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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


So far I've avoided mentioning last year's somewhat infamous Wall Street Journal editorial which complained that the poor don't pay enough taxes. (If they paid higher taxes, you see, then they would support President Bush's tax cuts!) The thought of the WSJ-ers sitting around in office suites in their nice suits trying to tell a hard-working citizen beneath the poverty line how it would be better if she were even poorer (and calling her a "lucky ducky")—well, this is why I sometimes think we'd be better off without politics. Until now, I figured the twisted logic spoke for itself.

But in a Web exclusive for The New Republic, University of Chicago professor Jacob T. Levy puts the editorial in context in a way that will challenge people of various political views. Although the "lucky ducky" piece was poorly executed, Levy says, the principle behind it is common, defensible, and used by both political parties. The principle is this: the more widely a political policy applies, the better the political climate for discussing and, if necessary, reforming it. Or, as Levy says: "If we subject everyone to the same rules, institutions, or conditions, then there will be political demand to make them fair or otherwise tolerable."

This line of thinking is what prompted a Democratic Congressman to call for a reinstatement of the draft before the recent war in Iraq, arguing that if more people had children in the line of fire, they would oppose the war. And it lies behind Democratic criticism of school vouchers; if the most able and talented students leave for private schools with the help of vouchers, the argument goes, there will be less reason to fix the schools they leave behind. And it undergirds the entire Social Security program, one of our nation's most socialist schemes, which, as Levy puts it, depends on "keeping everyone's fate linked."

Levy is more interested in identifying this principle than judging it, but he does make a rather alarming observation: The linked-fate argument involves

an element of exploitation, an apparent violation of the Kantian rule never to treat a person as mere means. The 18-year-old conscript killed in a war he opposed in order to discourage politicians from starting wars, the child kept in a failing school in order to persuade her parents to support a better public school system … all of these people are being used. … As individuals, each would be better off if allowed to opt out. But, in each case, that individual's welfare is subordinated to the collective goal.

If this sounds scary, Levy points out that it is, in theory, fundamental to a society dedicated to equality and democracy rather than rule by a detached elite. "Only if laws are drafted and enforced without respect to persons or identities, only if they are prospective and general rather than retroactive and selective or arbitrary, can we expect anything like just governance," Levy says. "To sometimes be yoked together under a shared institution in order to preserve its viability is the universal price of political life."

Levy's piece should be a discussion starter, and not the last word, but it will indeed start some productive discussions about our nation's political experiment.

• One theory that would have been interesting for Levy to tie in is what psychologist Garrett Hardin, studying international arms races in the 1960s, called the Tragedy of the Commons. Imagine a common lawn in the town square where 100 farmers each bring one cow to graze. The 100th farmer says to himself, "If I bring two cows tomorrow, I will benefit twice as much while causing only one percent more duress to the lawn." And this is a rational calculation. But if all 100 farmers think this way, the lawn will be overwhelmed and turn into a large patch of dirt. The principle—and the paradox of living in a freedom-loving society—Hardin said, is that the rational pursuit of self-interest can lead to the collective doom. By himself, that one farmer does not wish to bring about ruin. But when combined with 99 others, he takes that risk.

This is why a country such as the United States, one that is both patriotic and individualistic, has such an interesting and perplexing question constantly before it: How do we ensure individual prosperity and the public good at the same time? Since heaven, as I've written before, will be a social place—one where the collective good is sought and found—pondering this question is relevant preparation for the Heavenly City.

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