Saturday, August 24, 2019

When Smart People Say Foolish Things

     “I do not need protecting,” she said. “I can take care of myself.”
     “You are a fine fencer,” I said. “Unfortunately, life is more complicated than a fair dueling situation.”
     “I know that. I'm not a child. But—”
     “ 'But' nothing! He did the same thing I'd do if you were mine. He's protecting himself as well as you. I'm surprised he let Brand know about you. He's going to be damned mad that I found out.” Her head jerked and she stared at me, eyes wide.
     “But you wouldn't do anything to hurt us,” she said. “We-we're related.”
     “How the hell do you know why I'm here or what I'm thinking?” I said. “You might have just stuck both your necks in nooses!”
     “You are joking, aren't you?” she said, slowly raising her left hand between us.
     “I don't know,” I said. “I need not be-and I wouldn't be talking about it if I did have something rotten in mind, would I?”
     “No... I guess not,” she said.
     “I am going to tell you something Benedict should have told you long ago,” I said. “Never trust a relative. It is far worse than trusting strangers. With a stranger there is a possibility that you might be safe.”
     “You really mean that, don't you?”
     “Yourself included?”
     I smiled. “Of course it does not apply to me. I am the soul of honor, kindness, mercy, and goodness. Trust me in all things.”

     [Roger Zelazny. The Guns Of Avalon]

     The above, from one of Zelazny’s justly famous Amber novels, nicely captures the internecine quarrels of the royal family of that realm. Its ruler, Oberon, has gone missing and is presumed dead. Every one of his sons and daughters wants the crown. Every one of them is willing to murder all the others to get it. For any one of them to trust any other would be an act of insanity – and therefore, trust among them is nonexistent. That’s the perspective from which Corwin, one of Amber’s princes and the narrator in the above, is speaking to his niece Dara, whom he’s only just met.

     The absence of trust makes room for the operation of other qualities that trust can – and sometimes does – obscure. One of them is dispassionate analysis.

     As long as I’m in a quoting mood, here’s another:

     "Excuse me, Miss," Stromberg's voice boomed out. Teresza jerked her head around to find the sociologist and most of the class staring straight at her. "Yes, you who're holding Mr. Morelon's hand in a grip of steel." A titter ran through the hall. Teresza flushed. "Do you have an opinion on the subject?"
     "Uh, no, Professor." Teresza rose and gathered her thoughts as best she could. "I was just surprised to hear that they had all that junk."
     Stromberg smiled broadly. "Everyone is, Miss...?"
     "Well, you may take my word for it, Miss. In 2061, thirty-four percent of the economy of the richest sector, which was called the United States, was devoted to entertainment and diversions. As a category, that outstripped the second largest sector, medical services, by more than two to one. If our histories are accurate, its products were consumed with an unbelievable avidity, and its customers were perpetually hungry for more." He leaned forward over his lectern and peered hard at her. "Would you care to venture an opinion as to why they wanted so many frivolities and distractions?"
     Two hundred pairs of eyes pressed against her as she groped for a response. She squeezed Armand's hand and tried to think.
     The household she and her father kept was simple and modest. They had all they needed and a handful of minor luxuries, but no one would have thought their lifestyle lavish. Yet she couldn't think of anyone she knew whose surroundings were substantially more opulent. Not even the Morelons, whose wealth would have sufficed to buy the Gallatin campus ten or twenty times over.
     But why would anyone want to be surrounded by all that junk in the first place?
     "Professor," she said slowly, "I can't help asking the question the other way around. We could have all that stuff if we wanted it, couldn't we?"
     Stromberg grinned suggestively. "Indeed we could, Miss."
     "So why don't we?"

     Teresza’s question is the question of the day. Indeed, it’s the question of our nation and our era. And apparently the answer to it, though in plain sight, is being ignored or overlooked by some very bright and articulate people.

     The second citation above concerns the colony world of Hope, which is utterly without governments of any description. Thus, it lacks the overheads subjugation by a government imposes: laws, regulations, armies, police forces, other agents and agencies, and the taxes required to support them. The absence of those overheads has allowed the colonists to advance from pretechnological subsistence to roughly the technological-economic status of the United States in 1960 in only twelve hundred years – and that despite an ecology that’s lethally hostile to Earth-derived life. The colonists, descendants of a group of anarchist exiles who called themselves Spoonerites, like their ungoverned status just fine. Hope society emerged as family-oriented.

     That was also American society in 1960. While certain technologies were still maturing in 1960, all the elements were present to give swift rise to every one of the fripperies of today. Yet there was no pressure for those things. Rather, American adults concentrated on making a living, maintaining peaceful and orderly households and communities, and producing and raising their children.

     America’s markets in 1960 were appreciably freer than they are today. The six decades since have seen an explosion of coercive laws and regulations, nearly always under the overt rationale of “protecting the consumer.” The emergence of virtually all the luxury consumer-non-durable goods of today followed the imposition of all those laws and regulations, and – of course – the explosion in taxation that accompanied them.

     The federal government soon discovered that taxation was not enough to fund its new voracity. The Laffer Effect defeated rates above a certain revenue-optimum level. The sole alternative was to borrow. The Federal Reserve system guaranteed that large-scale federal borrowing would result in inflation.

     The accelerating rise in the cost of living compelled Americans to embrace the two-income family. For many, overtime labor became the way of survival. The repercussions were not long in coming. The reduction in the amount of time and energy that went to family and community matters was felt almost immediately. Children needed something to substitute for the attention of their parents, and parents needed something to distract their children from their parents’ obsessive concern with expenses, debt, and their futures.

     The proliferation of consumer fripperies was a response to these things, not the cause of them.

