Monday, December 27, 2010

We have seen that Judaism can best be thought of as a process in which a community carries forward and develops a moral code and a narrative. The moral code itself involves expressions of national and ethnic solidarity, so that it is impossible to separate moral and ethnic commitments. Since membership in the community is itself determined by identification with the code and narrative, there is an inherent circularity to the process that makes it susceptible to disequilibria.

In fact, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, emancipation of the Jews and general secularization in parts of Europe combined with persecution of the Jews led to precisely the kind of disequilibrium I discussed in earlier posts. We find the bonds of tradition weakening for some, while for others tradition becomes more and more stringent and detailed. The restriction of outlets for Jewish creativity in political and economic spheres led to hyper-intellectualization of reality. At the apex of this process, Rav Chaim Brisker could find broad abstract structures in a haphazard mass of evolving traditions and the Sfas Emes could reduce the entire concrete world to an arbitrary and somewhat intrusive instantiation of the symbolic world. The need for the faithful to signal loyalty to ever narrower splinter group led to increasing emphasis on precisely those aspects of tradition that were obscure and unnatural and the lack of opportunity for constructive sacrifice led to socially costly signaling. As migration and emancipation in some places led to increasing encounters with others, the need for the faithful to affirm an articulated narrative became that much greater and the specificity of the narrative grew as well. Affirming belief in the genius of the sages, the powers of the righteous and the inevitable downfall of the wicked became a litmus test of loyalty in parallel with mass defection from traditional faith. Each was a reaction to the other and together they constituted a spiral driving further and further from equilibrium.

It is easy to understand how the founding of a Jewish state could address these problems. A state would provide constructive outlets for creativity. Jewish traditions could be applied to whole areas of activity that had been off limits for centuries. The ingathering of exiles would focus attention on the common, more foundational, elements of Jewish tradition, rather than on the random details manifest in the particular codes of each sub-sub-community. Jews could signal loyalty to the community and to tradition by making socially constructive sacrifices on behalf of the general welfare. And the main elements of the narrative, the rewarding of the Jews’ loyalty to tradition by their return to former glories, would be affirmed before the eyes of the whole world.

(To avoid giving the appearance of neglecting the obvious I should add that a Jewish state also held the crucial promise of increasing the security and prosperity of the Jews. But I regard this as subsumed in the above. Moreover, if the sole desiderata were security and prosperity and not the preservation of the process, assimilation might have been a better solution.)

Now there are two ways of understanding how the founding of a state could address the problems enumerated above. In the first understanding, the role of the state is simply to create conditions that catalyze a return of Judaism towards equilibrium. It is sufficient that the state provides Jews with liberty, with an environment that reflects the values of a preponderantly Jewish population and with opportunities to express Jewish tradition creatively in many areas of life. The healing process will then take place within the Jewish community itself, a community that retains an identity distinct from the state itself. This is my preferred understanding and one of my main objectives here is to flesh out its details.

Most of those who pressed for founding a Jewish state had, however, a very different vision of the relationship between the prospective Jewish state and the Jews as a community (or more precisely as a collection of nested sub-communities). The idea was that the state would replace Jewish communities. The state, not the community, would become the locus of Jewish identity; the laws of the state would replace the norms of the community; the state would become the central character in the Jewish narrative; citizenship in the state would play the role of membership in the community.

Conflating the concept of Jewish peoplehood with Jewish statehood encounters a number of obvious obstacles. Membership in each is determined in completely different ways. Citizenship in a state is determined primarily by geographic considerations, while membership in a moral community is determined primarily by voluntary identification with the social norms and narrative of the community. But you need to bear in mind that the original idea of founding a Jewish state was tied up with certain romantic notions of nationalism that were popular at the time in German philosophical circles. Nations (what I prefer to call communities) were believed to embody some essential Idea or Spirit which could also be embodied by a State. It isn’t important to actually understand what that means (when philosophers resort to capitalizing even in non-German, that's almost certain to be a hopeless task); it was simply a sleight of hand designed to paper over the obvious unbridgeable difference between peoplehood and statehood.

In fact, attempts to bridge this difference in the Jewish context actually came in two flavors. One flavor was favored by those who had given up on Judaism as a religion but retained feelings of ethnic identification. For them, conflating peoplehood with statehood was a means of narrowing the definition of peoplehood to the civil terms that could be accommodated by statehood. A different flavor was favored by those who wished to revive and strengthen Jewish religious life. For them, conflating peoplehood with statehood was a means of narrowing the definition of statehood to the ethnic-religious terms that could be accommodated by peoplehood. As I’ll discuss in future posts, both flavors of this approach were doomed from the start.

