Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Liber-scary-anism: A Halloween Special

Let's say you have graduated from high school but you still yearn for that curious blend of hip intellectual precocity and dumbfounding moral obtuseness that only your 15-year-old self with his carefully dogeared copies of Atlas Shrugged and Thus Spoke Zarathustra could provide.  There is only one cure: you must turn to the annals of American libertarianism-- a sort of never-never land for perpetual adolescents of the head-smart and heart-stupid variety.  If all ideologies attract their own peculiar sort of moral blindness-- this is libertarianism's.

For such pathologic Peter Pans, you need look no further than Tyler Cowen and his defenders over at The American Interest.  The argument you will find in the article linked here, written by Andrew Lewis in defense of Cowen's book Average is Over, is admittedly in the libertarian-ish camp.  It does not trot out, for instance, the usual libertarian pieties with respect to unemployment and income inequality.  Instead of insisting that the market, left to its own devices, will produce unlimited demand and therefore offset the consequences of technological change, Lewis admits the likelihood of what many critics of capitalism have been saying all along.  We will indeed, according to him, soon be living in a Bellocian "Servile State" in which "Wealth is more concentrated at the top"-- in an island of elite technocrats and manipulators of symbols who will comprise, at the most optimistic estimate, about 15% of the population-- in the midst of the teeming ocean of the rest of us, who "will depend on government transfers."  Our fate is described even more bluntly a few paragraphs down: "The rest of the population will fall into lower paying service jobs."

Cowen and Lewis are no longer denying that this is the trajectory of capitalism.  Thus far, they are making an historical projection that any 19th century Luddite or Silesian weaver would have recognized.  Where the Luddite analysis goes wrong, they insist, is in thinking that this future would somehow be a bad thing.

The good news, according to our authors, is two-fold.  On the one hand, standards of living will continue to rise, even as the gap between the software experts and the other 85% of the population will widen.  Apparently, our machine overlords will magnanimously provide us with food, clothing, shelter, and state-of-the-art health care even after they have rendered all of our skills obsolete.  We will bracket for a moment the question of just how desirable we would find it to be the bovine beneficiaries of this technocratic largesse.  The deeper issue is that is hard to see why we should expect it from Cowen and Lewis' future.  Where is the incentive-- and within their scheme, it all comes down to incentives-- for the machines and the technocrats to keep us fed and housed when there is no demand for our labor, or for anything else we have to offer?

Oh yes, and the second piece of good news is even more heartening.   The top 15% of the population will not inherit its privileges.  Like Plato's guardians, the ruling class will be selected using an ever more refined set of blind tests, which will make no human distinctions between the applicants.  So it will all be "fair"-- and only the "deserving" will get ahead.  Vide Lewis: "These trends will disenfranchise many subpar performers (and their shortcomings [...] will be increasingly illuminated by an array of public fora for reviews, as well as various automated assessments of value)."  This may still sound pretty bleak, so we continue to wait with baited breath for some professional reassurance-- and finally, the relief comes flooding in: "But [these trends] will also reward those who are most deserving—a fact, says Cowen, that 'will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind.'"

Phew!  Just as Calvinist preachers in 19th century America used to assure their congregants that they needn't worry about friends and loved ones who were not among God's elect, because in heaven they would be reconstructed in such a way that they wouldn't care-- so too, "in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye[...] we will be changed" in the Cowen-Lewis eschaton.  Our society will be reconstituted such that our class distinctions will be "tough but fair."  They may be winner-take-all and devil take the hindmost, but because we all had the same shot, we can't complain if we don't make the final cut, and we shouldn't have any pity for the others if we do.  Even if those others are from our neighborhood or our family or our synagogue or church.

Does this glorious final consummation leave you with any concerns that it might erode our national life, our ethical characters, our basic sense of human dignity?  Some dim intimation of this concern seems to briefly penetrate the Randian miasma: Lewis indeed wonders "how [all this] will affect America's social fabric[?]"

But it turns out that all he means by this is that extreme inequality might lead to the evils of revolution, if "the left-behinds [...] conspire against the new high-earners."  "But," Lewis quickly contents himself, "if everyone has the same opportunity to succeed, then how will they feel slighted by the system?"  Sure, they will suffer terribly their utter displacement from productive labor and from any position of respect within the social hierarchy, but these wretched Morlocks (you and I, that is) will also accept the legitimacy of the system to such an extent that they will not be able to rebel heartily against it.  Besides, all the smart ones among us, who might have led us in revolt, will be plucked from our ranks and petted and courted by the machine overlords.

