Sunday, January 12, 2003

In re: the draft and obligation.
I looked up Anthony Appiah's review of Ronald Dworkin's latest book Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. I looked for my copy -of the review- but I must have thrown it out.

I'll begin by having a little fun with broad generalization: There are two basic orders that between them make up the defining mechanisms of all of human society, these are Desire and Convention.
I'm moving more and more against referring to Left and Right. It only makes sense since so many disparate movements of the grassroots left can be described as a defense of the conventions of an independent social life. Workers' and peasants' movements, unions, community activism etc. Of course it can include nativism and any number of other less pleasant 'isms' including monarchism, but at the moment when individualism seems to be the guiding principle of both left and right it should be remembered that the roots of the left belong elsewhere.

Both Dworkin and Appiah seem to accept without question the notion that economic liberty is not only the most important liberty but is the basis of all discussion of the subject. Appiah even confuses social conservatives' dislike for homosexuality, the proscription of which is seen as a necessary coercive force in defense of a collective social order -and explicitly restrictive of liberty- with an economic conservative argument based on the states' "equal concern" with its citizens. The arguments in fact are opposed. The belief that we  ll are interested in economic 'Liberty' -in this context or in this meaning- or that the term is the centerpiece of all debate is absurd.

"Amartya Sen has identified one reason why nearly everyone agrees with Dworkin's egalitarian formula, his insistence on equal concern: it is that almost any serious political philosophy can claim to be consistent with it. Even a conservative who thinks the only function of government is to protect our liberties, and who holds that any government interference in the economy is immoral, will still claim to be treating everyone equally,"

Well, so much for the Catholic Church, Mainland China, Iran, all Islam to a degree, the social conservative movement in the US and everywhere else, and Baroness Thatcher, who still has many fans and who, famously, once stated that "we cannot have equality." And there are plenty of people who would agree with her.

But the problem is also that Dworkin seems to argue that we can resolve any conflicts between what he calls 'liberty' and 'equality' or that if seen in the proper light, the conflicts between them disappear.
I'm not sure where the use of these two terms, in opposition to one another, originated. I don't like them, specifically the latter, used this way. I prefer to think of 'obligation' rather than 'equality'. The advantages are obvious, but one is that it is not based on, or responding to, a Darwinian imperative. Equality seems to argue against nature in a way that obligation does not. 'Equality' in this context must also mean economic equality and not political equality. Otherwise why would it be opposed to 'liberty'? It gives the game away by defining the basis of social order as economic order, something that neither I nor most other people, accept. Most people when asked pick family and friends before money. You could say they pick 'equality' but 'obligation' is less condescending. After all every group has its own internal hierarchy, and unlike 'equality', 'obligation' makes no pretense.
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On NPR yesterday I heard a piece about lawsuits by writers in Hollywood who can't get work because they're considered too old. The problem that interests me is that at some point someone may sue Knopf because they don't publish enough books by 50 years olds.
This is what happens when economic life becomes the defining factor of social life. All commercial speech becomes political and all political speech becomes commercial. Nike is a person, and I am a corporation. I think both the writers' arguments and those recently made by lawyers for Nike are ridiculous. And contra Dworkin's attempts to negate the force of the struggle between what the two poles of Liberty and Equality, the fight will go on, often in our own minds, as we insist upon our absurd 'freedoms' even as we demand our absurd 'rights.'

The left has much to learn from social conservatives, but in this country, more than any other, it has allied itself with economic conservatives -meaning Liberals in the classical sense- and one of the problems we now face is the degree to which that market philosophy is now under attack, justifiably, and throughout the world, more than it has been in decades.