Saturday, April 19, 2008

First person plural

When I first read it, Daniel Klein's paper, The People's Romance: Why People Love Government as much as they do (PDF), it struck me as one of the more interesting things I've read to come out of a libertarian/marketeer perspective. I recently reread it and was less impressed. Klein manages to take one step out of his individualistic economist assumptions, but ultimately fails to take the next step, which is to realize that his entire program is broken.

Imagine if someone had spent 20 years devoting themselves to elucidating a model of humans as atomized individuals governed by rational self-interest. Suddenly, that person realizes that this is not a very good model, and seeks to explain why people deviate from this supposed ideal. And let's say this person is reasonably smart and honest, and is willing to at least look at and acknowledge certain facts that undercut their model -- that people crave community for instance. That they seek to belong to various social groupings that can provide a "higher purpose". That they enjoy subsuming themselves into a larger group, and a larger mission, than pursuit of their own individual goals. What could explain this?

Klein takes a trip through a constellation of related ideas, from the basic biological need and urge to coordinate, to the notion of Schelling points as natural foci for collective action, to the government's role as the ultimate such point. From there, it's a short trip to requiring that collectivities be totally encompassing, and from there to coercion.

He provides many examples of the kind of collectivism he deplores, for instance, the title of Richard Rorty's book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America; a quote from a census director praising his project because “every household that returns the form does strengthen the ties that bind us together as a civilized society”. From Klein's perspective, all this talk is simply wrong, dangerous, and an indicator of a style of thinking that needs to be combated. One suspects that Klein would distrust any use at all of the first person plural, as in "we want to end poverty", or "we believe in democracy"? What you mean "we", white man?

Klein can't really connect the two parts of his analysis. He observes, correctly, that people actively seek coordination and commonality. His economist principles make it hard to say that any human desires are wrong per se, but because these desires are inherently social rather than individual he can't bear to live with the consequences of these desires. The problem is, coordination and community are fundamental to human nature, they underlie our natures, our very being. They aren't a mere bolted-on superstructure to a framework of individual goal-seeking. We will never get rid of this, and thus we will always be faced with the problem of what happens when group goal-seeking gets out of control.

The first half of the 20th century saw the People's Romance swell to ridiculous and dangerous proportions, embodied in mass totalitarian movements. That age fortunately seems to have passed. The postmodern condition is just about defined by the absence of these large-scale romances -- there are no more large causes to bind oneself to. The neoconservative movement, in its current form, is essentially an attempt to rekindle the romance of the state by inflating global Islam to a threat big enough to inspire war and the strong attachment to the state produced by war. It's a lost cause, because their heart isn't in it and despite their best efforts to whip up war hysteria the people have not responded properly.

The Obama phenomenon may be seen in the light of the People's Romance -- the US population's love affair with their country has grown old, stale, cynical, and tired. Suddenly a young attractive persona appears who seems to be able to rekindle the lost spark of group identification, with an added twist of racial ambiguity to make things more exciting. Young people see a chance to fall in love with their country via his allegedly transformative persona.

Me, I'm too old and cynical, too much betrayed by my past romantic attachments to put a lot of faith in Obama, or any politician. And yet -- I do believe that people need to take collective action. While I am all for non-coercive emergent coordination networks taking care of business, I'm pretty sure we'll still need some sort of Official Government Institutions to handle the heavy lifting and dirty work. Given that, it is not necessarily a bad thing for people to have some positive feelings for their government. There's gotta be a happy medium between masochistic devotion and total alienation. I rather doubt Obama can deliver on the emotional payoff he is promising, but I hope he gets a chance, because the alternatives are not good.

Well, I was hoping this post would turn into a rigorous refutation of Klein's position, but I don't feel coherent enough to attempt it, so it's just a bunch of disjointed reactions. What I'd like to do is turn his analysis around and use it to try to think about how you design collectivities so they have just the right level of "romance" associated with them -- enough to work, to keep people involved and attached and functioning, but not so much that they lose themselves utterly and let the collectivity trample over individual rights and dignities, and otherwise get out of control the way institutions do. Well, something to think about for later.


TGGP said...

Imagine if someone had spent 20 years devoting themselves to elucidenating a model of humans as atomized individuals governed by rational self-interest.
I don't think even Gary Becker viewed people as atomized. The economist definition of "self-interest" also tends to verge on the tautological.

I'm as full of hate as ever for the Romantic Movement and wish death upon romance. I have as late become more skeptical of the Enlightenment and its associated rationalism (as opposed to empiricism/pluralism rather than some form of irrationalism) though.

You can compare some situations in which one is worse off due to having too much of the People's Romance, but can you think of any where the reverse is the case?

Though I'm fond of linking to that paper, I find Dan Klein kind of annoying and wishy-washy. He's obsessed with libertarianism (studying how unlibertarian academia is, though surely there are a disproportionately large number of them there) but has a vague sense of what it is, touting "Smith-Hayek economics" rather than simply "good economics" or some actual economic theory he believes to be correct. A more interesting thinker on those issues is Jeffrey Friedman. I've read he used to be an anarchist but in current writings seems to take some amount of government for granted. I haven't read any such yet from him, but I'd guess he could come up with a better justification of the State than Rand, Nozick or Hospers.

TGGP said...

At O&M it is questioned whether economics takes an atomistic view here.

mtraven said...

tggp, thanks for all the great pointers you come up with. It's very educational to have you in the conversation.

Economics is guilty of atomistic thinking to various degrees, but libertarianism is prescriptively atomistic, which is very different.

TGGP said...

There is a definite tendency for libertarians to advocate atomism. I've been guilty of it myself, not surprising my Stirnerism. It's not universal, though. Charles Murray pushes a communitarianism that Jeffrey Friedman (in a broader critique of justifications of libertarianism) says is not supported by his evidence.

The issue of atomism vs communitarianism in libertarians is sort of discussed in Jacob Levy's Liberalism's Divide.