Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Third Concept of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between two concepts of liberty. Negative liberty is constituted by the limits protecting an individual, inside of which no other individual or entity may interfere. As long as the person is not harming others, she may, within those limits, do as she pleases. Let the couch potato be. Friedrich von Hayek or, much more simple-mindedly, Ayn Rand are advocates of negative liberty. Positive liberty is harder to define. It basically means the freedom to do, not just anything, but what is right or correct, which itself must be determined by some criteria other than merely what the individual “wants.” For many advocates of positive liberty – for example, Rousseau or Marx – letting the couch potato remain a couch potato is not to defend his liberty, but to leave him in servitude. The threats to positive liberty can come, then, not just from outside individuals, but also from within, from one’s own weak character or temptations, from false consciousness. Indeed, defenders of positive liberty often see outside interference in what they believe is only ostensibly free choice as a prerequisite for true, positive freedom. One can be “forced to be free,” in Rousseau’s memorable and chilling phrase.
I believe it’s worthwhile considering what two other thinkers said, or at least implied, about the best kind of liberty. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, both advocates of the emerging market-based societies and liberal politics, but also both (especially Mill) wary of an overly exuberant individual liberty, suggested a third concept of liberty, I believe. Crucial to this alternative, as we’ll see, was something else Smith and Mill shared: a methodological individualist approach to society (avant la lettre). Namely, society emerged, unintended, out of the independent actions and interactions of all its millions of constituent individuals. In turn, these could be shaped, at least partly, by the interactions with their fellows.
Smith was, of course, one of the earliest and most influential advocates of dismantling mercantilist interference in the economy and unshackling individuals to pursue their own interests. Out of their strivings, unanticipated by anyone, would emerge the greatest wealth possible as well as a fair distribution of what Smith called “the real happiness of human life.” So far, he sounds like an advocate of negative liberty. However, his warnings about the unforeseen consequences of overweening ambition and his most forceful arguments for the free market raise the strong suspicion that Smith will not be categorized so easily. Time and again, but most memorably in the story of the “poor man’s son,” Smith suggests that great ambition rarely, if ever, leads to happiness (He warns, for example, “Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition.”) Instead, real happiness comes from “tranquility,” the society of one’s fellows, and knowing not only that one is loved, but that one is lovable. And how can one achieve these things? For the bulk of society, for the “middling and inferior stations,” it is only through a market-based order. The market demands qualities – honesty, thrift, reliability – that happen to be virtues, and that also earn one tranquility and the love of one’s peers. Furthermore, it is only the market which overcomes the abject poverty that would, Smith thinks, result from Rousseau’s autarkic state. Poverty is not just painful in and of itself, but for Smith of even greater concern is how poverty undermines the possibility of living ethically. This is the upshot of his observation that in poor societies people feel compelled to commit infanticide: their poverty preempts their morality. Smith’s greatest concern is with the “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of society” – and by circumstances he has not only their material well-being, but also their internal dispositions - their happiness, tranquility and even virtue - in mind.
Smith believes, then, that the market, and only the market, can help achieve what appear to be elements of positive liberty: tranquility, approval of one’s fellow man, a kind of virtue, etc. These, I believe, were what he ultimately wanted for society. While he saw the freedom of the market as good in and of itself, he makes his strongest case in terms of the market’s consequences. The market is primarily an instrument. Smith thus advocates negative liberty, especially the ultimately misguided liberty of such overly ambitious people as the poor man’s son, in order to achieve positive liberty for the bulk of society.
In a very similar way, Mill combines an instrumental view of negative liberty with the goal of – gently - achieving a kind of positive liberty. Mill is of course famous for his “harm principle”: each should be able to do as he will, as long as he doesn’t harm others. But this streak of pure negative liberty is subordinated to a particular kind of utilitarianism, one much closer to positive liberty. Unlike Bentham, Mill doesn’t believe that Pushkin and push-pin (a simple game) are equal pleasures. He wants people to love Pushkin, to learn to appreciate more noble joys. Thus, he says that he regards “utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” Writing in the middle of the 19th century, when the democratic impulse was fast spreading through society and culture, Mill was most concerned about how liberty and “utility in the largest sense” could be preserved at the same time, how free people could be led to appreciate higher over lower pleasures. His solution was to trust in the powers of education and the guidance and, indeed, the political privileging of the better-educated. Even more important, people needed to be exposed to a variety of circumstances and ways of living; only then would their freedom to choose lead them, more or less on their own, to the higher pleasure. “Freedom and a variety of situations,” Mill quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt, are the two preconditions necessary for the achievement of “the end of man” - namely, “the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.”
