Obligation and the Body Politic

The following excerpt  is Chapter 1 from Tussman’s first book, Obligation and the Body Politic, published in 1960 by Oxford University Press



           Individuals and groups are related in many ways and it seems quite arbitrary to single out a particular relation as distinctively political.  Fellow citizens are politically related; allies are politically related; and even hostile nations or states have political relations, poor though they may be.  Let me say at once, then, that I am here concerned only with the narrower sense appropriate to relations within a body politic.  The Soviet Union and the United States may be said to be politically related, but such relations do not constitute them a body politic.  Even with the field thus narrowed there is no general agreement about what is meant by a ‘body politic’ or ‘being a part of a body politic,’ or, in this sense, ‘being politically related.’  I begin, then, with a brief consideration of some familiar concepts, one of which, I believe, will turn out to be more clearly adequate than the others.

          The familiar characterization of government or of the sovereign as the ‘supreme coercive power’ calls attention to an aspect of the relation of the ruler to the ruled which seems to make government at best a necessary evil.  By virtue of his power the ruler dominates the scene—coercing, applying sanctions, exacting obedience sometimes crudely through fear, sometimes more subtly through the use of temptation and the rhetorical arts.  A body politic, on this view, is simply a group of individuals under the domination of a single power, obeying a common center of command, afraid of the same master.  The political arts are the arts of control, of managing a human herd; the study of politics is the study of the struggle for power or influence, its seizure, organization, growth, dissipation, or circulation.  To be a ‘member’ is, in these terms, to be ‘under the control of’; to be a ‘ruler’ is simply to ‘have power over’; ‘leadership’ is ‘dominance.’

          This is a familiar enough story and it is hardly necessary to make a case for the pervasiveness of power in human affairs.  Its very pervasiveness, rather, raises a question about the propriety of identifying power as the distinctive feature of the merely ‘political.’  Apart from this, however, let me point out some of the consequences of defining a body politic as a group of individuals under a common domination.

          First, there is in a body politic so defined no meaningful or necessary element of ‘common good,’ of common or public purpose or public interest.  The interest of the ruler is one thing; the interest of the subject another.  There may indeed be, sometimes, a common interest, but its presence is not essential to the existence of a body politic.

          Second, none of the ‘legitimacy’ notions are significantly involved.  The subject has no duty or obligation to obey.  If he obeys it is out of inclination or prudence, hope or fear, or perhaps habit.  But the weakness which subjugates him generates no moral claim upon him.  Power, also, may allow the subject some scope, but this is a matter of indulgence rather than of rights.  Nor does the ruler, simply by virtue of his power, have responsibilities or duties.  He may use his strength kindly, by inclination or out of prudence, but strength by itself does not entail responsibility.  Nor does it bestow legitimacy or ‘authority.’

           And finally, there is some difficulty on this view in making much sense out of ‘political freedom’ or of reconciling ‘being a member of a body politic’ and ‘being free.’  Law, regarded in this context as a command, is an assertion of power which the subject obeys perforce.  Is freedom secreted only in the interstices of the law?  Does ‘freedom under law’ mean freedom in what is beneath the notice of law?  Does ‘politically free’ mean simply ‘beyond the reach of law,’ outside the range of domination which defines a body politic?  I do not pause to deal with these questions here.

           To identify the political relationship with power has at least these consequences:  that one may be a member of a body politic without having rights or duties, that a ruler may have no responsibilities or duties, that membership need involve no sharing of a common purpose, and that ‘political freedom’ becomes a virtually self-contradictory notion.

          Partly by way of criticism of the above view is the position that a body politic is a group of persons sharing a common set of habits or customs.  To be a member is to share these habits, to be within the bounds of custom or culture.  The denial of the centrality of force or power rests on the insight that fear is not, in fact, the cement that holds a group or a body politic together; that while it may be present its operation is sporadic; and that habit and custom embodied in institutions are the unifying and stabilizing bases of social life.  Sometimes this view is expressed in the assertion that ‘society’ is prior to the ‘state’—conceding the identification of the political with the coercive—but generally it leads to the treatment of political relations and institutions as simply a class of social institutions to be understood in the same terms, as a pattern of behavior.

