Consider a bullet. I had one sitting on my dresser as a kid – a Civil War Minnie Ball. Toss it into the air. It tumbles. It hovers, for a split microsecond, pointing at you as it falls. Consider that same bullet in 1862 (I found it on a farm near Antietam). Consider standing in front of the line of Blue (it was clearly a Yankee bullet) with your fellow Virginians. Consider that same bullet again. Fired from a Springfield, heading your way. Take a split microsecond, same length of time as before, and focus in on only the bullet. The situations are almost indistinguishable if looked at on a short enough time scale. The 1862 bullet points at you in the same way the modern one does. In that split microsecond, an observer who happened to just drop in and observe only the bullet would be hard pressed to decide which situation he or she’d rather be in. Practically the same mass of metal. Same shape. But look closer. The 1862 bullet should be warm – evidence of the kinetic energy stored in it. The present bullet should have a coat of oxidation. But there were bullets fired in 1862 that had been dropped in the crick the month before they were fired, and the modern bullet might have been sitting in the sun for a while. There’s always something for the naysayer to latch on to. But take another snapshot a couple of milliseconds later, and the difference between the two situations is instantly clear – the bullet in 1862 has traveled a lot further – and in a much straighter line than the arc of the falling bullet tossed from your hand. Now which situation would our hypothetical observer rather be in?
Trajectories matter. Real world systems are dynamic, not static. Especially human societies. But in the timescale we can measure with our fleeting consciousness and hazy grasp of both history and the present, many times we are measuring the health of our society at time intervals that are too short to determine our own trajectory, especially considering that I would model societies more as a hot-air balloon tossed by the wind, rather than as a bullet swiftly passing through the air. Humans tend to project the present situation forward indefinitely, rendering useless even our current rudimentary ability to determine how the winds of history can blow societies temporarily off course, pointing, for a moment, in a different direction from the vector of long-term progress. David Foster is fond of pointing out that humans have a much easier time discerning and predicting patterns that vary in space, rather than ones that vary in time. And he’s right. The person well-versed in history can overcome this somewhat by studying the past, but only somewhat, because history is a set of experiments in which too many variables have been fixed, so that general theory of human progress is difficult if not impossible to formulate. But at least a good historian understands that taking a single snapshot of today does not do much to help map the path to the future.
In this respect, I think that people in the past who held the idea that the past was better than the future, who held the religious view that revealed wisdom was clearer to those to whom it was directly revealed, and gets muddier through the ages – in some ways those people’s world view had an advantage over the modern view of continuous forward progress in understanding the full range of potential societal behavior. A Japanese Colonel, talking about how the WWII generation wasted the gains of the Meiji and Russo-Japanese war generations expressed it this way:
When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”
—- Alvin Coox interview with Colonel Sumi in Nomonhan p.61
So the third generation gambles away the wealth, and the fourth or fifth has to start all over again. In medieval times this was called the wheel of fortune. I think that this phenomenon repeats itself on larger social scales as well. If you convolve the function describing this behavior with the linear technological progress that science has been able to achieve (by making everyone be their own first generation through the process of obtaining a degree), you can begin to see a model that might explain a good deal of modern history – cyclical and linear at the same time.
Zenpundit described the debate surrounding cyclical versus linear historical models. The ancients, especially the ancient Chinese were indeed fatalistic in part because they saw history as only cyclical. Their pace of technological progress was so slow that generations could pass by without seeing a major innovation. We lived in charmed times. It is only 100 years since man first escaped the surly bonds of Earth, and in that time we have walked on our moon and sent machines to another planet. That linear technological progress has insulated us a bit from the cyclical nature of history in a society that does not experience a steady increase in material wealth – the world the ancients lived in.
