Uber, but for Virtue

During the discussion with Sam, I thought of what psychologists call the “what-the-hell effect” observed among those attempting to maintain a diet. Here’s Roy Baumeister’s description of it:

The researchers gave it a formal scientific term, counterregulatory eating, but in their lab and among colleagues it was known simply as the what-the-hell effect. Dieters have a fixed target in mind for their maximum daily calories, and when they exceed it for some unexpected reason, such as being given a pair of large milkshakes in an experiment, they regard their diet as blown for the day. That day is therefore mentally classified as a failure, regardless of what else happens. Virtue cannot resume until tomorrow. So they think, What the hell, I might as well enjoy myself today—and the resulting binge often puts on far more weight than the original lapse.

What’s more, such dieters also show a marked decline in their ability to even estimate how much they have eaten during this period, relative to control samples of non-dieters.

This is why I resist Sam’s argument that we ought to treat good deeds or good acts as something to be budgeted “the same way” as “household wealth”. Psychologically, we’re always looking for a reason to be let off the hook. Whether it’s dieting or simply holding ourselves to a minimal standard of decency in how we treat the people around us, we look for excuses and will even construct caricatures to neutralize our culpability or the blameworthiness of our actions. And thinking of moral budgets strikes me as providing just such a recourse. I’ve done X good thing, therefore it’s OK for me to indulge in Y. Only the what-the-hell effect implies that once you’ve indulged in Y once that day, odds are you’ll indulge it in a fair bit more, if given the chance. Especially if Y is something (like cutting people off in traffic) that it takes a degree of restraint to avoid doing.

Now, willpower—Baumeister’s area of study—definitely needs to be budgeted. Actively making decisions, resisting a tempting choice, and similar actions burn glucose in the body. The result is ego depletion, where self-control is harder, and sloppy mental shortcuts are more likely than careful deliberation. There are many reasons why it is important to economize on willpower, not the least of which is so that you can deliberate carefully about the most significant choices when they come up. Baumeister has several suggestions for how to go about this, including making a lot of decisions (like what you’re going to wear each day of the week) up front rather than on the day of. And forming good habits—if you get in the habit of driving a certain way every single day, it won’t feel like you have to resist the urge to cut someone off. It will no longer feel as natural to do so, so avoiding it won’t deplete your willpower, and you won’t be looking for excuses to do it. Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson also talk about how external and social environments can help or hinder people trying to economize on willpower.

Temperance

A lot of this turns on the difference between self-control and the virtue of temperance.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about enkrateia, which is self-control as we understand it today, and akrasia, which is its opposite. This is very much in line with modern discussions of willpower and impulse control; there’s a desire that we wish to resist acting upon. For Aristotle, enkrateia is the ability to successfully resist this desire; that is self-control in the modern sense. On the other hand, akrasia is giving in to that desire even if we judge it to be the wrong thing to do. This fits into modern discussions of lacking impulse control or being weak-willed.

But being encratic is not the sample thing as being temperate.  In Aristotle’s ethics, virtue involves a unity of emotion and reason. So with regard to, say, food, the temperate man is not the one who desire to eat more than he should, but resists. That is merely the encratic man. The temperate man feels most comfortable eating the right amount of food; eating in moderation is not only judged to be the right choice, but it feels right.

This is probably the most controversial aspect of virtue ethics. In our post-Hume world we are much more used to think of emotion and the passions as being these wild, uncontrollable things. They are “givens” which must be compensated for in some way or simply given in to. Reason is, at best, the meek adviser, at worst, the slave, providing the “how” for achieving a goal in which passions provide the “why”. To the extent that we prefer some passions over others, an exercise of will is necessary to restrain the unruly ones.

Straddling both visions, my father once wrote of the virtue of self-rule:

Self-rule means an intelligent organization, not a renunciation, of desire. The self-ruled man knows that desires can be noble or base, and turns one kind of desire, lever-like, against the other. Self-knowledge — knowledge of our weaknesses rather than narcissism — is, therefore, a requirement of self-rule.

