and enforces the
principles of justice which, when publicly acknowledged and shared, are the
foundation of the well-ordered society.
In General: Citizens of a "well-ordered society"
regard the private economy, the shared social institutions, and the popularly
elected government and body of laws as "ours." In the "private society," those
outside "the establishment" (the corporate boardrooms, the fellowship
of lobbyists and legislators, the media), regard the economy and the government
as "theirs." These unfortunates are alienated from the forces that control
their lives and which devastate their hopes. The incomes of the privileged
soar, while the incomes of the ever-shrinking middle class stagnate, and the
prospects of the poor decline. Fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote in
elections in which the "opposing candidates" are ideological clones,
who conduct campaigns made up of images rather than ideas.. The media fail to inform, but instead they entertain and distract
with saturation coverage of Presidential peccadilloes, custody fights, and
unsolved murders. (Sound familiar?) The cement of social union
dissolves, as the individual is encouraged to arm himself, is told not to trust
his government, and as he retreats into his own home, encountering the outer
world (more likely a fantasy world) through his TV or computer screen.
Can an Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda be far ahead along this lonesome road?
History, as Will Durant points out, may suggest the answer:
"... the mind of Rome, at the close of the Antonine age [with the death
of Marcus Aurelius, 180 AD],
sank into a cultural and spiritual fatigue. The practical disfranchisement
of first the assemblies and then the Senate had removed the mental stimulus that
comes from free political activity and a widespread sense of liberty and
power. Since the prince had almost all authority, the citizens left him
almost all responsibility. More and more of them, even in the aristocracy,
retired into their families and their private affairs; citizens became atoms,
and society began to fall to pieces internally precisely when unity seemed most
complete." (The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ).
No Free Gift
If one listens long enough to the conservative entrepreneur, one may begin to
suspect that he attributes all that he has accomplished to his energy,
intelligence, initiative, and willingness to accept risks.
"Government" has had nothing to do with it, we are told, except
perhaps to block him from even greater accomplishments. (This means, by
implication, that since he is solely responsible for his accomplishments, the
conditions of society are irrelevant, and that he thus could have done as well
in any society with a "free market" economy).
What colossal conceit!
That entrepreneur, in fact, could accomplish nothing without an educated work
force available to him, educated, for the most part, at public expense. He
applies technologies developed by others, built in turn on
"impractical" basic scientific research, which only the state will
support (since no profits are foreseeable). His patents and copyrights are
secure under protection of law, and he is confident that if they are violated,
he can appeal to the courts in the expectation that the body of law, not the
highest bribery bid to the judge, will settle the dispute. Finally,
he is reassured that if his "enterprise" is imperiled by the
increasing monopolization or unfair trade practices of a competitor, the law
will protect him.
Moreover, the well-ordered society is economically efficient, since the costs
of securing the libertarian triad -- life, liberty and property -- are
inversely proportional to the degree of "civic friendship" -- of
mutual trust and respect, and the manifest adherence to shared principles of
justice and fairness.
The well-ordered society does not happen by accident, nor is it maintained
through indifference and neglect. It is not a free gift.
To receive it, a generation must be preceded by others who have fought and
perchance died for it and who have nurtured and protected it. If it is to
survive to the next generation, the well-ordered society must be maintained by
loyalty, by a pride of shared history and institutions, by mutual respect and a
celebration of diversity, by adherence to shared principles, by education
-- and yes, by the expenditure of cash. All segments of society must
believe, with justification, that they have a "stake" in the
well-being of their community, thus the least fortunate must be cared for.
All citizens must learn, from their youth, to cherish their shared political
ideals, and thus the youth must be taught their history and their
politics. Because the artistic and literary refinements of culture will
not simply "fall out," unintended, from the profit-motivated purveyors
of popular culture (quite the contrary!), institutions such as public
broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities must be
supported with public funds. Because "impractical" basic
research (in fact, the well-spring of applied science and technology) and
"unprofitable" social criticism are unlikely recipients of corporate
funding, such essential activities must be supported by public funding, through
such agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for
the Humanities. All this requires an expenditure of public
money, which means taxes -- "what we pay for civilized
society" (Oliver Wendell Holmes).
There is ominous evidence that we are not collectively making full payment
for what our Constitution has bequeathed to us: justice, domestic
tranquility, ... the general Welfare, and ... the blessings of Liberty.
Without full payment, history may find us in default, and these advantages may
be lost to us.
The price of renewal is no mystery:
we must increase our investments in education, and afford teachers a
respect commensurate with their social importance,
we must assure that no citizen will go hungry, will be unable to find
employment, or be deprived of medical care,
we must insist that the broadcast media pay the public for the use of the
public airwaves by devoting considerable time to the analysis and discussion
of public issues,
we must demand civility in political debates and punish the offenders by
depriving them of public office.
we must hold entertainment conglomerates responsible for the
"collateral" social effects of their depictions of violence,
we must put an end to the privatization of legislative government by
establishing effective campaign finance laws,
we must end the relentless attack upon the legitimacy of our governmental
institutions and the public servants who labor therein.
we must acknowledge and celebrate the common humanity that we share with
our fellow citizens who may have different religious faiths, political
convictions, or ethnic origins.
"Conventional wisdom," steeped at length in the culture of privatism,
dismisses this agenda as "bleeding heart liberalism." Might it
not be time, at last, to pause for a moment, to reflect, and to assess the
"wisdom" of this convention?
Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge