Prosperity Isn’t Everything

There is no denying that per-capita income rises with specialization and trade; for example:

  • A is a farmer with land that’s good for growing fruit trees; B is a farmer with land that’s good for raising cattle.
  • The total output of both apples and butter will be greater if A specializes in growing apples and B specializes in making butter than if both A and B grew apples and made butter.
  • A and B can then trade apples for butter so that of them is better off than he would have been in the absence of specialization and trade.

Sometimes A and B live in different cities, different States, and different countries. If the raison d’etre of specialization and trade is the maximization of income, it would be foolish to exclude international trade while allowing inter-State and inter-city trade. (Note that the preceding sentence begins with if.)

The combination of specialization, trade, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship has wrought much good. Here’s Megan McArdle’s testimony:

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most  neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them.  With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people.

If America today discovered a young couple where the husband had to drop out of high school to help his father clean tons of unsold, rotted produce out of their farm’s silos, and now worked a low-wage, low-skilled job, was living in a single room with no central heating and a single bathroom to share for two families, who had no refrigerator and scrubbed their clothes by hand in a washtub, who had serious conversations in low voices over whether they should replace or mend torn clothes, who had to share a single elderly vehicle or make the eight-mile walk to town  … that family would be the subject of a three-part Pulitzer prizewinning series on Poverty in America.

But in their time and place, my grandparents were a boring bourgeois couple, struggling to make ends meet as everyone did, but never missing a meal or a Sunday at church. They were excited about the indoor plumbing and electricity which had just been installed on his parents’ farm, and they were not too young to marvel at their amazing good fortune in owning an automobile. In some sense they were incredibly deprived, but there are millions of people in America today who are incomparably better off materially, and yet whose lives strike us (and them) as somehow objectively more difficult.

Much of that is true of my parents, who were of the same generation as McArdle’s grandparents. More of it is true of my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1880, wed in 1903, bore and raised ten children, and was widowed at the age of 60. I remember well the years before she reached the age of 70; until then she cooked on a wood-fired range, pumped water from a well in her backyard, and went to the outhouse for calls of nature. And yet, the following things, and much more, came to pass in her lifetime: alternating-current electricity, a telephone in most homes (though my grandmother lacked one until she was in her 70s), automobiles (though she never learned to drive), airplanes (she first flew at the age of 93), movies, radio, movies with sound, television (she never owned one), radar, penicillin, vaccinations against various debilitating diseases, electric typewriters, and early transistorized computers.

Because my dominant memories of my grandmother and her way of life in a small village are boyhood memories, it’s tempting to characterize them as nostalgic and somewhat romanticized. But I know that she was more or less typical of the residents of her village. Though she was far from rich, she wasn’t poor by the standards of the village. She certainly didn’t feel impoverished or resentful about her lack of material goods.

Today, however, relatively poor people in America have far, far more in the way of material goods than my grandmother ever dreamt of owning, yet they are anxious and even miserable, because… Here’s McArdle’s view:

[Not] everything has gotten better in every way, all the time. There are areas in which things have gotten broadly worse….

  • … Substance abuse, and the police response to it, has devastated both urban and rural communities.
  • Divorce broke up millions of families, and while the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages, marriage is collapsing among the majority who do not have a college degree, leaving millions of children in unstable family situations where fathers are often absent from the home, and their attention and financial resources are divided between multiple children with multiple women.
  • Communities are much less cohesive than they used to be, and while the educated elite may have found substitutes online, the rest of the country is “bowling alone” more and more often—which is not merely lonely, but also means they have fewer social supports when they find themselves in trouble.
  • A weekly wage packet may buy more than it did sixty years ago, but the stability of manufacturing jobs is increasingly being replaced by contingent and unreliable shift work that is made doubly and triply difficult by the instability of the families that tend to do these jobs. The inability to plan your life or work in turn makes it hard to form a family, and stressful to keep one together….
  • Widespread credit has democratized large purchases like furniture and cars. It has also enabled many people, particularly financially marginal people, to get into serious trouble.  Debt magnifies your life experience: when things are going relatively well, it gives you more options, but when things are going badly, it can turn a setback into a catastrophe—as many, many families found out in 2008….

This list illustrates why public policy seems to be struggling to come up with a plan of attack against our current insecurities. The welfare state is relatively good at giving people money: you collect the taxes, write a check, and now people have money. The welfare state has proven very bad at giving people stable jobs and stable families, a vibrant community life, promising career tracks, or a cure for their drug addiction. No wonder so many hopes now seem to be pinned on early childhood education, far in excess of the evidence to support them: it is the only thing we have not already tried and failed at.

But I think this list illustrates the poverty of trying to measure living standards by staring at median wages. Many of the changes of the last century show up in that statistic, but others, like the time no longer spent plucking chickens, or the joys of banishing lye from the pantry, appear nowhere.  Nor do the changes in job and family structure that have made the lives of people who are indisputably vastly materially richer than my young grandparents were, nonetheless feel much more precarious.

Where did it all go wrong? And I do believe that it went wrong. I say that as a man who has lived more than his three-score and ten years, remains in good health, lives comfortably, has a loving wife of 52 years, has two fine children and twelve joyous grandchildren, and is by nature an optimistic achiever who isn’t easily thrown off course by a setback.

It didn’t go wrong because of globalization, though globalization may have hastened the rot. It didn’t go wrong because of prosperity per se, though it was helped by the fevered pursuit of prosperity. It went wrong because of the fraying of the social ties that bound much of America for so long — even with the Civil War and its decades-long residue of bitterness.

Why did those ties fray? And why are they now weaker than than have been since the eve of the Civil War?

Let’s begin with social norms, which are the basis of social ties. If you and I observe the same social norms, we’re likely to feel bound in some way, even if we’re not friends or relatives. This, of course, is tribalism, which is verboten among those who view all of mankind as brothers, sisters, and whatevers under the skin — all mankind except smarty-pants Americans of East Asian descent, Israeli Jews and American Jews who support Israel, Southerners (remember the Civil War!), and everyone else who is a straight, non-Hispanic white male of European descent. To such people, the only legitimate tribe is the tribe of anti-tribalism.

You may by now understand that I blame leftists for the breakdown of social norms and social ties. But how can that be if, as McArdle says, “the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages”? The college-educated class resides mostly on the left, and affluent leftists do seem to have avoided the rot.

Yes, but they caused it. You could think of it as a non-suicidal act of terror. But it would be kinder and more accurate to call it an act of involuntary manslaughter.  Leftists meant to make the changes that caused the rot; they just didn’t foresee or intend the rot. Nor is it obvious that they care about it, except as an excuse to “solve” social problems from on high by throwing money and behavioral prescriptions at them — which is why there’s social rot in the first place.

The good intentions embedded in governmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have sundered civil society. Walter Williams puts it this way in “Culture and Social Pathology” (creators.com, June 16, 2015):

A civilized society’s first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions, rules of etiquette and moral values. These behavioral norms — mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots, such as thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not cheat. They also include all those courtesies that have traditionally been associated with ladylike and gentlemanly conduct.

The failure to fully transmit these values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” People in this so-called great generation, who lived during the trauma of the Great Depression and fought World War II, not only failed to transmit the moral values of their parents but also are responsible for government programs that will deliver economic chaos….

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the nation’s liberals have waged war on traditional values, customs and morality. Our youths have been counseled that there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what’s moral or immoral is a matter of personal opinion. During the 1960s, the education establishment began to challenge and undermine lessons children learned from their parents and Sunday school with fads such as “values clarification.” So-called sex education classes are simply indoctrination that undermines family and church strictures against premarital sex. Lessons of abstinence were considered passe and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortions. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor parental consent….

If it were only the economic decline threatening our future, there might be hope. It’s the moral decline that spells our doom.

The undoing of traditional mores began in earnest in the 1960s, with a frontal assault on traditional morality and the misguided expansion of the regulatory-welfare state. The unraveling continues to this day. Traditional morality is notable in its neglect; social cohesion is almost non-existent, except where the bonds of religion and ethnicity remain strong. The social fabric that once bound vast swaths of America has rotted — and is almost certainly beyond repair.

The social fabric has frayed precisely because government has pushed social institutions aside and made dependents of hundreds of millions of Americans. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Now for an ironic twist. Were the central government less profligate and intrusive, Americans would become much more prosperous.

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Related posts:
Social Norms and Liberty
Whiners — Left and Libertarian
The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
1963: The Year Zero
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?
How America Has Changed


“Fairness” usually is invoked when a person or group seeks special treatment — unfairness, in other words. Here’s what’s unfair:

Making Johnny share his toys with Billy when Johnny is having a perfectly good time playing by himself.

If Billy wants to be treated fairly, he should bring his own toys and refuse to share them with Johnny. Then they can bargain about which toys to play with jointly and which toys to trade, either temporarily or permanently.

Refusing to let Abby into college because a less-qualified candidate happens to have darker skin than Abby, and there aren’t “enough” darker-skinned students.

If only there were more darker-skinned students, college authorities say, they would feel more secure and mingle with white students, thus giving the white students a broader “life experience.” How many more darker-skinned students? Well, there’s no magic number, the college must continue to prefer less-qualified darker-skinned students over white ones until mingling magically occurs. In any event, mingling is unlikely to be fostered by raising the dark-to-white ratio, though when the ratio gets large enough a certain kind of mingling will occur: Mobs of dark students will start to give the white ones some “life experience” by attacking them.

Taking money from Jack and giving it to Joe because Joe doesn’t earn “enough.”

Joe doesn’t earn much money, relative to Jack, for one or more of several reasons: Joe is dumber, lazier, less well-educated, less well-connected, or less lucky. But Jack didn’t cause Joe’s dumbness, laziness, lack of education, lack of connections, or unluckiness. Why is it “fair” to penalize Jack for things that aren’t his fault? Because everyone “deserves” a certain minimum standard of living? Who says so, a bunch of politicians who know that there are a lot of votes to be gained by spreading Jack’s money around? Jesus Christ was big on charity, but when government takes money from Jack and gives it to Joe, it’s not charity — it’s legalized theft.

Changing the definition of marriage because homosexuals want to be “married.”

For thousands of years it has been understood that marriage is a bonding of male to female. This definition seldom was so well understood and accepted that it was unnecessary to make it explicit until it came under attack. The attackers then claimed that it was “hateful” to make the definition explicit, and that persons of the same sex ought to be able to wed each other. So it’s “hateful” to defend a principle? Isn’t it therefore hateful to call someone hateful in defense of the principle that same-sex couples should be able to wed, even though the idea is relatively new and defies an understood definition of marriage that’s thousands of years old? In fact, it’s fair to call the shrill proponents of same-sex marriage hateful.

Allowing anyone who claims to “be” a female to use restrooms designated for women.

Do you know how to tell a female from a male? You don’t? Then you’d better ask your Mommy or Daddy to explain it to you — again. Do you claim to believe that a person’s sex is what that person says it is, even if the outward evidence contradicts that person’s claim? Perhaps, then, you will believe me when I say that I am God and will smite you for being such a ninny. Oh, you don’t believe me? Then why should you believe the tall, bearded fellow with a deep voice who barges into the “ladies” room and insists that he’s really a woman? Why does your judgment fail you in such cases? Because it’s only “fair” to the bearded guy to believe his story? But what if it isn’t “fair” to the real females who want privacy from prying male-like persons when they go into the “ladies” room? You’re not being fair, you’re just sticking it to “the system” because it gives you a thrill. As fads go, swallowing the transgender line makes as much sense as swallowing goldfish.

Not advising the prosecution of Hillary Clinton because “no reasonable prosecutor” would purse the case, after describing clear violations by Mrs. Clinton of an unambiguous statute.

That is unfair because, as the Director of the FBI admitted, almost anyone other than Mrs. Clinton (or another highly placed politician) would be prosecuted.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XIII)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

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Jeremy Egerer says this “In Defense of a Beautiful Boss” (American Thinker, February 8, 2015):

Leftists have been waging a war against nearly every personal advantage for years: if they aren’t upset because your parents are rich, they’ll insult you because your parents are white, or maybe because you have a penis.  In their most unreasonable moments, they might even be upset that you deserve your own job.  It seems only reasonable to expect that sooner or later, they would be complaining about whether or not our bosses keep themselves in shape.

This is because at the heart of all leftism lies an unreasonable envy of all advantage (disguised as an advocacy of the disadvantaged) and an unhealthy hatred of actual diversity (disguised as an appreciation of difference).  They call life a meritocracy when your successful parents raise you to win, which is a lot like complaining that your parents raised you at all.  It’s almost enough to make you wonder whether they loathe the laws of cause and effect.  In the fight against all odds – not his, but everyone’s – the leftist hasn’t only forgotten that different people breed different people; he’s forgotten that different people are diversity itself, and that diversity, the thing he claims to be championing, means that someone is going to have natural advantages.

Spot on. I have addressed the left’s war on “lookism” in “How to Combat Beauty-ism” and “An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly.”

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John Ray tackles “Conservative and Liberal Brains Again” (A Western Heart, February 14, 2015):

Most such reports [Current Biology 21, 677–680, April 26, 2011 ª2011. DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017] are … parsimoniously interpreted as conservatives being more cautious, which is hardly a discovery. And if there is something wrong with caution then there is everything wrong with a lot of things.  Science, for instance, is a sustained exercise in caution. So conservatives are born more cautious and Leftist brains miss most of that out.  So [a commentary that conservatives are] “sensitive to fear” … could be equally well restated as “cautious”.  And the finding that liberals “have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts” is pure guesswork [on the part of the commentators].  As the report authors note, that is just “one of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex”.

Despite the apparent even-handedness of the authors of the study cited by Dr. Ray, the field of psychology has long had a pro-left tilt. See, for example, my posts “Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the ‘Authoritarian Personality’,” “The F Scale, Revisited,” and “The Psychologist Who Played God.”

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Income inequality is another item in the long list of subjects about which leftists obsess, despite the facts of the matter. Mark J. Perry, as usual, deals in facts: “US Middle Class Has Disappeared into Higher-Income Groups; Recent Stagnation Explained by Changing Household Demographics?” (AEI.org, February 4, 2015) and “Evidence Shows That Affluence in the US Is Much More Fluid and Widespread Than The Rigid Class Structure Narrative Suggests” (AEI.org, February 25, 2015). The only problem with these two posts is Perry’s unnecessary inclusion of a question mark in the title of the first one. For more on the subject, plus long lists of related posts and readings, see my post, “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes.”

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Speaking of leftists who obsess about income inequality — and get it wrong — there’s Thomas Piketty, author of the much-rebutted Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I have much to say about Deidre McCloskey’s take-down of Piketty in “McCloskey on Piketty.” David Henderson, whose review of Capital is among the several related readings listed in my post, has more to say; for example:

McCloskey’s review is a masterpiece. She beautifully weaves together economic history, simple price theory, basic moral philosophy, and history of economic thought. Whereas I had mentally put aside an hour to read and think, it took only about 20 minutes. I highly recommend it. (“McCloskey on Piketty,” EconLog, February 25, 2015)

Henderson continues by sampling some of Piketty’s many errors of fact, logic, and economic theory that McCloskey exposes.

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Although it won’t matter to committed leftists, Piketty seems to have taken some of this critics to heart. James Pethokoukis writes:

[I]n a new paper, Piketty takes a step or two backward. He now denies that he views his simple economic formula “as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the 20th century, or for forecasting the path of income and wealth inequality in the 21st century.” Seems his fundamental law isn’t so fundamental after all once you factor in things like how some of that wealth is (a) spent on super-yachts and bad investments; (b) divided among children through the generations; and (c) already taxed fairly heavily. In particular, the rise in income inequality, as opposed to wealth inequality, has “little to do” with “r > g,” he says….

Piketty’s modest retreat isn’t all that surprising, given the withering academic assault on his research. In a survey of top economists late last year, 81 percent disagreed with his thesis. And several used fairly rough language — at least for scholars — such as “weak” and not “particularly useful,” with one accusing Piketty of “poor theory” and “negligible empirics.”

This is all rather bad news for what I have termed the Unified Economic Theory of Modern Liberalism: Not only are the rich getting richer — and will continue to do so because, you know, capitalism — but this growing gap is hurting economic growth. Redistribution must commence, tout de suite!

But Piketty’s clarification isn’t this politically convenient theory’s only problem. The part about inequality and growth has also suffered a setback. The link between the two is a key part of the “secular stagnation” theory of superstar Democratic economist Lawrence Summers. Since the rich save more than the middle class, growing income inequality is sapping the economy of consumer demand. So government must tax more and spend more. But Summers recently offered an updated view, saying that while boosting consumer demand is necessary, it is not sufficient for strong economic growth. Washington must also do the sort of “supply-side” stuff that Republicans kvetch about, such as business tax reform.

…[C]oncern about the income gap shouldn’t be used an excuse to ignore America’s real top problem, a possible permanent downshift in the growth potential of the U.S. economy. At least Piketty got half his equation right. [“The Politically Convenient but Largely Bogus Unified Economic Theory of Modern Liberalism,” The Week, March 11, 2015]

About that bogus inequality-hurts-growth meme, see my post, “Income Inequality and Economic Growth.”

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Harvard’s Robert Putnam is another class warrior, whose propagandistic effusion “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century“ I skewer in “Society and the State” and “Genetic Kinship and Society.” I was therefore gratified to read in Henry Harpending’s post, “Charles Murray and Robert Putnam on Class” (West Hunter, March 20, 2015) some things said by John Derbyshire about Putnam’s paper:

That paper has a very curious structure. After a brief introduction (two pages), there are three main sections, headed as follows:

The Prospects and Benefits of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity (three pages)
Immigration and Diversity Foster Social Isolation (nineteen pages)
Becoming Comfortable with Diversity (seven pages)

I’ve had some mild amusement here at my desk trying to think up imaginary research papers similarly structured. One for publication in a health journal, perhaps, with three sections titled:

Health benefits of drinking green tea
Green tea causes intestinal cancer
Making the switch to green tea

Social science research in our universities cries out for a modern Jonathan Swift to lampoon its absurdities.


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Putnam is a big booster of “diversity,” which — in the left’s interpretation — doesn’t mean diversity of political, social, and economic views. What it means is the forced association of persons of irreconcilably opposed social norms. I say some things about that in “Society and the State” and “Genetic Kinship and Society.” Fred Reed has much more to say in a recent column:

In Ferguson blacks are shooting policemen as others cheer. It does a curmudgeon’s soul good: Everything gets worse, the collapse continues, and unreasoning stupidity goes thundering into the future.