This description is in line with Aristotelian virtue but, interestingly, not necessarily at odds with the modern Humean vision of the passions. For Aristotle, a chain of reasoning leads us to realize that what we want most is happiness in our life as a whole; that is, eudaimonia. He speaks not of desire but of having “reasons” for seeking this, but it’s clear that these reasons are motivating.

Aristotle’s taxonomy is much more nuanced than Hume’s simple dichotomy of passions and reason, and we need not get bogged down in it here. If you’re interested, Martha Nussbaum has a thorough review of Aristotle’s understanding of emotions, as well as that of rival Hellenistic schools, in The Therapy of Desire.

In any case, there are signs that we can strive towards temperance rather than mere enkrateia. What we know about neuroplasticity, for example, suggests that we are capable of going from reading long texts through an act of will to doing so because it feels natural to. This is precisely the distinction between enkrateia and a true virtue; you need to have the former in order to set yourself on the road to the latter.

For our part we can say that this is another reason it is important to economize on willpower; doing so allows us to apply it in strategic ways the help us to cultivate new skills and character traits.

 

Generosity

In Give and Take, Adam Grant discusses a highly generous type of person which he labels simply “givers”. What excited me about the empirical work that Grant summarizes in the book is that it seems to provide a detailed look at what Alasdair MacIntyre presents as a theoretical concept; the “network of uncalculated giving.” Grant talks about how givers (unsurprisingly) give more than they ask for, and how their behavior actually encourages the people around them to act more generously.

Moreover, the networks they create are not networks of reciprocal giving (those are for what Grant calls “matchers”, tit-for-tat types, and to an extent for “takers” as well, who just try and get what they can for themselves in all exchanges). Instead, they create networks of people who will help one another; when the giver isn’t the one providing help directly they are acting as a node between people who need help and people who can provide it. Some people end up giving more than they get out of the network but as a whole more good ends up being done.

One big risk that givers face, unsurprisingly, is burnout. They’re more likely to give their time to anyone who asks for it, no questions asked. He used the example of what the teachers at Teach for America often have to endure—students from very different backgrounds from their own, with no respect for them and no desire to participate in the class. The TFA teachers’ ideals collide with reality very quickly, and just coming in and trying to manage their students in a minimal way every day requires a great deal of willpower.

What’s interesting, however, is that the teachers who avoided burnout weren’t the ones that had low expectations from the start or put in minimal effort. Instead, they—to use a now abused phrase—leaned in. But in a very particular way. One case, Conrey Callahan, added to her weekly workload rather than reducing it. Only she didn’t add to her TFA load; she volunteered in other programs tutoring promising but poor students individually. According the Grant, the more favorable circumstances and the more direct feedback, coupled with the fact that it was directly related to her TFA work, helped her maintain her motivation at her main job.

I do not know how far this logic can be extended. I’m not expert and I’m not familiar with the literature the way Grant is. But to me, the Callahan example (the generalizability of which Grant defends with further citations) suggests that we should be very careful with what we apply budget metaphors to. Willpower definitely needs to be budgeted. I’m skeptical, however, that goodness does.

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Propertarian Hokey Pokey

Since I’ve come to know the Sweet Talk Kids, the property rights thing has been brought forward regularly as an entree of interest, like hotdogs, chips and kool-aid for Saturday night TV. I’m not terribly good at all the vocabulary nor some of the philosophical underpinnings, but the posts winging about have been quite educational, and I’m grateful for it.

As far as I can tell, there are two main lines of argumentation: 1) private property is theft, inherently [insert appeal to avaricious human nature. Problem of avarice resolved by benevolent redistribution imposed by state]; 2) public property is theft [insert appeal to mitigating features of nature. Problem of avarice resolved by not-so-benevolent redistributive forces of nature].

I know on which side of the divide I fall, to wit: side 2. And I have a few reasons I fall that way, the main ones as follow: the benevolence of the state is inherently violent. It must seize property by force, which requires either the threat of death and/or a complacent populace. Having a populace complacent to the state is problematical because it submits to the will of a state which allows no larger organizing principle than itself, which is (if I may anthropomorphize) what the state desires and will seek to attain and perpetuate. The state, in other words, is messianic, and will crush all other suitors.

