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.