the nucleus of our society (on Paul Ryan, liberals, and We the People)

The nucleus of our society, of our economy, it’s not government, it’s us, it’s We the People, it’s the individual, it’s the family, it’s those of us who live in Racine, in Janesville, all across this state.

— Rep. Paul Ryan at a Racine Tea Party Rally (transcribed from here)

I agree with Ryan that some forms of liberalism or progressivism are excessively state-centered. For instance, in a recent post, I argued that the individual reader drops out of Martha Nussbaum’s work; the government is her only agent of justice, her only guarantor of rights and capabilities. Nussbaum says (in effect) “there should be a government that protects rights”–without explaining how we are going to get such a thing. If she implies a responsibility for us (her readers), it’s limited to forming correct opinions about the rights that individuals should bear and then voting for the policies and politicians that will deliver those rights.

That’s an example from high theory, but when I served on two 2008 Obama campaign policy committees, I observed that liberal policymakers and policy wonks also have little appetite for public participation and voice.

Thus I agree with Ryan that the nucleus of any democratic society is its people, and the government is just one tool among many. But note how Ryan equates “We the People” with individuals and families. It’s reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s remark that “there is no such thing as Society.” Libertarian-leaning conservatives, just like state-centric liberals, see only two things in the world: governments and individuals. They disagree about the relationship between the two sectors, but both miss the role of collective civic or political action. Collaborative action is the role of “We the People.” In turn, the government ought to be one of our collaborative projects.

To be fair, Ryan has said (through his official Twitter account), “Limited, effective government should do what it does well, not suffocate the economy and crowd out civil society.” Possibly he holds a robust conception of civil society to complement his economic theory. But classical libertarians and the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, view civil society simply as a collection of private voluntary groups, defined by their independence from the state. The Court has defined corporations not as people–that’s a myth–but as associations, thereby eliding the difference between markets and civil society. I suspect Ryan shares the same view. The missing alternative is civil society as the domain in which We the People deliberate and solve public problems together, choosing when and whether to use the state as our tool. One of the most eloquent proponents of that view has been Barack Obama, at least in his pre-presidential writings and speeches.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.