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The Good Citizen Never Leaves?

February 22, 2010

Yesterday, I proposed a debate with all communitarian comers. I must admit that I would prefer to board the Mayflower than to discuss the merits of the 1558 Act of Uniformity with the Anglican clergy. Even less useful would be to argue with the church about the separatists’ right to board the ship instead of simply shutting up and setting sail. History can write the rest, como Fidel dijo. But unfortunately I sense we’re not there yet.

Communitarians say that we are born bound to the web of relationships we find ourselves in. These obligations–to family, to pets, to kin, the Red Sox, to religion, to country–have a moral force whether we like it or not. Contrary to (pick your favorite modern liberal), who asserts laws must be so construed as to respect our ability to choose a way of life that suits us, the communitarian claims the good life (notice not “a” good life) is constituted by satisfying these delivery-date issued obligations. Without them, we are insubstantial beings, like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. In politics, therefore, we must think of ourselves as encumbered, bound by moral claims we have not chosen.

Let’s turn to the authorities. You can watch Michael Sandel here. Or read Alasdair MacIntyre:

We approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.

This is all well and jolly, but what does this have to do with the law or the price of tea in China? Why conflate moral claims with legal claims–I mean, if I readily adjudge this moral intuition for solidarity as binding in conscience, where’s the knockdown argument that violating it ought to be a criminally punishable offense? Communitarians of the world, help me out, because in all the literature I find appeals to moral intuition, but a lacunae in the reasoning as to why these intuitions should be politicized and codified into law.

In fact, I can accept the moral force of all these claims, believe that dishonoring them would be a vice, and without contradiction, also believe that vices are not crimes. To get from a moral intuition to a set of legal claims requires more than an appeal to the importance of loyalty.

Take laws against parental abandonment. In most states it’s a punishable offense, and I’m not going to disagree with that, but notice that the law is rationalized, not by an appeal to the special obligations that exist between parent and child (or, heaven forbid, to narrative selves), but by reference to the child’s well-being. That’s a key distinction: if abandoning your child didn’t impoverish him and thwart his healthy development, if it were a blessing, then there wouldn’t be a law against it. It always comes down to the consequences.

Besides, does this law create sincere love between a parent and child? The difference between cooperating and pretending to cooperate is a set of disincentives.

Now let’s talk about status quo bias. Many communitarians quote their Aristotle–man is by nature…yes!…a political animal. And from Book I of The Politics, we learn that “the polis exists by nature and that it is prior to the individual.” Sandel interprets:

By prior, [Aristotle] means prior in function, or purpose, not chronologically prior. Individuals, families, clans existed before cities did; but only in the polis are we able to realize our nature. We are not self-sufficient when we are isolated, because we can’t yet develop our capacity for language and moral deliberation.

So, sure, let’s conclude that we have a deep-seated need for community. (Or must we? Why does a fact about human nature imply an ought?) Anyway, and again, this is all well and good, but there’s no reason it must be this community and not that one, especially when the one over there is wealthier and offers more opportunity or a more amenable way of life. To say Robinson Crusoe led an impoverished life is no criticism against emigration.

Good citizens leave the country of their birth when that country fails them. It is my contention that this benefits both the emigrant and the country of his origin (not to mention his destination, too). Until I see otherwise, politicized communitarianism comes across as nothing more than a conservatism for the sake of conservatism.

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28 Comments
  1. February 22, 2010 9:03 pm

    Good citizens leave the country of their birth when that country fails them.

    Is this all you have in mind when you ask about a “right of exit”? If so, then it is not Aristotle who would be against, but Plato.

  2. Mike Gibson permalink*
    February 22, 2010 9:46 pm

    Good point. I suppose I could dive into the Crito as well, but Socrates never convinced me there.

  3. February 22, 2010 9:51 pm

    Since you raised him, you should dive in. But the Phaedo, not the Crito, is more on point to a “right of exit.”

  4. Mike Gibson permalink*
    February 22, 2010 10:35 pm

    What does the immortality of the soul have to do with this? The Crito is about what we owe the state.

    “Any of you who does not like us and the city, and who wants to go to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, and take his goods with him. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him. And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands…”

    http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html

  5. February 22, 2010 11:15 pm

    I was referring not to anything Socrates said, but to what he did in the Phaedo. Socrates made the ultimate sacrifice for his community.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      February 23, 2010 10:37 pm

      Btw, I’m fascinated by this assertion. It may be that Socrates *intended* to make his death a moral lesson for the rest of Athens, but did anyone really leave that tragedy sadder but a little wiser? History says to the contrary. Sure, his legacy to western civilization earns him a place in Cooperstown, but Athens declined very quickly in the century following Socrates’ death. Not sure anyone in his community learned anything from that…other than Plato.

      • February 23, 2010 10:40 pm

        You’re probably right with respect to Athens. I suspect that Socrates had an even larger community in mind.