But the ancients didn’t see everything as cyclical – the concept of a social trajectory is an old one. Let me wax Old Testament here:
… for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me …
I believe this verse to be quite literally true, and have done so throughout both the agnostic and spiritual periods of my life. The truth of it does not depend on any spiritual point of view. The ancient Israelite text expresses a simple reality: actions put a man and his heirs on a certain trajectory. Actions have consequences, and actions that are witnessed by small children tend to be repeated by them as adults. Being the great-grandchild and grandchild of people who were obviously alcoholics, I watch my own intake very carefully, to make sure that my father really was the fifth generation. Surely some of this dynamic on the small social scale, at the level of the family, is genetic. But it’s really, really hard to separate nature from nurture with any certainty. People are capable of learning – it’s our great advantage as a species. But as long as there’s no feedback loop to forcibly beat negative behavior out of us, we can learn stupidity as well as useful skills, and that is our species’ Achilles Heel.
One thing Jared Diamond got right in Guns, Germs and Steel is that he recorded the violent life of the primitive tribes that he studies without glossing over the barbarity. All of mankind lived in this kind of perpetual state of low-grade warfare for many, many thousands of years before recorded history. How could that not make for self-perpetuating, self-defeating behavior over and over again? “They” killed your uncle – go kill “them”. The amazing thing to me is not that civilized man has been so brutal and uncivilized over recorded history, but that we managed to rise out of the muck at all.
But somewhere, somehow, some Near Eastern genius-king at the beginning of the age of metal stood up and made up a social code good enough to allow men and women to live together in a densely populated, walled defensive space and not murder and / or rape each other back into the stone age. That had longer downstream consequences than the founder(s) of that social system intended: agriculture, division of labor, metalworking. Ever since then copy-cats from that king’s son to Hammurabi on down to our generation have been modifying this code to suit local conditions. And the societies who adopt codes that work better, tend, over the long run, to outperform societies that don’t.
But the old habits die hard. In ancient times, the City people continued to rape and pillage. Sacking other cities and setting back the overall cause of civilization was a major vocation in ages past, especially with their scarce resources. But then Empires began to build larger confederations of peoples, and civilization advanced more quickly in those areas, and social trajectories began to make themselves apparent to the careful student of history. Even before Empires came on the scene, a crude snapshot of a particular point in time does not tell the observer much about where any society would be in 100 years. Temporal snapshots are really only good for describing the likely future of extremely primitive societies not in contact with modern man.
If I take a step or two back and look at recorded history with a macro view, I get the feeling that the fact that mankind has an extremely short recorded and civilized history relative to our species’ past is extremely important. Each generation of a successful society (prior to the modern world) wasn’t quite sure what parts of its culture contributed to its success, so it clung to tradition like a security blanket. That kept society going, but it perpetuated some ugly habits, too. We cling to some counter-productive habits, such as racism and sexism, but in their day, when other automatically meant danger, and when large numbers of women who didn’t produce lots of kids meant societal death, those were survival traits.
We are slowly casting off the bad habits of millennia, habits developed to defend against societal death in an age of scarcity, famine, and unpredictable natural and man-made disasters. Some of those habits are retarding progress in our modern world, and some are part of the over-stressed glue that holds us together. Trouble is, because of our limitations in making dynamic models that include a temporal dimension, we can’t always predict the effect of eliminating a habit of thought.
So, as Zenpundit pointed out, the opposite of progress can happen, too, when societies get to the third generation outlined by the Japanese Colonel, and decide to do away with all those notions to which the old fogies cling, forgetting that the experiences of the previous generation shape the next one – change the experience of your kids’ generation, and the grandkids may well grow up wild. The modern West, especially the generation of ’68, has assumed that the material success it enjoyed was either accidental or inevitable, and so set about dismantling social constructs that did not meet the approval of the avant garde, sometimes finding out the forgotten reasons for creating those ancient constructs when things fell apart.
Here’s Jane Galt on the dynamic institution of marriage:
Marriage, it turns out, is an incredibly important institution. It also turns out to be a lot more fragile than we thought back then. It looked, to those extremely smart and well-meaning welfare reformers, practically unshakeable; the idea that it could be undone by something as simple as enabling women to have children without husbands, seemed ludicrous. Its cultural underpinnings were far too firm. Why would a woman choose such a hard road? It seemed self-evident that the only unwed mothers claiming benefits would be the ones pushed there by terrible circumstance.