We will hear I suppose that it wasn’t racial, that teens did it, that discrimination  caused it, white privilege, racism, institutional racism, slavery, colonialism, bigots, Southerners, rednecks—everything but the hatred of blacks for whites.

And thus we will avoid the unavoidable, that racial relations are a disaster, will remain a disaster, will get worse, are getting worse, and will lead to some awful denouement no matter how much we lie, preen, vituperate, chatter like Barbary apes, or admire ourselves.

It isn’t working. There is no sign that it ever will. What now?

The only solution, if there is a solution, would seem to be an amicable separation. This methinks would be greatly better than the slow-motion, intensifying racial war we now see, and pretend not to see. When the races mix, there is trouble. So, don’t mix them….

The racial hostility of blacks for whites can be seen elsewhere, for example in targeting of crime, most starkly in interracial rates of rape…. The numbers on rape, almost entirely black on white, also check out as cold fact… This has been analyzed to death, and ignored to death, but perhaps the most readable account is Jim Goad’s For Whom the Cat Calls (the numbers of note come below the ads).

Even without the (inevitable) racial hostility, togetherheid would not work well. The races have little or nothing in common. They do not want the same things. Whites come from a literate European tradition dating at least from the Iliad in 800 BC, a tradition characterized by literature, mathematics, architecture, philosophy, and the sciences. Africa, having a very different social traditions, was barely touched by this, and today blacks still show little interest. Even in the degenerate America of today, whites put far more emphasis on education than do blacks.

The media paint the problems of blacks as consequent to discrimination, but they clearly are not. If blacks in white schools wanted to do the work, or could, whites would applaud. If in black schools they demanded thicker textbooks with bigger words and smaller pictures, no white would refuse. The illiteracy, the very high rates of illegitimacy, the crime in general, the constant killing of young black men by young black men in particular—whites do not do these. They are either genetic, and irremediable, or cultural, and remediable, if at all, only in the very long run. We live in the short run.

Would it then not be reasonable to encourage a voluntary segregation? Having only black policemen in black regions would slow the burning of cities. If we let people live among their own, let them study what they chose to study, let them police themselves and order their schools as they chose, considerable calm would fall over the country.

If the races had the choice of running their own lives apart, they would. If this is not true, why do we have to spend such effort trying to force them together?

It is a great fallacy to think that because we ought to love one another, we will; or that because bloodshed among groups makes no sense, it won’t happen. The disparate seldom get along, whether Tamils and Sinhalese or Hindus and Moslems or Protestants and Catholics or Jews and Palestinians. The greater the cultural and genetic difference, the greater the likelihood and intensity of conflict. Blacks and whites are very, very different….

Separation does not imply disadvantage. The assertion that “separate is inherently unequal” is a catchiphrastic embodiment of the Supreme Court’s characteristic blowing in the political wind. A college for girls is not inherently inferior to a college for boys, nor a yeshiva for Jews inherently inferior to a parish school for Catholics. And maybe it is the business of girls and boys, Catholics and Jews, to decide what and where they want to study—not the government’s business….

Anger hangs over the country. Not everyone white is a professor or collegiate sophomore or network anchor. Not every white—not by a long shot—in Congress or the federal bureaucracy is a Mother Jones liberal, not in private conversation. They say aloud what they have to say. But in the Great Plains and small-town South, in corner bars in Chicago and Denver, in the black enclaves of the cities, a lot of people are ready to rumble. Read the comments section of the St. Louis papers after the riots. We can call the commenters whatever names we choose but when we finish, they will still be there. The shooting of policemen for racial reasons–at least four to date–is not a good sign. We will do nothing about it but chatter. [“The Symptoms Worsen,” Fred on Everything, March 15, 2015]

See also Reed’s column “Diversity: Koom. Bah. Humbug” (January 13, 2015) and my posts, “Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications,” “The Hidden Tragedy of the Assassination of Lincoln.”, “‘Conversing’ about Race,” “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ,” “Round Up the Usual Suspects,”and “Evolution, Culture, and ‘Diversity’.”

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In “The Fallacy of Human Progress” I address at length the thesis of Steven Pinker’s ludicrous The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In rebuttal to Pinker, I cite John Gray, author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths:

Gray’s book — published  18 months after Better Angels — could be read as a refutation of Pinker’s book, though Gray doesn’t mention Pinker or his book.

Well, Gray recently published a refutation of Pinker’s book, which I can’t resist quoting at length:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: a history of violence and humanity (2011) has not only been an international bestseller – more than a thousand pages long and containing a formidable array of graphs and statistics, the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy. It is now not uncommon to find it stated, as though it were a matter of fact, that human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic. Ranging freely from human pre-history to the present day, Pinker presents his case with voluminous erudition. Part of his argument consists in showing that the past was more violent than we tend to imagine…. This “civilising process” – a term Pinker borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias – has come about largely as a result of the increasing power of the state, which in the most advanced countries has secured a near-monopoly of force. Other causes of the decline in violence include the invention of printing, the empowerment of women, enhanced powers of reasoning and expanding capacities for empathy in modern populations, and the growing influence of Enlightenment ideals….

Another proponent of the Long Peace is the well-known utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who has praised The Better Angels of Our Nature as “a supremely important book … a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline.” In a forthcoming book, The Most Good You Can Do, Singer describes altruism as “an emerging movement” with the potential to fundamentally alter the way humans live….

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking….

…Pinker’s response when confronted with [contrary] evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder? The cause can only be the sinister influence of counter-Enlightenment ideas….

The picture of declining violence presented by this new orthodoxy is not all it seems to be. As some critics, notably John Arquilla, have pointed out, it’s a mistake to focus too heavily on declining fatalities on the battlefield….

If great powers have avoided direct armed conflict, they have fought one another in many proxy wars. Neocolonial warfare in south-east Asia, the Korean war and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Vietnam war, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, covert intervention in the Balkans and the Caucasus, the invasion of Iraq, the use of airpower in Libya, military aid to insurgents in Syria, Russian cyber-attacks in the Baltic states and the proxy war between the US and Russia that is being waged in Ukraine – these are only some of the contexts in which great powers have been involved in continuous warfare against each other while avoiding direct military conflict.

