The Magazine

One for All

The sociopolitical virtue of selfless action.

Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By MARK BLITZ
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There are few enforceable standards for the media, for example, yet some outlets exist whose audience and family control enable them to take risks that others might not, or to take responsibility for the whole. When the leading papers and networks no longer believe themselves able financially to conduct business the old way, however, there is no one to fire or hector, because no equivalent to judges or baseball commissioners existed in the first place.

A related difficulty is that Heclo does not effectively distinguish between thinking institutionally and devoting oneself to a particular instance of an institution. In some cases, the site for one's attachment is largely an accidental place where one's general institutional connection comes to rest, as this parish or college might be subordinate to the Church or to Learning. In other cases it is not, as love of one's own family differs from commitment to marriage or family generally. Love and spirited protection of particular things explains much of our devotion to what stands beyond our selfishness. Heclo too much absorbs these passions into commitment to institutions, many of which are more abstract than concrete, however appreciative our stance toward them.

One also might well argue that an institution's purpose, which Heclo believes is its heart, is sometimes better served by changing the institution than by preserving it. The practice of medicine does not suit physicians as well as it once did, and some of its elements are also more annoying to patients. But for many, lives are longer and health is better.

Heclo sees much of this, of course, and he is concerned about institutions' penchant for stultification. But he does not make this concern an active part of his analysis. To consider an institution's purpose is already to step outside it and no longer to think within it. It opens possibilities for radical reform, and for newly weighing the rank of ends and their possibilities for being achieved.

Heclo believes that George Washington thinks institutionally when he serves the cause of "republican liberty." Were the Founders primarily institutionalists, however, they would have remained loyal to the Crown. Their stance toward the principles of natural rights is inherently radical and universal. It looks beyond seeing institutionally, even when it is combined with love of a Constitution that conserves these principles.

Connected to this question is Heclo's
not following through the implications of the distinction he must make between good and bad institutions. He recognizes that one might say that slavery and the Third Reich look suspiciously like the institutions that he favors, with their long time horizons, apparent self-sacrifice, affective stance, and seeming respect in depth. Of course, they are evil. What makes them so? Institutions ultimately serve what "is good for us as human beings," and "human beings flourish in seeking conditions of justice, freedom, equality and community with each other."

This "wisdom .  .  . is not obscure or inaccessible to the common man," he writes.

We should see, however, that the standpoint of the human good places us outside any authoritative institution, and that the meaning and bearing of the goods Heclo mentions are not as easily grasped or maintained as he suggests. Preserving the possibilities of radical questioning and of equality in individual rights is no easier (perhaps, in the course of time, more difficult) than advancing authoritative institutional perspectives, and is no less (indeed, perhaps, more) important.

By sometimes identifying serving higher purposes with having an institutional point of view, and by absorbing the particular and passionate within the institutional, Heclo risks misjudging (in the conservative direction) the proper combination of radical and authoritative that we must attempt to achieve. We should attend to the dangers to which Enlightenment individualism is prone, but in these days especially we also should defend the Enlightenment and its natural sources.

I wonder if, by looking so much at contemporary individualism's excesses, Heclo has not underestimated our original Enlightenment individualism, and its resources for directing us toward common goods? All our attachments today are voluntary and optional, not simply, but to an unprecedented degree. This fact makes wholesale allegiance to at least the deeper kinds of institutions that Heclo has in mind unlikely.