23.4.06

COMMUNITY NEITHER IMPLIES NOR IS IMPLIED BY THE STATE. Thursday's Best of the Web takes some shots at a lengthy Michael Tomasky essay making the case that governance demands that citizens balance private interest with common interest. Best of the Web agrees with Mr Tomasky that the common interest is more congruent with a stronger government in times of war or of deep domestic crisis, thence to get off a jape reminiscent of 1942: "Don't you know there's a war on?"

But what if, as recent news out of Ohio suggests, the domestic crisis is a failure of the established institutions, particularly governments at all levels? Mr Tomasky has the old-time religion right.

This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.

In terms of political philosophy, this idea of citizens sacrificing for and participating in the creation of a common good has a name: civic republicanism. It’s the idea, which comes to us from sources such as Rousseau’s social contract and some of James Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, that for a republic to thrive, leaders must create and nourish a civic sphere in which citizens are encouraged to think broadly about what will sustain that republic and to work together to achieve common goals.

But what happens if there's little consensus on what those goals ought to be? Prior to September 2001, a notion called national-greatness conservatism surfaced raising arguments similar to these. Mr Tomasky and his colleagues at American Prospect could object to the goals of that project, but not the notions of shared participation that project came bundled with.

Has anybody considered the possibility that the project "larger than ourselves" is simply our own self-improvement, provided it's not done in such a way as to hamper the self-improvements of others? Why is it necessary for "leaders" to lead and "citizens" to follow? Do leaders necessarily do a better job than emergent distributed networks?

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