What larger organizing principle is there?

Here, I think, is the rub. Arguing for an organizing principle larger than the state is a matter of metaphysics, i.e., whether there is such a thing as nature, an invisible hand, or a providential will of some sort. Perhaps even a personal God–but that’s too much, seeing as how even the most fervent believer in God believes that he is hidden amidst the elemental things, revealing himself very particularly, if at all.

Now side 2 is essentially reduced to an appeal to cold, hard, experience, both for itself and against the state. Each argument is in this way weakened, being basically founded upon witness, which can be contorted and perverted according to will. Thus, sweet talk. Are the not-so-benevolent forces of nature to mitigate the inherent avarice of private property owners convincing to you? Let me count the ways…

No matter how I count, however, I must appeal to a moral authority for the right to private property, not a theoretical one, not as a foundation, not until after I lay a foundation based on an unrevealed moral authority reconstructed by feeble minds. The will of a state is not, essentially, as messy as all that. What the state wills shall be so. By nature, then, to argue for private property is the weaker of the two sides.

What is it about the appeal to witness, however, that has such persuasive power?

The implications reveal, I think, that the argument is not set on a pole, as it seems at first glance: private vs. public property, or what-have-you. The arguments are appeals to a set of beliefs, the one founded on witness, the other founded on will, neither founded on objective reality, despite any appeal one or the other might make to such a not-a-thing.

On the one side are the institutions of the state, and on the other are the institutions of civilization with ancient precepts which strive to reach the unreachable heavens. Both coexist in an uneasy truce, some epochs more uneasy than others. When one finds favor in your eyes, you put your whole self in and you do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around, with lots of friends and fellow travelers participating in the dance with you, and there will be an inside and an outside. Where the frontiers meet is where the music is played. Whose hokey-pokey radiates the most warmth and happiness?

Questions of justice are hereby eschewed, for those are fundamental to each dance.

Raving Bully Model of Property

Property is theft, some say. And this could be true. Suppose there were an idyllic community sharing all things in common, peacefully. In a model akin to Olson’s roving bandit, a raving bully

94c1f_biff_bully_diner_400_t268

within the community begins appropriating things unto himself, and property is born, through theft. Most often this is the story told about enclosure laws. Whoever had the ability to manipulate the institutions of law and power could capture rents. Once in place, a raving bully would be hard to displace, thanks to transitional gains traps.

All property is understood to have emerged from this process.

But suppose property emerged not from appropriation, but through allocation. Suppose a community has only one bow-and-arrow (or whatever specialized asset) among them. The community then allocates that bow-and-arrow to the person most talented in its use.

Katniss-Everdeen-Hanger-Games-Bow-and-Arrow-Jennifer-Lawrence

The archer no longer is understood to have taken the property unto herself, rather, she is understood to have been allocated the tools of her trade for the benefit of the community. She is a steward of the assets, not a tyrant or a miser. Should the archer abuse the use of the bow-and-arrow they would be taken from her and given to someone else. Should someone more talented in the use of the tool be discovered, then the tools would be re-allocated to that individual.

Now suppose that the comparative advantages of each individual in the community were discovered and that each individual were allocated the capital best suited to them to steward for the sake of the community. Each person would be a steward over some set of assets, and would be accountable to the whole community for the appropriate use of those assets. Suppose also that one individual were discovered to have an uncanny ability to correctly identify the comparative advantage of all other individuals. To this wise and (let us assume) benevolent one is allocated the responsibility of allocating all other community assets. The community prospers through the wisdom of the Allocator, who appoints stewardship over assets.

Students of economics will recognize Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society within this parable. It turns out that the invisible-hand mechanism of the market is the benevolent and wise Allocator. Property is only held, in the long run, by the person who stewards it best, that is, who operates as the least-cost producer of goods desired by others because the property holder has a comparative advantage in employing that asset.

