This post continues thoughts begun in “The people’s thing?” about three weeks ago.
(If you’re wondering where my fuller report is on the Vision Fairbanks public hearing before the FNSB Assembly, it’s coming. This is now a little more timely. And it’s what I feel like writing about today.)
As I said in “The people’s thing?”, there was a local candidate for office whose principles — according to his web page — have everything to do with individual liberty and with government creating a place where individuals can thrive, but nothing to do with community, common goals, shared fate, mutual obligation, or even duty.
This person is Schaeffer Cox. He garnered over 37 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for House District 7 — not enough to unseat incumbent Mike Kelly, coming in at just under 50 percent. While I don’t care for his opinions on the role of government in strengthening community or the insufficient attention he pays to mutual obligation and social justice, I bear him personally no ill will. By all accounts, he is intelligent, accomplished for his age, well versed in the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, able to point to particular legislation he agrees or disagrees with and not just fall back on vague promises, and both ready and able to discuss politics at the drop of a hat. While he was out-raised and out-spent by Kelly, he had twice as many individual donors, according to the News-Miner. The fact that he made it so close to an elected office at the age of 24 is admirable.
After posting, I e-mailed Mr. Cox’s campaign and invited him either to reply directly on The Fairbanks Pedestrian or to address concerns of community and related issues in the “Principles” section of his website. While he did neither of these, he did e-mail me a few days before the primary with (1) a reply, (2) permission to post the reply here, and (3) an invitation to call him at any time to ask other questions. Here is what he wrote:
Why I do not talk specifically about community on my website?
Short Answer: Governments fail miserably at producing community while individuals succeed beautifully. It is the legislator’s job to uphold justice and defend individual freedom. This provides an environment where the individuals are able to do their job of creating and sustaining community, friendship and brotherhood.
Long Answer: Community and the brotherhood of man is a good thing, but it must be done by individuals on a person-to-person level, not by legislators through the government with the use of law/force. One must understand that law is force. The job of a legislator is to write laws, determining where the use of force is appropriate. Every human being has an inherent, natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and a corresponding right and, I dare say, obligation to defend, even with force, against encroachments upon that right. Defense is the only proper application of force. These same principles that guide the individual are to guide the group of individuals organized into a government. Government is the collective extension of the individual right to self-defense. It would be wrong for me as an individual to promote a good thing by force. It would be wrong for me as a legislator to promote a good thing by force. And since the implementation of law, and therefore force, is my concern as a legislator, the principle of community is absent.
I have a few responses to this:
Mr. Cox asserts that “Government is the collective extension of the individual right to self-defense.” To me that seems a bleak and lonely view. I prefer to see governments as the people acting together out of collective interest. I see no reason that people should collectively pay for an organization whose sole goal is to enable them to meet individual, selfish desires. Individuality must be protected, to be sure. But it scarcely needs promotion. Humans are a selfish enough lot that, with enough help, we’ll take our individuality to an isolating, antisocial extreme.
I suppose he’s right that, when push comes to shove, government amounts to force. I prefer the term coercion, though, since force to me implies the application of physical force, while coercion increases the number of tools at a government’s disposal. But, whether governments “force” people or “coerce” them, the key words are “when push comes to shove”. The fact is, if government is done well, it rarely has to come to the level of outright coercion or brute force. Governments are able to provide incentives both subtle and gross to encourage people to act in one way or another. With skill, they will encourage people to act toward common goods.
For an example, let me take the public library (a brilliant idea that would surely be shot down if it were first thought up in today’s individualistic climate). An educated populace is a social good. Fortunately, public libraries have been with us long enough that people recognize them as a tremendous bargain, and most people are happy to fund them with their property taxes or whatever public funding. Nobody has to be “forced” to pay for them.
Okay, if you really hate public libraries and you start shorting your local property tax payment by the proportion that would fund your library, you’ll ultimately lose your house — but that’s only if push comes to shove. There is no reason it should, if a fair government is run. Everybody should get something out of the bargain; everybody should feel that he’s come out somewhat ahead.
Mr. Cox states, “Governments fail miserably at producing community while individuals succeed beautifully.” I take issue with this. First, individuals, by definition, cannot produce community. They may make beautiful paintings, hunt trophy moose, run record distances, and pen prize-winning novels — as individuals. Community requires people to suppress their perfect individuality to become something more.
I admit, that may have been verbal sophistry. I suspect Mr. Cox really meant that people succeed better at creating community when they are free to act with no government coercion. So we have to wonder, what kind of coercion should people be under in forming community? If the answer is “none”, then that community will never arise. When people feel perfectly free to opt out of every situation, they have no cause to settle differences and arrive at conventions that will (more or less) please all.
Second, Mr. Cox seems to be implying that governments attempting to “produce” community are trying to force it into being. This would be an absurd aim, one that I hope no public official endorses. Governments cannot force community into being any more than I can force grass to grow. However, just as I can offer that grass water, sunlight, and fertile soil, governments — again, the people acting together out of collective interest — can create circumstances under which community will thrive. Like Aristotle, I believe that man is a social animal. Most of us will tend toward lives of collaboration and co-nurturance if given the chance. But to suppose that individuals will create community on their own without creating favorable conditions is like supposing that a sack of grass seed will turn into a lawn without water, light, or soil. The governments we constitute are the agents by which we create those conditions.
A quick example: I believe that one of the requirements of community is that people sometimes spend time together. (I may get into the benefits of this another time.) They cannot do this without common space. (There is no meaningful right to free assembly when the people have no place to assemble.) What’s more, that space must be attractive and interesting enough to lure them from the the familiarity of the private sphere. Thus, if public interest is served by people sometimes spending time together, then public interest is served by fostering quality public places. In a sense, the government must create “infrastructure” of a kind, to allow and foster collective action.
My last complaint about Mr. Cox’s statement (and most of what’s on his “Principles” page) is that it too perfectly and too rigidly adheres to a single ideal: freedom. I appreciate freedom. I enjoy freedom. But it is not the only virtue — it may not even be the greatest virtue — and it is incapable of doing all the moral “work” that many demand of it.
I’ll close with a quotation that has recently become a favorite of mine:
Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind.
(Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.)
Read Full Post »