Friday, August 26, 2011

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Living Out the Day

The good people over at The Millions were kind enough to publish my essay on one of my favorite books, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. The response to this piece was gratifying, considering how difficult it is to write about Percy. I tried very hard to get it right. You can find the piece here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

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A Less Than Perfect Union

This morning, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee called to ask me if I would join him in getting the United Nations Headquarters out of the United States. Not only is the UN a "disgrace," said Huckabee's pre-recorded voice, it would save U.S. taxpayers two billion dollars a year. Fiscal stability, here we come!

Yet we would pay a lot more than we would save by getting rid of the UN, of course, and not just because two billion a year is nothing compared to the ballooning costs of health care, and Social Security. Kicking the UN out of New York would be a powerful symbol of American decline, a suggestion that the United States thinks forfeiting its long, imperfect attempt at standing as the international standard of human freedom is worth an annual savings of a few billion dollars.

Of course, it's unlikely that the United States will "take a jackhammer" to the UN as Mr. Huckabee hopes, not least because he has far less clout than he likes to imagine. But Huckabee's sentiment was a troubling one, and seemed to me symptomatic of a larger problem at the center of our national pneumonia: a tendency in our country towards disengagement from community.

There was never, of course, a time of perfect community in America or in any other nation, human nature being what it is. But since Thomas Hobbes articulated a version of the social contract in the 17th century, Westerners have increasingly tended to think of themselves as living in political communities that they freely joined rather than under an all-powerful sovereign. The founding of the United States comprised the most complete experiment with the social contract in history; it was no accident that Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on the ideas of John Locke in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Implicit in the social contract is the slippery yet compelling notion of the common good—the belief that legislators ought to pursue policies that benefit the political body as a whole.

Of course, the questions of if and how such policies might be possible are fraught ones, and the ensuing debate is what we call politics. In America, that debate has basically followed the large narratives of Jeffersonian restraint against Hamiltonian energy, with one key point: by and large, Americans felt themselves to be part of some political community, if only at the level of their state.

The case seems to be different nowadays. In my view, one of the most damaging moments of the last thirty years was when Ronald Reagan declared that government is not the solution, it's the problem. Granted, it says something that this idea was so appealing to people; it points to the left's overzealous attempts at social engineering, particularly under Lyndon Johnson. But government is also a key force that holds together a community, and the suspicion of it that Reagan engendered, moving it from the Bircher peripheries into the mainstream political narrative, did damage to American public life that has yet to be reversed. Income inequality continues to grow in the United States. We outsource our foreign adventures to a military that draws its manpower from the working classes. Elements of theocracy and plutocracy keep the people out of politics as never before. We think that big government and small government are the only options, scoffing at the notion that there may be such a thing as smarter government. We decline sacrifice, scoffing that our tax dollars will only go to welfare queens who live off of our beneficence.

This last argument, often advanced my conservative friends, particularly troubles me. To be sure, welfare is imperfect, and I'm sure there are some Americans who are content to live off a government handout. But as an argument against federal efforts to look after the least among us—which seems to me the best measure of the common good, particularly as our classes continue to diverge—the invocation of the welfare queen strikes me as too easy a way out, a way to shun community and ignore the fact that there are poor among us, many of whom are deprived of hope, a pernicious condition made more pernicious when you consider the fact that the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United ruling, declared that money is speech. If you were a poor American, what would that ruling suggest to you about the strength of your voice?

Huckabee's campaign to evict the UN from the US is of a piece with the contemporary American tendency towards disengagement. In the face of such self-centeredness, we would all do well to recall the words of the Roman emperor Marcus Aureilius, who wrote in his Meditations: "Have I done something for the common good? Then I too have benefited. Have this thought always ready to hand: and no stopping."

Further Reading:

A discussion of American attitudes towards inequality at the always stimulating Becker-Posner blog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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Bones Thrown

Yes, Traction has been slipping lately. I wish I could promise that I'm soon back in the saddle, but these are angsty times, readers. Chew on this brief piece I wrote for Penn's political review while I try and sort my life out.