America Should Be More Like a Single-Minded Firm Devoted to Killing People

I found Robert Wright's NYT op-ed in praise of the Army both chilling and revelatory. Here's the core sentiment of the article:

[T]he whole, larger stereotype — that the military is a right-wing institution, best viewed with skepticism if not cynicism by the left — is way off. Growing up in, or at least amid, the Army helped make me a liberal — not because I reacted against my environment, but because I absorbed its values. If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.

Bob goes on to praise the way the military mixes race and class, creates a channel of social and economic mobility, provides good medical care to Privates and Generals alike, and is pervaded by a sense of solidarity and shared purpose. I think these are in fact admirable features of the armed forces, and they're worth cultivating — in the armed forces. These are probably necessary features of an effective voluntary government institution devoted to the defense of a free society. But a free society is not a fighting force — it is not organized around war. If all of America were more like Sparta, we would no doubt be a more egalitarian society. But Sparta was not a “better country.”
I know that Bob, the author of a truly fascinating book on the logic of social coordination and cooperation, has to understand that free social orders are not, unlike the military, based on a single social goal pursued in common by all its members. Once you understand the logic of non-zero-sum games, as Bob most surely does, you begin to see societies as networks of mutually beneficial cooperation, in which individuals coordinate to help one another by on the way to helping themselves. There need be no shared purpose, no shared feeling, in order for us to be “in it together.” Yet, though he should understand better than just about anyone, Bob seems to me to fall victim to what Dan Klein, in a deeply insightful paper, has called “The People's Romance” — the “yearning for encompassing coordination of sentiment” around a common social purpose. Dan's analysis and critique of The People's Romance is a must-read. Let me just quote him regarding the analogy of society to an army:

[The People's Romance] captures what William James sought in the “moral equivalent of war”—namely, “a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted” to dig coal, make tunnels, wash clothes, and catch fish. “[We should be] conscious of our work as an obligatory service to the state. We should be owned, as soldiers are by the army, and our pride would rise accordingly.” In Great Britain at the Labour Party Conference of 1945, Sir Stafford Cripps said, “We have got to engender in the people the same spirit of determination to see this programme through that they have displayed in winning victory in the war.”

Whatever kind of vision of society this is, it is not a liberal one. Society is not an organism, not a family, not a firm, not an army. America would be a better country if people stopped wishing it was.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center