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When you ask “why are we such poor imperialists?”  you’re hitting on a very interesting question, inside of which lies a whole host of contemporary debates– covering everything from foreign policy, to culture, to economics.   But it’s a question that might be easily brushed aside as a matter of good taste.  After all, we aren’t imperialists, nor do we want to be.  Right?

Maybe not.  There are some who argue that 21st century globalization is just the latest instantiation of the West’s imperial legacy.  And, in all honesty, that argument doesn’t seem too far afield:

“Political globalisation is a fancy word for imperialism, imposing your values and institutions on others. However you may dress it up, whatever rhetoric you may use, it is not very different in practice to what Great Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

If globalization is part and parcel to imperialism, aren’t we succeeding, rather than failing?  We are good– perhaps a little too good– at exporting our culture.  After all, it’s the almighty bottom line that brings Western businesses to every corner of the globe (all the while, mind you, catering to the local culture, giving us such gems as the McFelafel).  We clearly aren’t lacking the imperial will in the economic arena.

What you’re driving at, I think,  relates more to our foreign policy goals, primarily in the Middle East.  As we all know at this point, our efforts to rebuild Iraq are ranging from “mess” to “bungled mess.”  And why is this?  As you point out, we don’t have a vast contingent of dedicated civil servants, lining up to “do their share” for democracy.  The British Empire was what it was not only by virtue of its military might, but also by virtue of its core of hardworking young doctors,  economists, farmers, and the like who were willing to go to any corner of the globe in the name of the Empire. 

As was noted in a recent news story on the rebuilding efforts: “[In Iraq] the U.S. government has contracted the job of promoting democracy to a Pakistani citizen who has never lived or worked in a democracy.”

For many in our generation, our cultural and economic presence abroad is distasteful.  For a variety of reasons, some meritorious and others not, America’s international reputation is not sterling.  Small wonder we are not lining up to rebuild hospitals in Iraq. 

So I take your last question (whether postmodernism has made the idea of exporting our way of life), and I send it back to you in a slightly different form.  We know that globalization at some level is inevitable.  But we also know that globalization is not beholden to the same laws as imperialism.  The world today is far more cosmopolitan that it was duringthe height of the British Empire, and with that cosmopolitanism comes a necessary respect for other ways of living.  (Need I invoke the McFelafel once more?)  So the question is this:

Are the rules of empire different in a postmodern world?  Corporations can web their way into every country on the map, but when they do so, they must adapt at some level.  Is this what our political structures must also do?  But even if we recognize that we have to be more tolerant and flexible in implementing political institutions, how do we go about meeting basic human needs when globalization has cowed our would-be civil servants into apathy? 

Daniel Corbett



You have raised an excellent question: when (if ever) does the “marketplace of ideas” fail us? I believe our libertarian impulses naturally pull us toward supporting an untrammeled intellectual exchange. And, based on my experience, this is not a bad thing. For me, many important discoveries have come out of heated, controversial, and unusual discussions. Just as John Stuart Mill argued we needed “experiments in living” in order for society to evolve to its fullest potential, so do we need “experiments in thinking” in order for the best ideas to become even better. As Milton (the erstwhile inspiration for this blog) wrote “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

This triumphalist language calls for some unpacking. First, what do we mean by a “free and open encounter” or an “experiment in thinking?” It seems these phrases might be nothing more than abstractions– perhaps useful, but in no way perfect or attainable it some pure form. The fact is, even our most free and open exchanges are bound by some sort of structure, be it institutional rules, norms and tastes, or legal mandates.

My argument is this: we must seek to make the structures that govern our exchanges as limited as possible– especially where law is concerned.

The example of Holocaust denial is a good one. Our institutional rules (university hiring and evaluation practice) cancel out any chance for an academic groundswell of Holocaust deniers. Our norms and our good taste have also made the argument nothing short of heretical. These restraints on speech are generally good. Free speech does not mean the right to be given a tenure-track position or to be respected at a cocktail party. Rather, it is an obligation the state has to let its citizens express themselves.

The liberal state is not in the interest of generating outcomes. It rather focuses on setting up a framework in which free individuals operate, ideally, to create a better society. Liberal societies have been operating under this principle since the Enlightenment. Small wonder the most tolerant, creative, and economically prosperous societies on the planet right now are liberal ones. Liberal states have thrived because their citizens have known what to expect from their governments. Denying the Holocaust (or saying any other idiotic thing) will not go from legal to illegal overnight. Whether society will give you much credence (as we have discussed) is another issue. But suffice it to say, liberalism allows us to say whatever we want, and this is not a bad thing.

At the end of the day, free speech is one component in a bundle of rights governed by the rule of law. These are rights that citizens can count on not to go away. How these rights play out– in the “funkiness of life,” the specific instances of speech– is not up to the state, but to us. We decide what to say, who to hire and fire, and ultimately what we value. It’s a responsibility I would never want to pass off to the state.

Daniel Corbett


I believe you have actually read the political pulse quite well; it would, indeed, take a drastic move (excluding gays writ large from military service) to spur any action on the part of Democrats. Right now, any elected Democrat who would stand against the logic of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” would be labeled a radical and shunned by the party elite. In today’s bizarre politics, liberals are afraid of looking “too liberal.”

Absent a well-received, genuinely liberal Democrat, or a dismantling of the current political duopoly, we are left with one– admittedly strange– option: a pro-gay Republican. In many areas, the Republican Party is the champion of classical liberalism. It supports (when it does not infringe on corporate interests) free markets and economic liberalization and (when it does not infringe upon its moral sensibilities) individual freedom. The Democratic party, erstwhile champion of some civil liberties, is still, at the end of the day, a progressive organ, and have become increasingly so as time marches on. A renewed commitment to liberalism on the part of Republicans may be the antidote for the current political malaise concerning gays in the military.