Thus, like Smith, Mill advocates liberty – negative liberty – primarily for its utilitarian effects of a particular kind, that is, for something very akin to positive liberty. Neither of these liberals, however, would ever sanction the compulsions that Rousseau and Marx condone or advocate; they wouldn’t speak of forcing people to be free. Rather, Smith and Mill, guided by their overriding awareness of unintended consequences and the complex, almost organic emergence of social patterns, look to the salutary effects of myriad free social interactions to lead people on their own to positive liberty (Mill, it is true, writing in a different, and as he perceived it, more fraught era, did come closer to abandoning a consistent advocacy of negative liberty when he endorsed greater political influence for the better-educated.) These thinkers, it seems to me, thus suggest a third concept of liberty, one which uses negative freedom as a means to achieve – gently – the end of positive liberty. This positive liberty might even appear to be a kind of emergent property of interacting individuals endowed with negative freedoms.
How prescient and realistic were Smith and Mill? Has our free-market society led to forms of positive liberty, to “better” pleasures and behaviors. This must remain the topic for another post (but see my entry In Praise of Rousseau and Marx, along with the reader comments). Also a topic for the future will be the recent work by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein on what they call “libertarian authoritarianism” or “authoritarian libertarianism.” I think this represents a very promising new stage in thinking about a topic at the center of both Smith’s and Mill’s work: preserving liberty while achieving the good.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Solipsism and Human Connections

Nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow feeling with all the emotions in our own breast - Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Happiness is only real when shared - “Alexander Supertramp” (Christopher McCandless), Into the Wild

The essential, vital role that sharing emotions plays in our lives is all the more striking when one considers the fundamental solipsism of our existence. Two observations illustrate this profound isolation. It was Adam Smith who suggested that a man gives more thought to a cut on his finger than to 100,000 Chinese who have died in an earthquake. Sadly, I observe this in myself all the time. Ask yourselves, how often since July (when was the accident again?) have you thought of the more than 200 people who died on that flight from Brazil to Paris. Recently, I did, but it was the first time in months. Not only did they suffer, but their families have been mourning the unbearable loss ever since. I’ve spent considerably more time cursing the Red Sox’ dismal post-season performance. How many other deaths, how much other immense pain, we easily put out of our minds. Or if you are suffering yourself – from a professional disappointment, a failed romance – how easily everybody else’s suffering, indeed everybody else, disappears beside your own woes.
And I don’t think it can be otherwise. Perhaps meditating monks can let go of their egos, but not many of the rest of us can. I’ve heard that when you become a parent, for the first time in your life you are able extend your ego outside yourself, to that other little, dependent being. Still, the compass is never very wide.
It gets worse. Even our self-centered minds can’t focus for long. You’ve almost certainly seen those optical illusions that “flip” back and forth, for example, from the profile of Freud to the body of a naked young woman. The images flip automatically, whether we intend it or not, roughly every three seconds. This is because of a metronome in our brain circuitry, which shifts our attention at those intervals. Follow your train of thoughts carefully. Don’t they usually jump to and fro, from what’s immediately in front of you to the upcoming lunch to yesterday’s news, and back again? We live in small temporal bubbles, each lasting just a few seconds. We all have ADD. I suppose that THIS form of solipsism is easier to overcome, at least temporarily, than self-centeredness. Short-circuiting it seems to depend on the presence of some stimulating, constantly changing external source that captures our attention. When we are reading a fascinating book, listening to a good friend talk about her heartbreak, or watching a gripping movie, we are generally able to concentrate for much longer than three seconds (even here, though, I suspect the mind wanders quite often). This is because the external source itself presents a changing kaleidoscope of strong impressions, never letting us get bored.
Nature seems to have made us this way, and I suppose yammering about it is about as useful as complaining about the coldness of space. Nonetheless, I find myself occasionally saddened by this basic condition of our lives (only occasionally – thank God for my wandering mind!).
Given our deeply self-centered concerns and vagabond minds, it must seem amazing that we are ever able to form such powerful bonds to other people. Perhaps part of it is that we are, in fact, grateful to be asked to step outside our selves and to share - for more than a few seconds - their joys and sorrows and interests, we're actually happy to step outside our little bubbles.
