Sunday, February 21, 2010

How We Divide, Part 2: Sandel

Paul Adams

Michael Sandel takes up a different dichotomy--that between liberal and republican political theory--than Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions. His way of distinguishing “visions,” or in his case the political theories implicit in political discourse, is also illuminating. It speaks to the tensions within social work and social welfare policy, between empowerment and coercion; between state or formal processes on one hand, and on the other; informal ways of resolving disputes, protecting children, and putting things right; between universal rights of autonomous individuals and the formative project of nurturing people as self-governing members of a particular family, community, and nation. But Sandel’s dichotomy is different from Sowell’s as well as from the terms liberal and conservative as used in popular discourse. It adds a different but important dimension to our thinking about these divisions.

Sandel presents his argument in “Democracy’s Discontent: The Procedural Republic” (pp.269-303), a chapter of an outstanding reader edited by Don E. Eberly (2000), The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays, in his 1998 book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy; and in his Harvard lectures and accompanying book; Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009). (Page references are to the essay in the Eberly reader.)

Liberal political theory, a tradition emphasizing tolerance and individual rights, descends from John Locke through Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill to John Rawls. It is a common heritage of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. But the version of liberalism that informs current policy debates across the political spectrum is a recent arrival, one that over the past half-century gradually displaced the earlier republican political theory that had prevailed since the Founding. This recent view, shared in different ways both by Republicans and Democrats, “assumes that freedom consists in the capacity of persons to choose their values and ends” (p.270).

Its key idea is that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views of its citizens. It should not affirm in law any particular vision of the good life, but should provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends. As the famous or notorious pronouncement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, put it, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Here human dignity, and hence our inalienable rights, no longer derive from nature and nature’s God, and hence natural law. Freedom is a negative liberty, a freedom from tyranny. Detached from any shared conception of what freedom is for, liberty is valued for its own sake as “central to personal dignity and autonomy” but with the Judeo-Christian roots of such human dignity erased and so without any coherent rationale for its high valuation.

So this recent secular liberalism aims to provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends, but asserting the state’s neutrality about the substance of such values and ends. Because it asserts the priority of fair procedures over particular ends, Sandel defines the public life informed by this liberalism as the “procedural republic.” “Rather than tie liberty to self-government and the virtues that sustain it,” as Sandel explains, “the procedural republic seeks a framework of rights, neutral among ends, within which individuals can choose and pursue their own ends” (p.276).

This term reminds one of Sowell’s constrained vision with its emphasis on systems and fair processes rather than substantive outcomes. It is the task of the state to ensure that contracts entered into freely are duly honored, not that the economic or social results of such agreements fit a particular view of society. But the constrained vision and the procedural republic are clearly not the same, as Sowell’s frequent invoking of Edmund Burke, of the collective if unarticulated wisdom of masses of people over generations, of tradition and legitimate authority, suggests.

Nor does the secular-liberal emphasis on the free choices of autonomous individuals distinguish left from right. The assumption is shared by 1) those who argue against taxes to support welfare as “coerced charity” that violates people’s freedom to decide what to do with their own money, and 2) those who see ensuring a decent minimum level of income, housing, and health care as necessary to ensure that some are not so crushed by economic necessity that they cannot truly exercise choice in other areas. In both cases, the argument implies a voluntarist conception of freedom; it is about expanding the realm of individual choice by removing constraints on its exercise. The subject of choice in both cases is the autonomous individual abstracted from civic or moral obligations to family or community beyond respecting the individual rights of others.

In the republican view, in contrast, from Aristotle through the American Founders to contemporary communitarians, liberty depends on sharing in self-government. It requires something beyond pursuing your own individual ends and values, which may or may not include participating in politics. “It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community” (p.271). Beyond tolerance and respecting the rights of others, it requires knowledge of public affairs, a moral bond with the community, a sense of belonging. This in turn requires that citizens have or acquire certain qualities of character, or civic virtues. In this conception “republican politics cannot be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse. The republican conception of freedom, unlike the liberal conception, requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires” (p.271).

