Wednesday, June 29, 2016

State vs. Commonwealth

I have many times regretted, since necessity demanded a move from Virginia (the place that I still consider my home), that I no longer live there.  Beer and wine readily available in the grocery store, a rational attitude towards the possession of firearms, an excellent diocese in the northern regions—there are many reasons to consider the move unfortunate.

The latest reason is born of a more abstract but no less real consideration: the fact that Virginia calls herself (when she is being properly official and patriotic and all that) not a state, but a commonwealth.  I have no objection to—and indeed frequently indulge in—the slangy American habit of referring to “the fifty states,” though it is perhaps something of a malapropism.  But the fact is that commonwealth or commonweal (as Quentin Skinner has just been reminding me) is a translation of res publica, the common things—the things citizens share with one another, which makes their enterprise a united one.  It is a name which, however glancingly, refers to that hard-to-define but imperative concept of the common good.

In contrast, “state,” from the Latin status, originally referred simply to the condition of things—it was and is an essentially value-neutral term, and was indeed adopted about the time (the tail end of the sixteenth century and the bulk of the seventeenth) when a value-free, contract-based notion of government was evolving.  Locke tells a story that sounds superficially like the Aristotelian/Ciceronian story of how political unities come into being, but the emphasis is no longer on shared life but on agreement, no longer on friendship but on convenience.  We are not talking about the well-being of the commonality anymore, but about their “state”; and how we are to measure that … is anyone’s guess.

I have no idea how much of this was in the minds of those who first dubbed Virginia a commonwealth.  But it was certainly a fortuitous—if not an intentional—decision on their part to make reference not to their common “state” but to their common “wealth,” as if they meant their association to be something more than a merely legal matter.

Friday, June 24, 2016

I Don't Usually Post Twice in One Day, but When I Do ...

... Actually, I never post twice in one day.  But how could I not?

Encore!  Encore! he says ...

Now, for Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall ...  And France doesn't really need Brittany, do they?


“Pardon me, pardon me, President,” said Barker, warmly; “my sympathies are with no nation. You misunderstand, I think, the modern intellect. We do not disapprove of the fire and extravagance of such commonwealths as yours only to become more extravagant on a larger scale. We do not condemn Nicaragua because we think Britain ought to be more Nicaraguan. We do not discourage small nationalities because we wish large nationalities to have all their smallness, all their uniformity of outlook, all their exaggeration of spirit. If I differ with the greatest respect from your Nicaraguan enthusiasm, it is not because a nation or ten nations were against you; it is because civilisation was against you. We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilisation, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples—”

“The Señor will forgive me,” said the President [of Nicaragua]. “May I ask the Señor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?”

“I never catch a wild horse,” replied Barker, with dignity.

“Precisely,” said the other; “and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism. When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people. If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, ‘This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him.’ You say your civilisation will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? I recur to the example I gave. In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses—by lassooing the fore feet—which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilised.”

“Something, perhaps,” replied Barker, “but that something a mere barbarian dexterity. I do not know that I could chip flints as well as a primeval man, but I know that civilisation can make these knives which are better, and I trust to civilisation.”

“You have good authority,” answered the Nicaraguan. “Many clever men like you have trusted to civilisation. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”

“I think you do not quite understand, President, what ours is,” answered Barker. “You judge it rather as if England was still a poor and pugnacious island; you have been long out of Europe. Many things have happened.”

“And what,” asked the other, “would you call the summary of those things?”

“The summary of those things,” answered Barker, with great animation, “is that we are rid of the superstitions, and in becoming so we have not merely become rid of the superstitions which have been most frequently and most enthusiastically so described. The superstition of big nationalities is bad, but the superstition of small nationalities is worse. The superstition of reverencing our own country is bad, but the superstition of reverencing other people’s countries is worse. It is so everywhere, and in a hundred ways. The superstition of monarchy is bad, and the superstition of aristocracy is bad, but the superstition of democracy is the worst of all.”

