Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation
by alan wolfe
university of california press, 361 pages, $25
Let it be said at the outset and without ambiguity: this is an important book. Alan Wolfe, a professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, has written a work that is knowledgeable about the sociological literature as well as the antecedent philosophical traditions that inspire modern doctrines of state and society. To appreciate the unusual nature of this combination of skills, one has to live in the narrow universe of present-day sociology—a world of unexamined empiricisms underwritten by a variety of untutored fanaticisms.
Wolfe makes clear his own assumptions and biases: there is, he thinks, an alternative to the market under capitalism and the planned coercive state under socialism. That option is the civil society writ large—as a mechanism for achieving a restored sense of organic solidarity within a community of free citizens. But Wolfe is appreciative of the fact that “markets and states are here to stay,” and it is not his intention to restore credibility to vulgar Marxism. He hopes instead to restore the term civil society to the original meaning it had in the hands of Ferguson, Hume, Smith, and Mead. In short, Wolfe seeks to tease out a tradition of the liberal past that can serve as a secular philosophical guide to the perplexed of the present.
Whose Keeper? argues three points repeatedly, if not always persuasively: first, people and markets operate in an environment defined by non-economic linkages of trust, solidarity, and obligation to public discourse; second, modernity is a condition of reliance upon others, even strangers, no less than upon the self; and third, moral obligation “ought to be viewed” as a socially constructed practice rather than as a set of impositions by state power or interventions by abstract market forces. The book can be viewed as a series of variations on these three themes. Indeed, displays of erudition notwithstanding. Whose Keeper’s argument could readily have been enhanced if its pages had been reduced by half. After a while, the book’s digressions become distractions, and its purposes become obscured in the process.
Tucked away among the larger theses of the book is a little book that represents a serious coming to grips with problems of the Scandinavian welfare state. It is a measure of the author’s substance that he is severe in his criticism of the social-welfare order in Sweden and elsewhere in Scandinavia despite his obvious strong attachment to its purposes and goals. Indeed, he offers cogent middle-range explanations of some of the worst infections of Scandinavian society, such as the “waiting rules” that govern returns and rewards to its citizens.
Wolfe deftly presents examples of the cracks in the sense of fairness that have developed within Scandinavia. His description of hospital and surgical procedures in Denmark as a series of long waits, short waits, and average waits provides a touch of relief from the usual deadly summaries of data. There has been, Wolfe concedes, a strain on the consensus behind the ideal of the social-democratic order. As he writes, “Social democracy . . . can no longer inspire a sense that individuals belong together as shar- ers of a common fate. The economic and political stagnation of social democracy in the 1980s is a moral and cultural stagnation as well.”
The failures, the cracks in the consensus, in the social-welfare model of Scandinavia have a profoundly weakening effect on the “civil society” arguments of Whose Keeper! They ultimately place the author in an empirical cul-de-sac that prevents him from making good on his promise to “provide a way to reconcile being modern with being moral.” Still, the book deserves to be explored as a critique of market doctrines and statist theories alike. For if Wolfe’s third way is to carry any weight in the present epoch, the current status of contemporary social theory deserves the sort of intense scrutiny he has given it. I myself have a difficult time, however, in distinguishing between the social-democratic model that Wolfe critiques and the civil-society model that he advocates. Wolfe does not seem to see how similar are the sensibilities that inform the two models. He never comes to grips with the role social democracy has played in undermining the goals of family solidarity and social responsibility that he postulates as desirable.
In that sense, one must perceive this book as a halfway house in theoretical terms. Wolfe has made a valiant effort to provide a political third way, but essentially he has given us only a sharp critique of the first two ways: market capitalism and state socialism. So the value of the work depends ultimately on how accurate, in empirical terms, is Wolfe’s critique of the forces around him. It is perhaps inevitable in someone of Wolfe’s inclinations that the full furies of his critique are reserved for theorists of the free market and public choice. A dozen years ago Wolfe wrote a book on The Limits of Legitimacy, subtitled Political Contractions of Contemporary Capitalism. For him to have moved farther from his own intellectual origins would have required a frank recognition of the contractions and upheavals of contemporary Communism and of the degree to which the anti-totalitarian spirit has grown in the intervening years. Wolfe is at this point not ready to do more than place a curse (in rather mechanical fashion) on both the capitalist Scylla and the Communist Charybdis, as if being even-handed in pronouncing judgment on western democratic capitalism and eastern totalitarian Communism by itself leaves the way open to the civil-society option he prefers.
