The Right Stuff

Alan Ryan

  • The Principle of Duty by David Selbourne
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 288 pp, £17.99, June 1994, ISBN 1 85619 474 4

David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty is described on the dust-jacket as ‘the most comprehensive theory of civic society written in English since Locke’. ‘In English’ is wise: it excludes Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Hegel, Marx and Weber. The claim remains bizarre: Locke did not produce a theory of civil society, comprehensive or otherwise, but an account of our obligations to government or the state. The concept of civil society – the institutions and habits that sustain social, economic and family life – is an 18th-century discovery, articulated by the Scottish Enlightenment and naturalised in European liberal thought. If Selbourne’s publishers have anything definite in mind, it must be that The Principle of Duty puts the work of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Edmund Burke in the shade.

The Principle of Duty not only fails to live up to its billing: it is quite dreadful. It is querulous and pompous, written in a sort of demented lawyer-speak, full of misreadings of the writers Selbourne criticises – and even of those he admires. It contains two thoughts: that any society will fall to pieces if people are unwilling to do what is needed to keep it in working order; and that ours is now doing so. The first claim is true but banal, the second false. If it were not common knowledge that Selbourne had taught the history of political ideas for twenty years, it would be easy to believe that The Principle of Duty was the work of some autodidact unkindly imagined by E.M. Forster. Its rebarbative quality is exacerbated by Selbourne’s ostentatious contempt for his intellectual betters and a degree of self-regard that the author of a much better book than this would have no title to.

‘Given the scale of the moral and social crises which beset us,’ says Selbourne,

can we turn (in a brute world) for guidance, ethical or practical, to an Isaiah Berlin, a Dworkin, a Nozick, or a Rawls? Of course not. Would you hear of civic obligation from a scholar who, with exquisite care and ethical unconcern, could declare that ‘questions about what it is that citizens may claim as of right in a democracy are also questions about what it is fair to expect of them’ [Selbourne’s emphasis]? For thus is civic duty kept at arm’s length by ‘questions’ without practical, or even comprehensible, answers: the questions not of a Plato but of a sophist, playing for ethical time.

Selbourne’s standards of practicality can be guessed from his thoughts about how to cure one current social ill: the unwillingness of many young men to provide for the babies they beget. He says (plausibly enough) that we should make parents meet their obligations by any means that don’t damage the children. ‘In case of wilful neglect or abandonment by a father of the duties, as of maintenance, which he owes to the mother of his child or children, and of neglect of his related duties to such child or children, as well as in cases of similar abandonment of duty to child or children, by a mother, loss by the individual for greater or lesser time, of civic benefits and privileges may follow, provided only that no harm is caused thereby to the child or children.’

Anyone who believes that that is the point at dispute has been living in some very distant and untroubled place. The point is not whether it would be a good idea but whether there is any way of doing it: the young men in question are usually unemployed, and have no resources from which to pay child support. Are we to invent jobs for them, and throw other young men out of work, just so that they can pay? Are we to pay them vastly more than the market rate for the sort of work they could do so that they do not starve after they have paid child support? Do we mind the blackmail implicit in telling the women involved that they will get no welfare payments unless they identify the father(s) of their children? This is where the argument actually leads, and where the difficulty of finding plausible answers holds up reform. For Selbourne to sneer at other people’s impracticality is mind-boggling arrogance.

The interesting question is why such a bad book should have made such a stir. The Times elevated Selbourne to the status of a national sage, and while one can imagine that the paper feels some obligation towards a man whose twenty-year teaching career at Ruskin College, Oxford, was cut short because he went on writing for it during the Wapping lockout, there must be more to it than that. The Principle of Duty was enthusiastically reviewed in the Financial Times, the Mail on Sunday hailed it as a blast of the trumpet against the yobbo Left; President Clinton bought a copy when he visited Oxford in June, John Patten praised it, the Home Secretary says Selbourne has proved conclusively that Tony Blair cannot turn the Labour Party into a ‘civic’ party, and so, more or less endlessly, on. What has got into editors, politicians and the public?

A variety of things, of which three are obvious. One is that the Conservative Party is feeling the lack of a coherent public philosophy – or if philosophy is too grand a term, a plausible story about how the Party sees the world. Mrs Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no such thing as society’ was never enough, and was anyway at odds with the one-nation Toryism that has sustained the Party since Disraeli. Her belief that patriotism and ‘family values’ were consistent with a passion for self-advancement was defensible, but was never properly defended, and as the career of Tory imperialists like Leo Amery suggests, it’s a view that justifies the creation of a welfare state rather than its destruction. Her supporters were busy enough tearing down what had been erected by previous Labour and Conservative governments not to notice the lack. Now the Party has to answer the dreaded question, ‘What next?’, not to mention a lot of questions about how strangely unlike the Promised Land Britain turns out to be after 15 years of Tory government.

Tories won’t find what they need in Selbourne. One problem is that Selbourne (like a somewhat kindred spirit, John Gray) is very hostile to the laissez-faire enthusiasms of the past 15 years. His animus against the Labour Party is, for obvious reasons, fiercer than his dislike of the Conservative Party, but his conviction that enterprises which serve the public good should be answerable to the public rather than to shareholders expecting fat profits makes him thoroughly hostile to privatisation in all its forms. The Times has tried to bring Selbourne on board by arguing that many of the Tories’ changes have strengthened a sense of community, but it’s hard to think of anyone beyond the Times editorial pages who really believes that.

