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Liberalism’s substitute for civic friendship is the Association: citizens associate to pursue their interests, according to modern theory. Yet empirical evidence shows we also join for motives of honor, pride, and the wish to cooperate. While economic models of politics (“formal models”) fail to capture these mixed motives, our modern ideal of altruism further debilitates associations by considering them low, selfish pressure groups. Associations have thus fallen on hard times, and the individual often faces off against the Leviathan state, with no mediating association. Recent attempts to improve on formal models—projects to reinvigorate the morality and rationality of cooperation, such as those of Jane Mansbridge and Richard Tuck—could benefit from Tocqueville’s comparable attempt to create an ideology of “rightly understood” interest, whereby Americans could disguise their morality as rational when it in fact relied on vestigial altruism (“disinterested and unreflective sparks that are natural to man”). Going back behind Tocqueville to excavate civic friendship would at least bring theorists, if not citizens, back into a more realistic picture of what is actually going on.
Policies that follow from increased awareness of civic friendship are progressive and socially conservative. Each policy—on fair wage, immigration, and national service—fights the current tendency of citizens to “live down” to the low expectations theorists and policymakers have of them. Our theoretical realism fails to account for the role of ideals in our lived experience. Civic friendship helps us avoid the pitfalls of moralizing and reifying market mechanisms, by giving greater attention to the way wages confer honor—as opposed to bodily welfare and comfort. A norm tethering CEOs’ pay to a fixed multiple of the lowest salaried employee helps workers but would also help the wealthy realize their mistake when they seek, through money, honors that can only be won through civic patronage. Patronage as opposed to philanthropy is local, hands-on giving. Patronage often arises within ethnicities and creates social capital out of the ethnocentricity of immigrant groups. The civic capacity of young people could be increased by a compulsory choice between military service and a civilian corps dedicated to public works projects.
Friendship across a society includes the mild manners of doux commerce. Aristotle ranks economic exchanges according to increasing levels of friendliness: from cash on the barrel, to giving the partner extra time to repay, to a loan, to a gift with strings attached. Instead of reducing each to self-interest (like modern economists do), he finds commodity exchange has a tincture of the goodness of the next level up (interest-free loans), just as loans retain some of the goodness of outright gifts. Across a chasm of differences, we can still observe similar passions today: affection for customers, pride in one’s economic contribution (“gift”), wanting societal recognition (honor) for it. Adam Smith thought this vanity was the root of morality. Full morality is not required for civic friendship but only middle-class “virtues” (Politics, Books 3-4). Fair markets help maintain liberal civic friendship. When free markets are replaced by rent-seeking (crony capitalism, regulatory capture, lobbying), the game becomes rigged and we leave behind win-win assumptions for zero-sum assumptions, in which anyone else’s gain must be my loss. Our mild manners degenerate into resentment and discord.
Aristotle valued small associations more than today’s liberals: he considered villages, fraternal organizations and guilds to be civic friendships in their own right. He criticized utopian theories such as Plato’s Republic for quixotically attempting to destroy associations. In liberal democracies, associations formed to tackle causes reproduce some of the advantages of the small polis: in such associations, each member acts in view of his fellow citizens, and thus is influenced by the moral suasion of the group. Each perceives the influence he exercises, seeing the local impact of his power and taking ownership of incremental social change. Rethinking associations as civic friendships runs up against the problem of involuntary associations with their “solidarity and hostility.” Michael Walzer would correct liberalism’s deracinating tendencies by incentivizing us to remain in our involuntary identity groups. But his plan to channel government benefits through such groups would compromise the groups he means to help. To break the stranglehold of the bad associations—lobbies—to clear space for good associations, Congressional reforms are needed.
