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.


Anonymous Shalom Dover said...

Ben - Have you read Sharansky's "Defending Identity"?

11:05 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Of course.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What if your neighbor is an unaffiliated libertarian (a rare breed, to be sure)?

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

Here is a link to Prof Ernest Sternberg's article about the "Purification movement" which has a lot of overlap with the "unaffiliateds" which Ben Chorin is describing for us. I highly recommend it:

The fact is that "lovers of humanity" such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jimmy Carter (although Carter claims to be a Christian and not an "unaffiliated"), not to mention Karl Marx, are or were big time antisemites. The Jews are always getting in the way of their utopian dreams.

9:40 PM  

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