Monday, July 11, 2005

Even If This Isn’t the City of God

I once tried to make the point to a bunch of libertarians that the worst political excesses of the 20th Century were committed by ideologues whose hostility to the state ran as deeply as theirs. Since from the libertarian point of view the state simply has to be the root of all evil, they couldn’t hear what I was proposing, though it was hardly sophisticated idea. I merely noted that the revolutionaries of the last hundred years treated the traditional state with contempt, sometimes merely ignoring it and building parallel institutions that exercised the real power, sometimes allowing it to function but only as a tool of their own interests. The fascists, Nazis, Bolsheviks, Maoists, Young Turks, Peronists, Iranian Mullahs, and Baathists had no use for parliaments or bureaucracies with real independence. They were parties acting in lieu of governments and rejected any real distinction between the administration and the state, often going so far as to argue that bureaucratic, juridical, scientific, and other professional norms of objectivity that justify the independence of the state apparatus are illusions or frauds. Which is why it was a critical moment in the Second Russian Revolution when Gorbachev decided to govern as President rather than Party Leader.

That the state and its institutions have in fact oppressed individuals and groups is not in dispute, of course; but the charter of the state is not to play favorites but to create artificial spaces in which individuals and groups differing in wealth and power can compete or cooperate without violence: parliaments, courts, markets. In these leveled arenas in which the din and stench of mammalian contention has been quieted and deodorized to some extent, men, who are certainly not created equal, are made equal for certain purposes. The cogency and benefits of this program are obvious. Even those who scoff at civilization generally don’t dispute the theory of the thing, but many people apparently think that human beings are quite incapable of the disinterested actions that make the City possible.

Lots of doctors have given up telling their patients not to drink too much because, as everybody knows, they will often go on drinking. It has been shown, however, that the advice of physicians has a real and medically relevant effect on alcohol consumption. In common with most remedies, advice is not a panacea; but it isn’t a placebo either and even placebos work. The human capacity for principled behavior is another such imperfect medicine. Teachers sometimes punish students for disagreeing with their private prejudices; but most of them know that promoting a point of view is not their role and they can and often do put their own ideas aside. Like infant baptism and other routine wonders, I’ve seen it done. I’ve even done it myself. The case is similar in other public professions. Judges perfectly well know what it is to act judiciously, though they may choose to cheat or fall into self-deception at times. Judging fairly is a skill that human beings can acquire, just as they can learn to play the piano or make soup. The notion that disinterested action is impossible is not merely a sophisticated way of defending immoral behavior. It is factually incorrect.