The key point for us now is that despite its apparent demise, this approach has bequeathed us certain statist ideas that have significantly impeded the state’s ability to catalyze Jewish communities’ return to equilibrium. In the next several posts, I’ll discuss the different roles a state can play and how these can redound to the benefit or detriment of communities.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

In the previous post, we made the acquaintance of my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor. He’s basically a decent fellow whose moral commitments are focused on the only kind of morality he understands – fairness. The kinds of morality that flow from community affiliation – loyalty to a specific tradition and the bearers of that tradition – appear to him (as an outsider to all such traditions) as manifestations of clannishness and xenophobia. In the name of fairness, he seeks to at least level the playing field on which successful and unsuccessful communities compete by undermining successful communities. I find this objective malign enough, but in this post I’ll explain why the malignancy is compounded by the methods that flow naturally from the logic of unaffiliation.

Recall how communities reach a collective decision regarding some issue. The starting point is the received wisdom regarding comparable issues. Multiple spontaneous individual decisions, as well as deliberate rulings by elders, ultimately coalesce into some sort of consensus that is incorporated into the received wisdom of the next generation. The process, like the community itself, is assumed to continue indefinitely. Now consider how the same issue might be resolved in the absence of a community. In such a case, received wisdom carries little weight. The role of elders is assumed by experts, whose job is not to interpret received wisdom but rather to design optimal solutions from scratch. And the relevant time horizon is short since decisions are not tentative steps in an open-ended process, but rather attempts to optimize something or other here and now.

This approach to decision-making should frighten you. Decisions made by experts more inclined to defy tradition than to respect it are much more likely to lead to catastrophe than decisions that evolve naturally from time-tested traditions. This is all the more true if the objective of such decisions is to maximize something in the short term rather than to achieve some good enough result for now and allow the process to continue to creep in the right general direction. There might not be any very good solution in the short term to what ails us and the insistence on finding one is likely to wreak havoc.

But let’s get back to my neighbor. He knows two things. He wants to bring successful communities down a few notches and he trusts experts, not elders, to figure out how to get things done. In other words, he is inclined towards policies that affect very many people (communities) that are crafted by very few people (experts). Not to put too fine a point on it, my neighbor’s view of the world – a view that follows logically from his lack of affiliation with any moral community – is one in which the consequences of decisions flow from the top down. He trusts experts to compute just how to redistribute and to diversify in the very best possible way. Do I need to explain how this takes us down the road to serfdom?

When you have a hammer, the whole world is a nail. And when you trust experts to engineer societies, the world’s most pressing problems are bound to be the ones amenable to social engineering. Like Thomas Sowell’s “anointed”, my neighbor is well practiced at discovering crises that imperil cities, countries, preferably the cosmos itself, but to which the benighted masses are oblivious. The experts, however, know just what to do, namely, regulate the dangerous behavior of the masses.

So, for example, I’m an agnostic on global warming (or whatever they call it these days), at least as far as the science goes. But as far as second-order information goes – the evidence for deciding whom to trust – I can’t help but notice that global warming wins the unaffiliated trifecta. First, it involves a quixotic quest for eternal good health. Second, it sets up modern civilization as the villain. Third, it proposes a solution in which experts curtail the behavior of the masses. Without knowing a damn thing about the science, I’m simply not willing to take seriously any story that fits the genre quite that perfectly.

More generally, I’m frightened by people like my unaffiliated neighbor (hypothetical neighbor, I emphasize) for whom fairness always trumps other virtues, for whom feel-good crusades trump lives, and for whom expert theories trump common sense. I am particularly wary of those who shift the power to make decisions that affect the many up to the few anointed ones unsullied by community affiliation.

Of course, the mechanism most commonly used to concentrate power in the hands of these anointed is …(drumroll)… the state.


Thus ends the first half of this series of posts. From here on, I’ll be discussing which roles states can fulfill effectively and which they can’t. In particular, I’ll be discussing what a Jewish state is good for and what it’s not good for. And just to hint at the tie-in with all the stuff I’ve been discussing until now, consider this: who has an interest in a very powerful (vis-à-vis its citizens) Jewish state, those who are committed to the Jewish People as a community (or collection/hierarchy of communities) or those who do not identify with the Jewish People as a community?

Monday, December 13, 2010

So we have met the unaffiliateds and mused about their narrative and code. My actual neighbor says, perhaps somewhat wistfully, that unaffiliateds make good neighbors. I wonder about that. It is certainly true that an unaffiliated neighbor is unlikely to blow up my house while shouting “Allahu Akhbar!”. He’s also unlikely to care if I’m a Zali or an Aroini or a mamlachti or an anti-mamlachti. He just wants fairness and justice. What could be bad?