While it is true that war has changed, it has not become less destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organised states that can at some point negotiate peace, it is now more often a many-sided conflict in fractured or collapsed states that no one has the power to end….

It may be true that the modern state’s monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror…. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be “apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history” (the italics are Pinker’s). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision….

While the seeming exactitude of statistics may be compelling, much of the human cost of war is incalculable…. [T]he statistics presented by those who celebrate the arrival of the Long Peace are morally dubious if not meaningless.

The radically contingent nature of the figures is another reason for not taking them too seriously. (For a critique of Pinker’s statistical methods, see Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s essay on the Long Peace.)…

Certainly the figures used by Pinker and others are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for. But the value of these numbers for such thinkers comes from their very opacity. Like the obsidian mirrors made by the Aztecs for purposes of divination, these rows of graphs and numbers contain nebulous images of the future – visions that by their very indistinctness can give comfort to believers in human improvement….

Unable to tolerate the prospect that the cycles of conflict will continue, many are anxious to find continuing improvement in the human lot. Who can fail to sympathise with them? Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt, it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers. How else can they find meaning in their lives? [“John Gray: Steven Pinker Is Wrong about Violence and War,” The Guardian, March 13, 2015]

 *     *     *

I close this super-sized installment of “Thoughts” by returning to the subject of so-called net neutrality, which I addressed almost nine years ago in “Why ‘Net Neutrality’ Is a Bad Idea.” Now it’s a bad idea that the FCC has imposed on ISPs and their customers — until, one hopes, it’s rejected by the Supreme Court as yet another case of Obamanomic overreach.

As Robert Tracinski notes,

[b]illionaire investor Mark Cuban recently commented, about a push for new regulations on the Internet, that “In my adult life I have never seen a situation that paralleled what I read in Ayn Rand’s books until now with Net Neutrality.” He continued, “If Ayn Rand were an up-and-coming author today, she wouldn’t write about steel or railroads, it would be Net Neutrality.”

She certainly would, but if he thinks this is the first time real life has imitated Ayn Rand’s fiction, he needs to be paying a little more attention. Atlas has been shrugging for a long, long time. [“Net Neutrality: Yes, Mark Cuban, Atlas Is Shrugging,” The Federalist, March 18, 2015]

The rest of the story is outlined by the headings in Tracinski’s article:

The Relationship Between Net Neutrality and Atlas Shrugged

Internet Execs Are Already Uncomfortable with the Net Neutrality They Demanded

The Parallels Extend Into Fracking

Government Shuts Down Any Runaway Success

Atlas Shrugged Is Coming True Before Our Eyes

As I did in my post, Julian Adorney focuses on the economics of net neutrality:

After a number of false starts and under pressure from the White House, the FCC gave in and voted to regulate the Internet as a public utility in order to ban such practices, thus saving the Internet from a variety of boogeymen.

This is a tempting narrative. It has conflict, villains, heroes, and even a happy ending. There’s only one problem: it’s a fairy tale. Such mischief has been legal for decades, and ISPs have almost never behaved this way. Any ISP that created “slow lanes” or blocked content to consumers would be hurting its own bottom line. ISPs make money by seeking to satisfy consumers, not by antagonizing them.

There are two reasons that ISPs have to work to satisfy their customers. First, every company needs repeat business….

For Internet service providers, getting new business is expensive…. Satisfying customers so that they continue subscribing is cheaper, easier, and more profitable than continually replacing them. ISPs’ self-interest pushes them to add value to their customers just to keep them from jumping ship to their competitors.

In fact, this is what we’ve seen. ISPs have invested heavily in new infrastructure, and Internet speeds have increased by leaps and bounds…. These faster speeds have not been limited to big corporate customers: ISPs have routinely improved their services to regular consumers. They didn’t do so because the FCC forced them. For the past twenty years, “slow lanes” have been perfectly legal and almost as perfectly imaginary….

…ISPs shy away from creating slow lanes not because they have to but because they have a vested interest in offering fast service to all customers.

Contrary to the myth about ISPs being localized monopolies, 80 percent of Americans live in markets with access to multiple high-speed ISPs. While expensive regulations can discourage new players from entering the market, competition in most cities is increasingly robust….

ISPs still have to compete with each other for customers. If one ISP sticks them in the slow lane or blocks access to certain sites — or even just refuses to upgrade its service — consumers can simply switch to a competitor.

The second reason that ISPs seek to satisfy customers is that every business wants positive word of mouth. Consumers who receive excellent service talk up the service to their friends, generating new sign-ups. Consumers who receive mediocre service not only leave but badmouth the company to everyone they know.

In fact, this happened in one of the few cases where an ISP chose to discriminate against content. When Verizon blocked text messages from a pro-choice activist group in 2007, claiming the right to block “controversial or unsavory” messages, the backlash was fierce. Consumer Affairs notes that, “after a flurry of criticism, Verizon reversed its policy” on the pro-choice texts. The decision may have been ideological, but more likely Verizon reversed a policy that was driving away consumers, generating bad press, and hurting its bottom line.

In 2010, an FCC order made such “unreasonable discrimination” illegal (until the rule was struck down in 2014), but even without this rule, consumers proved more than capable of standing up to big corporations and handling such discrimination themselves.

In competitive markets, the consumer’s demand for quality prevents companies from cutting corners. Before the FCC imposed public utility regulations on the Internet, ISPs were improving service and abandoning discriminatory practices in order to satisfy their users. Net Neutrality advocates have spent years demanding a government solution to a problem that  markets had already solved. [“Net Nonsense,” The Freeman, March 18, 2015]

Amen, again.

Unsurprising News

John Taylor writes that “New Research Bolsters Policy Link from Uncertainty to Economy“:

Last week a joint Princeton-Stanford conference held in Princeton focused on policy uncertainty and showcased new findings on connections between policy uncertainty and political polarization and on patterns in different states, countries and time periods.

Danny Shoag, for example, presented new work “Uncertainty and the Geography of the Great Recession,” co-authored with Stan Veuger, showing that  policy uncertainty across the United States has been highly and robustly correlated with state unemployment rates. As the authors explain, their “paper serves to counter such claims” as those made by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi that “an increase in business uncertainty at the aggregate level does not explain the stark cross-sectional patterns in employment losses” which had cast doubt on the role of policy uncertainty. Scott Baker, Nick Bloom and Steve Davis had written extensively on this at the national level and also presented new work at the conference.

