The Arizona Desert Lamp

Reply to Evan

Posted in Politics by mattstyer on 23 November 2008

This is going to be just a short little reply to Evan. As such I wasn’t whether to make it a post in itself or just respond in the comments, but lo and behold, here it is.

I missed Justyn’s posts that Evan just linked to when I made mine, but I think these two bits stand out as worth quoting:

The Web site’s language is vague – does “setting a goal” mean that the community service will be mandatory or merely encouraged? Making it mandatory for all students presents a host of problems; for one thing, it’s hard to imagine how the federal government could effectively enforce it, short of withholding funds to schools that fail to comply. That seems contrary to the spirit of what Obama is trying to do


….this is, after all, the inevitable divide between republicans who believe in the possibility of popular government and libertarians who think that any manifestation of “the state” is, in Murray Rothbard’s words, “a criminal band.”

The first quote basically speaks for itself. Unless we really fear that Obama is some kind of crypto-Fascist stealthily waiting to draft us all into his movement, rather than some kind of social democrat who  recognizes the importance of some amount of civic spirit and collective achievement, I don’t think we should be too afraid of what will turn out pretty innocuously, even if it succeeds wildly.

Justyn’s second quote is especially pertinent in light of Evan’s assertion that America is different than Europe (true) in that it is uniquely philosophically founded (true) on “Puritan-cum-libertarian” ideals (false). Puritan-cum-libertarian ideals are an important strand of thought in our history, but that completely marginalizes the massive influence of republican ideals in our history. If you’ve got the time, browse through Harvard philosophy prof Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent on Google Books. I get a distinct feeling listenting to Obama speak that he’s read this book (it’s quite famous), and its general thesis is that the ethos that goes along with laissez-faire is incapable of sustaining a viable democratic culture.

Relatedly, on education, there really is no such thing as a neutral education, or “just education.” Facts go along with values and fit into narratives (like folk theories) of the way things go together, and the way things should be. Educating kids with republican values is no less natural, no more an imposition, than teaching them in a way that emphasizes the private over the public sphere, as current education tacitly does. This has no bearing on which approach is the better one, but I think it’s an important point to make.


7 Responses

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  1. Connor Mendenhall said, on 24 November 2008 at 5:14 am

    Man oh man am I getting sick of this argument…but to me this is a serious moral issue, so I’m not giving it up just yet. But I am moving it into the comments.

    I am earnestly confused on the first point here, which both Justyn and Matt have now presented as evidence that this program ain’t no thang. I’m starting to think we’re just talking past each other, but I’ll give it one more go.

    When I read the phrase “we’ll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs,” I assume that that’s just what the Obama administration will do: tie federal funding to service programs in public schools. This means that if a school does not develop a service program, it will not receive federal funding. By definition, this means “witholding funds to schools that fail to comply.”

    I do not need to believe that “Obama is some kind of crypto-Fascist stealthily waiting to draft us all into his movement.” I just need to believe that he’ll keep his word–that he was not lying when he laid out his national service plan. I honestly don’t understand how one can read this plan and assume that federal assistance will not be conditional on developing service programs. If there is some sort of interpretation I’m missing here, let me know.

    Also, I agree that there’s nothing bad about volunteering. Community service is a very good thing, and if it had no opportunity cost we could all do as much as possible and have warm fuzzy hearts all the time. But the fact that the goal of national service is relatively innocuous *does not* affect the moral argument against it. It doesn’t change the fact that, as planned, it erodes one important foundation of American liberty. If government “set a goal for every American to bounce in a jumping castle and have a fun time” and sought to meet it with a similar tax credit for college tuition, I’d be just as opposed, even though I think jumping castles are way fun.

  2. mattstyer said, on 24 November 2008 at 9:43 am

    Connor, I’ll give you a bit more later but I can’t resist the reply now: your objection that this is a moral matter is a moral issue in itself. Friedman is a poor political theorist because it’s shallow theorizing done with a hammer and not a scalpel. He doesn’t get much beyond converting the market into a model to base society on, does not consider very deeply the effects that might have on human relations. This is pretty true of libertarian, and in a lot of ways, rather contemporary American philosophers. Not to say that there are not exceptions. But they take a lot as given, e.g., a dichotomy between negative and positive liberty with the notion that the former is somehow more natural or basic than the other, that the individual is a lone, basic unit (it seems much more complicated to me) endowed with natural rights, etc. This all could be true, but it’s rarely defended in depth. I think you and Evan are, to an extent, doing the same thing with this being a moral issue against liberty. I think you and Evan pick up on the libertarian/conservative/classic liberal component in American thought here, and take it as basic (and it has been the default for a while – but not always), while Justyn and I pick up on the republican strands in American thought. Does it make more sense to you that we see this (I think I speak for Justyn here) that we see this as trying to revive some of the republican strands and bring them back to bear on politics? I’ll get to you on the particulars of the proposal this afternoon.