The instinct for fairness is one of the three flavors of moral instinct that we considered earlier. Although it’s less community-dependent than the others, the fairness instinct is still a bit hard to pin down. We sense that it is connected to equality among people, but there are many versions of equality. Do we wish all goods to be distributed equally among individuals? Do we seek only equality of opportunity? Should only goods be equally distributed or perhaps also power? Brief reflection will lead to the conclusion that these possible interpretations of equality are not only incompatible but individually incoherent. If we insist on equal distribution of goods, we’d have to prevent commerce which would quickly lead to inequality. Moreover, assigning some people the power to ensure equal distribution of goods means that power is unequally distributed. Furthermore, the total amount of goods available is not fixed but rather dependent on production, which itself is a function of incentives that would be greatly diminished by guaranteed equality. Furthermore, the same goods have different utility for different people so equal distribution of goods does not imply equal distribution of utility. One can go on and on in this vein.

What concerns me about my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor is what kind of equality he intends to strive for. Since I’m familiar with the narrative of his quasi-community of unaffiliateds, I have some notion of what sort of equality might appeal to him. My neighbor can’t fail to note that members of communities attempt to balance fairness with community-based ethics like loyalty. But since to him loyalty has little value and fairness has infinite value, he regards moral communities as little more than mafias committed to their own good at the expense of others. He is doubly offended that there is blatant inequality among communities; some communities are materially successful, while others are poor. But worse than this, some seem to achieve some equilibrium in which the flavors of morality are plausibly balanced, while others abandon any pretense of substantive commitment either to loyalty to insiders or to fairness to outsiders. And in fact the two kinds of success, material and moral, seem to be correlated. (The reason for this correlation is that societies with a high degree of social trust are best able to do commerce, but this needn’t concern us here.) Such a community’s success is offensive to my neighbor’s sensibilities because, apart from its unfair success, such a community presumes to be something it cannot be – both cohesive and fair.

The sort of fairness my neighbor will seek, then, is one that levels the playing field on which successful and unsuccessful communities compete. More precisely, he will seek to sabotage successful communities in the name of justice. The intermediate objectives will sound rather benign: redistribution and diversity. The rhetoric of redistribution will always emphasize the need to care for the sick and the elderly, but the logic of redistribution can’t be restricted to the level of individuals. Even if each individual community has mechanisms in place to deal with its own poor in a satisfactory way, the demand for equality will simply be shifted to the level of communities: persistent inequality among different communities will need to be addressed, even if it is disguised as welfare for individuals. Similarly, the insistence that diverse communities be equally represented in forums, such as universities, that might otherwise reward achievement is another way to address inequality among communities.

But both redistribution and diversity serve a purpose beyond inter-communal equality. They actually corrode communities. Redistribution is a means to deny the rewards of social capital that accrue to community members and so to diminish the incentives of such membership. Promotion of diversity is a means to undermine the cohesiveness of communities by denying them functional or geographic exclusiveness. Furthermore, by emphasizing the arbitrariness of differences between communities, diversity entrepreneurs implant in impressionable minds the arbitrariness of membership in any one community.

At this point, my unaffiliated neighbor still doesn’t sound like much of a bogeyman. He is, after all, unlikely to charge into my home to enforce redistribution or diversity. But, if he’s a politically active sort, he might agitate for policies that achieve that and those policies worry me a great deal for several reasons. First of all, the world view that seeks to equalize successful and failed communities inevitably aids and abets dangerous savages. Failed communities fail for a reason and a lack of institutions that engender social trust is typically the reason. The lack of such institutions is correlated with (the direction of the causality doesn’t matter) a community’s failure to balance internal cohesiveness (community-based ethics) with fairness towards others. In short, it is precisely those with the greatest contempt for the fairness that my neighbor so earnestly wishes to promote who will always be the recipients of his goodwill. And it is those most successful at striking a balance between cohesiveness and fairness that he will most seek to undermine. (You know who they are, but we haven’t yet reached the concrete political part of this series, so let’s talk in abstractions for now.)

You must wonder how an educated and truly decent fellow like my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor who truly wants only justice to be done can find himself siding with some of the world’s most xenophobic savages. The answer is that the impetus to act on behalf of fairness must be fueled by righteous anger. There’s no shame in that; it’s how human beings are. Righteous anger is directed at the communities who need to be knocked down in the name of fairness. In order to be the objects of scorn, they must be regarded as capable of exercising free will and indeed they are so regarded. But those who are being helped in the name of fairness need to be the objects not of anger but of sympathy. Being the object of sympathy does not entail being assigned agency. On the contrary, those being helped in the name of fairness are, in my neighbor’s narrative, eternal children, always worthy of sympathy, never capable of responsibility.

In short, my benign neighbor’s genuine commitment to fairness scares the hell out of me. But this is only the half of it. Because more than I fear his objectives, I fear the means that he will use to achieve them. I was intending to get to that in this post as well, but I’ve rambled on for too long already, so I’ll discuss the unaffiliateds approach to solving social problems in my next post.