Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Global Pluralism and Global Cosmopolitanism

Two heavyweight international meetings are upon us, so I think I’ll turn from our more usual discussions of social life on the smaller scale and write a bit about the global situation within which we find ourselves. A lot of my focus on this blog has been to think about people and their common life, rather than a more generalized “humanity” that always stands in danger of devolving into ideological utopias or vague abstractions. But it's a small world after all, and sometimes global humanity is plausibly reducible to a conference room.

The G-20 are meeting in London, while the Hague is hosting an international conference on the future of Afghanistan. While Secretary Clinton pushed for the Hague conference and a significant portion of discussion will likely be directed towards Obama administration plans for troops in Afghanistan, the event is being led off by President Hamid Karzai and Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. That is, this will be no unilateral agenda, but rather a gathering of international voices. The G-20 I think falls into the same category for obvious reasons (like the fact that there are 20 of them. Seems to pretty well put the "multi-" in multilateral).

The two major headlines that we're seeing on these two events are what I'd like to focus on, not so much to analyze them in particular but to present them as fodder for a broader point. At the G-20, eyes are on France, while at the Hague, eyes are on Iran. France is threatening to walk out if demands for stronger international financial regulations are not met, and Germany seems to be in agreement on this front. Meanwhile, Iran itself is the news at the Hague. The mere fact that they are there (or that they aren't at the G-20) has been the basis of excitement. This was Secretary Clinton's intention from the beginning, and it's consistent with the (relative) opening of conversation by the Obama administration.

This all seems like cause for cautious hope, in my mind. I'm not in a position to say whether the international regulations supported by Sarkozy are adequate or helpful, but a serious call for such structures at least carries with it the virtue of seriousness. I'm no partisan of cosmopolitanism by a long stretch, but it strikes me that if globalization is present and increasing at the pace it currently exhibits, we might as well meet global risk factors with global order while we're at it. It seems that we can't turn back the clock on the more destructive aspects of global capitalism, and it would be worth acknowledging the relative good of a more cosmopolitan structure to inform and check what now is more of a transnational wild west. The problem with the localist utopianism often set in opposition to the UN, G-8, G-20, etc., is that it doesn't recognize the arbitrary scale of its demands. We in the U.S. may balk at greater international regulation as a disconcerting "new world order", but it's not as if anyone is suggesting a state of nature as a viable alternative. The sovereignties of states, unions of states, or international bodies are all very much the same thing, and I don't think the more local manifestations of civil order are peculiarly sacred... if they are at all they are only so by degrees. If we have the communicative tools and structures to make a global order a real possibility, I don't think there's any problem in doing so. We should cede control to political sovereignties only as the common good remains free and supported, but if it can be done well and fruitfully, I don't see why a global scale would be more problematic than any other. The reach of collapse is global, and it would seem that a global rebuilding is only just.

On Iran at the Hague- what a fascinating mirror with which to examine ourselves! It has lately been a contentious issue of public dialogue whether we should view the Islamic Republic as beyond the moral pale, or as a legitimate political agent with whom we must dialogue, regardless of whether we ever get chummy. Iranian officials met in Moscow last week to discuss Afghanistan before the present conference, and I imagine that many Americans, if not most, would view such a discussion as immediately suspect. Axes of evil are a veritable fixture of our political imagination. But while Clinton has not revealed any plans to meet with the Iranian deputy during the conference, there is an obvious mutual interest in the stability of Afghanistan, and the eventuality of a conversation with Iran should not surprise us, whether or not we ever hear about it.

This all broaches the other side of common life in a global context. While a global cosmopolitanism promises (or threatens, however you like it) an international rule of law and order for common life, it also means that a deep pluralism will need to be addressed. European discussions of law and order proceed largely on the basis of a cultural rather than a rational continuity. It is the common heritage informing political life that allows France to stand within a dialogue of nations and demand a particular way forward for the whole, and even the typical protests of such a global order are grounded in the assumptions of a classical European dichotomy, between regulation as a public or private imperative.

A good deal of this might go out the window when a secular republic meets an Islamic republic, however. In order for any successful global option to avoid ideological proportions like those of the Cold War and its aftermath, it will be necessary to recognize the dialogue itself on an empirical level. There is ground for discussion with an Islamic Republic- it's going on right now at the Hague and it signals that reasonable discourse (the very basis of cosmopolitanism, I would say) is not conditional upon a particular polity or foundational philosophical assumption, even concerning the terms of dialogue itself. Dialogue happens even where theoretical understandings say that it cannot, and because it does happen we can begin to understand theoretically what it might mean for us.

None of this guarantees any success. I think it's foolish to forecast too much about either a global pluralism or cosmopolitanism. But these are the rudimentary structures that we have to deal with, and I think that we should at least open our eyes and recognize that they're not something we can any longer ignore.

