Rotary & Politics

I got to do the program for our local Rotary club today. I wanted to share some arguments against the reduction of the political to the partisan. Here’s what I had to say:

The first thing to know is that I’m going to do something bad today – something I know I’m not supposed to do. My hope is that by transgressing these particular boundaries we will be able to make some progress – progress that most of us will recognize as progress.

When I say that I’m going to do something bad, I don’t mean anything criminal. I don’t even mean anything morally wrong. I’m not even going to engage in socially questionable behavior like starting a food fight.

One of the first things I learned when I became a Rotarian back in 2003 was that Rotarians don’t talk about religion or politics. I understand that reticence. We reckon that our culture is polarized along religious and political lines. We hear political people – our representatives and pundits – tearing into each other – and us by extension, insofar as we identify with any particular position. And they do it every day. It’s their job. We might cheer on some of these folks sometimes, the ones we agree with. But we never like being on the receiving end of vituperation. We don’t like people yelling at us, telling us we’re evil.

The stakes are a little different when it comes to religion. From what I’ve seen most Rotarians are church people.  Some of us even go every Sunday. As far as I can tell, all the Rotarians I know take it seriously. But we participate in different traditions, and at various times in history some of these traditions have been engaged in battles with other traditions. There are even traditions that are utterly convinced that if one is not rightly aligned with that tradition one is in serious trouble, not just for the moment, but for eternity. Even if we take such a position to be true, some of us are uncomfortable inflicting such a view on others; even more of us are uncomfortable have such views inflicted on us.

It’s easy to see why politics and religion can be sources of conflict. We say that one of the things we’re about is “building good will and better friendships.” Sometimes “better” means deeper. We can imagine two people who are friends who share in the deepest commitments of their lives. When it comes to what is ultimately most important to them, these friends have a shared view of the world, a shared set of values.

But sometimes we don’t. Maybe you have had friends with whom you don’t share your deepest and most central values and commitments. I know I do. One of the things Rotary makes evident, I think, is that friendship is a good even when it shies away from our ultimate commitments. And that’s where we start approaching the key questionable assumption I want to address today.

Because Rotary does not deal with religion or politics, it is easy to assume that the organization is non-political. I’d like to argue exactly the opposite – that Rotary is profoundly political.

Years ago British philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote about two concepts of liberty. He called these “positive” liberty and “negative” liberty. If we wanted to, we could identify many more flavors and kinds of liberty and freedom, but given our current setting I find Berlin illuminating.

When I have negative liberty it means that there are no outward constraints on what I do. A government that gives its citizens negative liberty does not seek to control their actions. It leaves them free to decide what to do with their actions and their resources. Let’s use the imagery of driving. When I get in my car, there is usually not a level of government that tells me where I must go. I am free to drive to work, to retail outlets, to other cities.

Positive liberty is easily understood if we stay with this driving imagery. When we have positive liberty we have space opened up to do things we could not do on our own.  If I have a car – but no roads or highways – I will be limited in where I can go. When a level of government gives its citizens positive liberty, it makes it possible for them to do what they otherwise could not do.

So which do you want – positive liberty or negative liberty? I can’t imagine not having both. I don’t want a government that micromanages everything I think, do and say. I want negative liberty. But I also recognize that some of the things provided by government – roads, an education system, basic monetary and banking systems – are quite useful to me. Without these instances of positive liberty, my exercise of negative liberty would be severely limited.

You all know enough American history to know that America is pro-liberty. All Americans think liberty is a good thing. Both of our major political parties, all of our major political organizations are committed to liberty. One of the sources of conflict in our culture, however, is a difference in how negative and positive liberty are valued. One segment of our political culture gives negative liberty the greatest priority. Movements that describe themselves as libertarian tend to cluster here. Another segment of our political culture gives positive liberty the greatest priority. Movements that think of themselves as socialist tend to cluster here.

