Politics & Policy

The Signifying State

(Image: Dreamstime)
The “night-watchman state” remains a wiser choice than politics-as-expression.

My writing these past few days has brought me into contact with a number of people and ideas for whom it is impossible to have any intellectual respect: Michael Lind’s surpassingly stupid and dishonest denunciation of Bryan Caplan (and F. A. Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises), hashtag activism on the “Bring Back Our Girls” model, etc. But there is an intelligent version of the themes that these podunk intellectual miscreants grope blindly toward, one articulated by the late Robert Nozick of Harvard, who early in his career articulated a robust vision of limited government in his famous 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, only to walk back many of those positions later in life, most notably in “The Zigzag of Politics,” an essay published in his collection The Examined Life.

Nozick was, among other things, a model of intellectual probity; Anarchy, State, and Utopia was intended as a comprehensive rebuttal to liberal philosopher John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), a work that Nozick took extremely seriously and one in which he identified a great measure of beauty and truth. Only a work of real merit inspires criticism as thoughtful and profound as that found in Nozick’s work, and the Rawls–Nozick dialogue had the effect of elevating both sides of the argument, which is what good debate should do — even if Nozick would himself ultimately find his own arguments unconvincing. “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate,” Nozick wrote, “in part because it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left room for more closely into its fabric. It neglected the symbolic importance of an official political concern with issues or problems, as a way of marking their importance or urgency, and hence of expressing, intensifying, channeling, encouraging, and validating our private actions and concerns toward them.”

#ad#It is worth appreciating that the post-libertarian Nozick was still a man who would stand out as radical among a group of Rand Paul enthusiasts; he proposed, among other things, allowing people to opt out of taxes funding government activities of which they disapproved, up to and including allowing anarchists who object to the state per se to forgo paying any taxes to it, suggesting that they be allowed instead to donate 105 percent of their assessed taxes to a philanthropic enterprise of their own choosing. The concern that commanded Nozick’s attention later in his life was, in a sense, the same dynamic behind political selfies and hashtag activism, which is also the motive force among many of those who wish to raise taxes on high-income people even if doing so provides no benefit for the poor: politics as signaling. For the hashtag activist, the drowning Narcissus of contemporary political discourse, when Kim Kardashian tweets about Boko Haram kidnappings she is making it known, to reality-television watchers and to the world at large, that she cares about the issue, that it is important. There is a matter of emphasis there: What the hashtag activist says is not “I care” but “I care,” with the implicit postscript, “Look at me, caring!” Nozick’s argument that public policy regarding this or that issue should have the effect of “marking their importance or urgency, and hence of expressing, intensifying, channeling, encouraging, and validating our private actions” similarly elevates group expression to a status at least equal to that of group action. It is possible to interpret him as arguing that such expressions of shared priorities are more important than the policies themselves, and hence his celebration of the zigzag: “It is impossible to include all of the goals in some consistent manner,” he writes. “However, many goals that cannot be pursued together at the same time can be reconciled over time or at least combined, first by pursuing one for some years, then another some years later.” Perhaps the electorate intuitively agrees with that assessment — such a zigzag mentality would help explain the thinking, if we can call it thinking, of following eight years of George W. Bush with eight years of Barack Obama. (Alternative explanations are less flattering.) “The electorate wants the zigzag,” he writes. “Sensible folk, they realize that no political position will adequately include all of the values and goals one wants pursued in the political realm, so these will have to take turns.” He argues that by living in society one acquires obligations to that society, and “society sometimes speaks in our names.”

It seems to me that Nozick, like some conservatives and most thinkers on the left, errs by conflating “society” and “state.” He is correct about our obligations to society: We have a positive moral duty to, among other things, care for those who cannot care for themselves. But this tells us very little — and maybe nothing at all — about our relationship to the state. The state is not society, and society is not the state. Society is much larger than the state, much richer, much more complex, much more intelligent, much more humane, and much older. Society, like trade, precedes the state. Government is a piece, but so are individuals, families, churches, businesses, professional associations, newspapers — even Kim Kardashian’s Twitter following plays its role. There are many ways to express what is important to us, from the banality of hashtag activism to the heroism of Mother Teresa. We all know this, though many are hesitant to admit it or to fully understand it. The Catholic Church’s critics, for example, care at least as much about magisterial teachings on the ordination of women as do many of the Catholics who accept that teaching, even though, unlike Catholic teachings on abortion or marriage, it does not really intersect with any legal or political question. It matters what the Catholic Church thinks about moral issues, what scientists think about the origins of life, what Warren Buffett thinks about taxes, what the American Bar Association thinks about whatever it is the American Bar Association alleges to think about.