Globalization and the "One World Currency"

I want to apologize in advance for the brevity of my thoughts this week.

First, I want to remark on something Evan said. Often we challenge or butress each other's arguments, but when I read: "if globalization is present and increasing at the pace it currently exhibits" I just had to chuckle a little. If only! I understand Evan's point, of course. The broad trajectory is one of globalization and integration, and hopefully it will continue that way. But this is not the situation right now. International trade is imploding, racking up unemployment figures in export-oriented economies like China not in intervals of hundreds of thousands (as in the U.S.) but in millions.

Another thing that may or may not be on the table at the G-20 meeting is this nebulous prospect of a "one world currency". I want to caution people on exactly what is being proposed here. They're not going to throw national currencies out the window; nobody is talking about that. They're discussing the prospect of replacing the dollar as the world reserve currency. Right now, the Chinese central bank and other central banks hold a large amount of dollars because most world trade is conducted in dollars. It's easier for trade to be denominated in a single currency (like the dollar) than many currencies - and to support trade, central banks must hold that reserves of that currency so that importers and exporters can finance their transactions. This is where we get the term "reserve currency". The problem is, the global supply of dollars is governed by the Federal Reserve Board, in Washington D.C.. The Federal Reserve's charter dedicates it to the task of price stability, presumably in the United States.

However, the Fed's activities also influence the value of the dollar reserves held by central banks all over the world. The result is a fundamental conflict of interest. The Fed is often left with a tradeoff between global macroeconomic stability and national macroeconomic stability. Right now, the U.S. economy is under the pressure of a great deal of debt. The Fed (theoretically) has an incentive to increase the money supply and induce inflation to lower the burden of those debts. However, that would also dilute the value of China's massive dollar reserves, and impoverish the Chinese central bank at a stroke of Ben Bernanke's pen. This is why China is pushing for a new international monetary system, and this is why that monetary system is aimed at decoupling central bank reserves from the dollar.

I still don't know what I think about this. Barry Eichengreen has long advocated not a new reserve currency, but a "basket" of multiple reserve currencies. This seems sensible to me, because it would promote stability and not make the same mistake of putting price stability in the hands of a single decision maker.

To bring this full circle, I think any discussion of reforming the international monetary system is a great step forward towards erecting what Evan calls a "deeper pluralism". Sometimes economic policymaking eschews these more fundamental philosophical concerns - but it doesn't have to. Replacing the dollar as the world's reserve currency with a currency basket governed by multiple central banks, or a new IMF currency governed by a committee that is representative of all major powers introduces a great deal of pluralism into the global economy. In Europe, we've already seen how monetary coordination and the "deep pluralism" of the European central bank (which has to balance the needs of Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the Mediterranean, Scandanavia, and the Balkans) has led to greater political integration, cooperation, and peace.

A lot of people fear the world of monetary policymaking and banking. It's mysterious and shadowy. Those concerns may or may not hold water. I think the nature of both conspiracy theories and prophecies is that we don't really know until we know (you know?). I try to be a little more trusting of the situation in general, and optimistic about the direction we're heading. Money is just a neat human invention that has made our lives easier. I don't know too much about monetary economics or monetary policy, but I think the dialogue that's going on now is a great step forward towards a global polity that incorporates the very best from both "cosmopolitan" and "communitarian" visions for the future.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Risky Behavior and Morals

I spent the better part of the last three days in the Washington Plaza Hotel at a conference held by IZA, a German labor economics group, on the "economics of risky behavior".

The National Bureau of Economic Research held a similarly themed conference a couple years back. Broadly speaking, the conclusion of the NBER conference was "risk is rational". "Rational addiction models" were popular and common. People engaged in risky behaviors as a part of an explicit decision to maximize lifetime utility. It's not that crazy of a story - certainly we weigh the costs and benefits of some risks and choose a risky course of action. So I don't mean to belittle the NBER conclusions.

To a large extent, though, the IZA came to this conclusion too - but with more nuance and qualification. Empirical work on some risk behavior concluded that it was irrational some of the time. I also don't think this should be hard to accept for most economists, much less most people in general.

But one thing that occasionally came up that is talked about more often in other circles was the role of social norms and morals in risky behavior. The IZA conference covered lots of material, including infidelity, prostitution, murder, binge drinking, drug use, etc. etc. An outsider may have been surprised by the extent to which the group discussed these behaviors in very clinical, value-neutral terms. We talked about crack markets and sex markets as if they were markets for sandwiches or shoes. But occasionally, somebody brought up the constraining influence of morals.

I think economists could explore morals more thoroughly. Usually, economists think about maximizing something like utility or profit based on some decision set available to an actor. Morality could simply be understood as an institutional restriction on the available decision set, or perhaps excessively punitive costs associated certain decisions.