There is no reason for those who have the deepest commitment to negative liberty to deny the reality and helpfulness of positive liberty. At the same time, there is no reason for those who have the deepest commitment to positive liberty to deny the reality and helpfulness of negative liberty. But they tend to do exactly that in their public discourse. Those who most value negative liberty see government’s efforts to extend positive liberty as an instance of treading on their rights, primarily either by restricting their free choices or by reducing their freedom to use their resources as they see fit through taxation used to fund the maintenance and extension of positive liberty. Those who most value positive liberty see individuals operating in ways that restrict the liberty of others, either through oppression or by using resources in such a way that there are fewer to go around.

So though we want both, and both seem essential, positive and negative liberty impinge on each other.  The increase in one can either lead to an increase in the other or diminish the other.

One of the features we’ve seen in the western world over the past few centuries is the rise of individualism. Individualism is something we’re born into. It’s part of the cultural air we breathe. It’s hard to imagine not being an individualist. As individualists we like our negative liberty. We want to define ourselves and make all decisions for ourselves. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do. And no, there is more to being an individualist than being an overgrown two year old.

Writing over three hundred years ago, Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher theorized that individualism was the way of nature. Being the way of nature, however, did not make it good. He said that life according to nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Doesn’t sound very positive, does it? The picture Hobbes has in mind is negative liberty run amok, a world full of individuals doing their own thing regardless of the cost to anyone else. He assumes that individuals are completely hedonistic – seeking nothing but pleasure – and completely lacking in altruism, the ability to set aside their own desires for another or for some kind of common good.

Obviously society is not as bad as Hobbes depicts. Though we’d likely judge our era better than his, we’d even have to say that his era wasn’t that bad. So what keeps each individual from going off the deep end? That’s where Hobbes’ Leviathan comes in – government. Each individual, being at least semi-rational, gives over his sovereignty to a monarch who will keep the peace. Going back to Berlin’s terms, this monarch would take away negative liberty and replace it with positive liberty.

Hobbes’ thought could be developed in authoritarian directions without too much difficulty. As later philosophers like John Locke adapted it, however, it developed in the direction of our current system of government.

Today we’ve mostly forgotten Hobbes. We’ve even largely forgotten Locke. But we remember individualism, and we remember the force of government to restrain that individualism for the common good. Individualism is tough to restrain, especially as it has developed in the past couple of centuries. What we see today, this roundabout inheritance from Hobbes and Locke, has also been influenced by a different form of individualism present more in continental philosophers like Rousseau. Where Lockean individualism tends to think in terms of the economic, this other strain tends to think in terms of expression. Or we can look at it this way. On the one side, I am free as an individual if I can maximize what I do with my resources. On the other side, I am free as an individual if I am allowed to fully express myself in art and self-creation.

Obviously these two flavors are neither opposites nor necessarily in conflict with each other. It is common, however, to find some people who emphasize the one aspect while others emphasize the other. Either approach can favor negative liberty or positive liberty.

As I wrap this up and work my way back to where I started, I have one more concept to introduce. The good. Philosophers have been debating about the nature of the good for millennia. In some settings it has been thought that it is the job of religion to tell us what is good – what are the good things we should pursue. In other settings it has been thought that it is the job of the state to tell us what is good. As an example of the modern tradition stemming from folks like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, our current American system tends to reject both these notions. The good is found neither in the pronouncements of a church or a state. Instead, the good is determined by the individual. I am to determine the good for me; you are to determine the good for you. Every person – every individual – is tasked with setting his or her own good.

In this setting, where individualism rules, the role of government it to put procedures in place that maximize the ability of each person to define and fulfill their own good. In his book, Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Sandel calls our current form of government a “procedural republic.” Here we are again with positive and negative liberty, though conceived in a very particular framework.

The procedures our government has had in place have varied greatly since 1787 when our constitution was written. In the beginning, the constitution was written to set up a federal government that left room for states to function quasi-independently. The last two amendments in the Bill of Rights went so far as to make explicit that powers not expressly given to the federal government were retained by the people and by the states. Since 1787 the arrangement of these powers has shifted toward the federal government. Some today are calling for a revival of states’ rights as they oppose changes coming out of Washington. Others who hear of appeals to states’ rights cannot help but hear echoes of similar appeals in the Civil War era, appeals centered on maintaining slavery. If states’ rights are inevitably tied to slavery – or at least institutional racism – then clearly we need to stay away from states’ rights. But I want you to consider this instance as merely illustrative of a more profound shift in our culture, a shift I call the loss of middling political institutions.

