Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative in the Biden administration, is one of the many lawyers tasked with understanding and running the economy. Last May, she gave a speech to celebrate the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and PacificIslander Heritage Month. She told her audience:
You are not invisible. I see you and I hear you. The President sees you and hears you. And we’re fighting like hell for you.
Because you belong.
What does that mean? What does “you belong” mean?
In a liberal-individualist society, that is, in a free society, there is no way for an individual to belong but by choosing which group not to belong to, for he (or she) is a member or potential member of a practically unlimited number of groups with different degrees of abstractness and compatibility. “Belonging” to everything, belonging in general, is impossible in a free society.
In an unfree society, it is different. I can think of three sorts of “belonging.” In a tribe, one does indeed belong in general, because there is little choice but to adopt the belonging uniformity imposed by customs and the fear of being banned. In a more structured society, we meet the second kind of belonging: to belong to “society,” which means to its government, which may or may not be a majoritarian democracy. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Lenina expresses this in her simple way: “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” The “Dear Leader watches you and will take good care of you” that one can see in Ms. Tai’s lyrism is very consistent with that way of belonging. The third way to belong is slavery, the ultimate form of belonging; if you really want to belong, that’s the way to go.
One objection is that “belong” can be used not in its property-right sense but in a derived symbolic sense such as “to be attached or bound by birth, allegiance, or dependency … they belong to their homeland;” or “to be a member of a club, organization, or set … she belongs to a country club.” (See the online Merriam-Webster.) But note that “slave” also has figurative meanings, which do not totally defang its literal sense. Ms. Tai should have said more precisely how her audience belongs.
Ms. Tai might emphasize her use of the intransitive form of the verb, which conveys the more fuzzy meaning of “to be suitable, appropriate, or advantageous … to be in a proper situation” (as Merriam-Webster writes). But this could also suggest that one must stay in his place, or he will be put in his place by the power that be. In a free society, the individual largely chooses not only what he “belongs to,” but also which idea he espouses, what is “suitable, appropriate, or advantageous” for him to believe and to do.
Another way, perhaps more practical, to look at the problem is to consider a recent statement by a Starbucks spokesman:
We remain committed to creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
A free society is not a big Starbucks. It includes even those who don’t like Starbucks or don’t want to be watched and taken care of by some Dear Leader. In such a general context of liberty, Starbucks itself, of course, should be free to do what its owners decide. Absent a general context of liberty, Starbucks would not be able to define for itself what is “a culture of warmth and belonging.”
I doubt that the current USTR, who is philosophically a 17th-century mercantilist (just as her predecessor in the Trump administration, Robert Lighthizer, was), meant that an individual is free to “belong” or not as he decides. (Say you don’t want to belong to the minimum-wage “beneficiaries” or to belong to a union.) All this leaves open the question of the minimal rules, legal or moral, on which a free society might depend. Political slogans and incantations about belonging cannot answer this question. It is, in my view, difficult to think about it without reading Nobel economists James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek—and for that matter Anthony de Jasay, who showed that the Dear Leader is an illusion, for he is only dear to part of the population.