Friday, October 4, 2013

How do we build an America based on personal responsibility?

With a dedication (if they aren't insulted by it) to both Dana Garrett and Hank Foresman, for entirely different reasons.

Aside from family commitments over the past week, the main thing that has kept me from posting or commenting on the government shut-down crisis is the simple fact that I wasn't sure there was anything original I could add to the discussion.

I am so tired of talking points, and so tired of the gotcha style of "discussing" this issue, and of people on both sides who either demonize or deify the most second-rate set of politicians on all sides that America has been cursed with since the Gilded Age or the Civil War.

As the French soldier says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I fart in your general direction."

What I'm honestly beginning to think has happened is that far too many of us--with apologies to George Santayana--have redoubled our efforts when we have forgotten our aims.

Here's my aim (and it is both more simple and more complicated than this all at once):  I want an American society based on personal responsibility and rational shared decision-making.

This is not the doctrine of any current political party, including my own, and the unvarnished opinion to follow is guaranteed to piss off my friends and confirm my enemies' worst suspicions.

But before you throw stones at me, blame my self-identified social democrat friend Dana Garrett.  It was something Dana said to me about four years ago in a passing comment that has stuck in my mind like a piece of popcorn hull in my back teeth.  (OK, disclaimer:  Dana probably doesn't even remember saying this--and I don't have a link--and we've never discussed it subsequently, so you can only blame him for being an unintentional inspiration here.)

What Dana said (paraphrasing) was the opening to a sentence that went like this, As long as society is structured so that people have to go out and get jobs and work for a living ...  I don't even remember what the rest of the sentence was about, or what fight we were having at the time.

My first reaction was, Dana, get real--of course people have to go out and get jobs and work for a living.  And fortunately, I did not say that, because Dana would have, quite derisively (and quite correctly) have reminded me as a historian that there have been plenty of societies along the way in history that were not so structured.  Working at a job "for a living" is a hallmark of a monetized society, and not even all monetized societies.

But the key to his overall statement is that societies are "structured."  We pay such attention to documents and history surrounding the intentional structure of American society (the US Constitution, the Federalist Papers, etc.) that we normally lose sight of all the implicit rather than explicit influences that structure our society:  culture, economics, religion, local politics, technology ...

Then I was struck (usually across the face, considering the source) by a post that jason ran over at Delawareliberal about the unsettling (for many people) idea that the middle class may be a transitory rather than permanent feature of American society ... and that we may be living at the end of it.

Scholars like Fernand Braudel and Manuel Da Landa have been making really interesting arguments class and society, and the difference between free markets and capitalism for years.

So where did all this thinking get me?

First, it made me think about my three primary aims for American society.

1.  I want an American society that maximizes the personal freedom of every rational citizen to reach his or her potential and follow his or her own muse without infringing on the rights of others.  If you think this sounds like a restatement of basic Libertarian philosophy, it is not.  Libertarians generally assume that freedom works under almost all conditions as both mechanism and mediator, and that as long as we move toward greater individual liberty we are moving toward a society that maximizes everyone's chances to achieve their greatest potential.

That's only true to a point, because it ignores several important elements.  It ignores the fact that you don't get to start fresh, you have to "put down your bucket where you are" and begin with society as it currently exists.  As the ever-unpopular Don Rumsfeld once said, "You can only go to war with the army you've got."  So ... some realities.

A combination of political, governmental, economic, social, and cultural factors has gifted us with a society that has created institutional and cultural barriers to meaningful personal liberty to large segments of our society.  Just one example:  the industrial revolution concentrated large amounts of middle class and working class folks into our cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  There was poverty although there was also the potential for social mobility (see the work of Stephan Thernstrom sometime).  Simultaneously, the US Supreme Court under the influence of Justice Stephen Feild was in the process of rewriting the 14th Amendment as an unprecedented guarantee of corporate personhood and civil rights, and racial segregation was being enshrined in both law and culture in ways that are still with us today.  Capitalism became almost completely disassociated from free markets.  The urban middle class was accidentally created.

Well prior to the Great Depression there were already indications that the free market system was failing within our cities.  Progressives saw government action as the answer, and argued that voluntarism had failed to meet the needs of an increasingly complex society.  The New Deal was predicated on that idea, and found its underpinnings in Keynesian economics.  Whether or not the New Deal succeeded economically (there are still many academic arguments over whether it was government action or World War 2 that ended the Depression), the post-1945 world saw major changes.  With cheap energy, the automobile, and the world's only intact industrial base (a fleeting advantage), US cities changed ...

White flight, capital flight, and the transition to a post-industrial urban non-economy gutted most American cities, leaving a structurally dependent, badly educated urban underclass of people whose options (as a group, not as individuals) were so severely limited as to be non-existent.  Read Gilbert Osofsky's work on Harlem some day (it stops short of this period, but the processes examined within a city are the same as the mega-processes at work in the 40s and 50s).  Essentially, our politics, economics, and culture combined to create a new urban peasantry, and like feudalists everywhere and everywhen we then blamed the peasants for the characteristics we had enforced upon them.

