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Political obligations unshirkable for citizens

By Xu Baijun | 2014-11-24
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

 

Protesters in Washington DC demand increasing taxes for the rich. Paying taxes is a political obligation for citizens, but the rates people pay based on their income is a constant source of debate.

 

A rational and sensible man will inevitably play multiple roles, said Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Among others, the citizen role is undoubtedly the most important. As a citizen is legally accepted as belonging to a particular country or certain countries, nationality is decisive in defining the role of citizen. Although humankind always upholds Great Harmony and global consciousness, the citizen of the world is after all imaginary.

 

Two faces of citizen role
If citizen life is likened to a stage, the role of a citizen shows two faces on the stage. One face is enjoying political rights while the other is assuming political obligations. However, the two faces bring entirely different visual impacts: the former is clear and the latter is blurry.

 

With the dominance of liberalism in political discourse, political obligation is gradually being overshadowed by political rights.

 

Objectively speaking, although the face of political obligation is marginalized due to discourse disadvantage, it never passes out of existence. Rather, it hides itself under pressure.

 

In the 1970s, American political philosopher John Rolls sparked a wave of political philosophy renaissance. Political obligation during this time again came into the spotlight after being long ignored.

 

The two faces of the citizen role are both distinctive. The face of political rights stresses that citizens should be prioritized, while political obligation emphasizes the overall priority of state; political right highlights citizen-related reasons, while political obligation underlines reasons of state.

 


Perhaps the historical memory of states wielding totalitarian violence to hurt citizens still lingers. This keeps citizens on high alert, keeping a distance from state carefully and prudently. The distance, consequently, brings about a deformed face of political obligation.

 


 However, the continuation of state entails not only consumption of political rights, but also production of political obligation. In fact, in the way of reductionist thinking through political rights, the face of political obligation will appear.

 

 

Bias and paradox of liberalism
It is largely people’s subjective preferences that mask the face of political obligation, since they are more willing to see that the citizen role wears the face of political rights, and even consciously leave the face of obligation to oblivion, for ideological reasons to a large extent.

 

As the mainstream ideology in the West, liberalism tends to handle issues about political obligation negatively. Presupposing that citizens will resist it, liberals evidently regard political obligation a burden that states impose on citizens.

 

Based on this logic, any political obligation shall come into force only after personal consent of citizens.

 

In the ideological world of liberalism, political obligation is shelved, even disdained or negated. Conversely, political rights are unique; in late American philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s terms, “a political trump card” that should be “taken seriously.”

 

Why does liberalism prefer the face of political rights? The reason is that when facing intrusion of a leviathan state, political rights can unleash a spirit of resistance to shield citizens from being devoured.

 

By contrast, the face of political obligation is seen as citizens’ deep fear of leviathan state. They prostrate themselves before the leviathan just as devout religious followers grovels to the God.
If the leviathan is providentially kind, citizens may survive. But in most cases, they cannot avoid the tragedy of being reduced to food of the leviathan. Liberalism disdained and negated political obligation perhaps for the “cowardice” of the face.

 

In fact, while addressing issues related to political obligation, liberals would blindly uphold political rights. It gives no self-defense opportunity to political obligation. In their view, political obligation is absolutely unable to defend itself convincingly.

 

Although liberalism purports to remain neutral and will never impose any good on citizens, it tells citizens that state is evil, which is apparently contracting itself.

 

In 1788, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, claimed in the Federalist Papers that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Therefore, state is deemed as a product of Satanism that is necessarily evil.

 

Liberalism believes that though state is necessary, but it is evil in essence, so non-angelic citizens must remain ever vigilant. They must learn to bring government under control with political rights. If not, state will use political obligation to subdue them.

 

Undeniably, liberals have unique insights into political obligation and their way of handling it also conforms to people’s political intuition.

 

Nevertheless, their prejudice against political obligation is swaying their judgment. If they continue to deal with political obligation issues on the premise that state is necessarily evil, they will never have a just view about political obligation.

 

Actually, the premise is untenable in nature, because it will never be proved. About whether government is a necessary evil is a “matter of fact,” liberals have no hard evidence.

 

Moreover, according to falsifications advocated by British philosopher Karl Popper, it is impossible to falsify the proposition that government is a necessary evil.

 

What is certain is that while excluding political obligation, liberals do reasoning with a hypothetical proposition. However, not all people will agree with the proposition: some see it as a logical truth, while some think it is a logical fallacy.

 

Whether logical truth or fallacy, the choice is reasonable when corresponding conditions are satisfied, which is the so-called reasonable disagreement proposed by Charles Larmore, the W. Duncan MacMillan Family Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Brown University.

 

Once we admit that there is reasonable divergence in the judgment of the proposition that “government is a necessary evil,” we must meanwhile acknowledge that the role of citizen has two faces: political rights reflected by logical truth and political obligation mirrored by logical fallacy.

 

Political obligation brings justice
States are usually considered a community for citizens to live. To citizens, the state is not simply about violence; it also provides emotional support and self-identity resources for them to some degree. Those who belong to no country have actually lost the reason and meaning as citizens.

 

If citizens desire to depend on state continuously, they must assume political obligation, a face that cannot be hidden from view, to power the operation of state.

 

If political rights distribute justice, political obligation brings justice. Distribution is impossible to carry out without production. It is a must to recognize that citizens and their states are in an organic relationship. The fulfillment of political obligation will ensure their interdependence to some extent.
Greek philosopher Aristotle once warned that only gods and animals can exist without the state.

 

Unable to live without the state, citizens should undertake political obligation to present the other face, a face that should not be concealed any more.

 

The author is from the School of Political and Public Administration at Qufu Normal University in Shandong Province. 
Translated by Chen Mirong
Revised by Tom Fearon