Another important question about the "optimality" of morals is to start to consider where morals come from. Let's assume for the moment that there are two types of morals: (1.) transcendent morals that universally restrict decision sets, and (2.) institutional rules that were created to minimize the costs and externalities of certain decisions. I include type 1 morals so that we don't have to argue about the most divisive and really the most important morals out there. By type 2 morals, I'm thinking about everything from the Jewish restrictions on pork to keep the Hebrews strong and healthy in the desert, to the myth of the evils of marijuana that was concocted in the 1930s. Insofar as type 1 morals are universally applicable and important, we're not especially concerned about any sub-optimality associated with them. If it is always excessively costly to the individual and society to murder, then the moral prohibition on murder that acts as a restriction on the decision set is always going to be optimal.

But what about those residual, type 2 morals that are inherited from the trade offs faced by bygone generations? These types of morals in all likelihood are forcing current generations into sub-optimal decisions.

My question is - if a sub-set of morals and norms really are just leftovers that distort the decision making process today, how do we deal with them? Are ethicists policing this at all? Is there a process for reevaluation? I think people naturally reevaluate morals in their own lives, but that process can be slow (not necessarily a bad thing).

I think it's nice to qualify the NBER assumption that risky behaviors are perfectly rational. Norms and morals do exist for humans, so they should exist in the science of human action. But the broader point of NBER rings true as well. We have rational faculties to weigh risky decisions. Morals inform those faculties. But if morals distort those faculties unnecessarily, what is to be done?

Some thoughts about human behavior

On the recent IZA conference considering “the economics of risky behavior,” Daniel comments that, “An outsider may have been surprised by the extent to which the group discussed these behaviors in very clinical, value-neutral terms. We talked about crack markets and sex markets as if they were markets for sandwiches or shoes. But occasionally, somebody brought up the constraining influence of morals.

Daniel knows that I like to give economic modes of thinking a hard time, and he can dish it back well enough. I am one of the “outsiders” he speaks of, although I’m privy to enough economic conversation to not be surprised by the consideration of such risky human behaviors in economic terms that are value-neutral. I did, nonetheless, find the characterization of morals as “constraining” to be an interesting perspective. It makes perfect sense, given the conference’s orientation with regard to behavioral analysis. As far as I can tell, the economist’s conception of human decisions does not abandon the old fashioned Aristotelian “final cause” idea in its analysis, but merely identifies that cause with an optimization of some sort… of efficiency, of profit, etc. It is from this teleology that constraints can be identified, in moral norms or elsewhere. It is only in light of such a final cause that something like a moral norm can be identified as a “constraint” rather than simply “how things are” or “an opportunity” or “a neurological impulse”. Switch around the variables, and efficiency itself might be a constraining factor for virtue. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that economic analysis can shed light on risky behavior, and that social norms of morality can shed light on economic light on risky behavior.

Daniel also moves forward from straight economics to draw out some questions for ethics to answer. Specifically, what might an analytical ethics do with vestiges of traditional institutional ethics in contemporary society? If some morals distort our faculties for weighing risky behavior, then they’re failing to justify themselves on the basis of their utility as a way to avoid risk (or engage in it for good reasons). It might also be argued that this failure of rational faculties is a failure of wisdom. From this perspective, we need not even posit a rational choice for or against risk; we can encompass the irrational within a wider notion of wisdom in human decision-making that accounts for human aversion to constraints against behavior as well as human indifference to such constraints. Wisdom could be understood as an ethical demythologization of economic “rational choice”, and one that reflects the empirical facts a bit better.

Another point of Daniel’s worth thinking about: he asks, “what about those residual, type 2 morals that are inherited from the trade offs faced by bygone generations? These types of morals in all likelihood are forcing current generations into sub-optimal decisions.” One task for contemporary ethics to address is the effect of outmoded morals on present decisionmaking, I’ll agree with that. Is it true, however, that institutional rules were created for reasons of optimization in the first place? If it’s not, then presumably it’s also not true that type 2 morals need to be created today to avoid sub-optimal decisions. I can understand the distinction of positive and absolute norms that Daniel is making, but are there really no transcendent bases for positive ethical norms outside of institutional regulation of risky behavior? Or does risky behavior have no moral value itself with which to engage? (there’s a thought… could things like prostitution, cocaine use, or walking and chewing gum at the same time be divided into “type 1” and “type2” classifications by way of explaining their own moral value as transcendent immoral behavior or risky behavior?)

