The Magazine

One for All

The sociopolitical virtue of selfless action.

Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By MARK BLITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

How, then, can one retain some direction to institutions given this fact, which stems from rights and freedoms one would not want diminished? One answer is to see that individualism based on equal rights is not only a matter of restricted self-interest, but also involves its own strength of character. Many modern institutions are rational economically, but they also become a field in which the character we require to use our rights effectively stretches itself, taking on larger and larger responsibilities.

For some to significant degree, and for almost all to some degree, the "self" and its interests expand. We obey the law and defend the country. We attend churches and synagogues. We devise new media that, as a whole, are as attentive to politics as the old ones. The reason is not only (and in most cases not primarily) the echo of old ways, to which Heclo is impressively attentive; it is also the link between the virtues we require to exercise our rights equally with others, and the self-direction of these virtues to larger institutions.

Indeed, there is an odd absence of discussion of character here. Heclo's frequent invocation of the need for (or presence of) "commitment" to institutions sounds too much like the artistic creation of self that he decries. But we need less irrational commitment, even if we are committed to good things, and more character--good dispositions open to (practical) reason.

Good character goes much of the way toward securing professional reliability and competence, assuming the skill is there. It fits together with much respect for institutions, yet is portable in a way that respect in depth for particular institutions is not. It is not easy to achieve, yet is still the norm in our country, despite our concerns. It allows one to serve others, yet (and this is a source of strength) accords with self-interest, generously understood.

What the useful plumber and plutocrat share is responsibility and industry in pursuing their equal rights. This will lead some--the plumber who becomes George Meany or the privileged son who becomes Franklin Roosevelt--to pay attention to the "institutional" conditions that make possible, or might make possible, their own freedom and success.

Good character and judgment that remain allied with individual interest are not enough to secure attention to common forms, for one also needs regulation, and punishment of rule-breakers. Moreover, they do not obviate the need for reflection on what is genuinely good, or altogether displace the need for reverence, including reverence for some institutions. Yet they go a long way toward alleviating many of our institutional ills without requiring a degree of respect in depth that is at odds with our voluntarism. If most baseball players were decent, it would hardly matter that almost none shared a quasi-mysticism about The Game.

Heclo, of course, may believe some or all of my concerns are misguided or addressed sufficiently in his discussion. But I mean them to encourage argument, and not to discourage potential readers, for this fine and intelligent book surely deserves serious reflection.

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.