Tuesday, May 26, 2015

An Indispensable Service

     My Esteemed Co-Conspirator Patrice Stanton asks a piercing question in the piece below:

     “What am I doing to show that I deserve to live in a country so many have sacrificed so much for?”

     It’s a question that would throw many Americans off-stride. After all, the great majority of us haven’t done much “for our country,” in the sense usually connoted by military or other public service. But perhaps we needn’t feel too bad about that. At any rate, it’s worth a few hundred words of exploration.


     The essential nature of a nation-state is murkier than we like to think. The Westphalian conception was fundamentally geographic and authoritarian, and if there’s anything I’d like to keep at a great remove from Americanism, it’s authoritarianism. As for the geographic part, given the way national borders have changed, it seems auxiliary at best to the intellectual-moral-ethical ideal of patriotism that underlies national affiliation.

     However, there’s a certain insufficiency in a wholly abstract conception of nationality. I knew a fellow who liked to say that anyone, anywhere, who endorses the sentiments in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (Bill of Rights included) is as American as you or I. I’d say that’s a starting point at best, but where ought we to go from there? Shouldn’t there be some more active component involved – some affirmative demonstration that one deserves to be an American?

     Ought we to incorporate the concept of service to the nation as a requirement for American residence – perhaps even for American citizenship?

     Robert A. Heinlein thought so:

     “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part...and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live....Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.”

     Citizenship, of course, is a stronger condition than mere residence. Heinlein was careful to separate the two in the book cited above. But residence itself confers certain advantages that non-residents don’t share...and the advantages a resident of these United States enjoys have historically (though perhaps not currently) been orders of magnitude above those of other lands. Should these be earned rather than merely bequeathed upon accident of birth or awarded upon the completion of a bureaucratic procedure? If so, how?

     Give that a moment’s thought while I fetch more coffee.


     Among the many vantages from which one can view a nation-state, one tends to be overlooked more than others: as a machine that serves particular functions.

     There have been nations that were principally war machines: devices whose function was territorial growth through military expeditions. There have been nations that were principally privilege machines: devices whose function was enriching a legally privileged class. There have been nations that appeared to have no function except the perpetuation of their ruling classes, though that might be merely a failure of these eyes to grasp some subtle aspect of their operation.

     The United States of America, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” was created to be a freedom machine: a device that established the conditions required for human freedom and protected them from hostile forces. Perhaps it isn’t such a machine any longer, but that’s how it was conceived and structured.

     The persons resident in such a nation must be:

  1. Fuel consumed by the machine; or:
  2. Exportable outputs of the machine; or:
  3. Functioning components of the machine; or:
  4. Waste products to be expelled or recycled.

     I can think of no other possibilities. That brings us back to Patrice Stanton’s question, in a slightly altered form. Which of these, John Q. Public, are you?


     If we go by the above partition, the soldier is America’s fuel. Make no mistake about it: a portion of the soldier’s life, and in some cases all of it, is consumed to power the larger machine. It was so at Lexington and Concord, and it has never ceased to be so. Yet the soldier volunteers for that role; he accepts the costs and risks attendant to defending the larger machine upon himself. Granted that it hasn’t always been so; it is so today, and so may it forever remain.

     If America has an exportable output other than its inanimate wares, perhaps it would be our international businessmen. They get a lot of bad press today, mainly from persons of evil intention who either hate all business and commerce or who hate freedom itself. Nevertheless, the international expansion of American enterprise has historically been the most effective “outreach” for our ideals, and the influence most likely to turn heads in other lands away from the local tyranny and toward our sort of arrangement. If the powers in Washington find them and their enterprises inimical to their aims, that should cause us to question the powers in Washington, not men who merely hope to sell American products and services to a planet hungry for them.

     The third category is the largest and most important. No nation survives entirely on its military, nor entirely on its international presence. Those who remain at home, work mundane jobs, pay their bills and keep their yards mowed are the freedom machine’s functional components: the elements that keep the machine running. In a sense, they are the machine. It was designed specifically to make them, their lives, and their activities possible. They, in turn, keep it running: by being free, self-reliant men doing what such men do.

     If the fraction of our populace that fits into categories 1, 2, and 3 has diminished in recent years, while category 4, in which I include not only the various ne’er-do-wells and good-for-nothings of “civil society” but also the whole of the political class, has swelled without correction, well, we did need a reason why the freedom machine has been sputtering these last few decades, didn’t we?


     The machine analogy is only slightly fanciful, for a nation, like any other sort of institution, must have a purpose for existing – and if an institution’s purpose is anything but providing services to others, it will eventually be judged unnecessary and will be scrapped.

     In this year of Our Lord 2015, John Q. Public probably never served at arms. He probably doesn’t travel abroad to sell American goods and services, and by implication to proclaim the virtues of the nation that makes them possible. But if he earns his own living, meets his own obligations, participates constructively in his community, and in other ways acts to preserve and increase the vitality of American society, he is a functioning component of the freedom machine. Indeed, his service to the machine is one it cannot do without, even though the machine was constructed specifically to make him possible. He has all the justifications he needs to proudly call himself an American.

1 comment:

  1. As a vet I've done some small part. I wholly agree with Heinlein and that leads to my next point. My daughter has been and will continue to be exposed to the ideas and ideals that made/make this country great. At the tender age of 3 she was introduced to the Declaration of Independence. Only one sentence but from small things come great things. Starting last Veteran's Day she missed some school and went to a Veteran's Day ceremony to learn about our country and why/how it is still here. So my point is that those in category 3 do a great service if they but only make sure they teach what makes this country the beacon of freedom is still is, at least in part. It is of the utmost importance that 'Category 3' people know these things because if not, Categories 1 and 2 become useless.

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