  6. kurt9 permalink
    February 23, 2010 1:22 am

    I think communitarianism is just a fancy 4-bit word for fascism. I will have nothing to do with fascism or whatever fancy language one chooses to dress it up with.

  7. February 23, 2010 1:36 am

    Kurt is right at least in the oldest sense of the term fascism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fasces). But 20th century fascism was inspired more by Plato than Aristotle.

  8. February 23, 2010 5:02 am

    Mencius Moldbug endorsed involuntary obligations (and more specifically, slavery and manorialism) here.

    I’m surprised you didn’t already link to the Distributed Republic post, Threatened by Exit.

  9. kurt9 permalink
    February 23, 2010 10:05 pm

    The communitarian argument against the right to exit is so silly because America, itself, was founded by those who left Europe to create a new life for themselves. Any American who opposes the right of exit as a general principle betrays the very basis on which the country was founded on as well as the immigrants who came during the 19th century to settle the western frontier.

    Its clear that communitarianism is simply the modern day expression of feudalism, where the individual is expected to accept their station in life regardless of how much it sucks. I understand that Europe has never had a tradition of individual liberty and I accept the Europeans for who they are. However, it is utterly unacceptable that such feudalistic mentality should exist in the minds of anyone who is an American. The fact that such a world-view does exist in the minds of Americans makes the case for seasteading or similar such concepts ever more clear to me.

  10. February 23, 2010 10:17 pm

    kurt9,

    It depends on what you mean by “founding.” The ratification of the constitution represents a certain degree of communitarianism. You sound more like an antifederalist.

    Federalism is not feudalism. In a federalism, only the rights that absolutely need to be delegated up in order to resolve collective action problems are so delegated. In fact, federalism is a solution to feudalism, as the 39 signers of the Constitution would attest.

    • kurt9 permalink
      February 23, 2010 10:30 pm

      I was referring to the communitarian notion that one should never leave one’s society that they were born in. My point is that it is silly for any American to believe in this notion because America, itself, was founded by those who exercised the “right of exit”. Seasteading or space colonization is simply a repeat of the same “right of exit, America 2.0. It is logically inconsistent to believe in the legitimacy of the American society and to not recognize the “right of exit”.

      • February 23, 2010 10:34 pm

        I assumed we were talking about something more than that right alone. Since when do we stop people from leaving the U.S.?

  11. Mike Gibson permalink*
    February 23, 2010 10:26 pm

    TGGP– Moldbug fears freedom is too great a burden for man. I am not such a pessimist. Perhaps he is Ivan to my Alyosha. His post reads like a democraphobic Grand Inquisitor:

    “No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: ‘Better that you enslave us, but feed us.’ They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves. They will also be convinced they are forever incapable of being free because they are feeble, depraved, nonentities and rebels. You promised them heavenly bread, but I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved and eternally ignoble human race?”

    At any rate, MM writes:

    “It is only a short step from seeing the State as an enforcer of voluntary and binding obligations, to an enforcer of involuntary and arbitrary obligations. No society can possibly exist without uncontracted obligations.”

    He goes on to conflate a whole series of legal and moral claims; he fails to elucidate the difference, and worse, offers no criterion for determining when involuntary moral obligations ought to be held as legal obligations. To the contrary of what he claims, this is no small step, but a giant assumption asserted as a conclusion.

    I agree with some elements of his essay. Democracy has led to some tragic catastrophes. But democracy’s failure is not slavery’s proof of concept.

    • kurt9 permalink
      February 23, 2010 10:38 pm

      Moldbug would have made a great slaver. He’s had the misfortune of being born about three centuries too late.

    • kurt9 permalink
      February 23, 2010 11:58 pm

      I read some of Moldbug’s stuff with regards to his royalist concept. He seems to be describing essentially what Singapore is, or what the more enlightened Chicoms in Beijing are trying to steer China towards. An “autocratic” or at least a one-party state where individual personal and economic liberties are constitutionally protected, but where the decisions of state are made by the wise, benevolent autocrat. I can see why someone like Moldbug would be attracted to this concept. After all, it does seem to be working out for both Singapore and China.

      The problem with all autocratic systems, no matter how benevolent, is that they lack the corrective feedback mechanism that is inherent to representative government. And this leads to trouble sooner or later.

      Of course democracy is a flawed system. At worse, it leads to mob-ocracy. In less worse case, it can lead to socialism. That’s why we are interested in seasteading in the first place.

      However, despite these flaws, representative government is still better than any currently envisioned alternatives.

  12. kurt9 permalink
    February 23, 2010 10:36 pm

    “Moldbug fears freedom is too great a burden for man.”

    Moldbug may be correct in the case of some people. However, he does not speak for me and I consider it offensive for me to be denied freedom because others cannot handle it. Muldbug is presumptuous to make this assertion for me and others who are more than capable of handling freedom. It is people like Moldbug himself that illustrate perfectly the need for the “right of exit”. I can see why Moldbug was dis-invited from one of the seasteading conferences. Who needs fascists like him around?