It seems pretty clear that Daniel and I are mostly stabbing around with a few ideas this week in order to see what might stick. I think that’s primarily because of the difficulties involved with ethical reasoning given that human behavior itself isn’t understood apart from contending with methodological norms like risk and rational choice, optimization, wisdom, virtue, habit, or tradition. All of this needs to be sorted out for its methodological utility before we even get to the actual question of ethical norms. Daniel takes significant strides in making the connection between economic understandings of risk and ethical theory in the first place and opens up multiple questions for interdisciplinary revision (or re-visioning, to use Daniel’s phrase from an earlier post on historical revisionism). I think the idea is worth pursuing further, but as it crosses from one way of understanding human behavior to another (from economics to ethics or vice versa), it needs to be wary of what will translate and what simply will not.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Cultural Recognition of Cultivation

In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry writes:

“The word agriculture, after all, does not mean “agriscience,” much less “agribusiness.” It means “cultivation of land.” And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both “to revolve” and “to dwell.” To live, to survive on earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, all are bound at the root to the idea of a cycle. It is only by understanding the cultural complexity and largeness of the concept of agriculture that we can see the threatening diminishments implied by the term “agribusiness.” (p. 87)

In the three decades since Berry wrote the book, I think that a cultural recognition of cultivation has become prominent, if not prevalent, in American society. In terms of agriculture, there is at least recognition of the value of buying local, buying organic, etc., and these practices have become increasingly (sometimes comically) mainstream. At the same time, most of us are still “buying” local and organic. We are still detached from the land itself and living in the city. The representations of our cultural commitments are so many bumperstickers or (to turn things on myself) the disembodied practice of blogging about something as earthy and indifferent to our communicative technologies as agriculture is. The farms in our country are bigger and less personal than when Berry began to pen his invective against agribusiness, and we still buy from them as regularly as we do from smaller farms. Maybe we have an herb garden on our windowsill, or we volunteer at the local farm co-op every few weekends. But we tend to be no more agrarian than that.

I say this initially in order that we might be honest with ourselves, but it’s also worth saying that a life of cultivation does not mean that we all must be farmers. The reader of Berry’s essays realizes that, while his project is undeniably centered upon the cultivation of the soil, it is also much broader. Culture is a seamless whole, and Berry’s cultural critique moves unrecognizably from discussions of plowing, to sex, to literature, political history, to education, and feminism. The grounding truth of culture is nurture, in whatever form it may take. Agriculture is the most fundamental form only because of the rather self-evident truth (one that any who started this Lent at an Ash Wednesday service received): “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But a life of nurture isn’t simply growing plants from the soil, even if life revolves around a slow and steady return to the soil.

Berry leads us to question what the basis of meaning in our life has become, and in a time when the notion of wealth creation and loss is a hot topic, the question of what is really creative in human living is worth visiting. Is my work in the academic world a nurturing, or an exploitative way of living? (Berry is actually an English professor) Do those who provide goods and services contribute to useful cultivation, or do they perpetuate a practice of commoditization, either of ideas, tools, or resources?

It’s also worth asking, can we sustain the rate of production that has allowed for an unprecedented rise in health, education, and communication, while pursuing a more sustainable future for the resources from which we cultivate these societal goods? The challenge, I think (and it is being met head-on by green technology and other innovators) is to reassess our relationship with meaningful human culture while at the same time not taking the easy route of abandoning everything for a Utopian primitivism.

Taking inventory of one’s culture is not a quaint reflexive act of meditation. It is often more like a rigidly imposing audit on one’s impact and a pointed question of what sort of life we have created for ourselves as a society. What do we do with the fact that we no longer dwell in a relationship with the land around us? How do we change what we do when the foundations of our life are based, not on something solid and growing, but on packaged products of primarily social, or caloric, or entertainment value?

Perhaps, given that much of this isn’t going away, we are forced into a revaluation of all of our values- not to reject what has been produced by culture, but to refashion it towards a more nurturing end.

Production vs. Prosperity

I want to explore a little bit of Evan's query:

"Do those who provide goods and services contribute to useful cultivation, or do they perpetuate a practice of commoditization, either of ideas, tools, or resources?"

It's a reasonable question. Many have opined that the GDP statistics we collect are a poor measure of the true "wealth" of society precisely because this summation of values doesn't necessarily correspond to the creation of actual value in society. A homeless shelter may purchase paper plates and spaghetti from the store, and those purchases will show up in GDP statistics - but the couple of bucks that they contribute to GDP will far underestimate the "value" of that purchase to society when the spaghetti is served with a friendly face, an open ear, and a safe atmosphere.

But as Christopher Hitchens has recently pointed out: "There’s also the not-inconsiderable question of capitalism’s ability to decide, if not on the value of a commodity, at least on some sort of price for the damn thing." We need not assume that GDP encompasses all value to admit that there is value to the idea of GDP (and the products that it measures).

If we set up a straw man of modern production as some monstrous, commoditizing, corrosive influence then of course we will be able to vanquish that straw man and banish it to oblivion. But that would be a hollow victory, because that straw man doesn't really represent the "modern economy" as an idea.

