Sunday, January 23, 2011

Every now and then people who, in the grand scheme of things, look and sound more or less like me state opinions that leave me pinching myself to see if I haven’t been sucked through the rabbit hole. Often these have to do with freedoms they would like to sacrifice to government bureaucrats. One neighbor of mine told me that when friends abroad mention charity they donated to the poor, he responds that he gives much more charity than them because he pays income tax to the Israeli government. I suppose that if he finds subsidizing corrupt labor unions, paying Azmi Bishara’s pension and hiring foreign corporations to build decorative bridges from nowhere to nowhere as fulfilling as feeding widows and orphans, he’s absolutely right. Another time, in discussions about a constitutional proposal I was working on, someone insisted that I include that the government only appoint dayanim who are yirei shamayim. When I suggested that this kind of language was likely to prove ineffective in a constitutional context and that perhaps it would be better if dayanim weren’t appointed by the government at all, he looked at me like I was odd and asked, in all sincerity, who would pay for them, if not the government.

In this post, I will try to explain the crucial idea that my interlocutors seem to have missed. (Why they missed it is also an interesting question and I hope to get to that in my next post.)

As we have seen, a person can find identity and meaning through voluntary participation in a community of people that share a moral code and narrative. A state is not such a community. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: “Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere.” In the terms of Durkheim we considered earlier, the state is a kind of gesellschaft, not a gemeinschaft.

The dynamics of moral communities are such that they always tend towards a certain degree of homogeneity. Individuals who don’t fit in are encouraged to leave and are generally happy to do so. When communities become too diverse, they split into sub-communities that are each more homogeneous. Citizenship, on the other hand, is based on territory and is often involuntary, so that the citizenry of a state tends to be heterogeneous. As we saw in my previous post, when there is little agreement within a state regarding moral matters, it is generally in everybody’s interest that the state be as neutral as possible on such matters. As a result, states are hardly likely to provide enough of a moral core for citizenship to constitute a “form of brotherhood”.

Typically, therefore, communities and states co-exist, each providing some human needs. The point that is often under-appreciated is that states and communities are in competition. They compete for our allegiance. As a member of my community, I have special loyalty to fellow community members. The state requires, however, that, within those areas that are regulated by the state, I treat all citizens equally. As a member of my community, I have very specific ideas about what is right and what is wrong. The state requires that, within those areas subject to legislation, I obey the laws of the state, whether or not they coincide with my ideas of right and wrong.

One of the ways that the state and communities compete for our allegiance is through the supply of services. Support for the poor can be provided through community-based charity or state allowances and welfare. Education can be provided either by communities in accord with the values and standards of the community or by the state in accord with the values of the bureaucrats who establish curricula and standards. Rabbis, dayanim and mashgichim can be chosen by communities in accordance with local needs or be appointed by the state in accordance with its preferences and political pressures. Needless to say, when these services are provided by the state, they are subject to state regulation.

We have seen earlier that those who are unaffiliated with any community have good reason to prefer that no area be immune to state regulation. It stands to reason, however, that those who are affiliated with some community would value above all their community’s independence and, in particular, its ability to resist state interference. Nevertheless, the temptations of the welfare state sometimes prove hard to resist.

Consider the example of state sponsorship of religious functionaries and services. There are at least four reasons (as always, the division is somewhat arbitrary) that this is bad for communities. First, a rabbi who is imposed on a community in top-down manner by bureaucrats far away from the community he will serve is unlikely to be chosen according to the particular needs of that community; he is more likely to either be the recipient of patronage or simply be bland enough not to threaten anyone on the committee. Second, even in the event that a competent rabbi is chosen, as a civil servant he will not need to maintain the respect of his community to keep his job and hence is unlikely to work any harder than absolutely necessary. Third, even in the event that a state-appointed rabbi is full of enthusiasm and positive energy, he can always be intimidated by state officials. An independent religious leader can lead resistance against overreaches of power by the state (think of Martin Luther King, for example), but is unlikely to do so if taking unpopular positions can get him fired. Finally, even if despite everything a rabbi makes courageous decisions, these decisions are subject to second-guessing by the courts.

When the state usurps the roles of communities, it not only does a poor job in performing those roles, it also weakens the communities that have been usurped and strengthens the influence of unaffiliateds. As communities weaken, two things happen. First, citizens’ lives are animated less and less by communal narratives that provide meaning, direction and motivation for virtuous acts. Second, the state, unchecked by the mediating influence of moral communities, expands its power and regulatory reach. The resulting dystopia is characterized by the "soft despotism" of the state captured so perfectly by Tocqueville:

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, who turn about without repose in order to procure for themselves petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn apart, is a virtual stranger, unaware of the fate of the others: his children and his particular friends form for him the entirety of the human race; as for his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he sees them not; he touches them and senses them not; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and, if he still has a family, one could say at least that he no longer has a fatherland.

Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood…

After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns into its powerful hands, and after having kneaded him in accord with its desires, the sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations - complicated, minute, and uniform - through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own; it does not destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.


Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

Lots of food for thought here. Some comments:
(1) The idea that the national/state grouping does not engender the moral code and narrative may be oversimplified. I recall reading an American who wrote that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people passing in the street would smile at each other, something they didn't do so much before. The entry into the war made people realize that they were all in it together and they were connected to each other more than they had realized. On the other hand, when the war ended, there was a massive wave of strikes in the US, including a national rail strike (that Truman threatened to end by drafting the rail workers into the army!) that crippled the nation and was viewed of as being simple selfishness and it suprised many because of the great sense of sacrifice and purpose of the war had been just a short time earlier. Thus, the argument can go both ways.

However, "nationalism" is not necessarily a feeling of idealism. Geula Cohen wrote about a member of LEHI who was ready to volunteer for even the most dangerous missions, yet after he settled down after the staet of established, he became a real shark of a businessman. It could be his willingness to fight was not "nationalism", meaning love of his fellos jews, but simply a love of "action" or hatred of the British and the Arabs. ( I note this also because of tendency by cetain religious circles to say that everyone who serves in TZAHAL is ipso facto a Tzaddik who is doing so "out of love for the Jewish people-which I believe is going too far).

Paul Krugman had a long article in a recent New York Times in which he pointed out the problems of the unified "Eurozone" of the EU and the pressures that are on it to break it up and to go back to the situation of each country having its own currenty. He compared the situations of Ireland and the state of Nevada in the US. Both are about the same size and have the same economic problems and unemployment rate. Krugman points out that Americans, viewing Nevadans as their fellow citizens have no problem with the US government (which also has a unified currency)sening money there to help out. Rich Germany, on the other hand, resents having to send their money to a bunch of "lazy, drunken, deadbeat foreigners" in Ireland to bail them out. Thus, American national identity and citizenship DOES create a bond and a feeling of fellowship that trancends mere humanity, although I do agree that it is not as strong as the "communities" you refer to.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...


2) Regarding the role of the state in religious life, I agree with much of what you write, particularly in the role of appointment of municipal rabbanim, however, on the whole, my observation is that synagogues in Israel are much more democratically run, because they can receive state support, than synagogues in the which are frequently dependent on some rich "gvir" (big shot) who everyone, including the Rav has to grovel to.

(3) Was de Tocqueville writing about the US or other European countries?... because he pointed out that Americans have an individualism that is particularly strong and which would prevent a possible dictatorship from taking hold there over the long run. It is interesting how by the 1830's, when he wrote this, the idea of the welfare state was more advanced than I thought. We do see, in Europe, and tragicaly in the US as well (as reflected by Obama and the Left-wing Democrats) a belief that the government should just get stronger and stronger and more and more regulate the way people should live because they seem to thing that "experts" are more qualified to decide for people what they should do than the people themselves. The Founding Fathers who wrote the US Constitution believed that it is the state that is the greatest threat to the people's freedom and that seems to be more true than ever and for that reason it must be not allowed to get too strong (checks and balances) and be under scrutiny all the time (freedom of speech and of the press).

Unfortunately, these ideas are alien to most Israelis, so the work you are doing Ben is very important.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Shachar Ha'amim said...

Regarding Y. Ben-David's point #2 - I think that shuls in Israel are more democratically run b/c they are set up as amutot and an amuta is generally the most "democratic" of types of incorporated entities in Israel (the non democracy of certain types of amutot such as IDI or Tzohar, notwithstanding). The fact that most btei knesset DON'T have hired Rabbis makes them even more democratic, and it could be that the fact that there are state appointed rabbis for neighborhoods is what leads to this situation. As soon as a batei knesset in israel hires a rabbi it almost inevitably starts devolving into the strong-arm Vaad (subject to the g'vir) + rabbi type of shul you are referring too where everything is then dictated by fiat (of the Rabbi and the Vaad).

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


While I share your distaste for beauracrats, your discussion is very much a-historical and somewhat aloof. When Leibowitz made these arguments, they felt very much like that of the spoiled rich kid who couldn't understand why communities and people less fortunate than him might not take religious continuity for granted. Sort of a religious "let them eat cake" kind of attitude, if you will.

