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Friday, April 4, 2008

Statecraft Is Not Soulcraft

I get nervous when presidential candidates — or their surrogates — take up subjects that are clearly none of their business. Actually, most of what they talk about is none of their business. But some things are so far over the line that hearing politicians discuss them gives me the creeps. Herbert Spencer, where are you when we need you?

Here are two examples.

Michelle Obama said in a campaign speech on behalf of her husband, Barack Obama is the only person in this race who understands that before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.

Okay, I don't want my soul being diagnosed — much less fixed — by the government or society. I suspect I am not alone here. Politician, heal thyself and leave the rest of us alone. This may get chalked up as mere campaign rhetoric, but it worries me that politicians think we want to hear this stuff. I await the day when people stampede toward the doors whenever a candidate says something like this.

Democrats don't have a monopoly on over-the-line talk. In a speech the other day at the Naval Academy titled Service to America, John McCain said: [W]hen healthy skepticism [about government] sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee… What is lost is, in a word, citizenship.

So according to McCain, good citizens see government as something other than a service provider. What would that be? A moral beacon, perhaps? I think he has this wrong. Non-cynics see the government as a service provider. The rest of us see it as many early Americans saw it: as a distributor of privileges at the expense of the taxpayers, consumers, and laborers.

As for the expectations of liberty, no one who cares about freedom reduces it to the choice among coffee brands. I fear for what's left of our liberty if McCain tries to change our expectations about it.

A Cause Greater than Yourself

McCain went on to say: [S]acrifice for a cause greater than yourself, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured. All lives are a struggle against selfishness.

This may shed light on the first McCain quotation. Does he propose that we see the nation — embodied in the government — as that cause greater than yourself? He's not entirely clear. But he does remind one of John F. Kennedy's famous line: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. Milton Friedman had the right response: Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.

McCain has an uncomfortably expansive sense of citizenship. It's not just about voting, he says. Citizenship thrives in the communal spaces where government is absent. Anywhere Americans come together to govern their lives and their communities — in families, churches, synagogues, museums, symphonies, the Little League, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army or the VFW — they are exercising their citizenship.

That seems ominously pretentious. Why aren't they seen simply as living their private lives and interacting with others for mutual enrichment? Because McCain, like many others, apparently believes that the truly private life is the selfish existence of a hermit. In his speech he said, There is no honor or happiness in just being strong enough to be left alone. And: Self-reliance — not foisting our responsibilities off on others — is the ethic that made America great. (McCain paid this tribute to self-reliance before warning that when it combines with an exaggerated skepticism about government, it transmogrifies into corrosive cynicism.)

His use of left alone is ambiguous because there are two senses of the term: 1) literally left by oneself and 2) respected in one's freedom and choices. McCain conflates the two. Few people seek to be left alone literally. The vast majority engage in mutual aid and the division of labor — that is, social cooperation — whenever they're free to do so.

A similar point can be made about the term self-reliance. If McCain means literal self-reliance, then he is wrong; that's not what made American society what it is. (This is the atomistic-individual fallacy.) Again, mutual aid (as Tocqueville noted) and the division of labor were the keys to American success. But if by self-reliance he means independent of the state, then he is right. Unfortunately, considering that Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are his heroes, McCain doesn't appear to relish independence from the state.

Statecraft as Soulcraft?

Actually, I didn't really want to get into the specifics of McCain's musings on social and political obligation. The details are not the point. What bothers me is that someone who merely wants to run the government (or is it the country he wants to run?) thinks he should lecture you and me on matters of obligation and such. I think of George Will's 1980s ominously titled book Statecraft as Soulcraft. When a would-be president tells me that I should be committed to a cause greater than myself, I'm tempted to lock the doors.

It's talk like McCain's and (presumably) Obama's that propels me to the bookshelf that holds Herbert Spencer's Social Statics (1851) – – and one chapter in particular, The Right to Ignore the State, in which he writes: If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state — to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying towards its support.

Wouldn't it be bliss to be able to ignore these self-styled leaders who wish to remake our characters and who, in that quest, will do anything to get their hands on power?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.