          A body politic is thus regarded as analogous to a language group.  Being a member of a body politic is like being English-speaking; being politically related is like sharing a common linguistic habit.  Rules or laws are less commands than generalizations, usage, or custom.  Discipline is habituation; the sanction, disorder or outlandishness; membership itself chiefly an accident of birth and association.

          Applying the same test used earlier with ‘power’ what do we find?  First, there is some substance to, or perhaps shadow of, the notion of a common good.  There is at least a common involvement in a complex process or enterprise based, presumably, upon a common need or a shared interest.  And this may not be far from the politically interesting conception of the public good or public interest.

           Second, the legitimacy notions tend here to be more shadowy than substantial.  The subject has customary expectations, the ruler has customary functions.  A student, on occasion, writes ‘rite’ instead of ‘right’ leaving one uncertain whether to criticize spelling or applaud insight.  On this view it is not a serious error.  Legitimate tends to mean customary; the obligatory is simply what is done; the ‘moral’ shrinks to ‘mores.’

           And, finally, as for political freedom—it is hard to know what to make of it in this context.  We certainly did not choose to be English-speaking, but we would hardly say we were compelled to be.  We are ‘members’ neither by choice nor by conquest, but by accident, growth, and habituation.  Our habits are our powers; they are bonds only when we try to break them.  And if law on this view is habit or custom what would ‘freedom under law’ mean?

          The position roughly sketched here is, I think, an interesting and powerful one.  Most Americans, if asked whether being an American citizen means simply being under the power of the government as a slave is under the power of a master would reject the suggestion.  But they would not find too strange or hard to accept the suggestion that they are American citizens in the same general way that they are English-speaking.  But useful as ‘habit,’ ‘custom,’ and ‘institution’ may be for the illumination of political life, they leave some crucial matters in the dark.

            Saving the best for last, I come now to the notion of ‘agreement’ as expressing the core of political relatedness.  A body politic, on this view, is a group of persons related by a system of agreements; to be a member of a body politic is to be a party to the system of agreements.  The model is obviously the voluntary group or organization.  A voluntary group is composed of a number of individuals who, in pursuit of a common purpose, agree to act in concert, putting themselves under a common discipline, authority, and obligation.  The difficulty is not in understanding what a voluntary group is but in seeing the body politic as such, or essentially like such, a group.

            There is a bristling host of questions confronting the claim that the voluntary group is an appropriate model for the body politic.  Yes, it is the same old dusty idol, scarred and cracked by the lance of Hume, battered by the Historical School, mocked by every schoolboy who knows he didn’t sign a contract.  But we bow to it every time we demand the ‘consent of the governed’ and denounce the exercise of power beyond authority.  It is still the revolution we cannot deny because it once was ours.  Let me defer the defense of its relevance to consider here, as I have with the earlier notions, the relation of the voluntary group, or group based on agreement, to the conceptions of the common good, legitimacy and its kin, and political freedom.

            There is no problem about the common good or public interest in the case of a voluntary group.  It is organized for a purpose and that purpose is the public or common interest which its officers, on the one hand, are authorized to promote, and to which members, in becoming members, express their commitment, however limited.

            Authority, obligation, duty, responsibility, rights—these notions not only fit into the analysis of a voluntary group but seem built into it so that it is hard to imagine an adequate account of a voluntary group which would not include a statement of the responsibilities and duties of its officials, the rights and obligations of its members, as well as the common purpose mentioned above.  Since the basis of a voluntary group is agreement it should be observed that ‘having a right’ or ‘being obligated’ seems to relate itself more easily to agreement than to force or to habit.  In other words, ‘I have a duty to…’ seems to follow from ‘I have agreed to’ in a way that it does not follow from ‘I am forced to’ or ‘I am in the habit of.’  This is sometimes expressed as the view that obligations are, or even must be, voluntarily assumed.  To the extent that a body politic is regarded as a voluntary group there is, then, no doubt about the possibility, propriety, or even necessity, of making sense out of the general range of legitimacy notions.