I’ve written about Baker, Bloom, and Davis’s work here.

Ross Douthat comments about “Diversity and Dishonesty“:

Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y. L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.

Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive, and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”

Which reminds me of the story behind Robert Putnam’s “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” which I recount here. In short, Putnam withheld publication of his paper because it refutes the leftist mantra “diversity is good.”

Finally, we are told by David Z. Hambrick and Christopher Chabris that “Yes, IQ Really Matters“:

The SAT does predict success in college—not perfectly, but relatively well, especially given that it takes just a few hours to administer. And, unlike a “complex portrait” of a student’s life, it can be scored in an objective way…. In a study published in Psychological Science, University of Minnesota researchers Paul Sackett, Nathan Kuncel, and their colleagues investigated the relationship between SAT scores and college grades in a very large sample: nearly 150,000 students from 110 colleges and universities. SAT scores predicted first-year college GPA about as well as high school grades did, and the best prediction was achieved by considering both factors. Botstein, Boylan, and Kolbert are either unaware of this directly relevant, easily accessible, and widely disseminated empirical evidence, or they have decided to ignore it and base their claims on intuition and anecdote—or perhaps on their beliefs about the way the world should be rather than the way it is.

Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it’s not just first-year college GPA that SAT scores predict. In a four-year study that started with nearly 3,000 college students, a team of Michigan State University researchers led by Neal Schmitt found that test score (SAT or ACT—whichever the student took) correlated strongly with cumulative GPA at the end of the fourth year. If the students were ranked on both their test scores and cumulative GPAs, those who had test scores in the top half (above the 50th percentile, or median) would have had a roughly two-thirds chance of having a cumulative GPA in the top half. By contrast, students with bottom-half SAT scores would be only one-third likely to make it to the top half in GPA….

[I]t is clear that [socioeconomic status] is not what accounts for the fact that SAT scores predict success in college. In the University of Minnesota study, the correlation between high school SAT and college GPA was virtually unchanged after the researchers statistically controlled for the influence of SES. If SAT scores were just a proxy for privilege, then putting SES into the mix should have removed, or at least dramatically decreased, the association between the SAT and college performance….

What this all means is that the SAT measures something—some stable characteristic of high school students other than their parents’ income—that translates into success in college. And what could that characteristic be? General intelligence….

IQ predicts many different measures of success. Exhibit A is evidence from research on job performance by the University of Iowa industrial psychologist Frank Schmidt and his late colleague John Hunter. Synthesizing evidence from nearly a century of empirical studies, Schmidt and Hunter established that general mental ability—the psychological trait that IQ scores reflect—is the single best predictor of job training success, and that it accounts for differences in job performance even in workers with more than a decade of experience. It’s more predictive than interests, personality, reference checks, and interview performance. Smart people don’t just make better mathematicians, as Brooks observed—they make better managers, clerks, salespeople, service workers, vehicle operators, and soldiers.

IQ predicts other things that matter, too, like income, employment, health, and even longevity. In a 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal, Scottish researchers Lawrence Whalley and Ian Deary identified more than 2,000 people who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1932, a nationwide assessment of IQ. Remarkably, people with high IQs at age 11 were more considerably more likely to survive to old age than were people with lower IQs. For example, a person with an IQ of 100 (the average for the general population) was 21 percent more likely to live to age 76 than a person with an IQ of 85. And the relationship between IQ and longevity remains statistically significant even after taking SES into account. Perhaps IQ reflects the mental resources—the reasoning and problem-solving skills—that people can bring to bear on maintaining their health and making wise decisions throughout life. This explanation is supported by evidence that higher-IQ individuals engage in more positive health behaviors, such as deciding to quit smoking….

[T]he bottom line is that there are large, measurable differences among people in intellectual ability, and these differences have consequences for people’s lives. Ignoring these facts will only distract us from discovering and implementing wise policies.

Given everything that social scientists have learned about IQ and its broad predictive validity, it is reasonable to make it a factor in decisions such as whom to hire for a particular job or admit to a particular college or university. In fact, disregarding IQ—by admitting students to colleges or hiring people for jobs in which they are very likely to fail—is harmful both to individuals and to society. For example, in occupations where safety is paramount, employers could be incentivized to incorporate measures of cognitive ability into the recruitment process. Above all, the policies of public and private organizations should be based on evidence rather than ideology or wishful thinking.

As I say at the end of this post, “life just isn’t fair, so get over it.”

A Home of One’s Own

Since the inauguration of Politics & Prosperity on February 8, 2009,* I’ve rarely indulged in ruminations about personal matters. But I will now, in response to the lead editorial in the Austin American-Statesman of March 26, 2014 (subscription required). It says, in part:

Just two weeks after a fatal wreck during the South by Southwest Music Festival killed three attendees, the city of Austin is taking steps to set a safer stage for the upcoming Texas Relays, the first major event weekend since the tragedy….

Just five years ago, the event, which draws 45,000 athletes and fans to the city and boosts the economy with more than $8 million, was greeted with protests and charges of racism in the city’s treatment of its predominately African-American guests.

“In the past, we have not always been welcoming this event to the city in light of the positive impact it has, especially on tourism,” said Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole [a black].

The weekend activities around the two events have been known to put extra stress on Highland Mall, which becomes the center of social networking for 20,000 teenagers and young people, mostly African-Americans. The mall parking lot and other spots around town become ideal hangouts for the young crowds to mingle and show off cars. And as in most cases with large crowds at any type of gathering, there will be small-scale trouble.

But in 2009, the city of Austin “prepared” for the weekend by closing off several exit ramps onto Sixth Street. Some downtown businesses closed for the weekend. And Highland Mall chose to close its doors early on that particular Saturday.

While merchants and the city said closure decisions were about safety and not race, the combination sent the wrong message….

During this weekend of events, Cole said she hopes the city can experience the vibrancy of youth and diversity as well as enjoy the sheer fun of track and field.

As a resident of Austin who is frequently irritated by the doings of the city’s officials, I must object.

