Manzi's Manifesto, continued
By Arnold Kling
Responding to my question about the meaning of the term “social cohesion,” he writes,
the widespread and irrational willingness and propensity to sometimes and to some extent sacrifice narrowly-defined rational self-interest to the needs of a greater collective, and the expectation that others will do the same. In general, in a capitalist democracy this does not mean the expectation that everyone (or even most people) will become martyrs to the Greater Good, but more that they will pursue narrow self-interest within the written and unwritten rules of the society which tend to channel self-interest “as if by an invisible hand” to the good of the society as a whole over time.
Philosophers speak of act-utilitarianism (choosing to drive on the right side of the road because that seems safest at the moment) and rule-utilitarianism (choosing to drive on the right side of the road because that is a general rule which, if followed, will result in better traffic safety).
Let me define soft rule-utilitarians as people who are willing to follow any rule that they understand will make them better off if generally followed. I think that most of what Manzi wants to get out of what he calls “social cohesion” can be obtained by people acting as soft rule-utilitarians. That is, as long as people are capable of understanding that they benefit from rules, and as long as they are willing to follow rules that benefit them, we will be fine.Continuing with the traffic metaphor, suppose that we are in a backup, because of an earlier accident that is now on the right shoulder. Up until the point of the accident, the shoulder is clear. I am considering moving over to the drivie on the shoulder, and then cutting somebody off to get back into the main road . This will speed up my trip, but it will slow down everyone else and impede an emergency vehicle trying to get to the accident. If I am a soft rule-utilitarian, I will resist the temptation to drive on the shoulder.
I do not want to take “social cohesion” any farther than soft rule-utilitarianism. In particular, what I want to avoid is saying that for the sake of “social cohesion” we should condone anything that the state does on the grounds that “if we follow the rules of the state, we will all be better off.” I mean, if there is a thug wielding a gun we may all be better off doing whatever he says, but I would not want to call that “social cohesion.”
The meta-rule “follow the rules laid out by the state” needs to be supplemented by meta-rules that constrain the actions of those in power. Those latter meta-rules can be written (as in the Constitution), but they need to be reinforced by unwritten meta-rules. What I am here calling rules and meta-rules are what Nick and I talk about as the “operating system” of the economy in FP2P.
We know that we need an operating system, we believe that there is strong evidence that different operating systems produce different results (see North Korea vs. South Korea), and we believe that operating systems include cultural values as well as formal institutions. But we do not claim to know enough about operating systems to be able to make detailed prescriptions about how to change them.
In Unchecked and Unbalanced, I propose that one way to check government power would be to allow people to change jurisdictions more easily. My thinking is that if government had less monopoly power, it would be less abusive.
In the end, I am not ready to buy what Manzi is selling. I am only willing to go so far as to say that I believe that a social operating system is better if people behave as soft rule-utilitarians. I am not convinced that economic disruption constitutes a threat to people’s willingness to behave as soft utilitarians.
I do not lose sleep worrying about the effect of economic dynamism on social cohesion. Instead, I lose sleep worrying about what Lynne Kiesling worries about.
between the Senate health care bill process, the futilely constructivist quest for government policy to stimulate the economy, proposals for financial regulation, and the craven stupidity of TSA policy proposals after the Christmas day bomb failure, I am fed up and disgusted with pretty much everything having to do with economic policy.
Not to mention the Obamination of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for electric cars.
I think that the threat to social cohesion comes from the top, not from the bottom. Our political leaders are desperate and grasping. The values and beliefs of ordinary Americans are in much better shape.