    Unlike Moldbug, I am not so arrogant as to claim to represent all of humanity. I claim to represent only myself.

    • February 28, 2012 7:20 am

      The particular wedding guest people just simply was standing right now there in a very series along with the contestant have a directory of jobs available a single during a period.

  13. Mike Gibson permalink*
    February 23, 2010 10:52 pm

    Michael M: “I assumed we were talking about something more than that right alone. Since when do we stop people from leaving the U.S.?”

    It’s tougher than you think. Here are some links on “Exit Taxes”

    http://www.economist.com/business-finance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11554721

    What it costs:

    “The new tax regime applies to certain individuals who relinquish their US citizenship[1] and certain long-term U.S. residents (i.e., green card holders) who terminate their U.S. residence (hereafter referred to as ‘expatriates’).[2] The so-called ‘mark-to-market’ tax will apply to the net unrealized gain on the expatriate’s worldwide assets as if such property were sold (the ‘deemed sale’) for its fair market value on the day before the expatriation date. Any net gain on this deemed sale in excess of US$600,000 will be taxable.”

    http://www.withersworldwide.com/news-publications/324/exit-tax-u-s-expatriates-to-become-law.aspx

    More info here:

    http://onemansthoughts.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/americas-berlin-wall-an-exit-tax-to-deter-ending-of-us-citizenship/

    • February 23, 2010 11:02 pm

      LOL. I had NO idea.

      But why relinquish citizenship? Dual citizenship is an option in many places.

      Also I’m dubious about the jurisdiction here. How would the IRS collect on such a deemed sale? All they could do as a practical matter in many cases is put a lien on assets in the U.S., I would guess. Strikes me as a rule that’s probably rarely enforced, and then probably against convicted criminals.

      If that’s not true, I can certainly count on this blog to disabuse me!

  14. kurt9 permalink
    February 24, 2010 3:48 am

    I checked out the Distributed Republic post with regards to seasteading. The comments make it clear that liberal-left is parasitical in nature. It also makes it clear that the liberal-left do not understand the nature of poverty and how to solve it. You see, even if I was totally broke, I would still be in favor of these guys in making their seastead, because such a free and open economy would produce opportunity for myself as well and the opportunity for me to become not poor. This is just like when the U.S. has traditionally been a free and open society, that poor people came from Europe and other places to settle in the U.S. and create opportunity for themselves. The best thing that the rich can do to help the poor is to create more opportunity for them. Liberal-left people are incapable of understanding this dynamic. They are all parasites. Their existence itself makes clear the need for seasteading.

    Any society that actively restrict the right of exit is one that is not worth living in because, if it was worth living in, there would be no need for such restriction because everyone would be happy to stay.

    The communitarians are just like the commies in the old Soviet Union in that they did not allow people to leave, either. This is the Berlin-Wall mentality.

  15. Mike Gibson permalink*
    February 24, 2010 3:22 pm

    “Any society that actively restrict the right of exit is one that is not worth living in because, if it was worth living in, there would be no need for such restriction because everyone would be happy to stay.”

    Very well put!

  16. February 24, 2010 10:36 pm

    Your summary of the issue is excellent, Mike. What is most bizarre to me is that the big name communitarians never seem to think through these issues.

    The notion that libertarians are only about contract is also bizarre. I see libertarians about voluntary association, including the voluntary commitment to remain close to one’s community of origin if one so chooses. Libertarians are willing to allow people to be just as deeply communitarian as they please. Milton Friedman remarked once that kibbutzes were free market institutions, yet they were also experiments in socialism. What is wrong with letting people decide if they want to belong to a socialist community, a communitarian community, an Amish community, a Mormon community, or live in Las Vegas?

    Plato and Aristotle, at least, focused their political philosophy on the polis, a small city state, where some did in fact come and go. Most libertarians would be quite happy with a world of small sovereign city states if allowed to come and go and set up new ones at will.

    The great tragedy is that the Greek tradition of political theory has become embedded in nationalism and statism, such that large nation states impose coercive laws across immense geographic areas
    which are onerous to exit from. The fact that communitarian political theorists don’t seem to notice this dumbfounds me.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      February 25, 2010 8:26 pm

      Michael, did you see that story in the FT about how many kibbutzim were becoming for-profit enterprises?

      Yeah, I don’t know why there’s so strong an eagerness to extrapolate moral intuitions which work well in Dunbar-sized communities to the nation at large. I think Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor touched on a truth about human nature in this passage:

      “There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible. But man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it. For the care of these pitiful creatures is not just to find something before which I or some other man can bow down, but to find something that everyone else will also believe in and bow down to, for it must needs be all together. And this need for communality of worship is the chief torment of each man individually, and of mankind as a whole, from the beginning of ages.”

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