Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A View of Modern Society

Amidst the claptrap of government bailouts of Wall Street, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberal vs. conservative, globalization vs. protectionism, etc. there is an underlying theme that seemingly connects disparate groups. Few give it adequate attention. And those who do have their voice silenced or obliterated into oblivion. There is a profound battle occurring in our society today which does not have to do with weapons of mass destruction, guns, grenades, tanks, or any other typical army armament. For armed insurrections and rebellions, once successful in their attempts, lay the foundation to further insurrections and rebellions. The battle I am referring to is nothing of the sort. I am talking about the struggle to salvage the last remaining philosophical tenets that allowed our society to function and flourish. One just simply needs to scan daily newspaper headlines and have a genuine desire to seek the truth amidst the sheer amount of toxic information to “see” what I am speaking about. Failed states, failed policies, failing institutions. In other words, a society that seems to be falling apart at the seams. If I were to take a point in time, say ten years ago, the amount of change that has transpired is tremendous. The same can be said going back fifteen years. Yet, if I had taken inventory of this change on a yearly basis, it would have been so miniscule that the sheer exercise of it might have been futile. But this just merely exhibits the effects of compounding interest: that is, for example, a 2% change after one year is 2%, after two years the value is 4.04%, after three years it is 6.12%…after 10 years it is 21.89%. The point is that change adds up exponentially, sometimes for better or for worse. In our society today, it is the latter.

If you think my proposition is an exaggeration, let me give you four names: Harold Berman, Jacques Berzun, Robert Nisbet, and Martin Van Creveld. You probably have not heard of them. Let me give you a hint: They are not New York Times (or any newspaper) reporters, or journalists who work in some office of CNBC or Fox News (or any other TV personality)—many who pass on opinions as facts. They are academic luminaries who never forsook their profession’s seriousness into the inquiries of their disciplines and of society. By now I hope you have considered their qualifications and background to know they are far from obscure “gentlemen and scholars”. On the contrary, they have a remarkable authority to speak about their subject matter. All of them separately conclude of the tectonic shifts that have occurred during the last generation or two, which consequently has led to the abandonment of the pillars that sustain our modern society.

In his book, "Law and Revolution", Harold Berman makes the following observation:

“The two generations since the outbreak of the Russian Revolution have witnessed-- not only in the Soviet Union and the West—a substantial break with the individualism of traditional law, a break with its emphasis on private property and freedom of contract, its limitation on liability for harm caused by entrepreneurial activity, its strong moral attitude towards crime, and many of its other basic postulates. Conversely, they have turned to collectivism in the law, towards emphasis on state and social property, regulation of contractual freedom in the interest of society, expansion of liability for harm caused by entrepreneurial activity, a utilitarian rather than a moral attitude toward crime, and many other new basic postulates.” (pg. 36-37).

That is, administrative law as a means of market efficiency has been on a constant rise for almost a century. The belief that increased legislative measures alone will alleviate hardships is at least foolish to accept at face value and a half-truth at best. Indeed, laws and its concomitant respect are a prerequisite for any society to prosper. However, the underlying motives and reasons for enacting such laws is what Berman is considering. Laws are the agglomeration of what society considers relevant. The “bailout” mentality, for example, is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been bred for quite a while. Consider recently when Congress forced the Financial Accounting Standard Board (FASB) to change its accounting methodology at the risk of backlash if the former did not comply. These days financial institutions do not have to fend for themselves, given that politicians admonished the FASB that they would use administrative law to get its cooperation. FASB ultimately caved in to political pressure. This is clearly evidence of disrespect for private property rights. They were eschewed on some nebulous premise of market stability.

In Jacques Berzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, we learn that

“the 20th century has gone the 16th century one better in making the absurd a sign of righteousness, of surefire appeal. Any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against the common sense has presumption in its favor—a major discovery is at hand. Where earlier the proponent was declared a charlatan, now he is the bearer of the desirable new and enlightened” (pg. 757-758).

Having just recently finishing my graduate degree from Columbia University, I can first-hand acknowledge the veracity of Berzun when it comes to assessing the current environment in academia—particularly in Economics. For example, the ideas of J.M. Keynes, which were discredited in the 1970s, have been re-packaged and dispensed in a new format to the entire student body. How about society in general, as Berzun points out,

“Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by public cries for Excellence. At the same time society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interest of ‘free market of idea’” (pg. 758).

One can go on and on to expose the rampant contradictions many live by. Few give it any passing thought about this absurdity. Perhaps this obvious cognitive dissonance—to borrow a phrase from social psychologists—is the effect of a structural cause of a society. Perhaps it has something to do with our idea of what progress constitutes, as Robert Nisbet claims. In “History of the Idea of Progress”, he states that

“everything now suggests, however, that Western faith in the dogma of progress is waning rapidly at all levels and spheres in this final part of the twentieth century. The reasons…have much less to do with the unprecedented world wars, the totalitarianism, the economic depression, and other major political, military, and economic afflictions which are peculiar to the twentieth century than they do with the fateful if less dramatic erosion of all the fundamental intellectual and spiritual premises upon which the idea of progress has rested throughout its long history” (pg. 9).

This encapsulates the very core of our identity as a society. Nisbet seems to say that we have entered a dark-age period.

In “The State: Its Rise and Decline”, Martin Van Creveld goes a step further and makes the assertion that the modern state is in its period of decline, which began somewhere between 1945-1975. The “global character of the changes indicates that they were produced by anonymous forces over which scarcely anybody could exercise any control. And in relation to which, indeed, the entire question of morality becomes almost irrelevant.” The decline is characterized by nuclear weapons proliferation, breakdown of the welfare state, and globalization. The product has been strife and continued disintegration in social structures.

Harold Berman, Jacques Berzun, Robert Nisbet, and Martin Van Creveld, albeit coming from different perspectives, all agree that something radically different is evident in our society. If what they claim is true (which, given my own research, I happen to believe they are right), unless a radical shift occurs, I cannot be absolutely sanguine about the future.

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