My point?  And there is sort of one in here:  rationality is the key to the exercise of personal liberty in a non-coercive way, especially in a society (as are all societies) with limited resources.  When society educates a large segment of that society away from rationality, then merely restoring "freedom" doesn't undo what the past several decades have done.

(And please don't think I am arguing that only inner-city populations are not "rational" in that sense of the word.  I actually think very few individuals or groups in the US right now qualify as "rational actors" and I believe that lack of rationality is the greatest threat to both individual liberty and national survival that we face.  Unfortunately, I don't think those in charge are that rational either, except in the pursuit of retaining their own elite status.  James Madison included men and angels in his famous saying about government; he should have included "cretins" as a third category.)

You can't get rationality (which I define as making choices based on facts and evidence as much as humanly possible) via legislation (which is a point my progressive friends most often miss), and you can't get rationality from merely reinstating free markets (which is the point my libertarian friends miss), and you can't get rationality from the imposition of evangelical social values (need I mention my conservative friends here?).  You get rationality only (I think) by intentionally creating a society (culture, not government) that both rewards and exalts rational action.  If I knew exactly how to do that, I'd be king (of a rational society, natch).

Leading to point two ...

2.  There does have to be a dynamic between individual freedom and collective action in any successful society.  I tend to personally fall far more toward the individual end of that dynamic, my friend Hank falls more toward the middle (he's always been more mentally healthy than me), and my other friend Dana falls more toward the collective end.

But we can all still have conversations about the paradigm, we can all still work on social problems together, and we can all still co-exist in a free society because we DO recognize the dynamic.  Here's the thing:  broadly speaking there are two forms of organization possible for a society:  top-down (hierarchical) and bottom-up (emergent).  Markets and individual liberty are bottom up; government and capitalism (yes, capitalism) are top down.

Every society ever created has fallen somewhere between the two extremes.  It is neither possible (nor desirable, I think) to eliminate either end from the equation.  And while philosophers have spilled ink and revolutionaries blood over the proper balance, I tend to come down on the side of utilitarianism rather than philosophy.

The proper balance in a society, all factors considered, between hierarchy and emergence is what works to achieve maximum human potential, rational action, and personal responsibility.

Large organizations--be they governments, NGOs or corporations--are like gravity.  They are part of the social universe and they will continue to operate in some fashion whether we like it or not just like rocks will continue to fall when you drop them.  And as with rocks, you can either bemoan the fact that they fall or figure out a way to use physics to build machines that do what you want.

How do we measure this dynamic?  The Founding Fathers (or Foreskins, thank you, Dana) attempted to do it with a specific plan for limited government.  Unfortunately, as times proved within less than five years of ratification (with the invention of the cotton gin), changes in technology and culture and economics challenged the immutability of their design.  Don't get me wrong here:  I think they got down to some pretty fundamental principles for a free society.  But language changes, meaning changes, and time changes ("The Earth belongs to the living"--Thomas Jefferson), and while I'm gunshy about the "living document" school of thought, I am also not crazy about "original intent."

So, again, my question--how do we best measure where the dynamic should fall?  I think we ultimately have to go back to arguing first principles--what are the rights of human beings in a free society, and what is the role of government in that society?  This is a difficult argument because it requires us to first reach decisions about the terms we use to have this debate, given that there is not a consensus in the US today about whether rights are negative or positive.  We cannot even hold the conversation until we agree on the terms (here Freeman Dyson's old book on the language about nuclear disarmament--Weapons and Hope--has much that is positive to offer).

3.  We need to create a culture of personal responsibility (i'd like to say "again") whether the government and political parties go there or not.

This is a really tough one because nobody's perfect, and because there also always has to be a dynamic between justice (you get what you deserve) and mercy (you get help and another chance), and the two concepts are not (again!) universally well defined.  Moreover, most politicians and public figures who make a big issue of "personal responsibility" tend not to be such prime examples of what they speak.  Lord Acton was apparently right.

Part of the problem is that we also have too few options in applying either justice or mercy.  I read a lot of science fiction in which the courts can have someone "adjusted" or "modified" if they do bad things, or others in which there is a "coventry" to which people can be sent if they reject the rules by which society operates.  I also think about Lysander Spooner, who argued that the Constitution wasn't binding on him because he had not personally agreed to it, as well as Robert Heinlein's vague idea in his early stories of a "Covenant" of behavior that all citizens either signed upon reaching their majority or faced certain sanctions from the greater society.

And it occurred to me that there is no rite of passage in American society wherein anybody reaching eighteen, or whatever milestone you like, has to stand up and agree to certain principles or to take formal responsibility for his actions as an adult in order to have the right to vote or whatever.

Instead, we grow up with the idea that we are responsible either to the law (on pain of punishment) or God (on pain of Hell) and not necessarily to ourselves, our families, and the communities in which we live.

I ain't perfect by any means.  But in my house we try to raise kids to tell the truth even when it doesn't seem to be in their best interest, to stand up and take their licks for what they did, and not wait for good people around them to have to ask for help.  My ten-year-old grandson broke another kid's iPod on the bus yesterday horsing around.  But he will now be working at a rate of $5/hour (10 year olds do not get minimum wage in my house) until he has paid to replace it.  And to make sure he gets the point he won't be using his X-Box [which he bought with money he earned] until the iPod is paid for.  He's mad as hell at me right now.  I can live with that:  our job with our children is not to be their best friends, but to raise them.

