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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So far this has been a very interesting series. I believe however, that in your latest post you have taken way too much for granted in making your case. For example, you do not even come close to proving your point that desire for fairness somehow translates into desire to pull people down to a certain level. Yes, by definition, redistribution of resources absolutely means taking from one and giving to another. However, I think it is quite unlikely that people like your unaffiliated neighbor do so out of a desire to bring successful communities down a few notches. Rather, he would more logically wish that less successful communities could be brought up to the level of the more successful by a sharing of resources. He might make that case based upon some inherent and pervasive societal bias.

You completely lost all reason with your screed against "global warming". It is not the same to suggest that time tested methods of living should be given their due as it is to say that expertise of any kind at best should not be trusted and at worst is worthless. Sloppy Sloppy Sloppy.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

Ben Chorin couldn't be more RIGHT about what the "unaffiliated" think.
Look at this piece by Yossi Sarid:

Classic Marxist view that all the money and wealth in a country "really" belongs to the state and it the state's right to "give" it to whom ever it wants. Profits are "immoral" because they are based on "exploitation" of labor and resources. Thus , Yossi would really like to go back to the good ole' days of MAPAI pseudo-socialist rule in which the MAPAI-MAPAM "experts" decide what everyone should get (and they make sure they get more than everyone else because they 'deserve' it-see Orwell's novel "Animal Farm"). His father was a cabinet minister in the 1950's so Yossi certainly got a priviledged upbringing. You can feel the jealousy Sarid is dripping in the column.

Other examples- at TPMCafe, a liberal American pro-Democratic party blog (heavily Jewish) someone wrote a piece asking " Why is Obama GIVING money to the rich?"-meaning, why is he willing to extend the tax breaks for upper income peole? Did you get that? NOT taking someone's money away as taxes is considered the same as GIVING him money-again, because in their 'unaffiliated' or 'progressive' view, all money really belongs to the state.
Antother piece there by former Clinton Sec'y of Labor Robert Reich was complaining there are too many rich people in the US. What difference does it make if there are rich people as long as those at the bottom have their basic needs met. His complaints were pure jealousy and reflect a desire to knock those peopel down.

A local example of this mentality was in the old MAFDAL (NRP) election campaign advertisements. They would say "look at all the schools we built for you, look at all the mikvaot and synaogues...if you don't vote for us you are an ingrate". Are there Knesset members taking money out of their own pockets and building these things for us? NO! They take OUR money and give some of it back as services and then claim THEY are giving us something that we really don't deserve but they are granting us anyway out of the goodness of their hearts.

Ben Chorin is right on in his analysis and it is clear to me that this 'unaffiliated' ideology is leading inevitably to tyranny. I am glad to see a religious thinker put a Torah perspective on these things. It is said that the ultimate "herut"-freedom is to follow the Torah. The Founding Fathers of the United States defined "freedom" as the ablility to reach one's maximum potential in life without external constraints (mostly governmental) holding one back. I can see now that this tyranny the "unaffiliateds" are leading us by taking away our freedom can be countered by a proper Torah perspective. In other words, the Torah is not only offering "freedom" in a maximized spitirual sense, but also "freedom" in our life in society and the economic system.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ben Chorin couldn't be more RIGHT about what the "unaffiliated" think."

I did not say he was not right. I said that he did not make his case in his article...and he did not.

Citing Yossi Sarid (or more accurately your view on Yossi Sarid) does not help the case. Yossi Sarid is not his hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor...neither is TPMCafe or Robert Reich (who you misquote out of context in any case). These are political activists all.

The unaffiliated person to whom he is referring is that average person who views fairness as the most important societal virtue. His argument is that requiring fairness in outcomes will inevitably result in penalizing the most successful actors and rewarding the failed actors. However, the unaffiliated person who is interested in fairness might be concerned with equality of opportunity rather than equality of result. He may be perfectly happy if people become rich from their own devices but would not be happy if they gained their riches by not playing by the rules. In other words there are many intermediate steps between feeling that fairness is a cardinal virtue and pulling the highest achievers down to level the playing field for lower achievers. It is a complex case and he simply did not take the care to make the case.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

The "politicians" I mentioned all subscribe to significant parts of the "unaffiliated" ideology Ben Chorin wrote about. Prof Ernest Sternberg calls it the "Purification" ideology (I posted a link to it in a comment on one of the preceding parts Ben Chorin posted) and it overlaps greatly with the "unaffiliated" ideology. Sternberg points out, for example, that these people despise parliamentary democracy. Sarid, although a long-time member of Israel's parliament, is constantly deriding all the parliamentary politicians, and practically everyone else in the country, which is in line with this ideology. At TPM the line of most of the comments and many of the columnists is that Israel-AIPAC or the plutocrat-industrialists or Wall Street control Congress and that it doesn't represent "the people".
While there are 'pro-capitalist' unaffiliateds such as Bernard Avishai, it seems to me that there is a strong anti-capitalist stream in their beliefs.
I stand by what I said about Robert Reich's lament about there being so many rich people in the US. I recall seeing comments there that understood it the way I did.