     Some very smart people, quite as concerned with the deterioration of our families and neighborhoods as I, have assailed our markets as “too efficient.” The late Robert Nisbet, a towering intellect, once wrote that “our markets may be too efficient for life on a human scale.” I have no doubt that he was sincere. Nevertheless, the correlation between the explosion in luxury consumer non-durables fooled him as it has fooled others.

     You’ll see a lot of opinion writing that echoes Nisbet these days. Most of it is by self-described conservatives. Here’s a recent sample. Yet there’s nothing conservative about measures that enable the advancement of government power and intrusion. Objections to the freely chosen behavior of Americans in the American marketplace can only empower the statists among us. Rather, we should be looking at reducing the size and intrusiveness of our 88,000 governments – federal, state, county, municipal, and school district – back to pre-World War I levels.

     Would that guarantee a return to the family-oriented society of those years? No, it would not. There are no guarantees in sociodynamics. But it would remove the propellants that powered our flight from it. Moreover, it would restore a great part of the freedom Americans once enjoyed: an autonomy untroubled by fears of not being able to meet present or future bills. It would reinstitute conditions in which Americans’ paramount attention could go to things close to home, rather than to a rat race toward a potentially illusory security.

     I’ll let Professor Arne Stromberg, holder of the Edmond Genet Chair in Sociology at Gallatin University, the foremost center of higher learning on Alta, the northern continent of Hope, close this tirade:

     “Families are the fundamental building blocks of a stable society. Extended families—clans—are the best conceivable environment for the rearing of children, the perpetuation of a commercial forte, and the germination of new families and their ventures. A clan like yours, Miss Albermayer, conserves a brilliant genetic line and a priceless medical specialty at the same time. A clan like yours, Mr. Morelon, makes possible a benign agricultural empire and produces natural leaders one after another while connecting Hope to its most distant origins. And all healthy families, which cherish life and bind their members to one another in unembarrassed love, can find far more to occupy and amuse them than they need."
     Teresza's mind lit with memories of the way the Morelons had enfolded her and made her one of them. No day could have been long enough for all they had to say and do and share with one another.
     "When Earth's regard for families and their most fundamental function deteriorated, her people ceased to enjoy the sorts of ties that had held them together throughout the history of Man. Without families, and especially without children, they groped for other things to fill their time, whether to give them a sense of purpose, or to distract them from the waning of their lives. Some invested themselves in industry or commerce, but without the sense of the family line to be built up and made prominent, those things failed to satisfy. Others immersed themselves in games, toys, fripperies, and increasingly bizarre forms of entertainment, which palled on them even faster. Still others made a fetish out of sex; there was a substantial sex industry on Earth, though it tended to operate in the shadows and was seldom openly discussed. They needed emotion and substance, but all they could contrive was sensation and novelty, and they pumped an ever greater share of their effort and wealth into seeking them. That's my thesis, for what it's worth."
     The hall was silent. Teresza peered furtively at the faces of the students nearest her. The majority of them were wet with tears.
     "For us," Stromberg said, "it's enough that we're happy, secure, and free. We don't really need to know definitively why our statist forebears traveled a path so different from our own. But it's among the great mysteries of social science, and worth thinking about from time to time even in isolation."

     Indeed it is.


Paul Bonneau said...

I watched an old movie ("Amelie") on BlueRay yesterday evening - itself an older technology. I used a largish flat panel display. Back in the 1960's I would have watched it in a theater. I can see some social downside to my modern fripperies - going to the theater usually involved family and friends, compared to my solitary viewing - but I just don't see quite the strong correlation between more fripperies and societal decline, that you see. There are other reasons for the decline, such as welfare, women in the workplace, socialist takeover of schools and other institutions, and so forth. Anyway, as you point out, fripperies are more an effect than a cause.

"...we should be looking at reducing the size and intrusiveness of our 88,000 governments – federal, state, county, municipal, and school district – back to pre-World War II levels."

That would put us back into the FDR administration, one infamous for federal intrusion in the market, including the control of retirement ("Social Security"). Maybe a bit farther back would be better. But your statement implies reform. Reform has a way of getting sidetracked and co-opted. Revolution, along with putting a lot of apparatchiks against the wall, would have a better chance.

By the way, if you haven't looked into east Asian TV and movie production (e.g. you might take a look to see how a strongly family-oriented society works - at least to get a hint of it, since a lot of it might be just propaganda. There are some downsides, such as your grandma having a say in whom you marry. But there are definite upsides as well.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I'm not a big fan of revolution, Paul. Revolutions are almost always co-opted by persons seeking power. The American Revolution is one of the very few exceptions since the Industrial Revolution...and even in that case there were some severe disappointments. Quoth H. L. Mencken:

"The American colonists, when they got rid of the Potsdam tyrant, believed fondly that they were getting rid of oppressive taxes forever and setting up complete liberty. They found almost instantly that taxes were higher than ever, and before many years they were writhing under the Alien and Sedition Acts."

As for reverting even further back than the New Deal, you're quite correct. 1913 is actually the best target year. So I should have explicitly said pre World War I levels.

Dystopic said...

I've long had a distaste for consumer culture, but this was not particularly well thought out. It was just a feeling. My discussions on it later were groping toward the truth you discuss here.

What you have done here is articulate the why. Why is capitalism excellent, but consumerism generally a bad idea?

Because accumulating capital across family lines confers a benefit to mankind. Whereas going into massive debt for fripperies is a cost. One might say well, all that spending benefits the makers and the sellers. Yes, certainly.

But if they are likewise in debt up to their eyeballs, we have accumulated economic risk - without the corresponding benefit of these risks being taken in the pursuit of productivity and family.