The old gentleman opened his eyes with some surprise.

“Are you, then,” he said, “no longer a democracy in England?”

Barker laughed.

“The situation invites paradox,” he said. “We are, in a sense, the purest democracy. We have become a despotism. Have you not noticed how continually in history democracy becomes despotism? People call it the decay of democracy. It is simply its fulfilment. Why take the trouble to number and register and enfranchise all the innumerable John Robinsons, when you can take one John Robinson with the same intellect or lack of intellect as all the rest, and have done with it? The old idealistic republicans used to found democracy on the idea that all men were equally intelligent. Believe me, the sane and enduring democracy is founded on the fact that all men are equally idiotic. Why should we not choose out of them one as much as another. All that we want for Government is a man not criminal and insane, who can rapidly look over some petitions and sign some proclamations. To think what time was wasted in arguing about the House of Lords, Tories saying it ought to be preserved because it was clever, and Radicals saying it ought to be destroyed because it was stupid, and all the time no one saw that it was right because it was stupid, because that chance mob of ordinary men thrown there by accident of blood, were a great democratic protest against the Lower House, against the eternal insolence of the aristocracy of talents. We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur.”

“Do you really mean,” asked the President, incredulously, “that you choose any ordinary man that comes to hand and make him despot—that you trust to the chance of some alphabetical list....”

“And why not?” cried Barker. “Did not half the historical nations trust to the chance of the eldest sons of eldest sons, and did not half of them get on tolerably well? To have a perfect system is impossible; to have a system is indispensable. All hereditary monarchies were a matter of luck: so are alphabetical monarchies. Can you find a deep philosophical meaning in the difference between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians? Believe me, I will undertake to find a deep philosophical meaning in the contrast between the dark tragedy of the A’s, and the solid success of the B’s.”

“And you risk it?” asked the other. “Though the man may be a tyrant or a cynic or a criminal.”

“We risk it,” answered Barker, with a perfect placidity. “Suppose he is a tyrant—he is still a check on a hundred tyrants. Suppose he is a cynic, it is to his interest to govern well. Suppose he is a criminal—by removing poverty and substituting power, we put a check on his criminality. In short, by substituting despotism we have put a total check on one criminal and a partial check on all the rest.”

The Nicaraguan old gentleman leaned over with a queer expression in his eyes.

“My church, sir,” he said, “has taught me to respect faith. I do not wish to speak with any disrespect of yours, however fantastic. But do you really mean that you will trust to the ordinary man, the man who may happen to come next, as a good despot?”

“I do,” said Barker, simply. “He may not be a good man. But he will be a good despot. For when he comes to a mere business routine of government he will endeavour to do ordinary justice. Do we not assume the same thing in a jury?”

The old President smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said, “that I have any particular objection in detail to your excellent scheme of Government. My only objection is a quite personal one. It is, that if I were asked whether I would belong to it, I should ask first of all, if I was not permitted, as an alternative, to be a toad in a ditch. That is all. You cannot argue with the choice of the soul.”

“Of the soul,” said Barker, knitting his brows, “I cannot pretend to say anything, but speaking in the interests of the public—”

Mr. Auberon Quin rose suddenly to his feet.

“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, “I will step out for a moment into the air.”

“I’m so sorry, Auberon,” said Lambert, good-naturedly; “do you feel bad?”

“Not bad exactly,” said Auberon, with self-restraint; “rather good, if anything. Strangely and richly good. The fact is, I want to reflect a little on those beautiful words that have just been uttered. ‘Speaking,’ yes, that was the phrase, ‘speaking in the interests of the public.’ One cannot get the honey from such things without being alone for a little.”

“Is he really off his chump, do you think?” asked Lambert.

The old President looked after him with queerly vigilant eyes.

“He is a man, I think,” he said, “who cares for nothing but a joke. He is a dangerous man.”