The shutdown of Highland Mall and downtown stores sent the wrong message? Baloney. It sent a message that the lefties who dominate Austin’s politics simply don’t want to acknowledge. The owners of Highland Mall and downtown stores had had enough of rowdiness, and didn’t find the economic “boost” (if any) sufficiently offsetting. That was the message, which Austin’s “leaders” choose to ignore, in their (usual) eagerness to promote political correctness, growth, and tourism — despite the hardships and higher taxes imposed on residents.

Instead of dealing in facts, Ms. Cole invokes “vibrancy of youth” and “diversity,” as if these dubious qualities will somehow permeate Austin’s atmosphere and make all of its citizens feel good. Why not just spew balloons and nitrous oxide into the air? Or better yet, evict all of the recent arrivals (post July 2003, say) and spend some money on fixing Austin’s streets instead of continuing to convert them to (little used) bike lanes.

Heaven forbid that private parties act in their own interest by closing stores against invading hordes of riff-raff. Austin’s “leaders” will have none of it, in their zeal to be politically correct. It’s a zeal that encompasses not only an embarrassing degree of racial, ethnic, and sexual-orientation pandering, but also “greenness” at almost any price. This latter zeal encompasses the aforementioned bike lanes, costly “green” electricity, costly energy inspection mandates, a money-losing recycling plan that continues to grow, buses and rail cars that run empty most of the day and night, and on and on.

Austin is far from unique in being saddled with a heavy-handed, left-minded government. The dictatorial mindset is epidemic, spanning as it does almost every city of any size, most States, and a central government that imposes draconian policies to which the “leaders” of too many cities and States eagerly conform.

Barring an electoral revolution, or something more drastic, how can liberty-loving Americans arrange to live among and be governed by others of like mind? Arranging a libertarian homeland would be a tall order — nigh unto impossible, you might think (as I do). But human nature may yet prevail over planning, as it often does. (Witness the likely failure of Obamacare to coerce sufficient numbers of healthy young persons to buy health insurance.)

One hopeful trend is the continued geographic sorting of Americans, which means that those who seek liberty are more likely to find it in the municipalities and States to which they are drawn. As I have noted,

evidence of ideological sorting along geographic lines is seen in electoral maps of the 1976 and 2012 presidential elections, where the popular-vote splits were almost identical in favor of the respective Democrat candidates, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Ignoring the favorite-son effect that swung the South to Carter and Michigan to Ford in 1976, one can see rather striking differences between 1976 and 2012; for example: the Northeast has become much more heavily Democrat since 1976; the Left Coast is no longer close, and is now solidly Democrat; except for Colorado, the States of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains have become more strongly Republican.

[See the same post for discussions of Peter Cushing and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort and Robert Putnam’s “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.”]

Geographic sorting is reinforced by assortative mating: like prefers like. This is from the abstract of a paper by Casey A. Klofstad, Rose McDermott, and Peter K. Hatemi, “The Dating Preferences of Liberals and Conservatives” (Springer Science+Business Media, July 2012):

American politics has become more polarized. The source of the phenomena [sic] is debated. We posit that human mate choice may play a role in the process. Spouses are highly correlated in their political preferences, and research in behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and endocrinology shows that political preferences develop through a complex interaction of social upbringing, life experience, immediate circumstance, and genes and hormones, operating through one’s psychological architecture…. Consequently, if people with similar political values produce children, there will be more individuals at the ideological extremes over generations….. Using a sample of Internet dating profiles we find that both liberals and conservatives seek to date individuals who are like themselves. This result suggests a pathway by which longterm couples come to share political preferences, which in turn could be fueling the widening ideological gap in the United States.

There’s much more about assortative mating in these posts, papers, and articles:

Henry Harpending, “Class, Caste, and Genes,” West Hunter, January 13, 2012
Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, “Assortative Mating, Class, and Caste,” manuscript, December 1, 2013
Jeremy Greenwood et al., “Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality,” Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, January 12, 2014
Ironman, “In Which We’re Vindicated. Again.,” Political Calculations, January 28, 2014
Chris Mooney, “The Origin of Ideology,” Washington Monthly, March/April/May 2014

As discussed in the first four items, assortative mating also influences income (i.e., income inequality, so dreaded by “liberals”). Income, of course, is strongly influenced by intelligence. And assortative mating reinforces the persistent IQ gap between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other. (See my post, “Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications,” Politics & Prosperity, July 11, 2012; Mark J. Perry, “Charts of the Day: Mean SAT Math and Critical Reading Test Scores by Ethnicity, 1992 to 2013,Carpe Diem, October 5, 2013; and Nooffensebut, “Black Suits, Gowns, & Skin: SAT Scores by Income, Education, & Race,” The Unsilenced Science, October 24, 2013.)

It therefore seems likely that geographic sorting will result in more ideological, ethnic, and cultural homogeneity across large regions. This will be true not only of those areas that attract right-libertarians and conservatives, but also of those areas that retain well-to-do (mainly white) big-government “liberals.” (Austin has become one such area.) Those “liberals” will, of course, be surrounded by the minorities that they champion. (As they are in Austin.) But, as usual, they will reside mainly in pricy, white-dominated enclaves and often send their children to private schools. They will nevertheless pat themselves on the back for their embrace of “diversity.” But few of them will actually experience it, except to the extent that they employ Hispanic maids, nannies, and gardeners and occasionally encounter a black who is employed in some menial capacity.

In short, “diversity” is doomed, as a practical matter. And it’s a good thing, as I discuss at length here.

As for myself, I have now lived in Blue States and municipalities for most of my life. Austin is just the latest stop, though it is has proved to be the least bearable one. I’m looking forward to the day — perhaps in a few years — when I can join the Big Sort.

Until that day, I will continue to be in Austin, but not of Austin.

*     *     *

Other related posts:
Driving and Politics
Driving and Politics (2)

* Older posts are imports from other blogs of mine, as are some of the posts dated after February 8, 2009.

Life in Austin (3)

To fully appreciate this post, you should read “Life in Austin (1)” and “Life in Austin (2).”

A combination of leftist whites, blacks, and Hispanics is in charge of Austin. That is not about to change, although leftist whites may find themselves coaching their protégés from the sidelines.