This argument is compelling and logical. I would never become an unwed welfare mother, even if benefits were a great deal higher than they are now. It seems crazy to even suggest that one would bear a child out of wedlock for $567 a month. Indeed, to this day, I find the reformist side much more persuasive than the conservative side, except for one thing, which is that the conservatives turned out to be right. In fact, they turned out to be even more right than they suspected; they were predicting upticks in illegitimacy that were much more modest than what actually occurred–they expected marriage rates to suffer, not collapse.
How did people go so badly wrong? Well, to start with, they fell into the basic fallacy that economists are so well acquainted with: they thought about themselves instead of the marginal case. For another, they completely failed to realize that each additional illegitimate birth would, in effect, slightly destigmatise the next one. They assigned men very little agency, failing to predict that women willing to forgo marriage would essentially become unwelcome competition for women who weren’t, and that as the numbers changed, that competition might push the marriage market towards unwelcome outcomes. They failed to forsee the confounding effect that the birth control pill would have on sexual mores.
But I think the core problems are two. The first is that they looked only at individuals, and took institutions as a given. That is, they looked at all the cultural pressure to marry, and assumed that that would be a countervailing force powerful enough to overcome the new financial incentives for out-of-wedlock births. They failed to see the institution as dynamic. It wasn’t a simple matter of two forces: cultural pressure to marry, financial freedom not to, arrayed against each other; those forces had a complex interplay, and when you changed one, you changed the other.
The generation of ’68 thought that they had invented a new morality. But the biology that Ginny just wrote about can not be denied, and a lot of that biological imperative was captured in the traditional ways of doing things. My personal private morality is traditional Judeo-Christian. However, I do feel that there should be some room for experimentation, and I do not necessarily believe that my morals should be etched on society’s stone tablets, which is why I call myself a libertarian (small “l” deliberate). But I have a really bad feeling whenever reformers want to go to fast in changing mores that have developed over millennia. As Megan said elsewhere in the article I linked to above, if you don’t know why the fence was put there, you should not be allowed to knock it down. David Foster also said something very wise on this topic here :
“In an aviation publication somewhere, the author wrote: “If you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”
Leaders of modern society must, to a great extent, be test pilots–it would be nice if they, and us, recognized that fact.”
The reason I believe that you shouldn’t be able to easily knock down a social habit you don’t agree with is that many of the freedoms from ancient mores that we have allowed ourselves in the past century have been, like it or not, predicated on material abundance. And far too few people have any idea how tenuous is our grasp on the modern world. How quickly the EM pulses from a few atomic bombs could wipe out our communications networks, how some engineered virus could wipe out our food supplies or cause an epidemic to send us back to small community life with world travel banned or severely restricted. Not only could a doomsday scenario (and I’m not even including comet strikes or anything weird like that) happen, given the cycle of human history up to now, I’m pretty sure some sort of doomsday will happen in the next few centuries. I see it as a moral imperative to raise kids that can not only survive and thrive in the modern world, but who would also make a contribution in a world crippled by disaster.
Most modern people take material progress for granted. Many on the Left see something wrong, and they want it corrected right now. They rarely ask more than rudimentary questions about how things got to be this way, and their mental models are usually lacking a time dimension. This is why I have such a huge problem with the historical revisionists who want to emphasize the slave-holding hypocrisy of many of the founding fathers or this or that other historical habit that offends modern sensibilities. It’s a form of temporal bigotry. American society of 1789 produced the children who became abolitionists of 1859. Why? Because those later generations had been given enough of a material advantage to be able to consider questions of morality. But they also carried on the traditions of their fathers, making them better. They had been given language in their political documents such as “all men are created equal”, and it fell to that later generation to begin to question the definition of “man”. But facing the slavery question head-on in 1789 would have destroyed the nascent confederation before it had time to grow abolitionists. I can celebrate the achievements of the generation of 1789 without buying in to their entire worldview.