In Aristotle’s Politics, friendly passion is an identification stemming from anger and self-assertion: the zero-sum competition for honors could become win-win only among civic friends. The liberal solution to the problem, found in Madison’s Federalist 10, was to “extend the sphere” and multiply “the interests,” transforming identity groups into interest groups: a win-win economic competition. This solution was so successful that subsequent theorists forgot about the underlying anger and self-assertion. For example, we live today with the terrible effects of political theorists’ endorsement of identity politics, starting with Charles Taylor’s misreading of Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage,” which blinded a generation of theorists. Seeking a healthier identity in vocations, rather than race or culture, might solve the conundrum of our desiring both equality and superiority. To excel at a vocation is to achieve a superiority that generates a new form of equality: reciprocity. In reciprocal exchange, what I am good at is balanced by what you are good at. Civic friendship is a humane way of returning to this liberal solution without forgetting the inhumane passions on which it is based.
Modern neglect of civic friendship stems from abstract ideals: cosmopolitanism makes it seem narrow and belligerent; capitalism prefers utility purified of friendly feelings. Yet friendly feelings persist: in debates over out-sourcing jobs, Americans value Americans more highly than foreigners; in commercial exchanges, to ignore friendly feelings would violate the first rule of salesmanship. According to Aristotle, feelings grow up around shared utilities such as trade relations, common defense, and the regime, each producing an imperfect friendship by contrast with the perfect friendship based on virtuous character. Liberal democracies have many features of his civic friendship—reciprocity in exchange, agreement about the regime, small associations, private benefactors, and a large middle class to promote equality—without attributing them to Aristotle’s theory. Civic friendship is at work in liberal societies, but our models fail to capture its effects. Besides its normative benefits, studying civic friendship would improve liberal theory’s descriptive accuracy. Instead of exhorting citizens to be friendlier, theorists should empirically study the existing civic friendship.
Friends play functional roles in our lives, such as enhancing our ability to think and act. Sometimes the functionality remains at the level of business: trading partners often start liking each other. However, a deeper study reveals that Utility plays a critical role in “altruistic” activity. Aristotle says benefactors seek beneficiaries “useful for noble deeds” (sc. of generosity). Doing good for others creates love—not in the recipient but in the benefactor, according to Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Kant, who agree despite diverse metaphysical commitments. Benefactors are like artisans who love their own creations. By investing part of themselves in others, benefactors create a stake in others which they feel they own. Part of their identity is now wrapped up in the other person. Doing good thus extends our being to include another self or selves. The insight that utility is an ingredient in love has public policy implications for social security, health care, and civil society-building.
Theorists of community cling to one form of civic friendship—associations—as if no society-wide friendship could exist. Small groups may be friendlier, but they fall short of being truly civic when they fail to guarantee individual rights. John Locke’s liberalism is safer because it bases rights on property. Locke’s theory is also descriptively accurate because it still operates today, under cover of newer theories, for example in the beliefs of electoral majorities that earners deserve to keep the fruits of their labor and that “paying one’s own way” is dignified. Yet communitarians are correct that property rights obscure civic friendship. Aristotle’s psychology of commercial exchange builds on Lockean property, showing how money is a marker for honor, the civic analogue of love. Societies in which workers are paid a fair wage are friendly societies; where this does not occur, society is full of malcontents. Workers feel dishonored by low pay. Similarly, societies that honor civic patrons enjoy a concord that is like friendship; where public service is not honored, the wealthy desire revolution, according to Aristotle. Money and honor tie citizens to the larger society.
Citizens are civic friends when they agree about the regime, their political system. In liberal democracies there is agreement about the regime, or at least about its presuppositions: freedom and equality. This insight is simple but profound because regimes are self-perpetuating: they mold citizens into a recognizable type, such as the type that loves freedom and equality. Citizens tend to like this type of person—the type they themselves belong to. A “thin” agreement is the core of Aristotle’s teaching on civic friendship. For his immediate audience, he wanted more. Although his best-practicable regime leaves out many features of his best regime, civic friendship is a critical feature. Civic friendship has been transformed by federalism, by modern communications, more recently by the internet and social media. But “the Greek polis was small enough for everyone to be friends” is a modern mistake forgetting that civic friendship is an analogy. We cannot have many friends, Aristotle says, “except in the civic sense.”