April 22, 2006

From the place we are now...

Hale put some comments about Libertarianism into the last post, and I started to respond, and things got out of control...and so here's another post! [Get a life! --ed. Yer lookin' at it!] Hale wrote:

"A lot of the social ills you rail against aren't really something the government can do much about, either to encourage or discourage. And when it does try to "manage" society, it runs into something called "the Law of Unintended Consequences'....."

Well, yeah. From the place where we at are now, that's true. But in the past there was a generally agreed-upon public morality and a base set of rules and virtues. And government was just one of a constellation of institutions and individuals that worked together to push people toward conformity. Within that world government was very effective, because the cop on the beat was on the same page as the priest and the teacher and the mayor and the newspaper editor and all the neighbors.

There was still a lot of that consensus when I was growing up. If any of us kids got out of line, any nearby grownup would probably come down on us hard. Everybody agreed on the rules, so anybody could enforce them. Government was often a threat "in reserve." And it could act in a flexible non-bureaucratic ways, say by just harassing the hell out of those who overstepped the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Or think of how it used to be hard to get a divorce. This was government "pushing morality," but it was just a supplement to commonly held social and religious beliefs. So it was not "oppression," and was effective.

But we hosed that world of shared values, and it's true that government can't do much in our present situation. "You can't get there from here." (It was the leftists, socialists, who did most of the deconstruction, because the old institutions were impediments to total government control. They wanted people "atomized," so they would be dependent on the state. They still do, but now it's mostly a reflex, not a philosophy.)

I think libertarianism was mostly a reaction to the new situation, not a cause. But...

BUT, I also think libertarianism has always taken the old situation for granted, as something that would just "continue to exist." Rather like teenagers acting wild and foolish, because they feel confident that the grownups will stay sober and hold everything together. Libertarianism always seems to assume that if we legalize [insert social pathology], it won't make a big difference because most people will continue to act as they always have.

Well, I'm saying that we have tested that assumption, and it is now looking like it is false. And that the bills are coming due. And that neither Libertarianism nor Leftism has anything useful to say at this point.

The traditional rules and virtues were, I think, like a rope made of many weak strands, that twisted together became very strong. And it is easy to mock any particular strand, and say it's silly and can surely be dispensed with. And easy to mock traditionalists and moralists who predict that the loss of one strand will lead to disaster.

The disaster is now. That rope kept most people acting in certain ways. Such as getting married, working hard, having children, sticking with spouses, sacrificing for family, eschewing behaviors and pleasures that might undermine families. In much of the developed world we have cut many of the strands, and we are discovering that the assumption that people would just carry on as usual is false. In Italy or Germany the maternity hospitals are almost empty.

And we are getting some other unpleasant surprises. It's just been assumed that people will always be willing to defend their country or their civilization when they are attacked. Been assumed that it won't really matter if we cease to encourage fusty old concepts like duty and honor and patriotism and self-sacrifice, because people will still do what's needed. Now we look at places like Spain or the Netherlands, and say "Nope. Wrong."

Is there any way to go back to where we were? Probably not. But we may be able to repair some of the damage, and preserve the remnants, and evolve new forms. I don't have any great plan, but I think that wise people should be thinking about where we ought to go, and always be pushing against the currents that drive us away from it.

Posted by John Weidner at April 22, 2006 8:01 PM
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