Sunday, December 1. 2013
No Weekend Update this week. I want to focus instead on a single article, which appeared on the front page of the Wichita Eagle this morning: Connie Cass: In God we trust, maybe, but not each other. The article cites polls that show that Americans are less inclined to trust one another than they were in the past:
One cannot overstate the importance of trust. It quickly becomes impossible to do anything to do anything in a crowded society without assuming that others will act and react in sensible ways according to commonly understood rules. Those essential rules are moral, and many are codified in law, and enforced more or less coercively by agents assigned that task. One trusts, for instance, that one can go outside, for a walk or for a drive, without the constant risk that there are people out to harm you. One trusts that one can exchange work for money that will in turn can be exchanged for goods, that in turn will be much as one expects -- e.g., food that will nourish and not sicken.
We may be aware of exceptional cases where trust is not warranted, and to some extent we compensate for this by being alert to warning signs. For instance, we are advised to "drive defensively" -- to look out for cars behaving erratically, to consider the possibility that the car in front of you might suddenly stop, or that someone approaching an intersection might fail to yield, but even so you probably trust that other drivers are not suicidal. It's really hard to live in a world under constant threat of malevolence.
So when we read that Americans are losing their ability to trust in one another, what does this mean? It doesn't mean that we've hit rock bottom yet, although trust is so important that even small reductions in it can cause a lot of discomfort, and that can in turn cost us a lot of time and effort. The more dangerous you regard your neighbors, the more guarded your interactions with them, the more defensive they become. The more you rely on the force of law to limit behavior as opposed to expecting that people will act according to common morality, the more difficult it is to ensure moral behavior. Once some number of people move from doing what's right to simply avoiding getting caught, your ability to trust in the law starts to slip. And the situation deteriorates rapidly if law enforcers themselves become corrupt.
Cass' article attributes the lost of trust to various things, like "bowling alone" where individuals give up many of their social networks for solitary pursuits, like watching television. But Cass misses the most obvious problem, which is that we have an economic system that is increasingly based on predatory business practices. We have a lot of experience with the basic capitalist idea, which is one of everyone pursuing their own self-interest, seeking solely to maximize their own gains. And as such we've seen many of the ways such pursuits can cause great harm: the various waves of "progressive" political movements strived to limit the potential for businesses to abuse their powers, in large part attempting to ensure that they produce and sell goods and services according to standards that we can trust. Older still than progressivism were basic moral constraints against abuses such as usury.
But since WWII, and especially since the late 1970s, businesses have made considerable inroads undermining the moral character and social fabric of the nation. This started in the cold war exaltation of capital, with its immediate goal of fragmenting and disempowering labor. By the 1980s the right was destroying the nation's binding sense of equality and was trumpeting a new ethos of greed. Nowhere was this clearer than in the business schools, which trained the nation's future CEOs to grab every possible source of profits: if "greed is good," rent-seeking must be glorious.
The final coup here is the destruction of the idea of commonwealth, indeed of any common interest. Business propagandists used to like the idea, expressed as irony by Adam Smith, that the pursuit of self-interest could result in greater wealth for all. They scarcely bother any more, because they've convinced us that there is no society, no social values, just aggregates of individuals. And indeed, they seem to believe that assertions of common interests -- even things like clean water or air, or a stable climate -- are nothing but encumbrances on individuals. And that individuals should be as "economically free" as possible, even when all that means is free to deceive and defraud everyone else.
This lost measure of trust is a consequence of denying the value of social relationships. After all, to a large extent the economic liberation of individuals has taken place at the expense of society as a whole. You can argue whether this has happened because technology -- suburbs as much as television -- has split individuals apart, or vice versa. But the costs do mount up, and you see them in myriad ways: the explosive growth of prison population, increasing litigiousness, the influx of money into politics seeking special favors, and so forth.
And as the article points out, once you lose trust it's all that much harder to win back.
Curiously, the other big front page article today was titled "Shelter operator's tough question: Can charity hurt?" That's a serious question that I don't have time to go into, but it's also been a harping point on the political right going back to Daniel Moynahan and Martin Feldstein -- to pick on two big names who built their careers arguing against safety nets on the grounds that they are a crutch that corrupts. The fact is that they usually exist only to provide such immediately necessary relief that withdrawing them would be far worse. But sure, charity can hurt -- mostly through the patronizing and demeaning attitudes of the people administering the programs.
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Nice post Tom. Calvin grudgingly accepted usury within limited strictures to protect the vulnerable, both material (the poor) and moral (the greedy). The emerging capitalists seized the opening for interest, ignored the warnings against victimizing the poor and greed won out as it still does. You would think moral conservatives would see this and complain (and some Catholic ones do), but instead they bless capitalism as God's economy and our souls continue to rot. Sigh.