            The problem of political freedom, or of freedom under law, appears in an interesting light when the body politic is thought of as a voluntary group.  Law is seen not as the command of the dominant power, nor as habit or custom, but rather as an agreement.  To take a crude example:  A ‘No Smoking’ sign in a public auditorium might be regarded as “Don’t smoke!’ or ‘Smoking is not customary here’ or ‘We have agreed not to smoke here.’ If it seems strange to read an implicit ‘we have agreed…’ before a law, some of the strangeness wears off upon reflection.  If I as a citizen of the United States have agreed to recognize the authority of the Constitution (assuming here the voluntary group view) have I not agreed to the delegation of some authority to Congress to pursue certain purposes in certain ways?  And when, acting as thus agreed, it enacts a law is it so strange to preface it with the reminder that ‘we have agreed…’?  The essential point is that to the extent that law is a system of agreements to which I am a party, ‘being under ‘law’ does not conflict with ‘being free’ unless, indeed, I consider myself not free when I do what I have agreed or consented to do.

            In this tradition ‘political freedom’ does not turn on the absence of law but on whether the law is ‘self-imposed.’  And it is only in this tradition that one can make any sense at all out of ‘freedom under law.’  The demand for freedom under law is not the demand for an indulgent master.  It is the demand that our social order be reconstructed as a voluntary group so that the law to which we are subject can, without irony, be treated as agreements to which we are all, directly or indirectly, parties.

            Each of the notions considered above—power, habit or custom, and agreement—reminds us of an important feature of political life.  Government, whatever else it needs, needs power.  It applies sanctions, punishes, coerces, and enforces.  But it is not to such power or to fear of punishment that one looks for the cement that holds a body politic together.  Stability, continuity, and cohesiveness are largely the product of social habit and institution, not of commands and bayonets.  But social habit, it must then be said, does not, by itself, account for the structure of authority which beyond the web of custom constitutes some of the most important and distinctive features of political life.  For this the modern mind, at least, finds no real basis other than agreement or consent, taking the body politic as a voluntary organization.

            Having briefly paraded these candidates for the leading role in the political drama, I suggest that we take ‘agreement’ as definitive and the voluntary group as the model for the body politic.  I do so because, as was indicated above, this supports, as power and habit do not, a significant conception of the common good, authority, right, obligation, duty, and freedom under law.  And this is decisive because education for political life—a crucial and indispensable enterprise—makes no sense without these notions.

            Graham Wallas once characterized the great philosophers of Athens as ‘training free citizens to exercise judgment on behalf of a consciously self-governed community.’  This has always seemed to me an especially apt statement of what liberal education is—when it is what it should be.  I shall resist the temptation to pursue the argument that the ‘liberal’ is the ‘political.’  The liberal college will continue to flounder from one morass into another until it rediscovers, in the task of educating the ruler, the central theme of its life.  But whether this is so or not, the education of the citizen for the responsibilities of a variety of political roles is a pressing task.  Political theory and philosophy are, at the very least, heavily involved in the problem of enlightening the activity which is itself the starting point of theoretical reflection and construction.  I take it for granted, then, that a political theory which turns out not to be relevant to political education has failed to take us where it is most needed.

            Put more specifically, political theory should have something to say to us as we set about the preparing of members of a body politic to meet the demands of the political roles they may be called upon to play.  These roles are varied but there is a basic division that should be made.  First, to be a member is to have a status entailing rights and obligations which need careful analysis.  The role of member is one for which everyone needs education.  Second, there is the role of agent, of one who acts for, on behalf of, or in the name of a body politic.  I use agent in its broadest sense without here distinguishing between the legislative, executive, judicial or other possible kinds of agents.  “Member’ and ‘agent’ correspond roughly to ‘subject’ and ‘ruler’ or ‘public official,’ and so there is nothing very novel about the distinction.  While, compared with the agent, the role of member seems passive, the member has duties and needs to act; I consider it an active role; but it is still significantly distinguishable from the role of an agent.  One person can, of course, have a variety of roles.

