Society and the State

Michael Oakeshott writes:

A modern state, as it emerged from a medieval realm, a patrimonial estate, a military protectorate, or a collection of colonial settlements, had three distinct features that it has never lost: an office of authority, an apparatus of power, and a mode of association….

…[S]ince a modern state has never ceased to be recognized as an association in the making, attention has always been directed to the sort of association it might be made to become no less than to what it may be perceived to be. But the exploration of this theme has been sadly hindered by confusion.

First, it is usually conducted in terms of the vocabularies of authority or of power, but in this connection these words are meaningless. To say, for example, that the conditions of association are or should be “democratic” is absurd…. [T]here are no “democratic ” rules of relationships…. Secondly, this inquiry has been almost obliterated by drivel about something called “society,” a fanciful total of unspecified relationships which only a simpleton would think of identifying with a state. (“Talking Politics,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, pp. 441, 450)

There can be such a thing as “society,” but only in rare circumstances. And Oakeshott is correct when he says that only a simpleton would identify society with a state. But, as I will discuss, it is not only simpletons who identify society with a state but also cynical politicians and leftist opportunists.

With respect to society, I begin with Margaret Thatcher, who often is quoted as saying that “there is no such thing as society.” When Mrs. Thatcher said that, she was arguing against the entitlement mindset, as in ” ‘society’ owes me a roof over my head and three meals a day.” As she put it, “people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor.”

There is, in fact, such a thing as society. But what is it? “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another

In other words, the state is not society. The state — in the guise of a nation, a city, a village, etc. — may compel certain behaviors, including the transfer of one’s income to strangers. Compulsion by the state is the antithesis of societal cooperation.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency — especially on the part of leftists — to claim that the state represents and serves society. The claim is wrong:

  • For the reasons given above, the identification of the state with society is nothing more than a rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which utilitarians, paternalists, do-gooders, politicians, and pundits justify the imposition of their preferences on the masses.
  • The specific acts of the state often are malign rather than benign. See, for example, any of the 140 issues of Regulation that have been published to date. Moreover, acts of the state generally involve regulatory and tax burdens that, at once, stifle prosperity and liberty.

The fact of the matter is that the state destroys society in two ways. First, it usurps the functions served by society, most notably the functions of charity and marriage. Second, it compels certain kinds of behavior instead of allowing behavior to evolve cooperatively.

Two of the stated aims of compulsion are the advancement of “social justice” and “diversity.” The former is redistributionism, pure and simple. The latter forces social and economic interactions between persons of dissimilar cultures, religions, and races — to no good end.

Social justice” is usually

code for redistributing income, either directly (through the taxing and spending power of government) or indirectly (through the power of government to require favoritism toward certain groups of persons). Make no mistake, there is no justicein “social justice,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for coercion by the state.

Social justice is possible only where there is a true society, not the bogus “society”  or “community” to which bleeding hearts and statists refer when they mean the United States or most of its political subdivisions — which have become nothing more than geopolitical prisons.

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

That “bargain” amounts to a delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior. The self-interested aspect of behavior is mutual forbearance — leaving others alone so that they will leave you alone. The voluntarily beneficial aspect is the commission of acts of kindness and charity. It is the latter that enables the former, because acts of kindness and charity help to build a true feeling of community by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Purveyors of “social justice” say that the voluntary arrangements of true communities are inadequate for the purpose of meeting this or that desideratum. Whence the desiderata? From the preconceptions of the purveyors of “social justice,” of course. They would substitute their “wisdom” for the wisdom that it embedded in voluntary social and economic arrangements. And they usually succeed because their arrogance incorporates a good measure of power-lust.

In sum, true social justice  is possible only in a voluntary community that is founded on mutual forbearance, respect, and trust. It cannot be found in the kind of forcible leveling that is favored by advocates of “social justice.” There is nothing just about coercion.

“Diversity” — which encompasses and extends the state’s effort to force “equality” — is a case study in the state’s socially destructive power. In “The downside of diversity,” at The Boston Globe, Michael Jonas reports on a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.” Putnam, according to Jonas,

has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

John Leo, writing at City Journal (“Bowling with Our Own“), first discusses Putnam’s findings; e.g.:

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….

Leo then discusses the fact that Putnam had delayed announcing his findings:

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings…

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.

Myron Magnet, also writing at City Journal (“In the Heart of Freedom, in Chains“), addresses “elite hypocrisy, gangsta culture, and failure in black America.” Magnet asks

how can there still exist a large black urban underclass imprisoned in poverty, welfare dependency, school failure, nonwork, and crime? How even today can more black young men be entangled in the criminal-justice system than graduate from college? How can close to 70 percent of black children be born into single-mother families, which (almost all experts agree) prepare kids for success less well than two-parent families?

And answers:

The legacy of slavery and racism isn’t the reason….

Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.

A decade after Murray, I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?

“Diversity” — which was born of misplaced white guilt about slavery and racism — exemplifies the state’s long habit of adopting and magnifying the destructive, anti-social consequences of elite opinion.

“Social justice” and “diversity” — and the other leftist slogans that are meant to stifle resistance to statist oppression — have nothing to do with “society” and everything to do with the use of the state to coerce the many for the satisfaction of the few. And it does not stop there.

Read on:
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Democracy and Liberty
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Down with “We”
The Divine Right of the Majority
I Want My Country Back
An Encounter with a Marxist
Our Enemy, the State
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
Externalities and Statism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
More about Merit Goods