Something like GDP is useful if we are realistic about what exactly it is: Gross (i.e. - after subtracting off imports) Domestic (a fundamentally political concept) Product (those things which are produced for sale in a particular jurisdiction). "Production" is a much more humble thing than "culture" or "happiness" or "value". Production includes the plows and tractors that make cultivation possible, as well as the proverbial pick up truck, farm windowsill, and apple pie (perhaps the apples are home-grown, but the flour is most likely ground somewhere else and the baking tin is almost certainly made elsewhere). This is what GDP is - production that is brought forth in the context of a market. And a market is nothing if not a social collective, and therefore absolutely relevant to "culture".

But Berry and Evan have a point that is illustrated in my example of the spaghetti and paper plates used in a homeless shelter. These contribute to GDP, but they only contribute prices - i.e., market values - and not social values. A great deal of social value is produced that is totally omitted from the GDP statistic.

Charles Murray (a real conservative's conservative) used the occasion of his March 11th Irving Kristol Lecture to speak on how a civilization's happiness is grounded in it's cultural institutions, rather than in cold economic calculations alone. On the other side of the aisle the Nobel prize winner responsible for attacking the Clinton administration from it's left flank, Joseph Stiglitz, has been tasked along with Amartya Sen by French President Sarkozy with exploring new ways of measuring growth to capture social happiness.

I think Berry's point is not lost even on those who deal with the modern, competitive market every day. The task is to:

1. Understand how markets both complement and conflict with culture and value, and
2. To be more realistic about exactly what GDP is and what markets can accomplish in the first place, and not penalize them for failing to accomplish something that it was never their task to accomplish.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Entangled Nature of Equality

This week I want to address the fallacy of trying to separate "equality of opportunity" from "equality of outcomes" - one of the great fetishes of the American public dialogue on political philosophy. I doubt I'll say anything especially new or insightful here. I'm positive it has been considered before (in fact, I was somewhat inspired by an article I read recently by Anthony de Jasay in the Cato Journal). But in light of recent concerns that the administration is "redistributing wealth" and engaging in "social engineering", I do think it's worthwhile to revisit basic questions of whether we should be pursuing "equality of opportunity" only, or "equality of outcomes" as well.

Americans almost universally agree that ideally government should only guarantee "equality of opportunity"; a level playing field, as it were. For example, there is little opposition to anti-discrimination laws, universal K-12 education, or bare bones workplace safety requirements. If pressed, a large portion of Americans would also concede that practically speaking, some extenuating circumstances require the government to guarantee "equality of outcomes". The welfare state emerged out of this practical, but not ideal, response to extenuating circumstances in peoples' lives. The battle lines in the modern ideological debate over domestic economic and social policy are largely drawn based on the strictness with which people adhere to government's mission of only guaranteeing "equality of opportunity".

My thesis is that the distinction between guarantees of "equality of opportunity" and "equality of outcome" is far less distinct than we would like to pretend. The major reason for this is that an individual's success in life is based largely on things outside of his or her control. If a person's success was entirely derived from their own intelligence, talent, effort, and thrift, then relentlessly adhering to a policy of only guaranteeing "equality of opportunity" might be possible. But individual success is also influenced by the monetary and non-monetary endowments bestowed on individuals by their parents. Parental success is a major determinant of the quality of an individual's K-12 education, the availability of higher education, exposure to a strong work ethic, and an interest in advancing oneself.

We cannot make the claim that effort and talent are equally rewarded by the market if a youth that grew up in a broken home in a poor neighborhood needs to exert more effort or show greater talent in order to achieve the same success as another youth that grew up in a supportive home in a wealthy neighborhood.

This fundamental inheritability of success in life is by no means a bad thing. After all, improving your children's life chances is a major motivator for any individual's success in life. Parents would be less productive if there was no prospect that their children would benefit from their efforts. Few people advocate denying children the fruits of their parent's labor. But recognition of the high correlation of parental and child success does highlight the fact that guaranteeing "equality of opportunity" for all individuals is absolutely impossible without considering the "equality of outcomes" of other individuals (primarily parents).

This line of argument could obviously be used to justify any number of redistributive schemes. It could justify such schemes, although I want to emphasize that I don't mean to justify those schemes here.

What I do want is to recognize that:
(1.) "equality of opportunity" may be impossible to guarantee, despite it's place of honor in American political philosophy,
(2.) that if we are serious about at least partially guaranteeing "equality of opportunity" it may be perfectly reasonable to explore some "equality of outcome" efforts, even if we completely reject the goal of equalizing outcomes, and
(3.) that we cannot consider an individual's success to be solely derived from his or her own abilities and efforts; individual success is also a function of the collected series of familial successes and failures, compounded over time.