I would be interested to know if you have read Sternberg's paper and if you agree that it largely overlaps with your "unaffiliateds" (Sternberg himself stated that many people only partially subscribe to the "purificationist" ideology but the the maximalist position is close to what you say about the true-believing "unaffiliateds").

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The "politicians" I mentioned all subscribe to significant parts of the "unaffiliated" ideology Ben Chorin wrote about. Prof Ernest Sternberg calls it the Purification" ideology"

Sheesh. How can you possibly make the leap from those politicians you mention to Ben's neighbor. You totally miss the meaning of the word unaffiliated. He is not speaking of self avowed leftist politicians! He is speaking about they guy down the block who is unaffiliated with a traditional ethnic or religious group who as a result does not understand the trade offs inherent in group dynamics. As a result, his only uncontested true faith belief is in fairness.

As for Prof. Ernest Steinberg, he is speaking of elites as well. It is low comedy at best to try and apply his overwrought prose to the guy down the street.

It just goes to show, when you view the world through your own lens even the tiniest connection can have monumental significance.

9:04 PM  
Blogger RAM said...

Now that you've raised the issue of states:

States that aspire to increasing power over their citizens promote disintermediation at every turn. The bypassed or eliminated entities (communities, institutions...) are precisely the ones that collectively live and pass on the traditional ways.

Electing all Knesset members at large, and not by district, is an example of what we should want to avoid.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Ben said...


First of all, pick a better handle. Anonymous is a bit of a cliche.

It seems a bit foolish to argue about what a hypothetical person thinks, but the blame for the shortcomings of that particular literary device falls squarely on my shoulders.

In any case, my claim that the logic of my neighbor's lack of affiliation would lead to hostility towards successful community was based on more than you acknowledge in your summary of my argument. It is not merely that he over-values fairness and wishes to redistribute resources. It is also that he resents communities for not similarly over-valuing fairness. These are two separate attitudes that independently lead towards the same goal.

And as far as global warming, you use the word "screed". Believe me, I can do screed and that wasn't it. I did not say, as you claim, that I give no credit to experts at all (a completely unsustainable position), but rather that in a matter of controversy (about which I profess agnosticism), I have reason to doubt the credibility of particular experts whose claims are plausibly attributable to motivations other than the search for truth.

Thanks for the pointer to Sternberg. I haven't finished it yet, but I can already say that I'm sympathetic with the main thrust but am wary of his mistrust of communities, as you might imagine.

Of course, you've anticipated my main point, though I am not convinced that regional elections will improve matters.

11:33 PM  
Anonymous David S said...

"It seems a bit foolish to argue about what a hypothetical person thinks"

Well maybe, but if we are attempting to draw some inference about a defined group such as the "unaffiliated" we will be forced to create some kind of model person.

"It is not merely that he over-values fairness and wishes to redistribute resources. It is also that he resents communities for not similarly over-valuing fairness."

I know that is your view, but I do not believe that you made that case that the unaffiliated wishes to bring his neighbors down a few notches. Yes, he believes that everybody should be concerned with fairness but that does not of necessity require him to advocate a punitive view of successful groups. It is quite possible and I would think rather likely that a large portion of these unaffiliated also resent free riders. Indeed, they may wish to address issues of fairness through education and training.

It is ironic that many experts advocate modeling the practices of successful groups in a variety of fields (while stripping out the aspects that they believe to be inessential). I think that you are much too concerned about rule by experts. After all, traditional groups (such as the Haredi and their Gadolim) are often very concerned with what experts (poskim and other Torah Luminaries) say and do. In other words, the willingness to give up autonomy, in exchange for the comforting view that if you simply follow the leader you are in good shape is found across the spectrum and may even be more pronounced in traditional societies.

I definitely think you are onto something when you recognize that the quest for equality, to the exclusion of other societal goals can become idolatrous and dangerous. I just don't think that your typical unaffiliated person has gone nearly that far in his beliefs.

1:16 AM  
Blogger RAM said...

"...I am not convinced that regional elections will improve matters."

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This would be a modest step toward politician accountability. Even a small, multiparty country can suffer from an elite governing class remote from the grass roots communities. The current format of representation makes even the small, specialized parties too cliquy and out of touch.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

I happen to think that going to a constituency system (American or British sytle) is the one constitutional reform that could really make a difference in Israel. While it does not prevent corruption, it does make each MK directly accountable to the voters in his district. The MK would have every incentive to keep his voters happy, even if they are potentially supporters of another party. For example, a secular MK who has a significant minority of Haredi constituents would likely try to make them happy. This is the way it works in the US...there are no "Orthodox/Religous" parties there but the religious Jews have a lot of political clout due to their disciplined nature and high voter turnout. Thus, non-religious Jews and non-Jews who serve as their representatives bend over backwards to get things for them. A good example was Hillary Clinton when she was Senator from New York. She is a good example of the "unafilliated" or "post-Modern" ideology but she went a long way to help Hasidic constituenst, whose lifestyle and values are the opposite of everything she believes in.

8:24 AM  

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