How do we get there?  I wish I knew.  But I do know this:  you can start creating a society of personal responsibility for yourself and your children any damn day you please.  It's not illegal (yet).

I think this is too long and rambling to be considered a rant.  Not even sure it is worth reading.  But this is what I am thinking about as I am out doing things (political things, family things) rather than sitting at this computer every day and pretending that what I post here is going to make any great difference.


delacrat said...


There is actually much more personal responsibility in America today than there was within recent memory.

For example, there are millions of unemployed Americans who were(are) held personally responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown, even though they had nothing to do with it.

Contrast that level of personal responsibility enforcement with the Savings and Loan Scandal, where only some 1,000 banksters were held personally responsible with criminal convictions .

tom said...

"So, again, my question--how do we best measure where the dynamic should fall? I think we ultimately have to go back to arguing first principles--what are the rights of human beings in a free society, and what is the role of government in that society?"

The ancient history of the Internet provides a beautiful illustration of how well this will work:

Once upon a time, while the government agencies, corporations, universities & other organizations were endlessly bickering about how to specify, design and implement the OSI 7 Layer Burrito, a few random people (Vint Cerf, Robert Kahn, John Postel, Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine, among others) created a set of stopgap protocols so they would have a way to communicate and do research while they were waiting for the Important People to figure out the Right Way to build a computer network. (Admittedly, the DOD funding helped quite a bit, but in the 60's & 70's that was pretty easy to come by if you could conjure up even the most tenuous link to a military application)

The result of their half-ass "just make something that works" approach has come to be known as TCP/IP. Forty years later, the majority of the OSI protocols are still unimplemented or unused.

Emergent behavior will beat central planning every time...

more said...

Collectivists can happen in a form of clubs and friendships. If you get ill, you get your friends to help you out.

NCSDad said...

we grow up with the idea that we are responsible either to the law (on pain of punishment) or God (on pain of Hell) and not necessarily to ourselves, our families, and the communities in which we live.

I have always considered myself responsible to myself, my family and the communities in which I live.

Law has always fallen behind doing what's right. Nice post, plenty to think about.

Steve Newton said...

Some responses:

1. Tom: emergent behavior generally wins in the long run, not necessarily the short run, and there are times when the short run is critically important. Dealing with massive, cascading power failures. Calculating the flow of logistics into a flood zone, football game, or military campaign. Scheduling an operating room. Emergent behavior is a process, and like evolution it is a blind process. At its best it is capable of amazing advances, but it is also completely value-free. That both is and is not a good thing.

2. more: I don't have enough friends with sufficient resources to purchase top-flight cancer treatment at Sloan-Kettering. I'd really love to be able to exercise my option to purchase the right insurance from a competitive market, but the government has thoughtfully prohibited that. There are, however, limits to what voluntary collectivism can achieve (though it does raise the issue of whether society should be achieving any of those things). The question is whether we actually want to have a discussion about the practical limits of voluntary collective action and the necessary restraints on imposed collective action, or do we just want to pluck our navel link and argue philosophy.

3. NCS Dad: You may consider yourself responsible, but what does that actually mean? How far does your community extend? What is the difference between your level of responsibility to your family and your community, and how would you quantify it? What happens when other people in your community fail to feel the same level of responsibility? I am arguing for a new discussion of basic questions.

4. Delacrat: cute.

tom said...

You make a geed point about the short run. but even then, it is not always true, and is becoming less so as IT and communications improve.

I certainly wouldn't want to wage a war with no more strategy than instructing the individual soldiers to go kill enemies and blow shit up. but as the saying goes, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.

and in some of your other examples, a centralized response is
required by the massively centralized design of the failing systems (or in some cases by idiotic regulations that prohibited operators from disconnecting their equipment from the grid even if they saw a load spike coming that dramatically exceeded their capacity). We should be replacing these monstrosities with decentralized designs with fewer single-point failure modes whenever an opportunity presents itself, but governments love the centralized infrastructure because it empowers them. It's annoying enough that we allowed the Internet to degrade from a system that could survive a global nuclear war intact, to one where half the world can be taken down by a fire in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. But now we have the "Internet Kill Switch" insanity to contend with too.

During the aftermath of Katrina, FEMA not only did nothing to help until very late in the game, they actively hindered and even shut down many of the ad hoc efforts that were already providing relief when they arrived.

Hank Foresman said...

Steve thanks for the dedication, I am not sure I really am more mentally healthy than you.

I will share with you something I am working on that I think you will find is in line with your thoughts here. Unfortunately I am in South Carolina and away from my computer where it is stored.

Great piece.

Hank Foresman said...

Steve thanks for the dedication, I am not sure I really am more mentally healthy than you.

I will share with you something I am working on that I think you will find is in line with your thoughts here. Unfortunately I am in South Carolina and away from my computer where it is stored.

Great piece.