It’s far-fetched, I know, but it’s something worth considering. As both parties annex more control over citizens’ lives, it becomes necessary, I think, to seriously discuss the principles of the Enlightenment, our political keystone, and ask who will take up the cause.

Daniel Corbett

Very nice paper, Morgan. It’s well-researched, clear, and ultimately leads to the sort of conclusion most of us want: that every person should be able to serve in the armed forces. You are right, I think, in making the link between the history of racial integration in the U.S. military and the present debate over gays in the military.

For any readers who have not read the paper in its entirety, Morgan makes the comparison along four lines:

1. In both cases, the argument was made that integration would somehow erode the “unit cohesion” on which functional military operation rests.

2. The final say in both cases lay in the power of the “heckler’s veto.” In other words, any critic of integration could effectively roadblock any change.

3. Resistance in both cases was suffused with misunderstanding of the “Other.”

4. Change was, and will likely be slow because of a military aversion to any actions that might be seen as “social engineering.”

You are right in discussing first the issue of unit cohesion, because I believe this is the thrust of the debate, vis-à-vis official military stances. I think the argument is disingenuous, however. History tells us, as you noted, that integration decreases prejudice and increases cohesion. I don’t think it would be any different in the case of gay men and lesbian women.

Now I should address your question about Colin Powell’s statement. Powell was on shaky ground, to be sure, in boiling down homosexuality to its behavioral component. To me it seems as if Powell’s argument has had little weight in policy. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” seems to move beyond the issue of behavior; under its rules, any profession (no matter how innocuous) of sexual orientation is sufficient for expulsion from the service.

My question, unsurprisingly, is “what’s next?” What can history do to resolve this current debate? How can we go about creating the conditions for equality in military service? How much of racial integration’s history can be credited to military expediency? And will it take another World War, or something on its level, to create the push for integration of gays and lesbians?

Daniel Corbett

    Interesting, Morgan. I think you're right: this new politics of "behaviour management" is, on its face, nothing short of Orwellian. It is the brazen proclamation of lawmakers: "We Know Better." Don't believe me? Here's what Jowell told the Guardian:

"Many people ask whether there is a coherent moral and intellectual position behind our approach to these issues. I am convinced there is. Our actions are motivated by conviction and compassion. The fact that our philosophy is not well understood does not mean it does not exist."

    This is precisely why J.S. Mill, as we recently discussed, wanted a check on his father's utilitarian calculus. Maybe we'd be better off with more smoking bans. OK, I'll stop being facetious; we would be better off, at least in terms of public health. But is the overall well-being of society (whether physical, moral, or otherwise) all we need to take into account as policymakers? Mill certainly didn't think so. He argued, rather persuasively, that we need to balance our well-intentioned claims about the service public good against an assumed priority on individual freedom. I'm inclined to agree.

    But why should individual freedom matter? Right now, I'm reading F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, in which he argues that freedom is desirable because, inter alia, it ultimately brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. When the onus of decision making rests on many, as opposed to a few, we are then able to escape what Hayek terms a "knowledge problem," which essentially refers to the idea that knowledge is disperse, and is best accessed by many people over time, through self-correcting, non-coercive processes. Some people argue that we're "too stupid to be free." In Hayek's view, they have it half right. Our knowledge is limited, but this is precisely why we should have more freedom and less control.

– –Daniel Corbett

    20 May marked the 200th anniversary of John Stuart Mill's birth. There's no doubt that the self-taught (Mill recieved no real formal education, instead recieving only heavy reading lists from his father) philosopher is at once the intellectual backbone of modern secular government and the whipping-boy of contemporary intelligentsia. Mill was, to use ironic college vernacular, "kind of a big deal."

    In a piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Roger Scruton writes that Mill's legacy may have lacked a crucial dimension: morality. We've talked politics and emotion on this blog recently, but the question is rearing its ugly head once again. What role in politics should we give "non-rational" elements? Is there a danger in relying too heavily on reason?

    Scruton details an important rift between J.S. Mill and his utilitarian predecssors. Both Bentham and the senior Mill succumbed to a conservative politics that based all sorts of regulation (religious, moral, and otherwise) on a notion of "the public good." Scruton writes:

"According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the 'tyranny of the majority.'"

    Most of us would agree, to some extent, with that argument. The "public good," we can admit, is often twisted by those who define what that good is. In his famous work, "On Liberty," Mill fleshed out an argument that would protect the individual from oppressive notions of public morality. Scruton criticizes this secular, reason-based approach, arguing that it leaves out morals, emotions, and tradition. The question, for Scruton, becomes this: "What if we want public morality?"

    This is an interesting attack against Mill, and I'm not sure how to take it. Scruton's anticipated problem is decidedly conservative. He argues that, "this doctrine [liberalism] has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators." As a libertarian, I find it easy to dismiss Scruton's attack wholesale. But most of us aren't libertarians. And whether it's pornography, gay marriage, or hate speech, many of us have cases in which we want morality to trump reason. Mill would leave us with a libertarian bright-line test. Mill's critics, from all ends of the spectrum, want no such test. So where should we bring in morality, emotion, and the like? Is there any sort of guiding principle we can take with us? If so, on what is this founded? Community consensus? Individual rights? Something else?

Daniel Corbett

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