Taking Seriousness Seriously

George Kateb wishes me to be more serious — or at least to take the state more seriously. Well, the most serious thing a philosopher can do is make distinctions, so let me begin with one. It is one thing to take the state seriously as a force in the world, and quite another to take it seriously as an ethical entity.

I find it hard not to take the state seriously as an agent that is capable of exercising great power. When it goes to war, there is no alternative but to take the state very seriously indeed. I take North Korea very seriously as a nuclear-armed power, and Equatorial Guinea no less seriously as a state that exercises its power through the machete. To take the state seriously here means to be wary of its presence in the world. Taking it seriously in this sense will not lead to patriotism, only prudence.

I find it impossible, however, to take the state seriously as an ethical construct, and cannot take seriously those who see in it something to be celebrated or who view membership in it as something to be treasured. The state is a form of social organization that reflects the human desire to have power over others. It has its origins in war. Camps are the mothers of cities, as Hume so neatly put it. Because rule by force alone is difficult, most states try to rule by gaining approval — enough at least to make it difficult for the state to be overturned — but the use of force remains a vital resource. There is little to be gained by decrying this fact, for it remains true that we haven’t come up with alternative forms of social organization that will better keep those who love power in check. To be sure, there are better and worse states; and I’m all for doing what it takes to stop our own states from becoming worse — more ambitious, more tyrannical, and more warlike. But it’s not a form of human association for which I hold out great hopes. Happily, however, I am rarely disappointed by the state, for my expectations are not high.

None of this is inconsistent with taking seriously the erosion of civil liberties, or with working to prevent or to end destructive military adventures. It is not inconsistent with taking politics seriously, if limiting harm and suffering are best served by political efforts. But it is inconsistent with seeing the state as an important moral good. States matter; but really, states just don’t matter.

That said, I will invoke a third sense of the word when I admit that I find it very hard to take George Kateb’s analysis of the causes of war seriously. It is his thesis that patriotic sentiment, along with weapons, is one of the principal underlying causes of war. Unless it is sustained by patriotic sentiment at home, the state cannot act abroad. I can’t take this proposition seriously because I think it’s simply false. It’s not that I can’t see what Professor Kateb is driving at. It’s true that the state cannot act unless it enjoys some minimal level of support. But states go to war all the time without the approval of their subjects or citizens, who are all-too-frequently duped into granting that approval after the fact.

The causes of war, I submit, lie not in the explosive power of untapped reserves of patriotism but in the fact that political and economic elites with political and economic interests compete for political and economic power. No less importantly, the origins of war lie in the fact that when states grow they develop interests of their own, and will pursue them regardless of the interests of their members, or of human beings more generally. That interest is, above all, an interest in an expansion of the state’s power. We are, to that extent, the plaything of alien powers — to coin a phrase — for it is difficult to control great institutions.

So I’m all for criticizing patriotism and chiding patriots. But I remain unconvinced that patriotism, unlike the state, is a serious force in the world.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • “Patriotism is love of country. What kind of love is that?” asks George Kateb, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University, in this month’s provocative lead essay. According to Kateb, patriotism is the kind of love that suggests our lives are not our own, that we should be prepared to kill and die for the state: “Being owned, we owe the state or the country a debt, a ‘blood-tax’ that must be paid when the state demands it,” Kateb writes. After treating the reader to a learned account of the uneasy place of patriotism in the liberal, social contract tradition, Kateb concludes, “Patriotism, more than any other passion in political life, makes virtues do the work of vices while promoting the praise of vices as disguised virtues. It thus sustains enormous moral perversity. If no one were a patriot, the world would be better off than it now is, when almost all are patriots.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Walter Berns, author of Making Patriots, argues that the value of patriotism, the love of country, depends on the nature of the country to be loved, and criticizes George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms. Berns notes that historically patriotism has been linked with ideas about popular sovereignty, which gave rise in the 17th Century to new ideas about the rights of man. “From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism” fundamentally different from “the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.” Berns finds Kateb agreeing that a legitimate liberal democracy needs citizens willing to defend it. “Although [Kateb] ends up saying the world would be a better place without patriots,” Berns writes, “he has to concede that a government by consent is dependent on them.”

  • The London School of Economics political theorist Chandran Kukathas argues that George Kateb “takes the state far too seriously, and fails to realize that it is the state, and not patriotism itself, that is the source of the problem.” Patriotism, Kukathas claims, is a symptom “of the place the state has in the life of a person or of a people.” When people come to think there is a problem that only the state can solve, patriotism tends to surge, but “they will come to think this because the state and its acolytes have persuaded — tricked, cajoled, manipulated, deceived, conned, frightened, bullied, sweet-talked — them into believing so.” However, the state is not going anywhere, and therefore neither is patriotism. So “we should just get used to patriotism, patriots, and their discontents,” Kukathas concludes.

  • Like Walter Berns, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston faults George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms of patriotism. He then observes that one may love one’s country without loving it in the way one loves a parent. Moreover, Galston argues, if we need the state, as Kateb admits, then it seems we may need patriotism. “It would seem to follow that the beliefs and traits of character that conduce to government’s security-providing function are ipso facto instrumentally justified, as civic virtues. That is the basis on which a reasonable patriotism may be defined and defended.”