That said, Wolfe’s critique of the free market is substantial, and it deserves to be taken seriously. Wolfe makes penetrating probes at the soft internal contradictions (if one can dare still use such phraseology) of Chicago-school economists, public-choice political scientists, and conservative religious philosophers, all of whom want to locate moral obligation in the hearts and minds of individuals, but who effectively deny individuals decisions about obligations by lodging ultimate responsibility for them in abstractions ranging from the free operation of the market to the unimpaired rule of police forces.
Wolfe wants to locate the notion of obligation in the communal realm of order and not simply regard it as a pursuit of individuals. His approach is in the tradition of Emile Durkheim, who sought to make the same sort of fusion between individuals with rights and obligations and states with rules and contracts, but who never quite demonstrated how the norms of society and the practices of government link up. Wolfe understands the tensions in liberal thought between faith in the individual and appreciation of the social order, but in the end his book can only repeat those tensions, not resolve them.
Alan Wolfe, like those in the past who have sought a purely pragmatic, secular moral regimen, does not quite know how to resolve the tension between freedom and order, between, in philosophical terms, right and left Hegelianism. For Wolfe, neither of the current political expressions of that tension—capitalism and socialism—will suffice; the symbols of both are badly spent. Yet it is not clear where the moral authority for Wolfe’s preferred alternative of civil society is to originate. His notion of “social beings” creating “moral rules” strikes me as thin and unpersuasive. Just what does the symbolic life of modern secularism have to offer in the way of establishing stable social norms and a sense of obligation to a larger community of people? This is hardly a rhetorical question, since third-stream consciousness comes to rest at some indeterminate point between individuals and collectivities, at a position Wolfe characterizes as the good society over against the bad state. What Wolfe arrives at in practice is a social-democratic model of the benign state; and one wonders whether, as we approach a new millennium and a new upsurge of demands for freedom, such a scheme of half-way ideologies underwriting half-way social systems will prove more viable than the models it is meant to displace. By Wolfe’s own evidence, the answer is largely negative. The longing for a theory of obligations lodged in “society” does not quite reckon with the reality of obligations commanded by the “state.”
Wolfe is aware of these dilemmas but has not found a way to reconcile them. His conclusion is accordingly unsatisfactory. He ends up with a vague plea that the good planet earth be viewed as an ecological preserve, and in the process the “message” of sociology is reduced to a platitude: “Here is society, you have given it to yourself as a gift; if you do not take care of it, you should not be surprised when you can no longer find it.”
Wolfe is not unmindful of the paradoxical, neo-Hobbesian outcome of his cogitations. But to speak of “society as a gift”—one that delivers “benefits including high rates of economic growth, large and centralized economies, a government capable of delivering services, and rapid social and economic mobility”—is to convert a theory of obligation into an impersonal undermining of a view that would consider individuals as repositories of moral virtue. What place remains for human volition in shaping society? No amount of rhetorical exhortation on the ability of the individual in history to be “free because our preferences can change through interaction with others” can alter this perilous tying together of moral obligation and political authoritarianism. One is hard put to know the place of individual conscience or personal responsibility in Wolfe’s system. Such concerns were long ago taken up in brilliant fashion by Sidney Hook in The Hero in History. Wolfe needs to take Hook’s argument into consideration if he is fully to disentangle himself from a scheme of state-based obligations and state-bestowed rights.
All this said, one must end with a strong recommendation that this book be read and pondered. Whose Keeper? is part of a broader liberal reconsideration of substantial proportions, one that has attempted to understand and internalize the experience of failed socialist experiments and to appreciate that the operations of the marketplace offer some major positive lessons for those who would reform the world. While casting a plague on both the market forces of the capitalist economy and the coercive features of the Communist polity, Wolfe begrudgingly has come to understand that the flaws of the former do not seem to be nearly as fatal as the pathologies of the latter. One waits to see if Wolfe will extend his explorations through careful analysis of how moral forces actually play out in market and political operations.
Irving Louis Horowitz is Hannah Arendt Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Rutgers University, where he also directs Transaction/SOCIETY. His books include Ideology and Utopia in the United States, and Winners and Losers: Social and Political Polarities in America.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?