, , ,

You could say a politician’s first job is to make you loyal to the state. Citizens’ loyalty makes politicians more powerful. Of course politicians look after their own power.

Leaders work differently. Leaders seek welfare for others, without coercion, and without a request for loyalty. In fact, loyalty flows the other way: from leaders to the people they care about. That is how morally based citizenship works in practice. People work for each other in the public sphere because they want to, without rewards of power or money.

Now let’s consider Emmanuel Macron, president of France. Recently he introduced a mandatory program of national service for sixteen-year-olds in his country. The reasons: national cohesion, assemble people of all backgrounds to work together, to serve their nation and their communities, foster a sense of civic duty. Those are valid reasons, except for the coercive part: it is mandatory. Macron would say the program cannot fulfill its other aims if it is voluntary. You have to ask why one would need to force people to do something so good.

Citizens do not belong to the state. The state belongs to them. As such, citizens are responsible for the state. They are not responsible to the state, nor is the state responsible for them. One of the great fallacies of freedom since Thomas Hobbes is that we must have government in order to protect our liberty, and keep us safe. What may have held for Hobbes during the counter-reformation in England does not necessarily hold for nations nearly five hundred years later. In extremis, we protect our liberty. We keep ourselves safe. We have delegated some of these functions to governments, but what we have delegated, we can take back. No arrangements we make – for freedom or security – are permanent.

To see the truth of this argument, imagine a majority of people, and a majority of representatives in Congress, want to dismantle the Department of Defense. In this thought experiment, multitudes believe Department of Defense mistakes make us less safe, not more so. We want security, which we do not receive from people who say they protect us. So we say we want to try something else. Do you suppose legislation to discontinue the Department of Defense would be successful? Of course not. Department of Defense operations would continue in their normal tracks, immune to mandatory changes from Congress.

Would such an outcome not show my argument false? Would it not show that we do in fact belong to the state, that the state is responsible for us, and that we cannot change the relationship? Perhaps so, but this set of conditions merely shows how far we have diverged from democratic practice. If we cannot shape government to our will, we are not citizens. We are simply slaves who have to do as we are told. Thought experiments of this kind indicate how little control of our government we actually have.

President Obama said that ‘government is the only thing we all belong to.’ As a statement about the moral foundations of democracy, Obama mistakes his own ideal of community for the Founders’ vision of a new republic. As a description about how things actually work in the United States, he may not be far off. If he is correct, that we all belong to government, he describes a dystopia that should make all of us less hopeful. What individual would want to belong to a government?

Even if you substitute ‘nation’ for ‘government’, you have the most troubling vision you can imagine. A nation is a construct, something people fight civil wars about all the time. The only condition or prerequisite for citizenship in a nation is that membership for all individuals is voluntary. In that case, the polity or nation belongs to all of those voluntary members.

Macron’s program declares that for some prescribed amount of time, people sixteen years of age belong to the government. They have no choice about an obligation they did not seek. Nor do they have a voice in the matter, as they cannot vote. In the past, we have had a name for forcible service: slavery. Calling it national service – that is, service for the nation – does not change the arrangement. I wanted to say it does not change the terms of the contract, but of course, no contract exists. When you force people to work for you, you impose slavery disguised as service. Put another way, compelled service does not count as service at all. We do not even compel service from our dogs.