Monday, September 7, 2015

Aristocracy of Everyone

I finished reading Benjamin Barber's An Aristocracy of Everyone.  It was published in 1992, the same year I headed to college.  The context in which it was written- the emergence of multiculturalism, and reactionary criticism of "political correctness", brings back memories.

Barber tries to carve out a middle ground between radical and reactionary, and he does it in an interesting way.  He starts from the equation that Liberty = Education, and that a primary purpose of getting educated is to understand liberty and support it.  Barber is worried that we've lost our sense of "positive" liberty, the obligations we must accept to make self-government possible.  We're too infatuated with "negative" liberty, the right to do as we please without interference.  The latter without the former is impossible because we interact with each other too much, generally speaking we aren't hermits.

To the left Barber says that majority rule by itself isn't enough for good governance, that uneducated voters are no more than a mob waiting for their demagogue.  To the right Barber says that liberty for the masses is both possible and desirable, and implicitly they are flim-flam artists for wanting otherwise.

It's heady stuff and there's a lot of quotable material.  But it comes up short in in its prescription:  How do we educate people in liberty?  Barber's suggestion is to add a service component to undergraduate degree requirements.  This is inadequate on multiple levels.

First, as Barber ably demonstrates the problem of uneducated citizens isn't primarily a problem of youth.  The dominant systems students interact with- education, economy, culture- are largely controlled by elders.  The world outside of college is much, much bigger than the world inside of college.  Adding a service requirement won't change those systems or the incentives they create.

Second, what work does Barber envision students doing?  He means for work to be a component of education in democracy and its obligations, something more than charity.  What would he have students do?  Invert the question and ask how much does your company need a bunch of pre-interns who explicitly aren't actually working for you, but are instead guided by a goal of understanding democracy and its obligations?  Who, outside of non-profits, would even let them in the door?  I think the service requirement runs into a hard reality that most of our economy is private, it has nothing to do with democracy.

The answer to Barber's challenge has to focus on people who aren't students, on civic organizations that bring people together to pursue common interests.  Those interests might be political, such as with a political party, they might be local, as with a neighborhood association or PTA, or they might be issue oriented such as with advocating a cause.  What they have in common is
    • people coming together, working in concert and learning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,
    • coming together on a public matter, not limited by class or education, and
    • doing it in their free time, as in not subject to anyone's direction but their own.  When people are at work they aren't free, they're guided by bosses or business requirements.  Liberty exists when we aren't a Teacher or a Welder or an Accountant, but when we act on our own as citizens. 

Learning about liberty means learning that what we do "on our own" in public matters, those actions define what is public. 

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