#page#Where those who see the world the way Nozick eventually did go wrong is in failing to appreciate that, absent official coercion, we do not have to take turns expressing those items of importance: The pope can think as he likes about this or that, Stephen Hawking can agree or disagree, and all are free to choose their own adventure. It is only in matters of politics that one set of preferences becomes mandatory.

But mandatoriness seems to be the attraction for many. The most enthusiastic support for the Affordable Care Act, to take one obvious example, never came from those whose main concern was its policy architecture; well-informed and intellectually honest critics left and right both knew that it was a mess. People supported the ACA as an expression of our national priorities, that we were coming to regard health insurance as something akin to a right, that we were becoming more like the European welfare states that our remarkably illiberal so-called liberals admire, that we regarded insurance companies and insurance-company profits as a nastiness to be scrubbed away or at least disinfected. The policy has been revealed as a mess, but the same people support it for the same reason. Similarly, prosecuting as civil-rights criminals those who do not wish to bake cakes for gay weddings is mainly an act of communication, that one is no longer free to hold certain opinions about homosexuals. The new enlightenment is mandatory.

#ad#This is, I think, part of what William F. Buckley Jr. was getting at when he wrote, “I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.” The Left, and authoritarians of all colors, also mean us to live our lives as obedient men — obedient to them.

The mysticism surrounding the state — its near-deification — is a source of corruption, to say nothing of boneheadedness. If the state is to be an instrument for expressing our deepest longings, values, and moral sentiments, then there can be no peace — our values are, as Nozick noted, frequently irreconcilable, and only a philosopher could believe that we can take turns when it comes to abortion or wealth confiscation. That is not how things work. If, on the other hand, the state is a machine for protecting property — from thieves, invaders, and possibly the more energetic members of the American Bar Association — then we can have peace, at least a measure of it. Outside of certain very well-defined parameters, nobody’s values need be mandatory.

Conservatism, as distinct from the philosophical libertarianism of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, takes into account particularities and realities. From Aristotle through Ptolemy, a philosophical belief in the perfection of the sphere as a form led to fundamental errors regarding the physical reality of the universe, the Ptolemaic epicycle notable among them. Conservatism is a view that accounts for the fact that there are few if any perfect circles or right angles found in nature. (Gertrude Stein’s famous observation that there are no straight lines in nature is only a restatement of Plato.) Nozick, tracing the evolution of reactions to specific realities into general principles, concludes that our efforts to eliminate real, prevalent, and invidious discrimination against African Americans necessitates our disallowing eccentric discrimination against redheads, too, out of a concern for “generality and neutrality.” And it is not surprising to hear every grievance that intersects with an aspect of a person’s identity presented in the language of civil rights: If you won’t bake a cake for a gay wedding, you’re Bull Connor. But it is not necessary to legislate on the question of discrimination against redheads the way it was necessary to legislate on the question of discrimination against African Americans, because one of those things existed and one does not. The farther we move away from fact and incident in the direction of abstraction and politics-as-expression, the more the unnecessary becomes the necessary and the mandatory. In the realm of moral signifying, the merely necessary is not sufficient.

What partisans of politics-as-expression fail to account for — and this is Nozick’s most serious oversight — is that the state has its own values, too, and it is by no means limited to, or even necessarily inclined toward, expressing ours. Consider the grotesque imperial spectacle into which the American presidency has descended, the perversion of the IRS into a collection of political henchmen, the cheating scandals erupting at public schools across the country: Those are expressions of values, too. Pat Buchanan has spoken wistfully of the “majesty” of the American presidency. But if they’d wanted majesty, the Pilgrims could have stayed in England rather than exposing themselves to the dangers and deprivations of the New England wilderness. They’d had all the majesty they could stomach — what they didn’t have was liberty. They gave themselves that gift, and we’ve been zigzagging away from it for centuries.

The reduction of the state to the necessary, the “night-watchman state,” was Nozick’s vision in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Even leaving aside the question of whether it is possible for an organization with nuclear weapons and lethal-injection chambers to act as a meaningful and reliable channel of humane values, or whether our finest moral sentiments can be enforced at the point of a bayonet, the night-watchman state was a wiser choice than the signifying state — in 1974, in 1989, and today.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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