            Political education is education which prepares one to meet the demands of political roles.  Political theory has, then, the task of delineating the general demands of the roles of membership and agency.  This simply cannot be done without reference to such notions as rights, obligations, and duties, and without cognizance of a common or public good, however difficult these notions may be.  And, because it alone appears to make sense out of these notions, the voluntary group—based on agreements—must, as a practical matter, be taken as a model for the understanding of a body politic.


            I turn now to a distinction upon which this whole essay turns.  There are two radically distinct points of view or perspectives from which political life or the political process can be studied.  First, there is the perspective of the external observer concerned with the description of political behavior.  This is continuous with the interest in prediction of such behavior since, of course, an adequate description may reveal patterns which form the basis of prediction.  This perspective, intrinsic to most of what is called ‘social science,’ might, then, be called ‘descriptive-predictive.’  Brought to bear upon the political agent or decision-maker its basic question is ‘what will he do?’.

            But second, there is the point of view, not of the observer, but of the person (or persons) within a tribunal confronting his task.  And this task is not predicting but deciding; the question is not what will I do but what should I do.  I shall call this essentially ‘normative’ or ‘practical’ perspective, the ‘perspective of action.’

            These two perspectives, the observer’s and the actor’s, with their two kinds of questions, are not reducible to a single form.  It may happen, not infrequently, that the answers to ‘what will he do?’ and ‘what should I do?’ will be the same.  Actors sometimes do what they should do.  But this happy circumstance should not obscure the basic distinction.

            A single example may be useful.  In a famous address to law students, The Path of the Law, Justice Holmes develops the theme that the study of law is the study of the behavior of judges.  The lawyer must advise his client about whether or not he will be upheld in the assertion of some claim or demand; to do this he must be skilled in the prediction of judicial behavior.  The lawyer’s question is ‘what will the judge do?’  But this is only part of the story.  The judge, manning the judicial tribunal, is confronted with a problem.  He is not trying to predict his own behavior; he is concerned with behaving properly, with determining what he ‘should’ do.  And that is quite another matter.

            The difference between the perspective of the observer and the perspective of the actor is the basis of the distinction between a Theory of Political Behavior and a Theory of Political Obligation.  They are responses to the distinct demands of prediction and performance.

            I pause here in the development of the argument to touch briefly on several matters.  First, the relation of the two perspectives to each other raises the traditional problem of freedom and determinism.  The same activity, the activity of the decision-maker, is treated in two different sets of terms.  On the one hand it is regarded as predictable; on the other hand it is seen as a kind of choosing.  And the greater our success in predicting, the more inclined we are to dismiss the ‘choice’ as unreal or illusory.  If behavior is predictable how can it also be free?  If the judge’s action can be predicted, in what sense can he be regarded as free to decide one way or the other?  What is thus posed is the problem of ‘free will.’

            Resolving this difficulty to everyone’s satisfaction is hardly possible, but something can be attempted very briefly.  The conflict seems to be initially between predictability and freedom of choice.  I say ‘seems to be,’ because the so-called problem exists at another level. There is really no difficulty in regarding an act as both free and predictable.  If we know someone well enough to predict his choice we do not thereby deprive him of choice. 

            It is only when we try to explain why action is predictable that a conflict may appear.  That is, if we try to account for predictability by seeing it as the result of the existence of some ‘compelling’ causal relation then we have on one account a ‘choice’ and on the other account ‘compulsion.’  And it is hard to see how the same act can be both free and compelled.  The error consists in substituting ‘compelled’ for ‘predictable,’ so that an act which, unobjectionably, is both predictable and free seems instead an act which is both ‘compelled’ and ‘free.’  Since these are clearly incompatible we seem to have to give up either the belief in a causal order, upon which the observer depends, or the belief in the reality of the choice, without which the very conception of agent makes no sense.

