Killing for the Telephone Company

In a highly thought-provoking section of his new book, Migrations of the Holy, essentially reprinted from his essay “Killing for the Telephone Company,” Cavanaugh summarizes the arguments of Alasdair Macintyre:

Alasdair Maclntyre refers to this dual aspect of the nation-state in the following memorable quote: ‘The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one  to lay down one’s life on its behalf…. [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.’

MacIntyre thinks that the nation-state can and does promote certain goods of order, but he also contends that it is incapable of promoting the common good. Integral to the political common good is a distribution of goods that reflects a common mind arrived at by rational deliberation. Rationality, in turn, is contingent on our recognizing our fundamental dependence on one another. According to MacIntyre, the nation-state is an arena of bargaining among different group interests. In the absence of any generally agreed-upon rational standard to adjudicate among such interests, decisions on the distribution of goods are made on the basis of power, which is most often directly related to access to capital. The sheer size of the nation-state precludes genuine rational deliberation; deliberation is carried on by a political elite of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals.

 For the same reason, the unitive community that the idea of the nation offers is an illusion. The nation-state is not a genuine community, a functioning rational collectivity whose bonds make possible the ‘virtues of acknowledged dependence’ necessary for the common good. MacIntyre says: ‘The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.'”

One thought on “Killing for the Telephone Company

  1. Rick Littlejohn

    It is amazing that my thinking has changed so much over the years, that this idea of "Killing for the Telephone Company" seemed so self-evident when I read it. The shock has been the way I have read news, books, etc. since seeing this post. Our entire society is built around the assumption that the "success and prosperity of the telephone company" is the most significant reality. Does a fish know it is wet?


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