The Arizona Desert Lamp

Freakout on the civil service

Posted in Politics by mattstyer on 23 November 2008

I don’t have time at the moment to get too into it, but it seems as though a lot of conservative and especially libertarian types are very worried about Obama’s civil service initiatives, complete with, on Connor’s part, serious allusions to serfdom, and on the part of other far less reasonable people (I believe some CATO forums is where I read it?), confidence that this is just one step short of the brownshirts. No disrespect to Connor, because I respect him a lot, but this seems like a pretty unnecessary freakout, with pretty limited international and theoretical context.

What Obama is proposing, along with most of his other proposals, are just things that would put us in with the mainstream of other democratic countries. I don’t know as much about the latinate countries, but most of the Germanic/Nordic countries in Europe have a mandatory or semi-mandatory civil service that lasts two years. I met a guy named Mannie on a train in the Czech Republic, while he was going back to Austria after a holiday. He said everyone had to serve: some guys did stuff with the military, but most people did public works stuff, and he “opted out” to work at a retirement home. Quite threatening indeed.

I am not sure either where Connor gets the idea that we are “far and away” the most generous nation on earth. Certainly the Nordic countries donate a much greater percentage of their income to development issues; at the same time, they participate in voluntary civil society organizations just as much as we do. The Netherlands and Canada can also be tossed in as countries with broad public welfare programs, as well as a strong civil society.

The way it lacks theoretical context is emblematic in how it passes off Milton Friedman as a serious political theorist, which he is not. The approving quote in Connor’s article, I know, can’t be explained because it’s just an opinion piece. But Friedman’s pithy quote doesn’t reflect that he or Connor really understand the relationship between civil society (or free men, or whatever) and government, that there is no stark separation between the two, and nor can there be. They are both part of a liberal (in the historical sense) organization of society, intertwined in various ways. More on this later. And again, no shrift meant at Connor. I have a tendency to write diatribes, so try and read it toned down a little bit, and I’ll work on my writing style.

With that, an introduction is in order for me, I guess. I wrote with Evan and Connor at the Wildcat last year, and I wanted to start writing about current events again. I’m a 5th year senior in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on political philosophy and theory. I’m an unrepentant social democrat with strong Green sympathies, so it should be fun going against my liberarian komrades Evan and Connor here.

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4 Responses

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  1. rjjrdq said, on 23 November 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Milton Friedman was an economist, and Europe is largely socialist. I’m freakin’. I don’t have a brown shirt in my wardrobe.

  2. mattstyer said, on 23 November 2008 at 2:47 pm

    I don’t get the gist of your post. Yes, Friedman was an economist, but he also wrote as though he were a political theorist. He may have understood economics, but not as it relates to society. Yes, Europe is largely socialist. Do you think Europe is teetering on the brink of totalitarianism every day, or something? My point was that what Obama is proposing is in line with other free societies. It does have more in common with the socialist and especially the republican political tradition than the libertarian one.

  3. […] like to take some time to welcome new guest-writer Matt Styer, whose first post can be read here. Matt was also a columnist for the Daily Wildcat last year, and is indeed an “unrepentant […]

  4. Connor Mendenhall said, on 24 November 2008 at 5:48 am

    I get the idea from evidence, man! You know, numbers and facts and stuff! No shrift to you either, Matt, but I think we’ve hit on something where our perspectives are so radically different we’re unable to see the same thing here.

    Yes, there are big measurement problems in determining who is “the most generous nation on Earth” and maybe using this phrase was a total boner on my part, but by volunteer hours and charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, we are far and away the most generous nation on Earth. Look up a report titled “International Comparisons of Charitable Giving,” by the Charities Aid Foundation. You’ll find that we give *eight times* as much per capita as the Germans.

    You’re correct in noting that they give more to development (or, at least, their governments do), and I’ll admit that this is a problem in the global pissing match for liberalissimus. But it’s certainly not fair to say that American’s aren’t generous. Of course, you haven’t done this, but that was the idea I was trying to challenge with those statistics.

    On to Uncle Milty. If you’re going to say that he’s not a serious political theorist, you’ve got to back it up. How is a book like “Capitalism & Freedom” anything but a work of political philosophy? I didn’t include the whole quote (which is from the introduction to that book), thanks to my word limit. Such is the curse of the college opinion page. But here’s the rest of it:

    “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. The paternalistic ‘what your country can do for you’ implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, ‘what you can do for your country’ implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.”

    “The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government’ to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom?”

    This is an eloquent summary of something close to my political philosophy. Above all, we are individuals, with individual goals and preferences and desires and hopes and lives &c. Government is a tool to achieve those goals that we share and protect our ability to pursue them.

    I very much *do* understand the relationship between civil society and government, and where to draw a line between them. Civil society is composed of voluntary associations of free individuals who choose to act collectively and consensually to achieve their several goals. Government is a (theoretically voluntary) association of free individuals who choose to act collectively but *not always* consensually to achieve their goals. Civil society doesn’t force people to do things they don’t want. Government often does. This is the line.

    Finally, if you’re going to throw around “brownshirts,” at least give us a link, man. I don’t doubt that you read this in some corner of the Internet, or from Paul Broun (R-GA), or even in the Wildcat comments. But I can guarantee that you did not read it from the Cato Institute.


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