It is easy to understand the nation state – instanced by the federal government – as political. Inasmuch as individuals vote leaders into office, it’s easy to understand the place of individuals in politics. But I am convinced that we have suffered a fundamental loss as a society when we think that the institution we call government and the subsidiary institutions by which we determine the course of that government, i.e., political parties, make up all that is political. If being political necessarily means being Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal, we are impoverished.

In saying this I am going back to an older tradition, an older understanding of politics. In this conception, politics is about identifying, producing and maintaining the public good. When we have a system predicated on radical individualism, the only public good our system recognizes is that there is no public good beyond each person choosing his or her own good. Our commitment to negative liberty compels us to maximize our own ability to make ourselves whatever we want to be, to use our resources purely as we see fit, with a minimum of constraint. Our government’s conception of positive liberty tends in the direction of seeing no good other than maximizing what individuals can do.

But what if our current understanding is missing something? What if there are goods that transcend individual choice and the maximization of individual choice? We might say that that is the root problem with religion. Religion tends to propose goods that are larger than the individual. They tell stories about the way the world is, what humans ought to aspire to, and what the good life consists in. As it works out, the fundamental current rationale for what we call the “separation of church and state” is not that if we don’t the Methodists will try to make you all into Methodists, or that the Muslims will impose Sharia law. Rather, the problem  is that religion of almost any kind refuses to recognize the individual as supreme. So we follow John Locke and privatize it. We keep it out of the public square and locked away in closets.

We’ve seen that states can be problematic institutions. We know religion is problematic. Other institutions are as well. And as we continue to reduce the political to the partisan, in the sense of seeking to have control over the ruling of the country, other middling political institutions, other institutions concerned about identifying, producing, or maintaining some good, are crowded out, and sometimes de-legitimized. Some of these middling institutions include education, marriage, the family, friendship, the professions – and Rotary. In its pursuit of maximizing the good of individual liberty, government has taken over various roles from some of these middling institutions or claimed the authority to regulate them. Some of these regulations have been for the good. But when the regulating force becomes external to the institutions themselves, these institutions are weakened.

Since I reckon that our reduction of politics to the partisan is unhealthy, I’d also argue that any tendency to reduce these middling institutions to the partisan is equally unhealthy. If we have to depend on the federal government to define, produce and maintain families, marriages, education, friendships, etc., we are in trouble. I’d say we’re in trouble even if we have the best and the brightest in charge of regulating these institutions, whether they be graduates of Harvard and Yale or UT & Texas A & M. Thus if Rotary is political in the sense of becoming partisan, one party or the other might count it a win, but we’d all lose.

But if we refuse to reduce the political to the partisan – or even repent of having done so – there is plenty of room for us to see Rotary as highly political. Rotarians from many religious, ethnic, cultural – and yes, even party – backgrounds have a shared commitment to producing and maintaining certain goods. If, for example, Rotary does no more than raise the standards of friendship and faithfully practice those standards, we will be doing a political good, a good that is beyond the capacity of partisan government, and a good that weakens the forces of individualism that drive us apart.

Or, what would happen if the idea of service above self began to penetrate our culture? It’s not going to happen from those sold out to individualism. From them it’s Gimme, Gimme, Gimme! It’s not going to happen from the nation state level. From there we hear, Unlike the other guy, I’m going to give you what you want. But when people in a middle institution like Rotary practice “service above self” that will again weaken the force of individualism and make for a healthier culture. The “service above self” ethos will penetrate our families, our businesses, our schools, our communities, our professions. Who knows? Maybe it will even penetrate international relations. Maybe Rotarians practicing Service Above Self will influence nation states to think and act beyond a narrowly conceived self-interest. Service above self, like friendship, is profoundly political, yet also completely unrelated to our current impoverished notion of the political.

So politics in Rotary? Yes, absolutely. As long as we know what we mean by politics. And as long as it’s actions and not just words.

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