Of course there are all sorts of qualifiers that involve the theory of the firm and whatnot, and economics has been working out these details off and on for quite some time now, though not much was done between the early political economists and the 1950s when Alchian, Buchanan, Coase, and Demsetz (ABCD, with a nod to Epstein and Fama, please feel free to add to the list, new Twitter game) began to work out the economics of property rights.

Bruenig argues that all income could be reallocated according to any from among an infinite set of possible institutionally based distributions, without unjustly taking from some a claim to future income. He is theoretically correct in this I believe. But he has started from the wrong premise, that property is theft, and that the current distribution of property is therefore the consequence of injustice. I’m trying to be charitable, but Bruenig it seems may be perilously close to assuming himself the wisdom and benevolence of the Allocator.

Step back, surely the present allocation of property does reflect some injustices. Agreed. There are a great many appropriators, raving bullies, that fleece the community and enjoy luxury at the cost of others’ poverty. Many of those bullies are in Congress, or in Town Hall, or on the School Board, or on the local HOA, I would argue. Why would Bruenig entrust these institutions with the responsibility of enacting his preferred policies?

I think he is too romantic about those institutions. I think he sees top-down as an efficient approach to changing the world for the good. I think he means quite well.

But I think there is a pattern of thought that at once assumes that property is the consequence of top-down appropriation by a raving bully and that finds the solution to problems through top-down channels. It is the worldview that takes anarchic cooperation as its starting point, that then can understand the invisible-hand mechanism’s function in allocating resources efficiently (and peacefully!), that also is very suspicious of the top-down approach.

It is the combination of the Virginia School’s robust political economy that combines Hayek’s insights of the Knowledge Problem, The Coasian insights about property, the Public Choice understanding of politics and rent seeking, and now also the Bloomington Workshop’s insights about concentric orders, all seen from the perspective of a positive research program in anarchy that leads me to most of my ethical conclusions. That and a hefty dose of pacifism, with a shot of grace.

Bruenig is wrong about property. Workers are not atomistically interchangeable. We have specific talents. The only way to get rich, apart from political abuse, is by making other people better off. The right way to deal with injustices is not by overturning the whole system. Rather, the right approach is to work under the system, to subvert it, to be an agent of grace and mercy. Be the exogenous shock you want to see in the world. Stop blaming other people. Yeah, they are wicked, but so am I, if I’m honest with myself.

Robot Jobs, a Series

From Inc., a new company Harvest Automation is building a robot that does one job very well: moving planting pots. Aside from the improved economics of planting in pots and having robots manage the “fields”, there’s this comment from the unskilled laborers that used to move thousands of pots by hand:

Currently, growers have a shortage of workers, so they plan to keep [all current employees] on and give them higher-value tasks. And the workers [Harvest Automation is] training tell us they would much rather supervise robots than move pots around by hand.

The robots are coming. There really can be no dispute about this. Even in China, where labor costs are lower than the United States, the roll-out of robots continues (even if not on the original schedule). Millions of jobs are going to disappear.

Whether this is a good thing or not is besides the point. I, personally, don’t mourn the loss of dull, repetitive work like moving plant pots. I think these unskilled laborers will be much happier and healthier in their new role. But that’s just me; maybe you disagree. Doesn’t matter. The robots are coming. The only question is how we are going to respond. And since the beginning of the industrial revolution in England, there have been generally three response: sabotage (King Ludd), stepping up the human effort of competition (John Henry), and working with the new technology (John C.).

Of course the Luddites failed to stop progress and John Henry died trying to keep up with that steam-shovel, but who’s John C? He’s my grandfather. He was no Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller, taking the technology of automation out to the limit, but he was an engineer and he owned a farm. Comparing the average worker to some industrial titan wouldn’t be fair, but everyone can do what my grandfather did. He approached the technology of his era with an open mind, and used it to make his own job better, and make himself more effective at doing it.

The robots are coming. Maybe they aren’t coming for your job this year or next, but keep an eye out for them. If you see them coming, I have only this advice – embrace them quickly and learn to use them before your customers do. Then figure out how to add value on top. As an early adopter you’ll be creating more value than any of your competitors, and when your customers finally do wise up to how the robots work you’ll already have a plan for still making a living.

