Conscription and Libertarian Naivete?

— The conscription debate rages again. I pretty much agree with Julian and Tim. (I discussed the Posner/Galston debate, which Julian mentions, last summer. And I think I'm right about what I said there.) Matt, on the other hand, is off the rails.
Matt complains about the way Julian flogs him with wet Rawls:
At any rate, this is all by way of introducing the notion that the actual political tradition of actual liberal societies (as opposed to the liberal tradition inside philosophy departments) owes more to a rough-and-ready consequentialism than it does to these Rawlsian ideas. I would speculate, indeed, that the Rawls of Theory should be thought of as attempting to offer an ex post facto deontological justification for a set of emerging Great Society institutions that were, as a matter of fact, implemented for broadly consequentialist reasons. Political Liberalism then tries to re-think the theoretical underpinnings of Theory and ends up presenting a view that's rather detached from the real world shape of things.
This is sort of right and mostly wrong. First, societies that we think of as liberal which require mandatory service are to that extent NOT LIBERAL. This, for instance, is a bad chain of reasoning: France is a liberal state. France bans headscarves in public schools. Thus, it is liberal to ban headscarves in public schools. Now, regarding Theory, only the aspects of that work which attempt to vindicate the liberal welfare state (e.g., difference principle, social bases of self-respect, etc.) could plausibly be seen as an ex post deontological justification for Great Society institutions. The aspects of Theory Julian deploys are a deep part of the broader liberal tradition from Locke down through Kant and Mill, and have nothing in particular to do with moves in American politics. Furthermore, it's sort of weird to claim that the Great Society was not motivated by quasi-deontological theory/ideology about the dignity of each person and the respect and opportunity due to each of us in virtue of our humanity. Or was all that positive rights rhetoric just a veneer over the Johnson administration's secret panel of Benthamite calculators? Bizarre.
Setting aside the conscription debate, let me address another claim of Matt's:
Last but by no means least, all this talk of letting people work out the[ir] own life plans seems to me to demonstrate an all-too-typical libertarian sociological naivete. Life plans are, clearly, circumscribed by the economic circumstances into which people find themselves born. Julian and his co-ideologues don't seem very concerned about this. In practice, many people might find themselves more capable of successfully executing their life plans if the service regime came with mobility-enhancing rewards (see, e.g., the GI Bill) and if service promoted a greater level of social equality. Relatedly, these “life plans” don't spring from heaven, but are rather shaped by the expectations that are, in turn, shaped by social institutions. Talk of arranging institutions so as to not interfere with the plans treats them as though they had a great deal more independent existence than they've really got.
I think Matt is succumbing to welfare-liberal sociological naivete about market-liberal sociological naivete. Some us defend free markets, small states, and low levels of regulation on precisely the grounds that life plans don't spring from heaven, but do spring from dynamic, open-ended commercial cultures. Matt is right that our plans are shaped by our expectations, and that these are shaped by our social institutions. It happens that dynamic market cultures with high rates of growth provide the broadest range of possible life plans, and tend to inculcate a sense of openness and the availability of alternatives kinds of lives.
This sense of openness is reduced by the culture of dependency created by ill-designed social welfare policy (but not all social welfare policy), and the ethic of hopelessness and non-achievement engendered in millions by failed public school systems. That is, the state has at times been very effective in helping to remove the social bases for self-respect that allow people to formulate life plans that will make the most of their capacities and engender allegience to society. Talk of “expectations shaped by social institutions” from welfare-liberals generally tends to naively overestimate the ability of state institutions to create positive expectations, and underestimate the ability of the system of voluntary institutions to not only shape positive expectations, but to lead people to search through the space of possible life plans, and present the best of these through the popular culture, in a way that enhances our abilities to forumulate a fitting conception of our good.
[UPDATE: Julian also has a response to Matt.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center