I think awareness of this solipsism needn’t only depress us; it might also make those connections to others seem all the more precious.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discovering God

The book of this title, by Rodney Stark, is peculiar. I read it at the beginning of the summer (which now feels like several years ago), so my comments will be a test both of my memory and of Stark’s power as a writer and scholar.
For a course on world history that I’m currently teaching, I wanted to find a single book that covered all the world’s major religions – and made some argument about their development. Ideally, of course, a convincing one. This is how I stumbled across Stark, whose name I was familiar with, since he wrote an influential book on the rise of early Christianity, explaining it in terms of social networks. Stark has carved out a space for himself in religious studies with his “supply-side” theory of religious change. Namely, he posits that religious demand is constant across all societies, but constant in its variability within each society. That is, all societies show the same pattern: some people are indifferent, others are fanatical, and the bulk fall somewhere in between. Religious changes, then, such as the Reformation or the American Great Awakenings, are caused, not by changes in this constant demand side, but rather by shifts in the supply. Stark believes that religious authorities have tended to establish monopolies, and these religious monopolies, like their economic confreres, have not served the people well. They have settled into routine and calcification, serving their own, not the people’s needs. In turn, this stultification can lead to the people’s “natural” religiosity going underground, for example in the form of sects. (Stark’s argument for the strong, if varied, natural religiosity of the people is one of two positions that challenge the earlier orthodox view in religious studies that modernization equaled secularization. The other is advanced by Thomas Luckmann, who suggests that while religion has, indeed, become less formal and organized, it has by no means weakened. All it has done is become “invisible,” in individuals’ quests for spirituality.)
Stark builds his book around this theme of the supply (usually) being choked off by monopolists. It’s generally convincing, but also, I found, rather repetitive and, in the end, unedifying. Each religion follows almost exactly the same pattern. Perhaps I unfairly compared Stark to Max Weber. I wanted to hear more about the differences and interactions between elite and popular religions, especially in regard to theodicy, “magic,” asceticism, congregational forms, etc. As a good Weberian, I also wanted to find out more about the varied effects of religions on their societies’ secular development.
Stark is a superb writer, who clearly loves to engage in polemics. Even when disagreeing with him, it’s a pleasure to engage with him.
One of the more interesting points he made was that the common notion that archaic (i.e. hunter gatherer and early agricultural) religions were all animistic or, at most, polytheistic is simply wrong. Relying on a survey of several hundred such societies, Stark makes a convincing case that a majority or at least a plurality of them had some conception of a “highest god.” Stark thus suggests that the polytheism of the earliest temple religions (in Sumer and elsewhere) was, in fact, regressive. However, he doesn’t adequately explain why the temple religions opted for polytheism – did it somehow facilitate their monopoly? It wasn’t clear.
The peculiarity of the book, and something that no doubts will rub many readers the wrong way, is that Stark very strongly hints that he thinks at least some religions really were discovering God – i.e. they were not just imagining or inventing him. Such a position is, indeed, quite rare in a scholarly book, although perhaps I’m just unfamiliar with the norms of religious studies. Stark tries to justify his hinted-at position (toward the end, he finally becomes more explicit). He draws up criteria for deciding which religions have truly discovered God, or at least have approached knowledge of Him, and he finds that only two make the cut: Judaism and, even better, Christianity. Q.E.D.! I didn’t find these arguments convincing, though I did enjoy the gusto with which he made his case and – especially – attacked his opponents. Imagining a debate between him and Christopher Hitchens brought a smile to my face.

Monday, October 5, 2009

In Praise of Rousseau and Marx

The title, to put it mildly, should surprise anyone familiar with my political and intellectual views. But those views do evolve, even if slowly and in within narrow confines.
Of course, I still consider both men to bear at least some responsibility for the awful things done in the name of secular salvation religions in the twentieth century. Both men, but especially Marx, promoted ways of thinking that, after many twists, ended in the Gulag Archipelago, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields. These include the idea that there is only one right form of positive freedom, to be achieved, if necessary, contrary to the wishes of actual people (“force them to be free”); the resulting fundamental intolerance of diversity; the certainty that they (especially Marx) knew the future, a belief that supported an ends-justify-the-means mentality; Marx’s support for a dictatorship of the proletariat and, within the proletariat, for the far-sighted guidance of bourgeois thinkers – such as himself.