Lambert laughed in the act of lifting some maccaroni to his mouth.

“Dangerous!” he said. “You don’t know little Quin, sir!”

“Every man is dangerous,” said the old man without moving, “who cares only for one thing. I was once dangerous myself.”

And with a pleasant smile he finished his coffee and rose, bowing profoundly, passed out into the fog, which had again grown dense and sombre. Three days afterwards they heard that he had died quietly in lodgings in Soho.

~Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

What Pleases the Prince

It always astonishes me (though it shouldn’t by now) when a bit of history studied for a completely different purpose sheds light on the modern world.  In this case, a bit of information from a discussion of Justinian’s Code eerily recalls American government today.

“In another much celebrated text (Dig. I.4.1pr., cf. Inst. I.2.6), Ulpian says that what the emperor has decided (quod principi placuit) has the force of a lex.  Ulpian probably meant that where the law was doubtful, it was the view favored by the emperor which must prevail.  He explains this statement by citing the lex de imperio of the popular assembly, passed at the beginning of each emperor’s reign, which formally gave him power to do everything necessary for the benefit of the state.  In the time of Augustus this referred to executive power, but it was used by later jurists to justify the accomplished fact of the emperor’s power of legislation.  The implication that in some sense the emperor, when legislating, was the delegate of the people was supported by such texts as Cod. I.14.4 (digna vox), a constitution of Theodosius II in 429, which states that the emperor should declare himself bound by the laws, for his authority depends on that of the laws” (46, The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c. 350-c. 1450, ed. by J.H. Burns).

Ulpian’s description of the emperor’s judicial function, “quod principi placuit,” by the time of Henry VIII was being interpreted (or at least Henry wanted to interpret it) as meaning that whatever the king wished was law—used, in other words, to change the executive/judge into a legislator as well, and a legislator who acted at whim, though purportedly following the will of the people.

Thus SCOTUS, thus the modern administrative state, thus abuse of the “necessary and proper” clause?

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Nobility of the Labor

Following on my last (mainly) serious post, it occurs to me that it is worth emphasizing that some jobs probably are nobler than others.  In pointing out that many modern Americans are uncomfortable with the fact that women still gravitate towards nurturing, interpersonal occupations I suggested that—whether this is an outcome of innate personality differences (“women are generally nicer than men”) or the outcome of “an implicit conditioning bias” does not especially matter.

Let’s admit (for the sake of the argument) that men are encouraged to play with power tools and women with dolls, and that this leads to men who grow up to play with cancer cells and go out fracking and gamble on Wall Street, while the women are more inclined to change bed pans and teach the three Rs.

If so—if so—what’s the harm in that?  Why do we assume that being on Wall Street is inherently superior to being in a third grade classroom, or (oh cover your flaming ears for shame) staying at home with the children?  It isn’t better; we just act that way.

I truly believe that much of the discomfort with the differences in male/female work comes from this sense that stereotypically female jobs are somehow less worthwhile than stereotypically male ones.  But I do not mean to deny that some jobs are more worth doing than others—au contraire.  Rather, I would suggest that we need to reevaluate what jobs are actually valuable or, rather, which jobs are nobler.

The change from “value” to “nobility” actually matters a great deal.  “Value” is a monetizing word, leading its users to make all sorts of strange judgments, such as that pigs are more valuable than children.

But would a pig be less dangerous to the world than Peter Singer?

Mind you, our sense of “value” makes us concerned with buying things that last (“a good value for the money”) and conserving our financial resources for our children (so that we have “something of value” to pass on to them); and these are good habits.  We may also speak about the “value” of a liberal arts education, and mean that its graduates will themselves live happier, more humane lives for having engaged in a few years of thoughtful reflection with the great minds of the past.

But of course, more often these days the “value” of such an education seems to be based on the hope that future employers will shower these graduates with dough for their superior communication and analytic skills.  They will be living richer lives …

One meaning of “rich.”