One of the currently popular philosophical underpinnings of the “change it now” school of thought is the “Veil of Ignorance” concept developed by Rawls, which I first encountered in an MBA business ethics class. It’s based on a principle of fairness that is hard to disagree with at first, but the shortcomings of which should be apparent to anyone after a little careful thought. It is my own view that society should be as fair as possible to those low on the totem pole, but society should not completely arrange itself around people who are doing more taking from than giving to the cause of advancing civilization. It took me about 30 seconds to see the problems of applying the Veil to business. If you think you have the same shot at being the CEO or the janitor, and you were the jealous type, you might opt for a more Japanese system where the pay differential is about seven-fold, even if incenting the CEO more meant that the firm as a whole did better. A person interested in job security over magnitude of pay might also opt for such a system. But the janitor at the strongly pay-for-performance firm will probably make more than the janitor at the Japanese firm, and is much more likely to be offered educational opportunities to rise above his or her station – it’s a big reason why low level Japanese employees and talented women come to work for a foreign firm in Japan. And the firm that sees its first goal as profit-making, rather than job creation will do better when faced with adversity (see the Japanese economy right now), even if a few janitors get laid off. Janitors are not the only employees in most firms. The vast majority of people tend to have one main term in their mental model, which does not always make for good decision making.
Before I thought a little harder, the Veil still sounded like an interesting concept out in society, though*. Educated people make better decisions, right? But soon after I encountered the concept, I ran into a former Russian lit teacher. Listening to her made me realize that single-issue blindness might actually increase with educational level. As a professional, she evaluates literature from pre-modern times from a feminist perspective. Pre-modern societies were all evil to her because of their treatment of women. Taking her simple-minded approach, bring her back to 1918 and put her behind the Veil. In Russia, the Bolsheviki have just given women the right to vote. Ergo, women are better off over there, right? At least they will be once they get that little Civil War thing ironed out.
But twenty years later I don’t think any woman in the world would have chosen the USSR of Stalin’s terror over Roosevelt’s USA, better equality on paper or not**.
Single-issue blindness isn’t the only dynamic argument I have against Rawls. Hayek’s information theory is also another good stick to beat it with. At the general block of history where modern civilization began (a block of several thousand years, in fact) the Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Chinese were all experimenting with societal arrangements and building Empires, although not simultaneously – this is a big block of history we’re talking about here. If one were to take the Veil of Ignorance seriously, the Empire was the place to be: the least citizens of those empires had a better life than the hard-scrabble existence of the barbarian tribes around them – especially when you consider the practice of human sacrifice with the many of the “barbarians” such as the Celts, even if it’s largely apocryphal, it only needs to be true once or twice to make Celtic society barbaric in my point of view.
However, let’s pick on the civilization from that general point in history that’s still around today: China. Let’s see how our hypothetical person fares from behind the Veil of Ignorance. The Chinese had a pretty good patriarchal system going to take care of their peasants. Sure, it tended to crash and burn now and then, but it always built itself back up. So it’s very likely the choice from behind the Veil in 476 CE could be China based on available information. But I’m damn glad my ancestors were Celts and Franks, and not peasants from Anhui. Chinese civilization stagnated, until cruelty and authoritarianism became ingrained and enervated the society to the point that it fell apart in the face of the modern world, a disaster from which it has not yet fully recovered.
It’s possible to add a time dimension to the Veil of Ignorance by asking what society the person behind the veil would want his or her descendants to grow up in. But that assumes a level of certainty about future events that we can not attain when we apply the Veil to moral arguments in the present. The best we can do is look at the current trajectory and try to figure out where society is going without relying too much on present trends extrapolated forward. Good luck with that.
We do have to be careful in constructing our models, though. I’m acutely aware that the Soviets used a crude dynamic argument to motivate the first generation after the Revolution. Hardships now, but we are building Socialism for the children! And then the children got there, grew up, and a ”according to your need” Utopia was still nowhere in sight: money still hadn’t been eliminated by the late 1930s. Zoshchenko did a great job defending why money was still necessary:
Just think what would happen if tomorrow the streetcars were suddenly free: without a doubt many citizens would be denied access to this inexpensive mode of transportation. Of course, one must say that even now the trams are not that pleasant to ride, but then the situation would become unthinkable. Not only would people be riding on the stairs and floorboards, they would be up on the roof with the pantograph.