            But we are not required to make this difficult choice.  It is necessary only if we confuse or identify ‘predictable’ and ‘compelled.’  While it is predictable that some will make this error, and even insist upon it, no one is compelled to do so.  The contrasted perspectives are indeed different, but they are not incompatible with each other.  The question is only about which is relevant, and that depends upon our concerns.  But there need be no life and death struggle between students of political behavior and students of political obligation based on a mistaken assumption that the success of one destroys the basis of the other.

            Second, the distinction between these two perspectives implies a more limited role for social science than is sometimes suggested by reference to the social sciences as the ‘policy sciences.’  To the extent that social scientists discipline themselves into purely descriptive and predictive activity—for the sake of being ‘behavioral’ or ‘scientific’—social science, while relevant, leaves the decision-maker without guidance at crucial points in his activity.  The art or the training of the decision-maker is not simply identical with that of the social scientist; and a school of government cannot simply be a division of social science.

            Third, following from this it seems clear that in the education of the ruler, the political agent, the manner of the tribunal, the relevant perspective is not the descriptive-predictive but rather the normative-practical one.  Liberal education is education for the life of action and decision.  That action takes place within the decision-making tribunal.  Those who man the tribunal must become sensitive to its demands and be prepared to meet them.

            The study of the political decision-making process moves, then, in two directions:  toward a theory of political behavior—a set of descriptive and predictive hypotheses; and toward a theory of political obligation—an attempt at the delineation of the demands of the political role and of propriety in response to those demands, obligations, or duties.  A theory of political obligation is an attempt to provide the elements of an answer to the political agent’s ‘what should I do?’.

            The attempt to take a theory of political obligation as seriously as it deserves is hindered by some characteristic features of our moral and intellectual climate.  We like to consider ourselves tough-minded and realistic; we want to discover how things really are, how they work.  We prefer the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’—the study of ‘what is the case,’ to tender-minded speculation about ‘what should be.’  And we have fallen into the habit of stating the descriptive-normative contrast in these misleading terms—contrasting ‘what is’ and ‘what should be.’  The former we reserve for science; the latter we relegate to dreamers, poets, and others notoriously out of touch with the facts of life.

            But this is to misunderstand the descriptive-normative distinction.  It does not contrast ‘what is the case?’ with ‘what should be?’.  It does contrast ‘what is the case?’ with ‘what should be done?’—the concern with knowing and the concern with doing, the spectator and the agent or participant. 

            Thus, a theory of political obligation, normative though it be, is a response to the demands of the life of action and never strays too far from the quandaries of decision.  Concern for the normative is not a speculative luxury; it is a practical necessity.

            But our contemporary mood involves more than the suspicion of the normative, and I turn to consider briefly several pairs of contrasting notions toward which we display a troublesome and deep-seated ambivalence.

            Risking repetition, I insist that the distinction between power and authority is vital to the understanding of the political enterprise.  But this distinction is constantly endangered by the charms of power which we so much prefer to study and to which we often seek to reduce the notion of authority.  Power seems so much more substantial than authority and so much more congenial to realists.

            Nevertheless, besides the structure of power or influence there is, in the body politic, an intricate web of relations which we describe in such terms as authorization, delegation, constitutionality, rights, duties, and obligations.  This may seem a rather insubstantial network; but it is not the ghost, it is the Hamlet of the play.  It seems strange that it should be necessary to defend its significance for the understanding of our political life when it is precisely its absence or weakness which constitutes, when we look at other, ‘unfree’ societies, a chief basis of our condemnation.

