The Empty Defense


While searching for wisdom on the subject of trust, I turned to a book by that name by Francis Fukuyama. This is where he popularized the idea of “high trust” and “low trust” societies, characterized by the ability of huge numbers of strangers in that society to cooperate.

Fukuyama begins by saying that neo-classical economics is right on most things, but is missing something important—the way sociology shapes economic relationships. So far, so good. But his approach to this “non-economic” determinant of economic behavior is vulnerable to Deirdre McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists in economics (see Paul and my discussion of that critique).

For Fukuyama, trust is simply the thing we accumulate in order to build social capital. What is social capital, you ask? Why it’s just the thing that allows us to cooperate on a large scale rather than free-ride or otherwise defect.

It is basically a black box. Just like tradition, as understood by Burke, was just a black box, irrationality and prejudice that formed the basis of rational behavior. And indeed Fukuyama explicitly defends religion as an irrational basis for economically and socially rational behavior.

But tradition is rational, not irrational. And so is religion. Religion and tradition writ large have inner logic—or internal narratives—that are not separable from the so-called functional aspects or power relations (perhaps more properly, relations of authority). Instrumentalist analyses like Fukuyama’s give you a decent approximation of the machinery—Joseph Heath, to my mind, takes this about as far as it can go in his analysis of norms and choice. But ultimately this machinery is not content-neutral, and to call it machinery or functional or instrumental leaves out an important part of the picture. To my mind, the most important part.

If the only defenders of religion left were people like Fukuyama, who simply see something instrumentally useful, religion would be doomed to fade into oblivion. Once religion becomes nothing more than a club, a vehicle for community building, it is destined to lose to organizations that compete specifically on that margin. Or simply to the desire to not be bothered by other people at all; perhaps to sit at home writing blog posts instead!

I can hear my fellow nonbelievers giving a shout of approval—so be it! But this problem is not restricted to religious apologetics.

I believe that the basic ideals of our way of life in this country are rich, meaningful, and important. The particulars of this are, to me, the core answer to a number of very important questions: what is the point of America as a political entity? To protect our way of life. What value does “American” as common cultural identity hold?  It connects together hundreds of millions of people who share a commitment to the same basic outline of a way of life, and fosters an ongoing conversation about the best particular ways to fill out that outline.

In short, politics, society, and commerce, all have value in the way they come together to form and preserve a way of life.

But the empty, instrumental pluralism that has become increasingly popular among intellectuals and elites will not suffice to preserve that way of life. In as much as such people continue to go to bat for our way of life, it is a fragile, tenuous defense. Their commitment is like a lapsed Catholic who continues to go to church because they like the people there. As I said above, once a church becomes entirely full of such people, it cannot last. Nor can our way of life persist, if these are our only defenders left.

Because people do have substantive beliefs about what a good life should look like. And many of them are quite hostile to ours. I’m not just talking about groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS, which constitute one answer to the modern world cosplaying as pre-modern. I’m also talking about others on the radical left and right who see our way of life as fundamentally and irreparably immoral. Whether because they reject the tragic nature of the world and so blame any ugliness that exists on the status quo, or because they just have different answers to important questions than our way of life allows, they are not going to be satisfied by aspirationally neutral functional arguments.

Because in truth those arguments aren’t neutral at all, but presuppose some notion of the good. And unless that notion is defended directly, it will not last.

Even then, there are no guarantees.


2 thoughts on “The Empty Defense

  1. Kind of tangential, but possibly of interest if you missed it: Here’s Noah Smith on trust in Japan, where by some metrics (albeit not Fukuyama’s) trust levels should be higher.

    (I swear my site is not a bunch of Tweetstorms…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s