The opportunity/outcome distinction, the private/public distinction, and other stupid reasons to be a libertarian

Daniel lays out a very good basis for thinking about equality of opportunity and outcome in American life, and I don’t think there’s much of anything with which I can disagree. He characterizes the situation well as “one of the great fetishes of the American public dialogue on political philosophy,” and I think it is important to remember this- that the question is quite historically and ideologically rooted. It is especially important to remember this because most people who have a stake in the theoretical discussion about political equality assume (wrongly, I think), that their views are self-evident, universally applicable, or even that they represent an exhaustively accurate understanding of what equity is. The reality of the matter is much more textured.

Why would it not be obvious to someone that equality of opportunity and outcome represents a generational feedback loop, and that separating one from the other is simply a false (or at least a rather superficial) dichotomy? I can think of two reasons.

First, someone might simply be unaware of how a family’s “outcome” affects personal “opportunity”. If you grow up in a good home with literate parents, it might be difficult to account for those who grew up in an uneducated or abusive family. Is this experiential ignorance the basis of a strong separation of opportunity and outcome, and a blindspot of the up-by-your-bootstraps approach to American welfare? I’m sure that’s part of it for a very many people. But if we’re going to be fair, the argument against outcome equity is a little bit more nuanced than that. It’s not as if there’s a lack of concern for a common good and equal outcome, otherwise we wouldn’t have libertarians supporting thriving charities, scholarship foundations, churches, etc. The argument more often tends to be that government in particular should not interfere in the outcomes of private citizens and their various associations.

And this brings me to the second, and I think more basic, reason why people find the separation of outcome from opportunity persuasive as a political philosophy: an atomistic understanding of the individual and the collective ignores the organic context of a person’s life, and also creates a sharp private/public distinction in the lives of people. I’ll elaborate on this:

It ignores the organic context of a person’s life: The job applicant as job applicant is a blank concept; there’s no account of whether her father read her bedtime stories or whether her mother earned enough to fill her dinner plate as a child. An employer may know what GPA the applicant has earned, or what previous jobs the applicant held, but previous employers and educational institutions often operate under the same atomistic assumptions and offer no more helpful context for understanding the person's life. A person is a person is an individual, and by their fruits ye shall know them. There is nothing incorrect about this view of the person (employers do need to hire someone based on whether they can do the job today, after all), but there is something incomplete about it if it is used as a basis for an entire political philosophy.

It creates a sharp private/public distinction in the lives of people: The pervasive tendency to compartmentalize artificial spheres of life becomes obvious when we realize who advocates such things. Abortion rights in the late 20th century were based largely on privacy rights, and more recently we’ve seen the repeal of sodomy laws on the same grounds. At the same time, those social conservatives who are most likely to picket over both of these legal developments are also the ones who most often argue that government should stay out of certain other private affairs—should not tinker with the free market, should not unduly privilege certain job or school applicants, should not let the welfare state replace private charity. The understanding of life as divided into private individual and public societal spheres is common to most Americans, of any political affiliation (this is why neoliberalism and neoconservatism have so many counter-intuitive points of overlap, as do the strange bedfellows that you often find in various communitarian alternatives).

There are some reasons why an atomistic understanding of personal and social life is helpful. It is this sort of reductionism that allows people like Daniel to run illuminating data analyses on all sorts of aspects of American life, and to reach constructive solutions based on the information gathered. But if we’re going to reduce “person” to “wealth producer”, or “taxpayer”, or “consumer”, then we also have to realize that this reduction is de-personalizing, that it only serves a limited purpose, and that it most likely is not in itself adequate basis for an entire political philosophy.

Today the “family unit” is a recognizable category of economic thinking, the familial category being a fragment of the larger economic whole. Ironically, the relationship used to be reversed. Oikonomia, the Greek basis of the Western philosophical understanding of economy as it has developed until today, was actually a term denoting “household laws” (one might speculate that in the original understanding, the concept of “home economics” would have been redundant). I think that the separation of the individual from any communal context causes the same sort of confusion and misunderstanding today when we ask questions about what government is meant to do to rectify various inequalities.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Abortion, human rights, and moral ambiguity in law

The complexity of the world we live in often means that even great statesmen (to say nothing of not-so-great ones) will make serious mistakes of judgment concerning just governance. The two most recent presidents are no exception; while Bush has failed substantially in protecting American liberties at home or pursuing just solutions abroad in the “war on terror,” our current president has failed and likely will continue to fail substantially in protecting unborn life at home or pursuing a similarly just policy abroad. Both of these failings are extremely important matters of social justice, and I believe that Obama’s is the more serious.

This isn’t to say that there has been no good in Bush’s foreign policy or Obama’s work on abortion law. While Obama’s “safe, legal, and rare” position has not been especially convincing, it seems at least sincere. He has also addressed reasonable restrictions on abortion when there is no clear risk to the health of the mother (in a magazine blurb during the campaign, of course, not as a president or in support of any bill). Some have also found strange consolation in the post-partisan fact that Obama waited a bit to overturn the Mexico City policy, although if waiting until the next day to do so was a symbolic olive branch, it was certainly a token olive branch, and it certainly flopped. Perhaps the most serious action Obama has taken to date is also one that works against freedom of personal conscience on abortion, the revoking of Bush's eleventh-hour policy protecting the right of conscience for American healthcare workers (does anyone else find it ironic that what was once respected as a tenet of the Hippocratic Oath is now an issue of personal conscience... the conscientious choice under greatest scrutiny being the choice to actually adhere to the original moral vision of medical care?)