            Power and authority are not identical and we express our awareness of this in many ways.  Might, we say, is not Right.  Power can be seized, but de facto is not de jure.  A tyrant exercises power beyond authority; and one who acts ultra vires exceeds his authority not his power.  Typical political questions—the authority of the President to take over steel mills, the right of Congress to investigate in certain ways, the duty of courts to defend civil rights—these are not questions of mere power.  Nor are they settled as easily.

            To insist that power and authority are distinct is, of course, not to say they are unrelated.  It may be argued, as Hobbes does, that the structure of authority is dissolved if the sovereign becomes powerless to keep the peace.  A right may be violated and still be a right, but systematic non-enforcement may bring its status as a right into question.  One may wield power without authority or remain impotent with authority.  Obviously, power and authority are related in many ways  But they are distinct and irreducible.

            For a theory of political obligation and for the education of the political agent the crucial focus is upon authority.  It is hard to see what proper political education is if it is not the attempt to make the agent responsive to the demands of the structure of authority within which he is to act.  It would be irresponsible folly to teach wielders of authority merely the arts of power.

            One of the fruits of the spirit of individualism is the tendency, when we think of the individual, to see him chiefly as a complex of values, desires, drives, or interests.  It seems natural for him to pursue his interest, to try to satisfy his desires, to seek to enhance his own ‘life-space.’  Often we seem to mean by ‘respect for the individual’ a sympathetic understanding of this situation, a recognition of the legitimacy of the pursuit of one’s own good, and a reluctance to impose any unnecessary restraints.

            Against this background, attempts to push the claims of duty and obligation have been greeted with deep suspicion and hostility.  They seem unnatural demands which involve the disciplining of the individual to the point where he finds himself acting contrary to his own interest, used for some purpose other than his own.  And notwithstanding a tradition within which this is not an altogether alien element, the claims of the state are acknowledged with reluctance.  That they are acknowledged, however, is evidenced by the indignation we feel when a public trust is betrayed by self-interest.  The public agent is expected to do his duty.

            At the heart of political life there is thus an inescapable tension between interest and duty, between the inclinations of the private life and the obligations of the public role.  Attempts to resolve the tension from either direction are failures.  On the one hand, attempts to absorb the individual into his public role so that there is no recalcitrant remainder founder on the fact that man is, after all, an animal, a striving biological organism with a particular identity.  No matter how ‘social’ or ‘mature’ or ‘integrated’ he may be he cannot abolish the difference between the immediate and the remote, the particular and the general, ‘my own’ and ‘theirs’ or even ‘ours.’  No theory about the identity of individual and social can quite conceal the difference.  Similarly, attempts to dissolve the public role and its demands into the private individual and his interests do not survive much exposure to the plain facts of social life.  The conflict between interest and obligation cannot be conjured away; political life will always involve us in moral dilemmas.

            While I do not want to ride the theme of ‘individualism’ too hard its tendency is to exalt interest over duty and obligation.  Duty must justify itself at the bar of interest.  A public role is not taken for granted as ‘natural.’  Instead, it poses the question ‘why should I, an individual with interests of my own, take on the obligations of a public role which may make demands running counter to my interests?’.  This is a question with which a theory of political obligation should deal.  But this is easier said than done.

            In passing, a word about obligation and freedom.  In one of its senses ‘to be obliged’ is roughly synonymous with ‘to be compelled’ or ‘to be forced.’  We say, ‘he was obliged to surrender’ or ‘he was obliged to drop out of the race.’  This usage is appropriate in situations in which an option disappears, in which no choice is left.  In another sense we speak of ‘having an obligation,’ as when we say that ‘one has an obligation to pay his debts.’  It is here supposed that there is a choice, that it is possible to meet or not to meet the obligation.  We sometimes distinguish this sort of obligation as ‘moral’ precisely to indicate that it is not a matter of constraint.

            The important difference is that while in the first sense ‘being obliged’ is incompatible with ‘being free,’ in the second sense ‘being free’ is a necessary condition of ‘having an obligation.’  In its ultimate bearing on the problems of political freedom it is important to remember that only a free man can have obligations and, conversely, that having obligations is not incompatible with freedom.