  3. Evan Lisull said, on 24 November 2008 at 9:46 am

    Also, Justyn and Matt, were you all in favor of the military draft? After all, it’s essentially the same in principle. It helps to build a sense of “national community” (incidentally, why does this have to be done on a NATIONAL level?), instills young people with a sense of purpose, etc.

    The reasons for opposing the draft here. Now, a smaller minority would oppose Obama’s plan on moral grounds. But it’s the same principle, and last I checked minority rights still exist in this country. And no, I don’t trust Obama. All politicians should be distrusted until proven otherwise. It’s the nature of the industry.

    Also, that last paragraph is the strongest back-handed argument for school choice that I’ve read yet. Indoctrination — do not want!

  4. Evan Lisull said, on 24 November 2008 at 10:36 am

    Also, I have trouble seeing how a “Republican” strand of thought plays into this at all. I can’t imagine that Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Montesquieu, etc. would have supported a required national service plan at the federal level. Remember, these guys wrote the Ninth Amendment.

    Alexander Hamilton — maybe. But an exception does not a “stand of thought” make. I’d like to see this “Republican” i.e. non-classical-liberal theme hashed out a bit more. Does it include anybody before Teddy Roosevelt? If so, who?

  5. mattstyer said, on 24 November 2008 at 11:31 am

    I’ll get to you later on the republican stuff, but Jefferson, Paine and Montesquieu are exactly some of those figures, and you have quite a bit of tradition in New England and other places (and incidentally there is some anarchist-syndicalist stuff there as well).

    As for the indoctrination comment, you can call it that, or you can recognize that we already give a moral slant to our a great education, and that there a great deal of gradations in between education with a civic-republican bent and indoctrination. I don’t have a problem with it, one, because (per my comments on Sandel) I don’t think a democracy can sustain itself without some degree of it. More to the point, I have confidence that we can do it without sliding over into indoctrination. After all, who defines indoctrination but us?

    And anyway, how does school choice solve the problem of indoctrination in general, rather than just break it up into a pluralism of indoctrinated communities? Indoctrination presupposes some kind of power or illusions generated, and I don’t see how just getting the government out of it is in any way a solution in itself. Surely private institutions are just as capable of indoctrination as public.

  6. thecivicspirit said, on 24 November 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Whew. I can’t say that when I wrote the original column, I expected it to spark what amounts to our first inter-blog/inter-Wildcat debate. I think it bodes well for our intellectual community (“You guys are like the Bloomsbury group,” Alyson said to me the other night) that the discussion has been so spirited.

    Unfortunately, I think much of the problem stems from my vagueness in my original column. The first paragraph that Matt quotes above was meant to convey my *reservations* about the national service plan, not “evidence that this program ain’t no thang.” That’s what you get when you write a column in a hurry on an empty stomach and too much coffee, I suppose. I should say that I’m unequivocally opposed to requiring national service of citizens (and yes, I’m also opposed to conscription). Adapting community service into the public school curriculum, however, strikes me as an honorable idea. I’d rather see it initiated and carried out at the local level, of course.

    (I also think Connor’s argument, at least as expressed above, is somewhat circular. Is it wrong to withhold funds to a public school? Sure. Is it wrong to withhold funds *specifically intended* for a particular program if that school shows no interest in carrying out that program? Obviously not. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to have this argument because so much of it relies on an extremely vague platform. If we wake up on Jan. 21 to find that we’ve all been conscripted into the newly formed Plant A Tree Authority, I’ll gladly eat all these words.)

    As for the public school/school choice debate, that’s a whole other argument that I’d rather not get into right now. I’m glad to see a fellow “republican” on the blog, though I think I differ with Matt (welcome, by the way) on the specifics. I’d never describe myself as a “social democrat,” and if anything I think I distrust politicians more than Evan does. I’ll probably write up something (for The Civic Spirit or, if Evan’s interested, for The Kosmo) about what I believe sometime soon.

  7. Connor Mendenhall said, on 25 November 2008 at 2:23 am

    Yeah, man. Who needs readers when we’ve got each other?

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