Abortion may seem to readers to be a tired issue for us to undertake this week. I think my pastor expressed the mood well in a sermon a few weeks ago when he described ‘abortion fatigue’ as a cultural issue: “isn’t it kind of an ‘80’s, ‘90’s issue? It’s so Reagan-era. It’s so Clinton-era.” As a cultural issue, this may be the case. I think that it only seems outdated, however, because vivid memories of corny posters, pamphlets, rallying cries, and left- or right-wing demagogues remain the most apparent representation of the struggle. As a struggle for the care and protection of families and their children, however, the injustice of abortion remains quite relevant and more fundamental than the trappings of its political expression.

There is a lot that could be covered on the abortion issue, and today I simply want to address what I think is a necessary basis for any subsequent meaningful moral discourse and legislation. The question of abortion is one of fundamental rights. There is a legitimate sense in which we must consider this issue as a black-and-white moral affair, the same way that the civil rights movement or the abolition of slavery should in a significant way be considered in sharp and clarified moral relief. This doesn't mean that there aren't numerous grey areas in abortion policy regarding restrictions, funding, counseling requirements, etc. But any right to procedures of abortion must be justified coherently in terms of political right, and any fundamental right to life that supersedes the right to abortive procedures must also justify itself coherently.

This past January a number of representatives re-introduced the Life at Conception Act, attempting to clear up the legal definition of personhood where the Supreme Court has previously identified ambiguity on the matter. On the state level, Montana has also just passed a personhood amendment defining the terms of human personhood as "a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, or condition of dependency." A similar law in North Dakota defines it this way, "a human being includes any organism with the genome of homo sapiens."

Abortion law rests on the fundamental rights of personhood; any claim to the privacy or reproductive rights of women are based upon their personhood, and any claims about the basic life rights of the unborn child are based upon their personhood. When the rights of two parties conflict, a process of weighing one against the other is necessary. So long as there is ambiguity on the moral personhood of either, it seems to me that this weighing of legal right cannot even begin, much less be resolved in a plausible manner. Whether or not pro-choice legislators think that there is a conflict of rights in the case of an abortion, the fact is that a conflict of rights has been substantially argued by others, and a response of "it's above my paygrade" means that any negotiation of personal rights for which the personhood of unborn life is a factor should be deemed "above my paygrade". Under such circumstances, where do we go on the level of policy? Should a moratorium on abortion procedures be enforced, or should the decision be left up to the people without undue government interference, at least until a more substantive moral consensus arises?

It seems that the question of policy here should be framed in the form of a wager. Without a basic sense of the human rights issues involved, any abortion law could do violence to the rights of the mother, or to the rights of the unborn child. Until a basic sense of the human rights issues is established, policy should steer a careful course between the two possibilities. But how to steer the course?

A moratorium on abortion procedures... a decision that without greater consensus, abortions of unborn children should not be legal... rests on the argument that the possibility of doing violence to a person's fundamental right to life trumps doing violence to a person's right to privacy, reproductive choice, etc. On the other hand, a pro-choice stance in light of a lack of consensus rests on the argument that while there is a possibility of doing violence to a person's fundamental right to life, it is only a possibility. The violence done to a woman's reproductive or privacy rights is not a possibility, however. It is an empirical fact. Weighing mere possiblility against actual restriction seems to lean in favor of actuality.

In order to compare the pro-life and pro-choice solutions to the dilemma, we must compare the criteria upon which they make their decisions: 1) The right to life is certainly more weighty than rights to privacy or reproductive freedom. Not only is life a right of a more fundamental sort than privacy or reproductive freedom, but it has also been clarified in law to a much greater degree. There is no significant disagreement about the nature of a person's right to life the way that there is about a person's right to privacy or reproductive freedom. 2) Possible violations of human rights are obviously less weighty than actual ones. Not much to say there.

The wager, then, is (in most cases) whether a much more serious possibility trumps a much less serious actuality. The exception to this formulation would be situations of danger to the life of the mother, where we have possible danger to an unborn person's life compared with actual danger to a person's life. In this case, we are merely dealing with a situation of possibility versus actuality. While there still are moral arguments to be made in favor of the unborn child here, I think that legislation can reasonably move forward favoring the life of the mother in such situations. An argument against abortion even in cases where the mother's life is endangered would need to depend on the distinction between active killing of a person (by abortion) or passive killing of a person (by failing to help the mother through abortive procedures). While I think this distinction is quite plausible, I don't think it's yet been made in a way convincing enough to bear the weight of law.

