Monday, October 15, 2007

What Digby said

goes a little deeper than this. Digby calls it "Post-Modern Serfdom," but it's as old as human community.

We come back, again and again, to the issues of utilitarianism (and, no surprise, I found the Digby link through Paul Krugman's blog. What's the connection? Well, Krugman's an economist, and utilitarianism underlies economic theory). The center of utilitarianism, of course, is "enlightened self-interest," which is nothing more or less than the acceptance of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. That is, the assumption is that we are all selfish, but if we pursue goals which are "enlightened," i.e., which to some degree or another move us toward altruism and away from selfishness, but retain a self-interest in the outcome which we cannot forego (there's the "original sin," the basso continuo we can't write out of the composition of human nature), then the rising tide of self-interested altruism will float all boats.

It's not an idea confined to economics, by the way. Barbara Tuchman has written a book analyzing different historical events, including the Vietnam War, and analysing them as failures of national enlighted self-interest. Why, in other words, do even nations continually act agains their own self-interests? We could ask that again today, with regard to our "War on Terror." As Frank Rich quoted on Sunday:

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”
Which brings us back to Digby's observation.

“We have always known<" quotes Krugman in another column, "that heedless self-interest was bad morals.” He is quoting F.D.R. He goes on:

“We know now that it is bad economics.” These words apply perfectly to climate change. It’s in the interest of most people (and especially their descendants) that somebody do something to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but each individual would like that somebody to be somebody else. Leave it up to the free market, and in a few generations Florida will be underwater.
And the solution, of course, is a utilitarian one: enlightened self-interest.

The solution to such conflicts between self-interest and the common good is to provide individuals with an incentive to do the right thing.
Well, I suppose; but I'm more inclined to Auden's answer (one he himself rejected as too idealistic: "New styles of architecture. A change of heart."

Enlightened self-interest too easily turns into the self-interest which enlightens me; not the self-interest which leads to enlightenment. The problem with an analysis that leads to the common good arising from individuals having an incentive to "do the right thing" is that the incentive mentioned is usually "by doing something for yourself that just happens to help someone else." On that path we end up with the kind of charitable giving I mention below, and the self-interest is seldom all that enlightened. It may be functional (to a point), but it is function that serves a few while relying on a system that still exploits the many. You get to eat your cake and have it too, in other words. Which, in the long run, is neither enlightened nor finally, in your self-interest (which you may not live to see, but eventually you will have eaten the sour grapes which set your childrens' teeth on edge). Sure it's bad economics, but until the bubble bursts, we can all enjoy the ride! And when the bubble finally does burst, we can always find someone else to take the blame. I lived in Austin through the 1980's when insane real estate speculation led to a bursting real estate bubble that left the city with the highest per capita percentage of empty office space in the country (and Austin is still not that large a city, 20 years later), and a huge number of abandoned houses. The real estate speculators, of course, blamed the environmentalists who constantly fight to preserve the natural beauty of the Austin area which draws so much real estate development in the first place. Sound familiar? As the housing bubble continues to burst in the national economy, look for more and more complaints directed at those who had nothing to do with the speculation; but don't look for any mea culpas from those who did. "Enlightened self-interest" keeps the focus on what is in my self-interest; and the first principle of self-interest is self-preservation. "Enlightened" self-preservation tends to be the luxury of those who are already secure in their own needs, and feel able to give out of what they have left.

What does this have to do with Digby? Well, quite simply, in a market based culture where everything is for sale, it is quite logical to think that even a gift of charitable giving is actually a purchase, and a purchase is always an exchange, never really a gift. When we think of gift, we think of something given without expectation of return, but when we give we always expect a return. We expect at least an acknowledgement, a "thank-you," a smile, a bit of gratitude. We never give without expecting something back, and the difference between giving a quarter to a homeless person who says "God Bless You" or holding a poor relative for ransom for the "gift" of $100 a month is only a difference in degree, not in kind. When I lived in a parsonage and had money from a church to offer to those in need, I never asked what they would do with the money. I know some pastors who only hand out food, or fast-food coupons, so the money isn't spent on liquour. Perhaps I should have done the same, but I never asked where the money would go, because I wasn't buying them or their burdens; I was offering help, and leaving it to them to take it or abuse it. But this is not a practice or a custom confined to the US because it espouses "free-market capitalism." It's a human trait as old as human community itself.

There is a reason so much of the Mosaic law is concerned with care for the poor and the powerless, for the widow and the orphan (real categories who also symbolize those with the least access to the necessities society provides, or is supposed to provide). There is a reason Israel had to be constantly reminded of its obligations to such classes of persons, and why the prophets returned again and again to the question of justice as a question of what you did for the least of these. Jesus didn't invent anything when he tells the disciples in Matthew "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," he simply radicalized the Psalmist, who repeatedly says that God sits with the poor and the powerless. It is a reminder, constantly, of who the society should take care of, else what is a society for? And it is not an argument of enlightened self-interest. It's a simple matter of justice.

