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Suspicions of America

Steven M. Teles

As I see it, Bowles and Gintis's important article makes two central claims, one of which I heartily support, the other of which I am highly suspect. The first claim is normative and political, concerning the necessity of reciprocity to any durable social policy or successful political program. This is both right and important. The second claim is about the relationship between human nature and social reasoning--the argument that human nature places strong constraints on social intervention. This argument is misleading, for the most important constraint on social policy-making is American culture and institutions, not human nature.

Bowles and Gintis's first thesis is both true and unoriginal. For well over a decade, a wide range of authors (including myself, Mickey Kaus, Lawrence Mead and William Galston) have asserted the necessity of civic obligations in social policy. What is original in Bowles and Gintis's argument is not so much the claim but the claimants. Most of the participants in the debate about civic obligations have been somewhere between the center-right and the center-left, so to see this argument spreading is refreshing and, to put it mildly, overdue.

It should be added that this move to the left is not surprising. Reciprocity has a long and proud tradition within socialist thought. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the founders of Fabian Socialism in Britain, advocated requirements on welfare assistance that would chill the heart of even the most hardened advocate of workfare. José Harris quotes the Webbs as proposing that applicants for their "Universal Subsistence Allowance" would be "struck off subsistence for wantonly throwing up their job or offered admission to one or another type of Occupation Center."1 They thought an expanded welfare state required that public officials would have "the means of ordering men and women to put in full-time attendance somewhere." One struggles to find important socialists and radical liberals before World War II who disagreed fundamentally with the Webbs' belief that a welfare state would require enforcement of work norms.

Few socialists argued that social rights derived solely from mere destitution. Many were openly hostile to claims based upon compassion or altruism, as these smacked of noblesse oblige, and therefore of aristocracy. Democracy required that the welfare state be grounded in a civic conception, in which social programs would be rights derived from service to the community and fidelity to civic norms. They developed this tool against capitalism, claiming that through labor workers had earned a wage sufficient to support a family, a decent standard of living in retirement, housing, health care, and so on.

So reciprocity has a long history in left-liberal thought, which suggests that Bowles and Gintis should be seen more as excavators of a neglected tradition than as authors of something blindingly original. Until around the 1960s, service always grounded social claims. It is no accident that in both the United States and United Kingdom, this earlier era was the period of greatest welfare-state success.

I recite this canned welfare-state history to make a simple and obvious point: we do not need to investigate "one hundred thousand years of sharing" to know that reciprocity is a necessary part of any durable system of social provision. Merely the last hundred or so years of social policy development tells us quite the same thing. I have very strong doubts about the usefulness of evolutionary approaches to social questions, with a few narrow exceptions (such as very highly structured and simplified institutions). We can never really see human nature except through culture--that is, through what people do and say, the rules they develop, patterns of institutional development. Therefore, it is probably better to speak of more or less deeply rooted cultural patterns, rather than claiming that some particular constraint on social intervention is "natural." It takes less of a leap of speculation to claim that, in the United States and in most other societies we know, institutions rooted in reciprocity seem more durable and popular than those that lack this form of legitimation. Period.

Removing reciprocity from Bowles and Gintis's sociobiological framework also helps remind us that reciprocity itself is an enormously pliable concept. What counts as "service" to the larger society changes dramatically over time, in response to changing ideas, arguments, and social conditions. As Theda Skocpol pointed out so well in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, mother's pensions programs (the precursor to AFDC) were justified by the argument that mothers were doing a service for the state, that they were like veterans or government employees. By the 1960s, notions of service changed, and a relationship once seen as reciprocal came to be seen as one of dependency.

So much of the political debate is not just over whether social policy should be governed by a norm of reciprocity, but over what behavior is seen as deserving of social recognition. Why some things come to be seen as service and deserving of reciprocity from the larger society, and some don't, is an issue no theory of human "nature" can answer.

Bowles and Gintis's otherwise fine argument is thus flawed in deploying an essentially sociobiological method that is useless in helping us answer the really fundamental questions: Given that some form of service is necessary for durable social claims, what counts as service? Are there areas where liberals and socialists can make claims for expansion of the welfare state on the basis of unreciprocated social service that the public and policy-makers will find plausible? By looking in the wrong place, Bowles and Gintis fail to ask the politically relevant questions.

The answers are to be found within our own political culture, within the rich and varied history of America. And this seems to me to be the ultimate challenge for the left: to reconcile itself not just with reciprocity, but with America. What others will accept as reciprocal is dependent upon national context. It does no good to make a reciprocity-based argument that would be plausible within a European context, for notions of service in one place may have little resonance somewhere else. The American welfare state is, and will probably always be, different than that of our European counterparts. The challenge of the American left is to devise a set of welfare state institutions that resonates not with some universal aspect of our nature, but with the specific context of America.

Ultimately, it is not suspicion about the concept of human nature that hinders the left in America, but suspicion about America herself. Until it reconciles with the peculiarities of American culture, values, and history, and comes up with a welfare state that works within them, the left will continue to be a marginal force in American life. Speaking not as a man of the left, but as a liberal, I think that would be a shame.


1José Harris, "Contract and Citizenship," in David Marquand and Anthony Seldon, The Ideas That Shaped Post-War Britain (London: Fontanta, 1996), p. 136.

Originally published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Boston Review



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