We learned last night that Timothy Geithner was confirmed as the Obama administration’s Secretary of the Treasury.  While this outcome was never in real doubt, the revelation that he had failed to report upwards of $26,000 in self-employment taxes when he was an overseas employee of the IMF became the closest thing to a scandal in the widely admired first week of the Obama administration.  While there was some noise among conservatives—and some liberals—that it was inappropriate to have a confirmed tax evader as the leader of the IRS (yes, Geithner claims it was a “mistake,” but James Fallows, among others, thinks otherwise), with the economy continuing its deep tailspin to oblivion (55,000 job cuts announced today alone), it was clear that this particular potato would not be put in the microwave. 

Still, people are right to be troubled by Geithner’s “mistakes” given the extent to which liberals generally rely upon the tax code as a substitute for virtue.  Redistributive taxation is the single most dominant form of “rational control” that our society has adopted, in the midst of ever more pervasive forms of “rational control.”  By rational control, I adopt the recent working definition advanced by Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute , in which he points to the replacement of virtue by automated controls that act on our behalf in ways that would be virtuous if we were to have effected those same outcomes voluntarily.  Says Mansfield,

What is rational control? In the brand new building where I work at Harvard, the lights go on and off, the shades go up and down, and the toilets flush automatically. Rational control has replaced individual virtue, which is subject to vagaries and may not be active or awake. As instruments of rational control, the seatbelts in your car are inferior to airbags because the former you have to buckle on your own and the latter save you without your having to lift a finger. These examples are small matters of convenience, but they add up. As intrusions into your privacy, your own control over your life, and your virtue, they also add up. In their very minuteness, they reveal the comprehensiveness of rational control. 

One pervasive explanation for Geithner’s “mistake” was that the rules regulating payment of self-employment taxes in an overseas job are not automatic:  not only must they be made consciously via quarterly payments, but (I have learned from this letter to the Washington Post) the computer tax program Turbo Tax is not set with a default to alert individuals that they should make these payments.  Faced with the demand to exercise conscious and purposive virtue in the payment of his tax obligations, Geithner failed to act with precisely the form of “responsibility” that has tripped easily off of his President’s lips in recent months. 

In fact, on this question of individual responsibility for virtuous action, vs. forms of automatic “rational control,” lies one of the true and decisive dividing lines between conservatives and liberals.  Conservatives as a general rule hold that individuals can and should be responsible for their own actions—whether virtuous acts of generosity (hence their preference for philanthropy rather than taxation) or individual culpability (why they are tougher on criminals)—while liberals emphasize the social dimension of obligations and responsibilities.  In a recent book entitled Unjust Deserts, its authors Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly argue that the accumulated wealth and accomplishments of our society are the consequence of the collective accomplishment of generations of humans, and that all contemporary enrichment of society rests on the shoulders of a common inheritance.  Thus, no individual “deserves” what he or she earns—since they have not really achieved anything on their own at all—and all living humans should benefit from this common inheritance through widespread income redistribution.  The thrust of the book is to argue that successful people like Timothy Geithner should not only pay their taxes, but should pay significantly more and then have those larger tax receipts widely redistributed. This may be the kind of change that Geithner can believe in—as long as the taxation is more “rationally controlled.” 

While I’m not prepared to sign aboard the redistibutionist bandwagon—I’ll stick with the Distributivists, thank you—I find myself thinking that there is something deeply conservative to the liberal side of the argument.  Whatever conservatism is—and it is many things these days—to my mind it is a defense of the idea of an organic social fabric that needs conserving and defending against the depredations of modern liberal anthropology, politics, and economics.  Such conservatism—Burke’s conservatism—takes a dim view toward individualism.  It has a high regard for the idea of generational inheritance and obligations.  Such conservatism understands that an individualistic form of liberalism threatens the viability of community—its educative features, including and especially those that teach us forms of obligation and common care, as well as the limits upon our individual will, our greed and ambition.  Liberalism was premised most fundamentally upon the liberation of individuals from the confines—or the enculturation—of such communities, and conservatism was born of the effort to thwart this undermining of the res publica. 

Yet, our contemporary conservatives are the most ardent defenders of individualism and our liberals are the proponents of a more social and even socialized understanding.  This reversal is not only because of the intervention of Communism—of course that’s of central importance—but, I would argue, because of liberalism’s introduction of “rational control” as the means of achieving some of the very social ends that might once have been similar to those pursued by a Burkean conservative.  Liberalism seeks to put acts of social justice on “auto-pilot,” above all because the form of society that have helped make liberalism ascendent relies upon a profound weakening of any sense of social solidarity or understanding of generational gratitude and responsibility.  In liberating us from the confines of community, the immediate, instinctive and palpable sense of a community was replaced by a generalized, abstract and generally theoretical vision of Society.  Having liberated us from the confines of community, now we are freed to care for the universal “community” of humankind—except that there is no such community.  Any such care cannot be cultivated, but must be achieved by forms of “rational control.”  Indeed, in making their case for the generational inheritance of social forms of knowledge, Alperovitz and Daly cite innumerable academic studies proving the inherited sources of collective human knowledge, whereas in a Burkean community, our inheritance would be obvious in the lessons we learn at the feet of our grandfathers and father, in the kitchen beside our grandmothers and mother.  In such a community, you don’t need a book to understand the inherited nature of knowledge—or a complex tax code that even confuses the NYC Fed Chairman—but the doing of a thing learned and taught from one generation to the next.

What liberals seek are the effects of virtue without its causes or the conditions that make it possible.  Liberalism was born of a deep and pervasive mistrust of paternalism (read Locke’s FIRST Treatise for confirmation), but it ends with a grotesque version of paternalism without fathers.  We inhabit a society in which lights are turned off, in which shades are lowered and toilets are flushed, but in which we effect none of these actions, and in which we are not required to even think why we would take such actions.  We act socially without socialization; responsible actions are effected albeit without responsibility.  As Kant predicted, modern republicanism could be created out of a nation of devils—as long as systems of “rational control” could be established. I imagine that in hell, all the toilets are automatic flush, though the sewer pipes lead right back to the people who couldn’t be bothered to pull the lever. 

Modern conservatives should understand that their defense of individual responsibility is ultimately a defense of the communal, the source of a cultivation in virtue.  Virtue is never the accomplishment of any one individual—I will agree with Alperovitz and Daly to this extent—but it is enacted and fostered by individuals, in concert with a healthy community of continuity, memory, and gratitude.  Conservatives should properly understand the nature of their own commitments to the role and place of the individual—not as the monadic and disencumbered selves of Locke’s fantastic and fanciful vision of “childless men without children”—but as humans between the beasts and the gods, formed by and in communities and responsible ultimately for passing along the goods of those lessons learned to a new generation. 

I will say—as a father of three—getting kids to flush toilets is damned hard.  But, when they do, there are few more satisfying moments in a father’s life.  Better even than the rush that accompanies automatic flush toilets . . . .

Articles by Patrick J. Deneen

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