Stuart Scott, RIP

Sports punditry is the quintessential human experience, and Stu brought it all to the TV screen every time the camera cut to him, even when it cut away from him to show highlights while he narrated last night’s sports achievements, punctuating them with trademark quips and exclamations. For many years I ate my breakfast and read the news while Stuart Scott lived the perfect human life.

First, there is sports, which, aside from ticket sales, [blog sponsorship name here]’s beer sales, t-shirt sales, and other vending sales [blog sponsorships welcome here], media coverage, security details, maintenance details, parking, and scalping at the site of the sporting event, is meaningless.

Then there is sports punditry, a cloud of ceaseless talking about sports, both on the radio within the local markets and nationally broadcast, and also on the television, broadcast nationally via satellite, first at ESPN, which was Stuart Scott’s home, then growing into innumerable channels, day and night, which media also generate advertising sales, which create staff, who need brick-and-mortar workplaces, maintenance, and vending themselves, a love of all which creates a cycle of love for sports, reciprocating to the paragraph immediately above this one.

Shall we nod in agreement to each other to gently saunter by the political ramifications brought by stadium builds, infrastructure contracting, and monied interests shaking hands nefariously with elected officials, even so far down as to tiny high school athletics, without further discussion? Yes, athletes are worth more than their agents have yet imagined.

In an interview about his particular style of punditry, Stuart Scott remarked that he did not employ his famous quips and exclamations always, at most once per broadcast, revealing a studied professional acumen toward his craft, a respect for his audience, his consumer. His approach was very basic: practice, energy, and love.

“Love for the game” is a phrase attached to sports idols, those who demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice everything to win the game, not only sacrificing the self, but sacrificing with great cheer. Stuart Scott led the way in loving love for the game so that we, his fans, loved him loving love for the game. And so it grew. ESPN is now an empire in no small part because of him.

After all, human existence is in large part living out fantasies and illusions, celebrating growth which will, like Stuart Scott, fade, awaiting the next technological advance, the next cultural progress, exerting effort to lay claim to some sort of meaningfulness in family, work, society, at least a little bit. Unfortunately, the next meaningfulness will be made known after it survives the next big smelting. As Patton quipped famously, “Compared to war, all other human endeavors shrink to insignificance.”

I’m biding time between wars, both hidden, personal wars, and the great outbreaks of human significance, which are sheer and utter destruction, the ashes from which yield something beautiful, flawed and invaluable. Stuart Scott didn’t pretend for one moment that he had anything to contribute, and I, for one, am glad that he did not threaten to become significant. He gave me something to think about in my boredom.

Stuart Scott (d. January 4, 2015), I hope, as you trotted off the field toward that Great Post-Game Press Conference In The Sky, you were greeted by rabidly fanatic angels shaking pompons, shouting your name within a clever, perfunctory rhyme. RIP.

Low-cost access to space is a game-changer

In my previous post on SpaceX and its rocket ambitions, I argued that low-cost access to space would be revolutionary in the same manner that ocean navigation or rail roads were revolutionary, giving the global economy a broader scope of activity and greater access to resources. I intended to leave it at that, but recent new is just too topical to pass up.

A few days ago Elon Musk announced that SpaceX will start building satellites in house, and their first project is to build a constellation of satellites orbiting at 750 miles altitude (which is fairly low, for a satellite) to provide broadband internet access to the entire globe, and also serve as an internet backbone. Many satellites just communicate with ground stations, bouncing messages back and forth between the Earth. If I understand Musk’s comments correctly, it seems like these satellites will communicate with each other in orbit too, passing signals among themselves as an internet relay competing with the undersea fiber optic network. The benefits of such a system over the current fiber networks are: global coverage, that signals travel faster through space than through fiber, and satellites are less likely to get hit by fishing trawlers or attacked by sharks.