So I don't think Digby has it quite right here:

And this impulse (which is not confined to the right although they're the ones who seem to make a fetish of it --- at least since the temperance movement ran out of gas) is why government programs were developed in enlightened, modern Western societies in the first place. Charity robs the recipient of the dignity and personal liberty to which all people have a claim, rich, poor or in the middle. Using government to act as the safety net instead of the good will (or good mood) of those of means allows that.
Government can be just as crushing as private charity. I remember trying to help a woman who needed medical care, but the only way she could qualify was to divorce her husband so the house they owned couldn't be counted as an asset; that was the barrier to her receipt of any medical aid. That law has since been changed, but if I remember it, by definition this wasn't that long ago. Government charity in America has never come without strings. The "Graeme Frost" affair which prompted the post Digby is responding to did not leap sui generis from the forehead of Michelle Malkin or some commenter on a right-wing blog. It is a concept with roots in Charles Dickens' Victorian England. It is a concept as old as "God helps those who help themselves." It is a concept which has its roots in the history of human community. And it wasn't enlightened, modern Western societies which began public charities, or took it away from the good will or good mood of the private sector. That root actually goes back to the Church.

Kings of England, for all too brief a period, brought in beggars from the kingdom so that, on Good Friday, in an enactment of the "sacrament that wasn't" from the Gospel of John, the king would bathe their feet and then give them gifts as a sign of the king's recognition that God was with the poor. Not exactly charitable relief of their poverty, but a humbling act that recognized the words of Jeremiah:

Think of your father; he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well."--Jeremiah 22:16
The custom didn't last long. Too soon the king grew tired of such humility, and the act faded into giving gifts from the royal treasury, without even the king's attendance. Michel Foucault opens his book on society and healthcare with the anecdote about the last of the leprosy colonies, colonies run on the Continent largely by the church. There was even a ceremony for removing the leper from society. As he was dragged backward out of the church to be transported to the colony, the priest would bless him and pronounce him a blessing on the community, a reminder that God was with the least and the least wanted. God, presumably, should stay out of the church when contagious, though, or badly disfigured, but still the charitable act came from the church, which in concert with the state prevailed on the monarch to provide for the destitute. This was something monarchs did, not just out of enlightened self-interest, but either out or nobless oblige, or simply because the church directed them to. The reasons, of course, would vary, but to say "enlightened, modern Western society" invented a better form of public charity, is to assume all public charity before that always followed what the French today would call the "Anglo-Saxon model."

But that model, of value for value, is the one we are stuck with in this country, for better or worse. Clearly the Scandinavian countries, to pick an example, have a different view of how society should be organized. It may be a better view, but only if you accept the premises they have accepted. Until the society does, that model won't work in this country. So we fall back on the notion of "enlightened self-interest," or "utilitarianism," or "the greatest good for the greatest number." And enlightened self-interest never quite gets beyond what I can see as a benefit to me, rather than what simply serves simple human dignity.

When I was a student in seminary, I was struck one day by a charitable campaign in the small town I was living in. Men were "selling" penny pieces of candy for $1.00, or however much more you wanted to give. The money went to a charity, of course, but it was apparently so much easier, without a celebrity-driven national telethon to fall back on, or the symbolism of fireman (who represent selfless public servants), to give something in exchange for the donation. Since we would never see the effects of our largesse, we needed some catalyst to open our pocketbooks, and a piece of candy was it. Is it really surprising, then, that we still see charity, by and large, as a matter of purchase, of exchange, of an economy in which I should seek a return on my investment?

The sharp-eyed will have noted that there's little seeming difference between the challenge of Jeremiah to the king, and the notion of "enlightened self-interest." There is, of course, quite a distinction, and it isn't based on a "God will smite thee" kind of ethics. Doing "the right thing" because you are the king and charged with that responsibility is quite different from "doing the right thing" because it will aid you in the end. The former is a burden of power and duty; the latter is a way of avoiding responsibility by assuring yourself that what you want can actually help others out. The king, after all, can easily justify his fine palace (which is what Jeremiah is criticizing) as a necessity of governance, much as the much hallowed (and poorly understood) Solomon defended his need for power and arms (and, thus, more and more wealth) as actually being in the best interests of Israel (in the end, it wasn't. In the end, God was right, and Israel would have been better off without kings (a statement made before there was a throne for David to ascend to). There is an almost straight line from Solomon to the Exile, but the line is so long that few would have denounced the consequences of Solomonic rule on the basis of "enlightened self-interest," since the results would be felt by their children's children's children, and were largely unforseeable in Solomon's time. The problem with enlightened self-interest, in a nutshell, is that my self-interest no more inevitably leads to the good of all than your self-interest does. It's that old problem of what Christians call "original sin" again. That, and the sad, sad truth that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I have no doubt the torturers in the CIA have intentions every bit as good as those of George Frenkel; but the differences between them couldn't be more stark, the results more disastrous, in the former case, for the common good. Thus it has been; thus it will always be.

It does not, of course, have to be this way. But changing it will require more than mere "enlightenment."

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