And another.

And this shifty sense of the word “value” confusticates the way we talk about work as well.  We—often subconsciously—tend to see “valuable” jobs as those jobs that produce products which can be sold for money—preferably new products which will do things older products just didn’t do, or do them at least far better and in more exciting combinations, and therefore—again—be sold for more money.  Not more money individually, necessarily—much new technology over the last few decades has started out expensive for consumers and has decreased in cost to become affordable for the masses.

Which is why so many people below the poverty line have TVs,
and why even starving graduate students, can now afford 
a smartphone, if not their textbooks.

But for the company, it definitely is about having more money in totum, which translates into more money for this or that inventive or aggressive person’s paycheck and end-of-the-year bonuses.

The “value” of an employee, then, often becomes measured by how much they can increase a company’s profit margin and, more personally, on whether they have skills and traits which will enable the company to do so.  Does the employee, in other words, have something of value about them, where of value means “can be translated into dollars”?

It is certainly true that in this limited sense, traditionally feminine traits can actually be of more “value” than some in the past have supposed.  Women are frequently more attentive to interpersonal matters, for example; this trait, if channeled properly, can make them good at negotiating (contracts with clients, tasks with employees, etc.).

But is this not rather a debasing of interpersonal skills?  Here we are, taking something which can truly make life rich …

… and using it to make life Rich …

Er, rich?

That is why I propose that it is better to ditch the word “valuable” when considering the desirability of a given line of work, and to use instead the word “noble.”  Will this work make people better, or at least enable them to be better?  How many people will it affect?  How deeply will it affect them?  How difficult is it?  How much affection does it produce between the “worker” and the “client”?  How much use does it make of—or benefit does it provide for—those things we consider “highest” in the human being (the intellect, the soul)?

These are the sort of questions that indicate whether or not a work is “noble”.  And thus work like healing, nursing, teaching, pastoring, praying, parenting and even—if done in the right spirit—the production of hydroponic vegetables and iPhones—can be noble work.

But the nature of that list, with its traditionally feminine areas of labor, suggests that in terms of nobility, female work is often equal or superior to male work.  We may not pay nurses, childcare workers, and piano teachers abundantly, but they can deeply and positively affect many people, certainly on the physical level, and often on the intellectual or spiritual level as well.

I won’t even get started on parents.

The one aspect of human life traditionally associated with the noble in which women’s work may not always seem to participate is the area of intellect.  Women may teach, but they are far more likely to be found homeschooling or in K-through-twelve environments than in college teaching mathematics or philosophy.  Are women in this respect condemned (statistically at least) to a less-than-noble sort of career?  Ought we (to return to the previous post) to encourage more women to study STEM subjects (or at least SM subjects)?

Well, maybe.  Maybe we ought also to encourage more men to teach highschool (it would certainly help the boys).  But the disparity of men and women in STEM doesn’t actually bother me much.

I’m far more worried at the prospect of having a daughter drafted.

I think we largely admire people who take on STEM-related careers because of the difficulty (see comments on nobility above)—in which case we might as well admire miners (we should!)—and because of the intellectual nature of the work (again, see comments on nobility).  And this intellectual work is largely, despite the occasional tales of in-a-flash insights by scientists, a step-by-step kind of thing, based more heavily on the numeric and the visual.  If this is what we mean by intellect—something based in sight, number, and abstract proof—then indeed, the average woman is less naturally well-endowed for dealing with this kind of problem (not that this should prove a barrier to the exceptional woman who does have such skills).

But I am by no means convinced that this kind of abstract thinking is the most, much less the only intellectual activity that exists.  And if I am right about that, it is perfectly possible that women in “feminine” professions, who tend to proceed more intuitively, are doing work which is quite as “intellectual” as their male counterparts elsewhere.

But this is at the moment just an intuition; and the rest of the argument holds well enough, I think, without needing to prove it at the present time.