            I have touched briefly on two of the sets of contrasting notions—authority and power, obligation and interest—with which political theory must deal.  I turn now, in the same preliminary way, to a third contrast, that between ‘public’ and ‘private.’

            Here again we are characteristically ambivalent.  We are insistent on the distinction as we jealously protect a private sphere against governmental intrusion.  ‘This is a private matter,’ we say, ‘and therefore not the concern of public authority.’  We criticize and condemn as ‘totalitarian’ any political system which fails to distinguish the public from the private.

            But we also, at times, seem determined to deny the significance of the distinction, especially in dealing with the relation of public to private interest.  However much rhetorical deference we pay to the public interest we try in various ways to by-pass its direct consideration.  We dismiss it as ‘unknowable,’ or as the automatic resultant of private striving after private goods.  Almost anything will do so long as we are relieved of worrying about it and allowed to pursue our private interests with a sense of virtue.  We even play with the notion that they are identical if only the private interest is ‘enlightened,’ or ‘long-range,’ or even ‘real.’  These efforts, whether adequate or not, bespeak an uneasiness about the public interest, a fear that the individual may be improperly imposed upon, a fear, even, of undemocratic or ‘elitist’ implication.  In spite of the difficulties, and even dangers, the distinction between public and private interest is necessary and crucial.

            A moment ago I stressed the gap between the individual’s interests and his obligations.  I wish now to suggest that obligation and interest may move closer together in a special way.  That is, the obligation of a public agent may well be defined in terms of the public interest.  Thus, for a public agent ‘I have an obligation to do X’ and ‘X is required for the public interest’ may be equivalent.  But ordinarily ‘X is in my interest’ and ‘I have an obligation to do X’ are not equivalent.  In other words, the distinction between public and private may help bridge the gap between interest and obligation.

            There is another aspect of the public-private distinction to which I shall refer briefly.  The democratic citizen has a twofold relation to government.  In one relation he is a subject, a private person under the law; in the other relation he is a public person, a part of the sovereign tribunal, a maker of the law.  It is precisely this combination of private status and public status in every person which distinguishes a system of self-government from any aristocratic polity in which most men are subjects only.  This dual status is the source of much confusion, but is also the key to an understanding of much that is crucial to the theory and practice of democracy.

            There is a deadly ambiguity in ‘The People’—whose voice is sometimes defied, sometimes deified.  In one sense it refers simply to an aggregate or collection of private persons and its voice is only the murmur of private tongues.  But in another sense ‘The People’ is an organization of persons, a group of colleagues manning the sovereign public tribunal, acting in a corporate capacity.  There is a world of difference.  When we forget it, as we often do, we lose our grasp of the radical distinction between consumer sovereignty and self-government, and acquiesce in a usurpation which may well, I fear, prove fatal to the prospects of democracy.

            The central argument here has been that the necessary task of political education requires the development of a theory of political obligation distinct from a theory of political behavior; that a theory which meets the demands of a body politic concerned with political freedom finds the model of the voluntary organization most congenial, or even necessary; and that such a theory must deal seriously and hospitably with concepts which, in our present climate of opinion, are regarded generally with suspicion or hostility.

            The current state of political education does not justify much complacency.   Nor do I see much prospect of improvement except as we attempt to achieve greater clarity about the elements of political obligation out of which that education must be developed.  In this attempt two fundamental concepts present themselves for analysis—membership and agency.  In the neighborhood of these concepts we encounter most of the traditional problems of political theory.  But as we deal with them we will, I hope, remember that what we are seeking is always a part of the answer to ‘what should I do?’ asked in the context of political life.

Review from an unknown magazine


One comment on “Obligation and the Body Politic

  1. […] philosopher from Berkeley named Joseph Tussman, who happened to be my father. His first book, Obligation and the Body Politic, discussed the role of the citizen in a democracy. Tussman argued that our political system had […]

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