Friday, November 30, 2012

Welfare and the Good Life


We're looking at Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, starting here.

Against the European Welfare model

The connection between the four basic social institutions and happiness leads Murray to argue for American exceptionalism, as against the European welfare model.

The tacit assumption of the advanced welfare state is correct when human beings face starvation or death by exposure. Then, food and shelter are all that count. But in an advanced society, the needs for food and shelter can be met in a variety of ways, and at that point human needs can no longer be disaggregated. The ways in which food and shelter are obtained affects whether the other human needs are met.

People need self-respect, but self-respect must be earned—it cannot be self-respect if it’s not earned—and the only way to earn anything is to achieve it in the face of the possibility of failing.

This is of course a version of what I have talked about before, a change in needs as we rise up Maslow's hierarchy. The welfare state ramified in the 1960s as one response to abundance. Given sufficient wealth, the main political drive has been towards equal distribution rather than new flourishing and possibility.

Upper class people still generally practice these four institutional virtues, he says. They are much more likely to be married, see a job as a calling and work hard, practice religion, and believe others can be trusted. In a sense, getting ahead requires them.

The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.

He thinks this view, nonjudgemental "niceness", is living on borrowed time, however, as science produces more results which refute it.

Here are some more examples of things I think the neuroscientists and geneticists will prove over the next few decades: Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities. Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities. People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological, and physiological profiles. Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did.

So he thinks it will become obvious that nonjudgemental welfarism will be understood to undermine the crucial institutions of society.

The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives. It will be found that those institutions deteriorate in the advanced welfare states for reasons that are intrinsic to the nature of the welfare state. It will be found that those institutions are richest and most robust in states that allow people to work out their lives on their own and in company with the people around them.

Putting it together

So what do we make of this? As a rule I consider libertarianism a horrible mistake. But Murray is a strange kind of libertarian. He is not so much arguing for the market and voluntary Ayn Randian contractualism, as strengthened independent social institutions.

He calls for an emphasis on virtue, which I like, but it in practice he means strengthening his four core institutions rather than the Aristotelian virtues as such. It is sociology more than ethics. He does not have much of the rest of virtue ethics, such as the golden mean, or an emphasis on the multiplicity of virtues.

What he does have is a kind of sociological vision of the good life, of flourishing, which I think makes him divergent from full libertarianism. Flourishing for him means strengthening those four institutions and reducing the role of government and bureaucracy in life.

I think this is what my friend, who I mentioned at the beginning of the post, was hostile to. Murray says people have to make their own choices in life, but his view is much less sympathetic for radical innovation in lifestyles. He believes in marriage, in standard jobs, in the churches, in stability.

But there is a basic confusion here. People do not work out their lives on their own, or even just in the company of those around them. They do so in the context of an ethical vision of the good life, of what contributes to happiness. We do not start off from year zero every time we make a decision.

Government and bureaucracy cannot run our lives for us. That much is true. But we still need a conception of the common good. Traditional libertarianism does not do that. It is just about process. Murray's distaste for government means he throws much of the possibility of common culture out as well.

I've said a number of times I think the debate between government and the market is a stale 20th century debate. Instead, the real issue is what we do about abundance and what flourishing means. Murray contributes some hard statistical evidence to that question, about the value of social institutions. But it correlation, rather than explanation.

It is a good argument against welfarist government. But it does not make any case for the positive possibilities of abundance, or how institutions need to adapt. What becomes of work if the demand for medium-skilled jobs is being hollowed out, for example? How do you promote social trust?

America is about new possibilities of freedom - and what that means substantively when material necessities are met.



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