February 9, 2005

The Idiot God

It's hard to imagine libertarianism flourishing as a political movement anywhere besides the United States. The fusion of tropes of rugged individualism, strong skepticism about the power of the modern state, celebration of civil liberties and constutionalism, and sometimes naïve valorization of the market not only define organized, committed libertarian thought in the United States but also a pervasive temperment that winds its way through a lot of American culture.

At the same time, I’m also struck by something that is harder to grasp and identify, something far less tangible: that the modern state (not the nation! different project!) is marked almost everywhere by a growing disaffection from the populations it governs. That disaffection manifests in a dizzying array of forms: the retreat into religious community or cultural chauvinism; the cynical anomie of many cosmopolitans and elites; the back-handed embrace of forms of corruption as being more human and reliable ways to obtain services. I’m far from being the only one to notice this larger decomposition of the liberal-bureaucratic state, and there are an enormous variety of interpretations of what it means and what ought to be done about it (if anything). Some continue to take this as a sign of the state’s subordination to globalizing capital, or to some less well-defined oppressive “modernity”. Others think it has to do with the modern state’s failure to reach achievable bureaucratic-rational forms and structures. Neoliberals and enthusiasts of globalization see it as confirmation of the need to reduce the state’s intrusive authority in many domains, especially those of the market. Secularists worry about the sources and character of religious resurgence.

I tend to think that what is going on is a little of all these things and more besides. I do sometimes find it hard to convince some of my closest liberal friends that there is any real reason for most Americans to feel antipathy towards “big government” as an idea or practice, unless we’re talking about the Bush Administration in specific. They point to all the positive things that government does in America, and all the positive things that it might do. “Are Americans really against roads, against regulating the stock market, against product labels, against Medicare, against police, against libraries?” they say plaintitively. (I’ve joined in the chorus on many occasions, and I still would do so, depending on the provocation.)

What is it that makes many Americans, as well as other societies in the world, receptive to the idea that government is more enemy than friend? And why do I think that unease or antipathy is in complicated ways justified or understandable, that it comes from someplace authentic that I think liberals might learn to tap into and address sympathetically?

At least one part of the problem falls back onto some of the venerable insights of Max Weber and others writing in his tradition: the modern state is a sort of idiot god or drooling child that blunders well-meaningly into the intimate terrain of everyday life and makes a mess without every really understanding what it’s done or where it's been.

I came across two examples recently that brought this home for me in different ways, one relatively innocent, the other profoundly disturbing.

The first was the city of Boston’s renewed determination to prevent its citizens from informally reserving parking spaces that they personally shovelled cleared of snow after a storm. This is a pretty common practice throughout the urban Northeast. You shovel a space, you mark it with a chair or a cone, and expect it to be yours when you come home. The marking lasts for a few days—usually until the city has managed to clear many streets and the parking situation in general improves.

Municipal governments tend to disapprove of the practice for two major, somewhat divergent reasons. The first is on grounds of public order. When someone breaks the unwritten code, removes a chair or cone and takes the space someone else cleared, the possibility of retaliation, with all its potential for explosiveness, is very real. The second is that municipal governments properly view parking as a public resource, and therefore cannot abide private seizures of parking even for short periods of time.

You can see the sense in these views. But at the same time, the very evenhandedness and bureaucratic rationality that we often look to government to provide as a way to adjudicate social conflicts and problems also seems horribly disconnected from the intimate lived experience of parking, snow removal and rights enforcement. On any given street in any given city, the moral landscape around those issues is much more finely tuned and deeply known to all the people living on that street. On one street, everyone may pitch in to help each other clear snow, and so reserving spaces is a non-issue: the local social contract is cooperative. On another street, the person who yanks a cone or chair out of a space may be a very deliberate scumbag, and widely regarded as such—the kind of person who waits for a neighbor to leave, scrambles out, guns his skidding 4-wheel drive out of an uncleared space, and seizes his neighbor’s labor. On yet another street, the person clearing a space may attempt to selfishly defend it far longer than anyone thinks him entitled to, or his claim on space may be connected to a larger pattern of private seizure of common resources. In another case, maybe people feel conflicted, but feel it’s ok for someone coming home to move a cone if the space was cleared that morning. The tragedy of the commons is always one block away from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

The state knows none of this: it extrudes a crude rationality into a moral world that is extremely textured. People grumble, or in some cases cheer when that intrusion resolves conflicts that had grown beyond the local ability to adjudicate. They wait for the state to go away again, as it always does, for the tide to recede, and go back to working things out as best they can, in light of the individual character and behavior of the actual people in their locality. It would be wildly wrong to characterize this as oppressive behavior by government: it’s more just disorienting. A force that exerts moral or cultural authority without seeming to understand the common sense underpinnings or everyday knowledges about the issues it addresses.

I felt the same way, only more intensely so, reading about the death penalty case of Daryl Atkins. Atkins was at the heart of the US Supreme Court’s decision last year that mentally retarded criminals cannot be executed, but in a recent development, the state of Virginia planned to return to court to argue that Atkins can be executed as his IQ tests now at 76, which is above the cut-off of 70 used by Virgina to determine retardation. To explain the difference between Atkins’ lower score at the time of his initial sentencing and the more recent score, one court-appointed expert has suggested that Atkins’ extensive work with his lawyers in the Supreme Court case had a positive effect on his reading and comprehension skills.

I have very agnostic feelings about the death penalty overall. I tend to believe that in the abstract, there are crimes for which it is warranted for a variety of reasons, including an absolutely cold-blooded kind of civic or collective vengeance. But in practice, particularly in the last ten years, it’s become fairly obvious to me that the state in general and American jurisiprudence in particular are simply incapable of making this very final and absolute sort of judgement with anything even vaguely approaching the necessary rigor and moral coherence required.

The latest developments in Atkins’ case are an especially searing reminder of that. I have to hope that whether you’re a supporter of the death penalty or an opponent, or merely confused as I am, you find the proposition that the difference between life and death is 6 points on a fairly arbitrary scale measuring intelligence to be obscene.

I think most of us have some feelings about the degree to which mental retardation interferes with or limits the capacity for moral judgment. Sometimes we may have highly articulate, expert opinions on that, sometimes we just have a kind of groping, semi-spiritual intuition. But whatever our feelings, whatever their source, I think we all walk into that judgement with a sense of trepidation, in a state of moral anxiety. We know it’s complicated, we know it’s messy. And here we have a government—and for that matter a defense team—trying to make those decisions with points and graphs and charts and long legal codes, with experts.

I’m not blaming the government: what choice does it have? In the context of the law and the death penalty, it can’t operate with intuition, it can’t tolerate ambiguity. The Supreme Court spoke, and now the law must make that judgement into something concrete, consistent, fair. But here it is making a very final decision with a kind of obscene game that bears no meaningful resemblance to the lived world, to the breathing heart of moral judgment.

The strongly libertarian answer to these dilemmas is to remove the state entirely from those fragile and precious social worlds that it little understands and often damages. I can’t quite bend my head around that, because I also see the state as irreplaceably necessary in those very same domains. It’s not as if everything works out when common sense and the wisdom of crowds is allowed its day in the sun: a different flavor of grotesquery may rear its head, that’s all. But I do understand why many Americans—and others around the world—stir uneasily at the thought of “government” and its operations in their everyday lives, and forget quickly the paving of streets and the delivery of the mail.