But such a formative politics is subject to certain objections and dangers. One is that, however appropriate for a small polis like Aristotle’s Athens or the early U.S. with its New England town meetings, such a formative republican project as traditionally understood is unrealistic for a large country in an increasingly integrated global economy. It is in any case, critics argue, exclusive and coercive. Given the demands of republican citizenship, which require the capacity to deliberate well about the common good, citizens must have or acquire the necessary excellences of character, concern for the whole, and judgment--the civic virtues. That is, citizenship must be restricted. Sandel argues that this tendency to exclusion is not intrinsic to republican theory and has not been universally held, especially in its democratic forms since the Enlightenment. But the coercive danger becomes greater as the task of cultivating civic virtues across large countries and diverse populations becomes more daunting than it could be in a small select group in Athens or Jefferson’s America.

The perils of this kind of coercion are evident in the way Rousseau as well as Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, understood the formative task in a democratic republic. For Rousseau the task of the founder, or great legislator, is “to change human nature, to transform each individual…into a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and being.” The legislator “must deny man his own forces” in order to make him more reliant on the community as a whole. “The more each person’s individual will is ‘dead and obliterated,’ the more likely he is to embrace the general will. ‘Thus if each citizen is nothing and can do nothing except in concert with all the others…one can say that the legislator has achieved the highest possible point of perfection’.” (Thus Sandel, p.273, quoting Rousseau.)

This totalitarian impulse within utopian visions of the democratic republic was apparent long before the Stalinist “people’s democracies” and “democratic republics” of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia made them unmistakable. Even Rush wanted “to convert men into republican machines” to teach each citizen “that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” JFK’s Inaugural Address of 1961, the “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, bears a distant and less sinister—though still offensive to the individualist-libertarian--echo of this Rousseauian sentiment.

Here we see what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision in the formative project of civic republicanism—a combination that is particularly prone to coercion. Still, this sort of coercive remaking of citizens through the state is not necessary to civic republicanism or its formative project. In this respect, Sandel rightly cites 19th century America as observed by Tocqueville. Here not only the commonality but also the independence and judgment needed to deliberate well on the common good were cultivated. This “slow and quiet action of society upon itself” depended on persuasion and habituation, not state coercion. In Sowell’s terms, what differentiates Rousseau from the practices described by Tocqueville is the “locus of discretion,” the “dispersed, differentiated character of American public life in Tocqueville’s day and the indirect modes of character formation this differentiation allowed” (Sandel, p.274).

For Tocqueville, public institutions like townships, schools, religions, not the central state or coercive laws or judicial rulings, mediated between state and individual to develop and sustain “habits of the heart”—the civic virtues of a democratic republic. This was a theme taken up in the last century by Berger and Neuhaus in their To Empower People (1977), with their “mediating structures” (family, neighborhood networks and organizations, schools, churches) that offered a way of transcending the tired “individualism vs. collectivism” ways of framing debates about the welfare state. It is a central theme of advocates of the civil society, civic republicanism, and some variants of communitarianism.

Sandel discerns the presence in varying degrees of both liberal and republican conceptions throughout U.S. history. In recent decades, however, the civic or formative aspects of American politics have given way to a voluntarist “liberalism that conceives persons as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen.” His worry about this shift is that our public philosophy cannot sustain the liberty it espouses. Liberty, he argues in the classic tradition, depends on self-government and the virtues required and developed by it.

In response to this worry, we can see a recrudescence of republican or civic concerns, first among conservatives and more slowly among liberals, a shift from libertarian to communitarian sensibilities. This more recent shift reflects the impossibility of securing freedom without attending to the character of citizens, or of defining rights without confirming a conception of the good life. It also reflects a democratic constrained vision that learns the negative lessons of those totalitarian excesses in the heads of utopian social theorists and in real-life 20th century fascist and Communist regimes. It looks rather to the importance of those mediating structures that constitute civil society, that come between individual and state, along with the dispersal of power and its sharing with those closest to the problematic situation and to the cultural and community resources of knowledge, wisdom, and neighborhood-based networks and organizations needed for its resolution. The learning is from Tocqueville and the American democracy in action he described, rather than from Rousseau, Stalin, or Mao.