Abortion, Morality, and the Freedom to Decide Moral Matters

Evan's post revolves around the idea that despite the retro, flash-back images the abortion debate conjures up in the 21st century, there are still important, black-and-white moral questions at the heart of the conflict. Indeed, I sense that a major concern of his is that this moral dimension will be lost as both sides of the question begin to understand that they actually do share common values - that pro-choicers aren't actually "baby killers" and pro-lifers aren't actually "misogynists", and that neither side has any great affinity for the practice of abortion. From what I understand from previous discussions I've had with him, Evan considers the moderation of ad hominem attacks to be fantastic progress in the abortion wars - but he worries that it may dilute the real question at hand. The moral imperative itself still needs to be front and center. In this respect, I agree with him. So long as this is a moral problem with opponents, proponents should stand ready to engage the moral issue, even if their response is quite simply "I don't consider it a moral problem".

I would take issue with Evan's conclusion that as long as this remains a dilemma, there should be a moratorium. He specifically mentioned a moratorium on funding, but presumably some kind of "time out" on abortions themselves would be consistent with this view as well. The logic is that as long as we all still disagree the state shouldn't take sides.

What I think that position ignores is that as long as you're telling a person what they can and can't do, the state is always taking sides. The question is - what side should the state take?

In the United States, we have traditionally taken very seriously the idea that free people should make moral decisions for themselves; that their own moral compasses are far better equipped for decision making than government fiat. This is not to say that the government never "legislates morality". As Evan suggests, the Civil Rights movement and emancipation, not to mention laws against homicide, rape, and embezzlement are nothing if not "legislating morality". The essential difference, I would argue, is that these laws weren't passed until a critical mass of citizens identified the issue at hand as a moral problem that was worth state involvement. In the case of emancipation, the critical mass was so great that stringent requirements for Constitutional amendment were even met. At the same time, many more "moral problems" - like lying, adultery, etc. - remain free of state legislation, not because there is a disagreement over their moral standing, but because we still place a premium on individual moral decision making - even when the vast majority agree on the immorality of a course of action. Only certain immoralities translate into illegalities.

We aren't even close to a resolution of the moral question of abortion in this country - and I don't think there is any clear momentum in either direction that might justify a heroic court decision on the matter. Roe v. Wade represented such a "heroic" (perhaps "quixotic" is a better word) decision on the question in anticipation of the momentum of public opinion - and many legal scholars agree that while the conclusion of the court may have satisfied the pro-choice movement, the legal justification they provided was flimsy at best. Roe v. Wade, in my mind, was a mistake - but we shouldn't match it with an equally mistaken and equally sweeping national moratorium on abortion.

I think the court should have simply said that there is no precedent or Constitutional justification for a national position on abortion. No national consensus exists to support such a decision, and no Constitutional provision suggests that the federal government has a right to dictate the practice to the people or the states. As such, if the Texas legislature finds abortion to be a criminal offense, it is a criminal offense in the state of Texas. If the state of Massachusetts provides unfettered access to abortion, then unfettered access is legal in Massachusetts. This is how we have always approached contentious moral questions in the United States, and I see no reason not to approach it this way now. I think Roe did more damage to the veracity of federalism in the United States than it did to alter the fundamental position that free individuals should make moral decisions for themselves. It erred insofar as it prevented the several states from exercising their right to curtail individual decision making - but it did not do violence to the underlying sanctity of individual decision making. In that sense, it was bad law but not ultimately unsalvageable.

In the future, there may be a national consensus that passes a Constitutional amendment banning abortion. If that happens, that's fine. In the meantime, the House of Representatives still controls the federal purse strings. If they want to fund abortions, that's something that can be determined by a simple majority. If they want to restrict funding, that too can be done with a simple majority. The President conducts our relations with foreign nations. If he wants to restrict abortion funding from going abroad, that's fine. If he wants to make those funds available that is fine as well - and the voters will hold him accountable for his decisions.

To me, the real audacity of the abortion debate is that both sides have made a habit of assuming that the moral conclusions that they draw are more valid than the moral conclusions of others. One side is more valid than another, obviously. But neither should presume the right to exercise the power of the state on their own behalf unless they can legitimately exercise that power (i.e. - gather the votes or get the amendment).

The default position of the state in the United States is to let the people make decisions freely. Government action - whether in the form of funding, a moratorium, or a ban - should only occur when it garners enough votes. There is no default moratorium on free agency in this system! The default should be to let individuals choose. As bad as Roe v. Wade was, at least it still allows that to happen.

As an olive branch, I would note that because of my position on this, I completely support Montana's right to legislate that life begins at conception. We need to get to the point in this country where that is something that a state is able to decide for itself.