On a very different, and much less consequential, scale, at the core of Marx’s thought are all sorts of untenable principles. Jon Elster (Making Sense of Marx) and other members of the so-called no-bullshit Marxism school have rightly excoriated the Hegelian elements in Marx: the belief in dialectic, in teleology, etc.
However, I come not to bury Rousseau and Marx, but to praise them. For what, though?
My central point involves no more than an application of John Stuart Mill’s plea for the value of intellectual diversity, even in the case of thinkers who committed many solecisms (Mill explicitly refers to Rousseau in this regard). Rousseau and Marx sketch an alternative model of human well-being, one which I believe it has become especially important in the past decade or so to keep alive.
For both of them, the key to living well is living within oneself. That is, they want people to live less – or not at all – for the gaining of external approval or values, whether in the form of money, power, or prestige, and more for the intrinsic value of their own actions – above all, the creativity of work – and for the satisfactions of non-instrumental sociability.
I first engaged more deeply with Rousseau and Marx while teaching in Harvard’s social studies program in the mid-2000s. At the time, my reading (and, I have to admit, probably my teaching) was often dominated by my deep dislike of the characteristics of their thought mentioned at the outset.
Over the last year or two, however, I find myself thinking more often – and more positively – about their vision of human freedom and well-being. Why the change? Mainly, I think it’s because of changes in technology, or at least my exposure to it.
First, it was only between 2007 and 2009, while out in Boulder, that I had cable TV for the first time. When I came home tired after work, I turned to the soft consolation of the TV far more often than I had wanted to. I knew, even as I was doing it, that watching snippets of the UFC, reality shows about Alaskan fishermen or Oregonian loggers, and even book readings on C-Span was not how I wanted to be spending my time. Even following the daily jostling and jiggling of the presidential campaign on CNN last fall seemed - deep, deep down, after an evening gorging myself on it - unworthy. But I continued to do it, because it did feel good, at least in the short term. However, I gained a very different perspective – in Rousseauvian or Marxist terms, I discovered positive freedom – quite by accident this summer. Namely, I had no cable, indeed no TV whatsoever, for parts of the summer. And when I THEN, on occasion, stumbled across Anderson Cooper’s breathless reports on the Michael Jackson murder investigation or some “breaking news” about Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, I recognized quite clearly just how trivial and unedifying – but addicting – these news stories are. The contrast was salutary and has led me to go without TV in my new apartment.
Second, as a teacher I’ve become much more cognizant of how students bombard themselves with stimuli, through Ipods and music, but above all through cell phones and texting. In class this year, despite several attempts, I haven’t been able to stamp out texting. I’m not sure whether texting has just become more prevalent in the last couple of years, or whether the students at my last two schools engaged in it more. I suppose, in part, my disapproval stems from evaluation of the students’ “life chances” to begin with. If Harvard (and similar) students fall into this addiction, other incentives will drag most of them out of it before it becomes too disruptive. At many other schools, where the students are less motivated and less disciplined to begin with, I think the temptation only exacerbates serious existing handicaps.
Both of these activities – TV watching and texting (or otherwise using gadgets for stimulation and mood-management) – can easily become addictions. I want to HIGHLY recommend two books that shed light on the pervasive presence and the history of addictions, respectively: Richard Herrnstein, The Matching Law, and Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain.
I believe that my familiarity with Rousseau and Marx has allowed me to gather and process these disparate observations of myself and others in a more coherent, and useful, way than I otherwise would have been capable of. Without their pleas for human well-being centered on internal valuation and creativity, rather than external stimulation and consumption, I might have been frustrated by these recent cultural and technological developments. But I think I wouldn’t have sensed so clearly how I might live differently. Their ideas, then, helped me to crystallize an alternative.
I end, as I began, with a critique of Rousseau’s and Marx’s views. What I’ve just talked about is a personal response to social phenomena. It’s my private answer. It’s not a political program. As deleterious as I think these addictions are, I wouldn’t endorse Rousseau’s or Marx’s political responses to similar developments in their time. For one, both of them lack an adequate conception of human nature (perhaps understandable given when they were writing, but not understandable for those people today who are still sympathetic to their politics. The Origins of Species, after all, was published 150 years ago.) My leftist friends today often deplore the culture industry’s or capitalism’s role in these trends. They ignore the contribution made by human nature, human frailty. And hence they underestimate the difficulty and cost of stamping out the addictions. But this topic – that central error of the left: ignoring what biology has revealed about human nature – must be the subject of another posting.
For now, and in this limited sense, I praise Rousseau and Marx.