We see this in social work in the emphasis on hybrids of formal and informal care and control like family group conferencing as well as in social policies that seek to strengthen and collaborate with families and neighborhoods rather than substitute for (and hence undermine) them. This shift has support across the political spectrum and is apparent in the shifts Neil Gilbert (2004) describes in the welfare states of Europe, the U.S., and other developed social welfare regimes. Gilbert discusses this transition as one from social protection to social inclusion (from state as provider of benefits to state as “enabler” in the sense of promoting empowerment; from state to market and community (contracting out of services, raising social capital of communities); from universal to selective, targeted benefits; and from citizenship to membership (restoring solidarity, revitalizing civil society, as distinct from rights to benefits by virtue of citizenship).

In public assistance programs and welfare reform, we see a shift from the emphasis on the rights of beneficiaries without reference to any formative project, without expectations or judgments about sexual behavior or family structure or character formation. By the 1980s and 1990s, there was a departure from this “nonjudgmental” ideology and a new willingness to talk about the need to “reorder the lives of the poor.” As Sandel puts it, “Advocates of a civic conception of social policy argued that work requirements were essential, not for the sake of saving money but for the sake of including welfare recipients in the common obligations of citizenship” (p.278). An emphasis on work requirements and work first approaches now went, especially in Europe, by the name of “social inclusion.”

These tendencies are best understood, perhaps, as a countervailing trend that is still overshadowed in the knowledge classes in government, academia, and media by what Sandel calls the procedural state. The procedural state that is neutral about ends and values or the good life, leaving such matters to the private choices of individuals, is most clearly seen among libertarians who reject state involvement in matters such as drug use and pornography as well as in the economic sphere. But it is also found in the position of President Obama, as William Schambra (2009) shows in his essay on “Obama and the Policy Approach.” The policy approach to government emphasizes the connectedness of social problems and the need for a rational and comprehensive approach to policymaking.

We may recall that this falls into Sowell’s category of the unconstrained vision.. “Writ large,” according to Schambra, “this approach suggests that government exists not to attend to the various problems in the life of a society, but take up society itself as a problem—and improve it” (p.128). Echoing Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach (although without acknowledgment), Schambra (2009) points out the anti-democratic aspect of this expert-centered approach to policy. “To address social problems this way, the policymaker must put himself outside the circle of those whom he governs, and, informed especially by social science, see beyond their narrow clashing interests” (p.128).

At the same time, such an unconstrained vision is compatible with an ideology of governmental neutrality about matters of morals and religion, values and the good life, seeking to bracket off such considerations—the ones of highest importance to much of the population. Like the Supreme Court decisions in Casey and Roe, Obama disclaim public responsibility for such matters as whether in declaring abortion a legal right, the state colludes in mass murder of innocent young human lives, saying that such matters are above his pay grade.

But, Sandel asks, “Don’t arguments about justice and rights unavoidably draw on particular conceptions of the good life, whether we admit it or not?” (p.276). This is a question I want to take up in the third part of this essay, when we apply the Sowell and Sandel dichotomies to specific areas of substantive conflict that divide society most sharply and with least room for compromise, namely abortion and same-sex marriage. These questions are part of a systematic Clash of Orthodoxies, as Robert George (2001) argues, between an orthodox-religious orthodoxy (including faithful Catholics, Evangelicals, orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Muslims) and a secular-liberal orthodoxy (including secularist liberals and theologically liberal Christians).
To conclude this part of the essay, it may be helpful to visualize the ways of combining the Sowell and Sandel ways of seeing society and policy by means a two by two matrix. Thus in the constrained formative square we find Tocqueville, the American Founders (except for Rush), and Sowell. In the unconstrained formative square are Rousseau and Rush. In the neutral constrained square we find libertarians like Milton Friedman and the Cato Institute. In the unconstrained neutral square are Obama and most social workers.

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