Moralizing Problems of Scale

I’ve been thinking a lot about the consequences of increases in the scale of human societies. I got to thinking about this as I came across a passage describing the New York City that was inhabited by Alexander Hamilton. How big was this city? Any guesses?

Before I answer, let’s put this in context. The city were I grew up was a quiet college town in north-central Florida. It’s current population is just under 130,000 people.

Now lets go back and look at the revolutionary era United States. At the time, Philideplia was the largest city in the United States. It’s population was around 40,000– less than a third of the population of my modest hometown. The New York City of that era, which is called the “greatest city in the world” in Hamilton the Musical, was even smaller: 25,000, one fifth the size of of my hometown.

Or rather than my hometown, take the city of Flint, Michigan, which most people know about only because of the gross neglect it suffered at the hands of the state government. Flint is still four times larger than the New York City in 1776. Indeed, there are more people living in Flint today than there were in 1776 in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston combined.

These are the cities that produced the titans of early American politics, that sparked a political revolution, creating a government that, at least in theory, was founded on the principles of enlightenment thought, the first of its kind in human history, all from a population of people smaller than our nowhere-villes.

Another fun fact: There are more people living in Brooklyn today than there were in the entire United States when the declaration of independence was signed.

This means that, in terms of “lives governed”, the mayor of New York city has more power than George Washington. In terms of the number of lives influenced, the political tempests of America’s youth had less immediate impact than Brooklyn zoning ordinances.

My view is that, if you want to understand the differences between today’s society and the society of our ancestors, you’d get a good portion of the way there simply by acknowledging the fact that today’s nowhere-villes are an order of magnitude larger than their metropolises, and today’s metropolises are an order of magnitude larger than their nations.

I wanted to tie in this line of thinking with a piece of cultural criticism in The American Conservative that Leah Libresco linked to on her blog.

To summarize, the article describes a “trade in” culture in the United States, which is characterized by increased willingness to cut short long term commitments, both interpersonal and civic, in pursuit of something better. The result, he argues is a more superficial, listless and  isolated modern society.

I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

[F]iring coaches is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict. And athletes know that this is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict: so when a team hits a bad patch, and the players are underperforming, and the coach is getting angry with them, and relationships are fraying… why bother stitching them up? Why bother salving the wounds? If everyone knows where the situation is headed — sacking the manager — then isn’t there rather a strong incentive to make things worse, in order to hasten the inevitable, put an end to the frustrations, start afresh, get a do-over? Of course there is.

And precisely the same tendencies are at work in many of the key institutions of American social life. This is one of the chief reasons why so many marriages end quickly; this is why so many Christians church-hop, to the point that pastors will tell you that church discipline is simply impossible: if you challenge or rebuke a church member for bad behavior, he or she will simply be at another church the next week, or at no church at all.

It seems that we — and I’m using “we” advisedly here, as you’ll see in a moment — are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can. Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over?

This piece touches on a lot of core conservative concerns, most of which I share. Americans today struggle with civic engagement. Americans today are more isolated. Americans today have a harder time establishing and maintaining long-term relationships. This is empirically true.

But at the same time, this is being framed as a moral failing of our society (which seems to be how partisan writers  frame every single problem that they write about).  This seems to be. The reason why people shift their family locations, are more willing to cut ties with social institutions, and generally try to “trade up” is because technological and social developments allow us to live in a society large enough for this sort of approach to work.

Culture lags behind the material conditions. If people in the past tended to be more committed to the social institutions that they were a part of, it isn’t because they had better values, it’s because cutting ties was a much less viable option. If you’re living in Maycomb, Alabama (the fictional town were To Kill A Mockingbird is set) and you don’t like your church… well, that’s really tough, because there’s only one church within a day’s travel. It’s not that they had a “culture of commitment”, it’s that they didn’t have any other options. And this is set in the 1930s, within living memory.

Of course, fact that we have new options does not necessarily mean that we know how to use them intelligently. In fact, we have every reason to expect that we’d provide worse answers to questions that previous generations never had to seriously consider before. If we fail to chose wisely, it isn’t because we’ve lost touch with moral truths, it’s because our parent’s experience genuinely didn’t prepare us for this sort of question.

We are in uncharted territory, and hard to know the result. One possibility is that the culture will simply adjust to the new possibilities, new norms will develop, and over time people will tend to make better decisions. The other possibility is that this will expose a weakness in human social organization that will require a more radical departure from the way we’ve done things in the past.

For example, it’s well known that civic engagement suffers from free rider problems. Being an engaged citizen is difficult and costly, which leads many people to opt out, and although the impact of a single individual opting out is negligible, the system breaks down if everybody does it.

Time and time again, the scale of our society has increased, and we have suddenly found that our “solutions” to social problems (which were often stopgap and improvised to begin with) stop working. Sometimes we find new ways to make it better. But those solutions often come with sharp, unanticipated costs.

One of the unanticipated costs becomes apparent in the personal dimensions to this question. By cutting our losses, do we deny ourselves experiences that have the potential to make us better, happier people? Jacobs argues that we do.

In the three decades that I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, I was a member of three different churches, and I often wonder what I might have learned — what wisdom I might have gained, what benefits of character I might have reaped, what good I might have done for others, what I might have been taught by fellow parishioners — if I had never left the first one. I can’t manage to wish I had stayed, but that may be because all I know is what went wrong there, what made me frustrated and unhappy. Any benefits I (or others) might have received through persistent faithfulness are unknown to me, a matter of speculation.

The personal dimension is also worth talking about. One can easily imagine that, when the world is not routinely forcing us to create lasting, enduring personal relationships, we lose the ability to make such relationships work when it is really, truly important, like when you’re married and trying to raise a child.

But at the same time, one might imagine a future where “knowing how to solve really difficult impersonal problems” might well become obsolete , the same way that hunting game, milking a cow, or farming vegetables have become obsolete. If I’m allowed to be more selective in how and when I make binding commitments, I may well not need to know how to solve very difficult personal problems. They will simply never come up.

It’s a hard balance to strike. Suffering may build character sometimes, but that’s hardly a reason to suffer. Sometimes the best solution is to disengage. One of the sweetest things about being an adult is that I don’t have to interact with anyone I don’t want to interact with.

More generally, I think the question of when to “work with what one has” v.s. when to “strike out to find something new” is hard to answer with any level of certainty. You can try to approach it rationally. You can try to weigh the likelihood of finding something better against the costs of striking out. But the end is always a gamble. There is no knowledge without cost.

A conservative reader might see this and think that I am simply another secularist, trying to transform a sacred institution, like marriage, into yet another variable in a cost-benefit analysis. But I suspect that declaring an institution “sacred” is, in this context, a way to avoid grappling with hard questions about it.

In other words, to solve new problems, it’s often necessary to dig deep and try to understand how our institutions work, including the sacred ones. De-sanctifying an institution is not easy, but it could be necessary.

This is, in my view, the reason to resist the urge to frame these cultural shifts as moral failings, and to try to see what problems these new cultural trends are directed towards solving, whether or not they are effective, and what could be done to improve them.

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