It’s a matter of some urgency for the Tories to stake out their claim to be the party of community values and individual responsibility, because Tony Blair threatens to run off with their traditional clothing. Nor is there any obvious reason why he should not. The ‘ethical socialist’ tradition in the Labour Party has always been stronger than the Marxist or the Fabian; the idea of socialism as the implementation of Christ’s injunction to see ourselves as one another’s keepers, not as the solution to the riddle of history or a revolutionary leap into new sorts of freedom, has largely animated Labour. Selbourne’s insistence that the Labour Party is doomed to see the world in terms of the state and its dependents is absurd. And if the social services breed habits of dependency in their clients, Labour is more likely to do something about it than the Tories.

Another reason Selbourne has been the flavour of the season is more narrowly intellectual. For the past thirty years or so, academic political theory has been endlessly concerned with rights – natural, human, property, welfare, cultural, individual and collective. This concern has spilled over into practical politics, as with the Charter 88 movement in Britain and the contribution of the law school professoriate to debates over abortion, free speech, religion, property rights and the rest in the United States. To say that for these thirty years nobody ever talked of duty would be wrong; it is obvious enough that talk of rights raises questions of duties. Your right to free speech imposes on me a duty not to silence you, just as your right to walk unimpeded down the street imposes on me a duty not to stop you. The first question that all discussions of ‘the right to work’ raise is that of whose duty it is to provide employment. Still, there has been a swelling revolt against the discussion of rights, and part of that revolt has taken the form of something like Selbourne’s emphasis on duty, in itself indicative of a deeper hostility, in the present intellectual climate, to liberal individualism.

This takes many guises: Alasdair MacIntyre has always been an anti-liberal and an enemy of the Enlightenment, though he has changed his positive allegiances a good deal; Michael Sandel, like Charles Taylor and Pope John Paul II, makes a great thing of ‘identity’. They stress the difference between the way we are ‘constituted’ by our membership in a variety of communities and the ‘abstract’ individuals that thinkers obsessed with rights write about. Seen from this angle, the problem is to give people stable civic identities, so that they will automatically be inclined to play their part in preserving a decent social order.

The third issue here is perhaps the most important of all. In Britain and the United States, the conviction has grown over the past two decades that the welfare state is broken. Nor is this mostly a conviction about its costs in narrow financial terms. The thought is rather that we have accidentally created an underclass morally disconnected from a functioning family, economic and political life. The conviction takes various forms. Some are pretty unlikeable: for instance, Mickey Kaus’s obsession in The End of Equality with the babies of unmarried inner-city teenagers, and the British obsession with the welfare cheats. What they share is the belief that the ‘beneficiaries’ of the welfare state are really its victims: they have been turned from self-sufficient members of society, able and willing to meet their duties to themselves and everyone else, into clients, ‘cases’ and ‘problems’. Whether the incapacity to hold down a job that afflicts large numbers of inner-city youth in the United States and Britain is a psychological ailment or a moral vice is beside the point. The point is that they have ceased to be functioning members of a moral community and have become predatory or self-destructive aliens.

It is not surprising that President Clinton picked up a copy of The Principle of Duty when he visited Oxford, for this sort of anxious communitarianism is heavily represented among his White House staff. In the early days of his Presidency, Mrs Clinton was mocked for her rather clumsy support of the ‘politics of meaning’, but community-building remains one of the Administration’s themes. Indeed, Clinton’s standing as a ‘new Democrat’ was supposed to rest on his readiness to remind Americans of their duties to one another. Those on the welfare rolls were not going to get indefinite handouts and benefits premised on no return. Community and character were to be rebuilt. Even the recent, generally wretched, crime bill that Clinton laboured to get through Congress had its communitarian aspects – the much-mocked plan to lay on basketball games for teenagers was not meant just to distract them from the temptations of the drug trade, but to provide a focus for friendly socialising out of which more might come. The scheme for a civilian national service which has been trimmed almost to death is in the same vein.

In all this, Clinton has a lot of support from academics. The sociologist Amitai Etzioni is perhaps the most prominent of them: last year he published The Spirit of Community, a manifesto for ‘The Responsive Community’, the organisation he established to promote a new sense of collective obligation and to curb the American belief that instant gratification was one of the natural rights enshrined in the Constitution. Indeed, one slightly odd suggestion he has made is that we should declare a ten-year moratorium on the creation of individual rights. Nobody has taken up that thought, but all over the country small projects of community empowerment have been taking shape.

There is mileage in communitarian moralising. The American passion for community has always been strong: it seems to provide a natural balance to the strength of American individualism. What is less clear is whether it is a wholly benign force. ‘Community values’, after all, is the phrase that allows particular towns and cities to circumvent the First Amendment and censor what they find obscene and more liberal places do not. And in most American fiction since the Twenties, the sort of Arkansas small town that Bill Clinton is fond of invoking as the home of community values was just what any high-spirited young person fled from.

In the United States as much as in Britain, the divide lies less between old-fashioned liberals and communitarians than between liberal communitarians and their conservative foes. Nobody denies that public spirit is a good thing; the question is how far you are willing to sacrifice individual freedom to secure it. The Blair-Clinton vision is fundamentally benign and social-democratic: well brought-up people with decent jobs, good friends, and nice houses will surely be public-spirited and civic-minded too. Out in the bush, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons utter the American version of the sentiments of Tory hangers-and-floggers – decent folks must circle the wagons and defend their communities against sexual perverts, the ungodly, illegal immigrants and the forces of the night in general. What frightens me is how much easier it seems to be to crank up the sentiments that Falwell and his friends appeal to than support for the patient social engineering that Clinton and Blair have in mind. The Republican landslide of 8 November only confirms my fears. It was a victory for the Falwell-Robertson tendency. In the South, the big issue was ‘the three Gs’ – God, Gays and Guns; everywhere, voters wanted a more punitive approach to crime and welfare. President Clinton faces the horrid prospect of a hostile Congress in the New Year; but the country as a whole has a much more daunting job of political education ahead of it than most politicians have dared to admit.