Thursday, September 15, 2011

Draining the life out of life

Charles Murray is a very prominent social scientist. He claims to be originally liberal and very much an empirical, data-driven social scientist, but is best known for books like The Bell Curve and Losing Ground.

Mark Steyn (who I discuss here) refers to a speech Murray gave in 2009 on "The Happiness of the People".

Murray asks whether we should want the European social model:

First, the problem with the European model, namely: It drains too
much of the life from life. And that statement applies as much to
the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does
to the lives of CEOs.

The problem is it undermines the institutions that give people lastIng satisfaction:

If we ask what are the institutions through which human
beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are
just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications:
“Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically.
“Vocation” can include avocations or causes.

Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.

When government tries to take on social problems, he says, it often weakens these institutions:

The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality—it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable.

When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

For example, the US welfare state has arguably undermined the family.

We have seen growing legions of children raised in unimaginably awful circumstances, not
because of material poverty but because of dysfunctional families, and the collapse of functioning neighborhoods into Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zones.

The result is anomie and drift and breakdown.

The speech was given in March 2009, so it predates the pictures of mass protests in Greece, strain in European bond markets and rioting in London streets.

I think there is something to this. We spend unimaginable billions on poverty alleviation and income redistribution in western countries. But society seems more fractured than ever. As some people joke, we fougHt the war against poverty for thirty years. And poverty won.

The heart of it comes back to culture versus resources. I talked earlier about the central liberal and conservative truths. The fact is when you transfer resources you also transform incentives and the culture and the ecology of social rules and purposes that goes with them. And that cultural change is often toxic.

What do we take from this? Looking at income and resources and economic quantities alone is not enough. The old left tends to think, with Marx, that culture is just superstructure, a reflection of the means of production. But economics and culture intertwine.

And the more we have solved what Keynes called the "economic problem", the more the cultural side matters in giving people the life they want, with some sense of purpose and satisfaction.

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