Dismissing the Fundamental Political Question
Marc’s post, yesterday, about the correspondence of a growing gap in wealth and a growing gap in once-expected behaviors between economic classes has led down some interesting roads and, I think, exposed some problematic thinking. One comment worth its own consideration comes from Mangeek:
“…shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms”
Why is this necessary? Let people live the way they want. Maybe traditional institutions and 1950s ideas about what a family is aren’t what’s best in a stagnating, globalizing economy.
America is clearly not going to be the dominant world economy in twenty years. We shouldn’t stuff our heads in the sand and pretend that if everyone got married and stopped looking at porn, we’d get back on top. We need to break out of traditions and try some New Stuff (or some Old Stuff, depending on how you look at it).
Taking the second paragraph first, it’s anachronistic to align economic malaise with a vision of our society as calcifying in dogmatic adherence to traditional norms. New Stuff won’t inherently be beneficial within a context of changing circumstances just because its new. Indeed, a key benefit of the social standards that evolved up until around the middle of the last century was that they provided stability allowing society to adapt and address the circumstances of a changing world.
The circumstance that progressive economic and social policies require precisely flips the equation: They take economic growth as the given foundation on which to build a system of radical social change. That won’t work. Children dealing with the fallout of their parents’ divorce or growing up with the instability of an unmarried household won’t be as well positioned to identify and address the changing world. Young men indulging their every sexual whim in a protracted adolescence will behave as their self-absorbed lifestyles suggest in other contexts, as well.
That doesn’t mean that we must revert entirely to an increasingly abandoned social model, or that we shouldn’t strive to maintain some real advances (the status of women high among them). It is folly, though, to take economic decline as an excuse to do whatever we want to do.
But then, Mangeek has proven in other conversations that he isn’t actually interested in complete freedom of behavior. His willingness to use government coercion to get people to abandon large vehicles implicitly points to the problem with the first paragraph quoted above. Basically, what people want to do and what the community requires them to do for its broader health aren’t in such accord that we can open the gates to unfettered individualism.
Generally speaking, there are two approaches to dealing with the social need to control and direct behavior. One is to create social institutions to which people hew voluntarily, but that impose expectations. Marriage is an excellent example: The institution has a variety of benefits, chief among them being social approval and support of the core household relationship, but it imposes responsibilities of fidelity and devotion. Its demands also extend to those doing the sorts of things that best happen within marriage, such as having children. The broad consensus about the importance of the institution creates pressure while leaving individuals free to engage in behavior that deviates from the norm.
The other approach to imposing necessary controls is to directly enforce them through government, whether by financial penalties, criminal prosecution, or the darker insinuations of a police state. In this case, a relatively small group defines behavior for everybody, and those definitions (we can expect) will tend to resemble their own limited preferences and to profit their social groups.
“Let people live the way they want” sounds like a liberating plea, but it stops where joint action begins. Those who want to live within a society that acknowledges across its institutions the unique nature of intimate male-female relationships (namely, that they tend to generate children) are out of luck. The residents of Cranston cannot even decorate their shared public school with a benign old prayer banner. In short, “let people live the way they want” is at odds with the first, more free, means of directing society described above.
Consequently, the slogan will lead toward the second, more authoritarian, means. As social problems emerge, the limited group with power will either dictate a growing regiment of behavior or prevent others from developing solutions to solve them.