A. Whoa, that was quite an interruption. Where were we?
B. You were talking about voice versus exit.
A. Ah yes, thanks. So: one of the ways we might define democracy is as an irrational obsession with voice — with “having a say.” As I have tried to argue, most people don’t know enough, and don’t care enough, to deserve a say; but even those who do have some knowledge and some interest typically disagree with one another often enough and seriously enough that the work of ordering a society is compromised, disrupted, sometimes paralyzed – as, for instance, when the U.S. government shuts down because Congress can’t agree on a budget. This is, as the saying goes, no way to run an airline. What we need to do is overcome this irrational obsession with having a say, and instead place the emphasis on the power of exit. I have a good bit of sympathy with those who argue that exit is the only truly universal human right: the ability to say, “I’ve had enough of this crap, I’m getting out of here.” People who have the right of exit have a very powerful right.
B. But what if you live in Kansas?
B. Let’s be realistic about this, shall we? The right of exit is one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if the only door out is a couple of thousand miles away. You call it a universal human right, but how can it be a right if only those who have a sizable pile of cash are able to take advantage of it? It’s interesting that this argument – the argument that exit is the fundamental human right – tends to come from the seasteaders, from people who have enough money (or hope to get it) that they can actually imagine creating an offshore community, a city floating in the Pacific, that they can live on. And of course that would also mean having enough of a savings account to buy whatever goods can’t be produced out there. It’s ridiculous. It’s Fantasy Island for rich people.
A. No, it doesn’t have —
B. Don’t you think it might be my turn now?
A. Fair enough. Do your worst.
B. Thanks. Okay, so, furthermore — and to me this is a major problem with your whole way of thinking — you’re assuming completely deracinated human beings. The people you have making decisions, whether those decisions involve how to run this imaginary neo-reactionary world or how to leave it, are all just fleshy calculating machines, running the numbers to achieve maximum efficiency according to some totally abstract utilitarian calculus. In your world it wouldn’t even make any sense for someone to say “I don’t like the government that I have right now, but I love this place and don’t want to leave it.” What if we have, as Simone Weil argued, a need for roots? What if, as Roger Scruton argues, piety is fundamental to human flourishing?
A. Piety?? Haven’t heard that term in a while.
B. Piety in the sense that Virgil refers to his hero as “pious Aneas”: pietas, devotion — devotion to something bigger than my own preferences. You can’t build Rome without piety, or sustain it once it’s built; you can’t even build your Fantasy Island in the Pacific without some degree of that virtue.
A. Actually, I think you can build that fantasy Island in the Pacific – if that’s your thing; I’m not saying it’s my thing – without piety as you have described it. But never mind. Let’s think about Virgil’s Aeneas. He didn’t really have a lot of choice about his piety, did he? Every time he was in danger of forgetting it one of the gods came down to kick his ass and get him back on the right track. Pietas is all well and good in a world monitored and disciplined by the gods. We don’t live in that world, and I think all too often what we call “attachment to place” is really just nostalgia for a world we don’t live in any longer, if indeed we ever really did.
B. Oh, I think we live in the same world our ancestors did, overseen by the same deity or deities that have always been here. Isn’t it interesting that our conversation has taken us into the realm of metaphysics? It turns out that if you argue about politics long enough you get to something deeper than politics. But I think we can keep the metaphysical arguments at arm’s length at least for a while longer. It’s sufficient to ask whether human beings can flourish in the kind of moral and political world you are imagining, without pressing the question of why they need certain conditions in order to flourish. (It would be possible to give purely naturalistic, sociological, evolutionary reasons why people need roots and are rightly driven by piety.) It’s enough, I think, for me to insist that in your utopia people would be miserable. And they would be miserable because they would lack a voice, though not, perhaps, in the sense in which the neo-reactionaries typically talk about voice.