Friendship and civic virtue
Patrick Deneen has written a fascinating entry on friendship, politics and civic virtue. Excerpting doesn’t do the post justice, but here’s the crux of his thesis:
The real relationships of people in their localities is to be replaced by rationalized and approved “programs” – “justice” is to replace “friendship. Much of the domestic politics of the 20th-century has been precisely motivated by this ambition, to displace local loyalties, and with them, attendant limitations upon those loyalties, with an abstract loyalty to nation (and, now, to the “international community”) in which concrete relations are replaced by fungible arrangements based in utility and justice is ensured by government mandate and policy. Justice – the inferior standard of mistrustful individuals – liberates us to pursue our interests without concern for the loyalties to places and communities; it is a wan echo of friendship, aimed above all toward the goal of individual liberation from the “bondage” of care, and further, a narrowed view toward the world and fellow creatures to one based mainly upon utility. Fellow citizens become more often viewed as competitors and even enemies than friends: as Aristotle predicted, where civic friendship wanes, lawsuits fill the emptied public space. Accordingly, our general mistrust for the public grows, and our relationship to law becomes one in which we see it as an imposition from outside – by “foreign” elites – rather than as emanating from the interaction of fellow citizens with a shared and discernible concern for commonweal. Our “liberation” from the bonds and limitations imposed by friendship in politics leads to the rise of the felt sense of political tyranny. This analysis, of course, echoed Tocqueville’s understanding that the rise of “soft tyranny” came not from “Statism” as such, but the isolation and weakness experienced by modern democratic “individuals.”
I’m certainly sympathetic to this diagnosis, but I think it’s pretty easy to see why friendship isn’t a suitable basis for political administration beyond the local level. The central objection is scalability: what looks like harmless familiarity at a town meeting is more like cronyism on the national stage. In an intimate setting, the logic of appointing people you know and trust is pretty straightforward: disinterested, scientific expertise is harder to come by at the local level; close working relationships often produce successful results, and friends and neighbors are less likely to assume cronyism or bribery played a part in personnel decisions if they can vouch for the character of the appointee.
Without the benefits of familiarity, however, political friendship veers dangerously close to outright corruption. Detached from localities, politicians are no longer subject to close supervision from their constituents, who can prevent practices like appointing friends from lapsing into outright cronyism. I don’t think it’s any accident that Ted Stevens, Alaska’s legendarily corrupt former Senator, was also celebrated for his political loyalties:
Many of Stevens’s colleagues afford a grudging respect for him. In part that’s because, in spite of his outbursts, Stevens has a certain old-fashioned integrity: He keeps his word and is fiercely loyal to his friends. According to one Senate aide, Stevens was constantly by the side of his dear friend Democrat Daniel Inouye when the Hawaii senator’s wife died last year. (Inouye reciprocated last month by touring Alaska with Stevens in his hour of distress, telling the local press that coverage of his ethics woes is “overkill” and saying that, if it weren’t for Stevens’s earmarking, “Alaska would be in the Stone Age.”)
Having read the Porch for some time, I think I can anticipate Deneen’s response to this objection: Don’t get rid of friendship in politics, get rid of politics at the national level! Whether this is feasible or not is another question entirely. Deneen favorably mentions the Articles of Confederation earlier in his post, so why not consider the Republic’s dire condition before the Constitution was ratified? Congress couldn’t collect enough revenue to pay off its wartime debts, and if you read City Journal’s excellent article on John Jay, you’ll learn that the government’s inability to force state citizens to pay off prewar British creditors allowed England to maintain garrisons on American soil even after the Treaty of Paris was signed. To take a more recent example, I’m not sure how the civil rights movement would have fared without the benefit of a disinterested, muscular national government. Friendship and civic virtue may go hand-in-hand at the local level, but on the national stage, some pretense of objectivity is worth preserving.