A reasonable skeptic would ask at this juncture though whether anyone has tried this before, and what their success was like. The answers to those questions are “Quite a few”, and “Total failure”. The Iridium constellation cost over $5 billion and went through bankruptcy. Today the satellites are still in orbit but provide mostly just expensive cellular phone and paging services. The Teledisc constellation (which sounds very similar to the proposed SpaceX plan) failed before even getting off the ground, despite funding from Bill Gates and a Saudi prince. Globalstar went bankrupt shortly after launching its constellation, and the successor entity continues to downsize and cut costs. SkyBridge LLC failed so completely it doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry, and its spectrum allocation was sold to WorldVu which hopes to launch satellites in 2019. (Hope springs eternal)

So given that every previous attempt has gone bankrupt, why should we get excited about this one? Well, the answer returns to the economics. The physics of bouncing signals between satellites is well understood – everyone loves their GPS network and DISH Television has may fans. It’s the economics of providing the very large constellation necessary to power high-bandwidth, low-latency data coverage to the entire globe that’s been the problem to date. Specifically, the launch costs of reaching orbit are ridiculous. As I mentioned previously, the Space Shuttle cost between $1-2 billion per launch, and the expendable rockets offered by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Arianespace cost hundreds of millions per launch too. Each of the above failed ventures represents billions of dollars in launch costs.

SpaceX meanwhile has brought launch costs down significantly, even before achieving reusability. The Falcon 9 costs $61 million per launch, and the Falcon Heavy when it goes operational later this year will be only (“only” is a relative term in space flight) $85 million per flight for the most capable rocket launched from the United States since the Saturn V was retired. The next biggest rocket, the Delta IV Heavy from Boeing, costs 900% more per pound – $375 million for half the cargo. If SpaceX does achieve reusability later this year, costs should drop by another 50% immediately, and eventually as much as 90%. Furthermore, it’s very likely that conservative commercial and military satellite customers will not want to take a chance on a “used” rocket immediately, and will continue to pay full price for a couple years to get new ones, letting SpaceX fully pay off their rocket on the first launch and then launch their own satellites on the following flights for just the cost of fuel and operations. Combined with the constantly falling costs of electronics (Thanks Moore’s Law!), SpaceX’s venture should have a much lower cost basis than any previous attempt.

This new satellite venture is just the first taste of what low-cost access to space will bring. In the years to come, especially as SpaceX solidifies what its pricing will be post-reusability, you should expect more announcements of companies and projects that finally deliver the thriving space economy that in the 50s and 60s was expected to be just around the corner. Now I think it finally is.

Mr. Azazel Goes to Washington

We consider morality to be a primitive and natural condition, and government to be the protector of our original virtue. As for ultimate questions of power, we Americans delegate these to our elected representatives, whom we then despise and vilify for doing what they must do; while, free from such temptations, we go about the business of becoming good men and women.

-Martin Gurri, America and the “Machiavellian moment”

From an alternate timeline, an alternate Sam Wilson implores us not to abandon the great myths that hold our body politic together by a few delicate threads. I myself have made a similar argument; I think one crucial reason our military is so respectful and subordinate to its civilian masters is because the members of that military all buy into the great American democratic religion. Those who think they can corrode the legitimacy of democracy without big, horrible side-effects have got another thing coming.

And so Sam begs us:

My advice to anyone who finds this? Rediscover myth. Rediscover glamour. Rediscover the joy of the shared lie. Trust even when you have nothing but the fleeting flicker of hope. Love the hardest when you are unloved. Tell stories. Believe against the evidence of your senses.

The problem, of course, is that “the shared lie” often has consequences, precisely because reality doesn’t conform to the nice “roundness” of stories.

stories
From The Motherless Oven

We see the problems in the inaugural post of the newest Sweet Talker, Jordan. Inspired by Henry Kissinger’s classic Diplomacy, Jordan walks us through the classic dichotomy between moral values and Realpolitick. He argues that America can afford to act as though it is above the latter because of its current monopoly-like position in terms of global military might, but that this cannot last forever. And clutching so tightly to rigid moral ideals is neither practical nor healthy:

With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?

Jordan’s post brought to my mind a pair of old posts by my father; one on the very same dichotomy, quoted at the top of this post. The other on the President as Azazel; or more familiarly, as scapegoat.