All of this sounds so much like a dystopian satire and parody (much like the forgotten book which, Brian Barry reminds us, actually gave us the word "meritocracy"-- used so often today by the very people (Lewis and Cowen, e.g.) it was satirizing) that I am almost tempted to pass it off as a Halloween prank in bad taste.  But sadly, for all its ghoulishness, it is not really so far outside the mainstream of American discourse that I can make this assumption.  I am going to have to suppose that the author really means it.

There are a lot of objections one might raise to all this.  First is that this vision of the future is not really any more plausible to me when it comes from coldhearted capitalists rather than despairing socialists.  I do not believe that the course of history is exclusively determined by the incentives of elites rather than any moral considerations or the collective power of ordinary people.  I also think, bizarrely enough, that I in fact have more faith in the hand of the market than these libertarians.  I do believe that there will be new forms of work created by demands we cannot currently foresee-- especially having to do with personal care of various kinds.  That is not to minimize the injustice of these changes to those whose lives and skill sets are shattered and displaced along the way-- but it is not quite so gloomy and dystopian an outlook for the future as Cowen's.

Another typical line of critique might lean on the question of whether or not it is possible to have such grave income inequalities without some degree of inherited privilege.  Those born to the 85%, dependent on government transfers and working low-wage service jobs will probably suffer from poor nutrition, the absence of an enriching and intellectually stimulating home life, constant stress and anxiety (which have debilitating effects on children's brain development), etc. (all of this depending, of course, on how generous our machine overlords decide to be).  These would undoubtedly handicap their ability to succeed even on blind tests-- just as they do in our current SAT- and needs-blind-admission- based education system.

But I don't want to press this point, because it is morally irrelevant.  It is so deeply ingrained in the American ideology to suppose that the true test of social justice is whether or not the "gifted" are able to rise without being hampered by artificial privileges that it is hard sometimes to see that this view conflicts at an elementary level with our basic moral intuitions and sense of decency.

I remember a college professor and mentor of mine once ranting about the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The film, he argued, wished us to view the whole economic system in which we live as "fair" so long as one kid from the slums can strike it rich. "But what--" he asked "about all the other characters in the movie?  All the millions and millions left behind in the slums?"  Indeed, what about them?

The Horatio Alger narrative still informs everything in our culture-- you aspire to "escape" your background-- you "rise above" the slum in which you were born, etc.  But where is the suggestion that maybe-- just maybe-- we could have a society where there is no ghastly Hell's Kitchen from which you need to escape?  No bombed-out Detroit ghetto from which you clamber out by your programming skills or your rap lyrics alone?  The one "Ragged Dick" who finds his way out of hell will only ever be that-- just one.  She or he will leave behind friends, families, and neighbors who will struggle and suffer on just as before.

Lewis begins his article by quoting the original definition of the term "American Dream" and it is a wholly admirable vision of the good society:  “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”  But that Lewis could think Cowen's dystopia somehow embodies this vision is pathetic.  It reflects a miserably impoverished view of what "opportunity" means and of the varieties of "ability" that people can possess (newsflash: they are not all intellectual).  And its conception of what makes life "better and richer and fuller" is perhaps most pitiable of all.

The great Richard Sennett-- a sociologist who grew up in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project and learned something there about the types of human relations that might life tolerable in adversity-- ends his book The Corrosion of Character with this plaintive observation: "a regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy."  An economic system, in short, which attaches crippling penalties to people who choose to spend time cultivating human relationships instead of cramming for admissions tests, or who possess skills or moral characters which can't be mechanically assessed by fill-in-the-bubble questions-- an economic system, in short, which only rewards the most aggressive, rootless, mercurial, and adaptable personality types at the expense of types which might do worse in school but possess a greater ultimate integrity-- such a system, in Sennett's view, could never generate the legitimacy and trust of ordinary people it would need to function.

At some point, in other words, the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction.  Cowen and Lewis's fantasy is an adolescent one which most people will eventually recognize as such and outgrow.  They will not gain many converts because their ideology can never speak to victories which can't be reduced to "winning" and opportunities which are more meaningful than just chances to outstrip one's peers.  Theirs is an unnatural ideology and we shouldn't be taken in.  As Charlie Chaplin bid us in an era suffering under a much more virulent strain of moral blindness: "Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!"  You are not machines or cattle, he says.  Remember that.

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