I cannot help but feel some of the same "it's fine by me, who cares about anyone else" attitude here. Your analysis takes the present affluence of many parts of Israeli society today, and ignores the poor and oft impoverished state of the overwhelming percentage of religious communities for the first couple of decades (especially, though not exclusively, Mizrahi communities). And, no, this was not just because of the 'greedy state' taxes but also due to post-war economic realities and pressing security concerns.

The idea that these communities could possibly compete, on any level, with the "free of cost" secular education provided by the State is simply false. Without an actual alternative - with proper funds - parents would simply send their kids to the secular schools and pray for a miracle.

As Israel Gan-Zvi pointed out in one of the earliest issue of Tradition, secular school would not be "neutral" like American public school. Rather, it would educate and teach Jewish history and sources through a thoroughly secularist (non/anti-religious) perspective. Maybe you don't care, being "post-demoninational" and all, but others do.

Furthermore, to compare the prospects of private religious education here to that in the states is belied by the ongoing tuition crisis over there.

I agree with regard to electing Rabbis and functionairies, but "seperating education" is, IMHO, NOT a good idea.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

There is a difference between the state subsidizing education and the state providing education. For precisely the reasons you enumerate, I prefer that the state not provide any education. I prefer that it subsidize (for example, through vouchers) all education.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous shachar ha'amim said...

the state subsidizing education rather than providing it is inherently inflationary. Look at what Pell Grants and Federal Loan Programs did to the cost of higher education - and to public higher education - in the USA. The same will happen to HS and Middle schools once vouchers become widespread. Private school tuitions - including Yeshiva will increase at 2 to 3 times the rate of inflation while public schools will deteriorate even more.

3:35 PM  
Anonymous shachar H'amim said...

my point was that if the state pulls out of education and only subsidizes it it will eventually lead to a situation where rich people can afford to educate their kids and theer will be an analphabetic lower class - much in the way of 19th century america

education is the type of natural monopoly that the State SHOULD be involved in providing.

The problems detaled by aiwac reflect a situation whereby the state provides one form of education EXCLUSIVELY.
However the streams system used in Israel to reflect the needs of various communities actually (largely) works. The State should be providing this education which reflects the needs of the communities being serviced.

The issues of each stream being under particular hegemony or of certain national religious types who want to have "integrated" schools (they almost always seem to be integrated national religious and secular rather than national religious and haredi - one would think that in the drive to "integrate" one would prefer one's religious zionist child study civics or maths with a haredi child rather than a secular child?) may go to the core of what you are driving at but they are not fundamentally inherent in a problem of the State providing education

In US terms think of Charter Schools rather than Vouchers.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

1. In Sicily, Alaska, education is a natural monopoly. Why is it one in a country as densely populated as Israel?
2. If the state spent as much on vouchers as it does administering schools, how would the poor be worse off? (Actually, the state could spend a great deal less and the vouchers would still be sufficient, since waste would be diminished.) In fact, the motivated poor in bad neighborhoods with bad schools have the most to gain from free choice.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Shalom Dover said...

If I followed the point about vouchers leading to inflation (Shachar H.), and if my macroeconomics 101 doesn't fail me, it would actually be a GOOD thing for education costs to rise.

(Remember, at least in the voucher example that we're dealing with, the state would still be providing the funding to cover those costs.)

If the increased choice that a voucher system gives to parents of school children leads to higher costs, doesn't that indicate pretty clearly that the artificially limited choice we now have is leading "buyers" (school administrators, parents, etc.) to choose lower-quality and lower-priced options than they naturally would?

12:41 AM  
Anonymous Dov R. said...

Speaking of Tocqueville, I'm sorry about your Jets. Truth is, though I'm from Boston, I think deep down I was rooting for them (only this past week, of course) - at a certain point, even most Pats fans realize that Rex Ryan is a breath of fresh air in the stifling NFL atmosphere.

The NFL, with all their choreographed media apearances, their highly technocratic rules and definitions, and their illusion of "perfection" in officiating, is a pretty interesting example of the sort of dystopian "soft despotism" you identify. I'm sure Tocqueville could have written the following lines about many government/corporate elements in our society, but it's seems somehow most appropriate to the NFL (and I mean that partially as a compliment!).

"Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood… it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations - complicated, minute, and uniform - through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day."

What would Lombardi, with his "run to daylight" approach, have to say?

1:08 AM  
Anonymous shachar haamim said...

salabsis it a natural monopoly in Ofakim? In Mitzpe Ramon? In Sdereot?

Vouchers vs. State Run really isn't the issue in Israel b/c in Israel the "streams" system is in effect a system of "vouchers" and state supervised which (in theory) prevents inflationary increases in the costs of education.

9:45 PM  

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