But that kind of blew a hole in the expected rate of progress towards Communist Utopia as outlined by the State. And so it went, until by the 1960s it was clear that the whole model suffered from GIGO. It’s very easy to twist a dynamic model to fit an “ends justify the means” mindset or to use it to justify never changing anything. People like Fred Phelps will seize on an argument such as Jane Galt’s to indefinitely postpone the question of civil unions for gays. Those same people forty or fifty years ago would have opposed my own inter-racial marriage.
Despite those hazards, I guarantee you that any model that does not take into account the effects of systems interacting over time is going to have nothing to do with reality in very short order. The trajectory of the bullet matters.
The West has been progressing by any rational definition of “progress”, and it’s not always easy to spot the drivers of that progress. We make attempts here with our Anglosphere arguments, but sometimes our discussions give me the feeling of a post hoc statistical analysis on a large experiment – the pitfalls of both are probably similar.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the reformers of today forget that they can be reformers because their parent and grandparents set up a society in which it is possible to be a reformer. Shannon Love recently wrote about how many atheists reach back 400 years to talk about Christian religious excesses, neglecting the positive impacts of Christianity, such as the eradication of slavery. In such arguments, I also think about the experiment excluded by history – how bad would the Europeans have been to each other and everyone else without the brakes that Christianity provides – if there had been no Assissis or Augustines telling rules that they were too prideful or bloodthirsty – how much brutality would have been unleashed in the absence of those aspects of Christianity (not to mention not having a place to put power-hungry second and third sons of the nobility). Simplistic arguments about the negative impact of religion in Europe do not consider the dynamic range of that society. Hitler might have occurred much earlier in history without Christianity.
Unintended consequences ought to be a concern for everyone who thinks about morality on a public level. I’m all for social progress, but I do not want our society to run too fast from its primitive roots. I’m willing to extend civil unions to gays at the Federal level (where it counts), but I’m willing to reserve the word “marriage” for the social conservatives. Lets see which camp gets stronger over time, shall we?
I have a name for my own public system: Shit Hit The Fan Morality. At some point, there will be a major societal disaster. Certain types of social systems do better in those circumstances than others.
This fear of a crash is also why I tend to like to preserve things that maintain the knowledge of how things used to be done. I study the history of chemistry in part so that I could do some useful things if electronic instruments were not available to my post-apocalyptic community. I tend to cut other people whose hobbies overlap with this goal some slack. For example, my wife has little patience for Civil War re-enactors, because she thinks that they are socially stunted geeks wasting their money and time. I’m not so sure I agree. Don’t get me wrong, I think that they are socially-stunted geeks, but some of the knowledge that they preserve just might be useful in a SHTF scenario. Not to mention that having the guy I saw towing a Napoleon behind his SUV this summer as a neighbor might help keep the riff-raff at a distance should the SHTF. I also tend to be slower than most Leftists, and an awful lot of Libertarians (an alarmingly large number of whom also seem to be libertines), to want to change societal mores.
I keep asking myself where are we (in the West) going? And while I like where we are, I’m not so sure I like the possibilities when I plot out our potential trajectories. So I stock up on charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter. Metaphorically, of course.
* I think that I am fundamentally Leftist, or at least Populist by inclination, and only Right by virtue of my study of history and innate sense of size of the cohort of shitheads who make up the bulk of the population. But perhaps it is that I am Leftist on the local, almost clan, level, while being right of center on broader civic issues. Hayek would approve of that attitude, I think.
** Fast forward 70 years and watch me, a puzzled outsider, look at the (still) much vaunted equality of the sexes in the USSR from the inside. Equality on paper that admits fewer women in government than the US, where suffrage was followed by decades of women’s lib agitation, causing much chuckling in the Soviet press about how backwards we were in our treatment of women. And women in Russia have never taken anything close to equality in terms of housework from Russian men. Which puzzled the hell out of me in 1989, but doesn’t now because I’m old enough and experienced enough to understand a very basic concept that often escapes the young and reform-minded: that which is taken for oneself is more firmly grasped, better appreciated, and harder to take away than that which is given.