Welcome to the American presidential elections process. It has very little to do with electing a president. It’s mostly about making demands on the world. I, for example, want to live in a Jeffersonian paradise, in which the choice between being good and being free never comes up. It’s a great place to be. But how do I get there?

Simple. I vote for President Buzz. He makes the choices. At first, I will be grateful for this. I can live in my private Eden, while Buzz, poor man, dwells in a public hell. But eventually, I’ll have to ask myself: what’s he doing down there? He bullies other countries, and fight wars that sometimes go wrong, and conducts himself with far less moral purity than my ideal — which, by the way, is me cavorting in my Eden.

Off with Buzz. In with Chaz. The world should never pose tragic riddles to Americans. That’s my non-negotiable demand of the new Chaz administration. Be pure. Be perfect.

But keep me safe. Preserve my Eden.

My reading of these four posts is that the American democratic religion worked, to the extent that it has worked, because of a sort of willful ignorance of the inherent contradictions. As it is put in the “Machiavellian moment” post:

Americans, it would seem, exist in a “Jeffersonian moment,” in which the contradictions standing in the way of freedom are leaped over, and the moral tensions between power and virtue are never acknowledged or felt. Somewhere in Hell, I imagine, Machiavelli is shaking his head in wonder and puzzlement.

Americans have not traditionally been particularly interested in politics, aside for a specific class of people devoted to it. This lack of interest allowed them to pursue moral purity while pretending that the ugly choices inherent in that form of human cooperation known as politics (including international politics) simply do not exist. But someone has to pull the heads of the pigs to get us our pork. Every so often voters notice the ugliness of it,  and respond by voting out a few incumbents. Feeling satisfied with themselves, they turn back to their own lives.

The threads of mythology that hold a body politic together are, I have said, fragile. What Jordan calls trader morality is a cousin of straightforward pluralism, which is a historically contingent arrangement. The fault lines of American pluralism appear to center on this malign neglect of the world of elected officials most of the time; remove the neglect and Azazel’s sacrifice goes from a blood rite to mere bloodshed.

In his book, my father hypothesizes that a combination of historical circumstances combined with the rise of the new media landscape have pushed us very close to that edge. In fact, the trend is global; the various myths and sacred cows are find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by those in the grip of the glamour of negation.

The information environment has, I think, rendered the American bargain untenable. But the eradication of previous myths will not bring us to paradise; as alt-Sam argues, the result will be rather the opposite. Instead, we need to begin to rethink ourselves and our ideals. This process does not take place in a vacuum; nearly all of the resources for doing so will come from the conceptual schemes we are already inside of, as Americans among other things.

The questions we must wrestle with, as these three writers highlight, are the big ones: how do we reconcile living a worthy life, holding our public officials to moral standards, and the demands of survival and preserving our most important institutions?

Contrary to Machiavelli and his intellectual descendants, I do not think that such a synthesis is impossible. I don’t think that survival and preserving the body politic demand that we put the morality of the soul to the side. But I also agree with him that the traditions of thought which construct ideals without considering the terrible choices that are often required for such preservation and survival are lacking.

For me, a proper ideal of good government and the good life must be embedded in the practice of politics; it must internalize the relationship of practical demands into a moral framework. An important part of this is helping us to determine when, as Jordan would put it, the moral price of survival is worth paying, and when it is not. Many of the problems that Jordan and my father identify come, I think, from drawing lines carelessly and then being inconsistent in defending them, or even in remembering where they are. Such lines are important, and not to be dealt with frivolously.

I’m not even going to try to outline the substance of this alteration of our current mythologies, which are presently trembling in an ICU somewhere. Such a task is far beyond my present level of expertise. Thankfully, there are others working on that task, and have been for a long time. I hope one day to be at a stage where I am comfortable joining them. Until then, I do feel comfortable insisting that the project is far from impossible, and increasingly a necessary one. Our long pact with Azazel is slowly unraveling, and if we do not find a new one, I’m afraid our present institutions will all be so much mud in Heraclitus’ river.