Why and how? Last November, Austin’s voters approved a change in the composition of the city council. The current scheme provides for 6 at-large members (plus an at-large mayor). The new scheme (which takes effect with the election of November 2014) calls for 10 members, each representing a particular geographic district. The 10 districts are to be decided by a 14-member commission consisting of volunteers from the electorate. The initial response to the call for volunteers was insufficiently “diverse,” so there was a great effort to enlist “minorities.”

From the expanded and suitably “diverse” pool of applicants emerged a leftist white’s dream team. The present council chose the first 8 members of the commission (allegedly by random draw): 6 Hispanics, 1 black, and 1 Asian. (It should be noted here that Austin is 48-percent white.) Further, not one of the 8 is from the west (more affluent) side of Austin. These unrepresentative 8 commissioners will select the other 6 commissioners from the applicant pool. What this means, of course, is that Austin’s council districts will be drawn by a completely unrepresentative commission.

I fully expect that those of us who pay most of Austin’s taxes will have no more than token representation on the new city council.

That’s “diversity” in Austin, folks.

Society and the State

Michael Oakeshott writes:

A modern state, as it emerged from a medieval realm, a patrimonial estate, a military protectorate, or a collection of colonial settlements, had three distinct features that it has never lost: an office of authority, an apparatus of power, and a mode of association….

…[S]ince a modern state has never ceased to be recognized as an association in the making, attention has always been directed to the sort of association it might be made to become no less than to what it may be perceived to be. But the exploration of this theme has been sadly hindered by confusion.

First, it is usually conducted in terms of the vocabularies of authority or of power, but in this connection these words are meaningless. To say, for example, that the conditions of association are or should be “democratic” is absurd…. [T]here are no “democratic ” rules of relationships…. Secondly, this inquiry has been almost obliterated by drivel about something called “society,” a fanciful total of unspecified relationships which only a simpleton would think of identifying with a state. (“Talking Politics,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, pp. 441, 450)

There can be such a thing as “society,” but only in rare circumstances. And Oakeshott is correct when he says that only a simpleton would identify society with a state. But, as I will discuss, it is not only simpletons who identify society with a state but also cynical politicians and leftist opportunists.

With respect to society, I begin with Margaret Thatcher, who often is quoted as saying that “there is no such thing as society.” When Mrs. Thatcher said that, she was arguing against the entitlement mindset, as in ” ‘society’ owes me a roof over my head and three meals a day.” As she put it, “people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor.”

There is, in fact, such a thing as society. But what is it? “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another

In other words, the state is not society. The state — in the guise of a nation, a city, a village, etc. — may compel certain behaviors, including the transfer of one’s income to strangers. Compulsion by the state is the antithesis of societal cooperation.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency — especially on the part of leftists — to claim that the state represents and serves society. The claim is wrong:

  • For the reasons given above, the identification of the state with society is nothing more than a rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which utilitarians, paternalists, do-gooders, politicians, and pundits justify the imposition of their preferences on the masses.
  • The specific acts of the state often are malign rather than benign. See, for example, any of the 140 issues of Regulation that have been published to date. Moreover, acts of the state generally involve regulatory and tax burdens that, at once, stifle prosperity and liberty.

The fact of the matter is that the state destroys society in two ways. First, it usurps the functions served by society, most notably the functions of charity and marriage. Second, it compels certain kinds of behavior instead of allowing behavior to evolve cooperatively.

Two of the stated aims of compulsion are the advancement of “social justice” and “diversity.” The former is redistributionism, pure and simple. The latter forces social and economic interactions between persons of dissimilar cultures, religions, and races — to no good end.

Social justice” is usually

code for redistributing income, either directly (through the taxing and spending power of government) or indirectly (through the power of government to require favoritism toward certain groups of persons). Make no mistake, there is no justicein “social justice,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for coercion by the state.

Social justice is possible only where there is a true society, not the bogus “society”  or “community” to which bleeding hearts and statists refer when they mean the United States or most of its political subdivisions — which have become nothing more than geopolitical prisons.

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

That “bargain” amounts to a delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior. The self-interested aspect of behavior is mutual forbearance — leaving others alone so that they will leave you alone. The voluntarily beneficial aspect is the commission of acts of kindness and charity. It is the latter that enables the former, because acts of kindness and charity help to build a true feeling of community by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Purveyors of “social justice” say that the voluntary arrangements of true communities are inadequate for the purpose of meeting this or that desideratum. Whence the desiderata? From the preconceptions of the purveyors of “social justice,” of course. They would substitute their “wisdom” for the wisdom that it embedded in voluntary social and economic arrangements. And they usually succeed because their arrogance incorporates a good measure of power-lust.

In sum, true social justice  is possible only in a voluntary community that is founded on mutual forbearance, respect, and trust. It cannot be found in the kind of forcible leveling that is favored by advocates of “social justice.” There is nothing just about coercion.

“Diversity” — which encompasses and extends the state’s effort to force “equality” — is a case study in the state’s socially destructive power. In “The downside of diversity,” at The Boston Globe, Michael Jonas reports on a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.” Putnam, according to Jonas,

has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

John Leo, writing at City Journal (“Bowling with Our Own“), first discusses Putnam’s findings; e.g.:

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….

Leo then discusses the fact that Putnam had delayed announcing his findings:

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings…

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.

Myron Magnet, also writing at City Journal (“In the Heart of Freedom, in Chains“), addresses “elite hypocrisy, gangsta culture, and failure in black America.” Magnet asks

how can there still exist a large black urban underclass imprisoned in poverty, welfare dependency, school failure, nonwork, and crime? How even today can more black young men be entangled in the criminal-justice system than graduate from college? How can close to 70 percent of black children be born into single-mother families, which (almost all experts agree) prepare kids for success less well than two-parent families?

And answers:

The legacy of slavery and racism isn’t the reason….

Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.

A decade after Murray, I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?

“Diversity” — which was born of misplaced white guilt about slavery and racism — exemplifies the state’s long habit of adopting and magnifying the destructive, anti-social consequences of elite opinion.

“Social justice” and “diversity” — and the other leftist slogans that are meant to stifle resistance to statist oppression — have nothing to do with “society” and everything to do with the use of the state to coerce the many for the satisfaction of the few. And it does not stop there.

Read on:
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Democracy and Liberty
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Down with “We”
The Divine Right of the Majority
I Want My Country Back
An Encounter with a Marxist
Our Enemy, the State
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
Externalities and Statism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
More about Merit Goods