Monday, March 19, 2012

Myths of Progress

Human reason can neither predict nor deliberately shape its own future. Its advances consist in finding out where it has been wrong.  -- F. A. Hayek
It's common among some of my intellectual peers to speak of the "myth of progress," a term used disparagingly of the idea of progress made popular in Western consciousness ever since the Enlightenment era. The idea that "civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction" is a very easy target for intellectual criticism, because it both impacts our everyday thought and speech and is obviously false. Yet I find myself a little dissatisfied by the apparent alternatives. Indeed, in my experience there seem to be three different myths of progress, all working together, often paradoxically. Here they are:

  1. The myth of inevitable progress: the idea that whatever is newer is better. You see this a lot when it comes to technology, of course (it's actually a little sad to know how many people are willing to line up for the latest toy being released by Apple or Microsoft). But you also see it all the time when it comes to morality. On multiple occasions, for instance, I have pointed out to a friend that the 19th century feminists were pro-life. Typical response: "They lived a long time ago."
  2. The myth of progress on demand: the idea that if we want more progress, we just have to fight for it. Think of Occupy Wall Street on the left, or the "cultural warriors" on the right. Intentionally militant language is used to signify that progress is both necessary and achievable through unrelenting determination.
  3. The myth of nihilism: there is no such thing as progress, and nothing we do really changes anything in the long run. We're no better nor worse than our ancestors, we can judge no one and no one can judge us. This is, in some ways, an immature reaction to the first two, but it is also deeper than that. Reflecting on our astonishing lack of knowledge can easily lead an intellectual down the pass to despair. Perhaps we really know nothing, after all, and everything we think we know is just a narrative we tell ourselves to keep going. But this is itself a narrative we tell ourselves, and I suspect it is because we have grown weary of traveling down the arduous path of discovery.
All of these are myths, stories we tell ourselves to simplify the world. Or, perhaps, they are stories which really do capture a genuine truth about ourselves. Myths cannot be so easily dismissed as falsehoods. For a myth to become so deeply rooted in society, it must have some ring of truth to it, after all.

Nevertheless, all of these claims are demonstrably false once they are stated clearly. The myth of inevitable progress cannot stand up to the fact of two world wars, in addition to many other credible examples of moral decline. The myth of progress on demand cannot stand up to the fact that, for example, communist revolutions have largely resulted in far worse totalitarianism than anything devised by the reigning aristocracy. The myth of nihilism is equally flawed: the world really has, in a way which is simply unprecedented in history, repudiated institutions such as slavery which were finally seen for the evils that they are. And technological progress, for all of the difficulties it brings with it, really has made people healthier and more productive than ever before.

The reason all of this is important is that we as modern people thrive on the idea of progress. We place our hopes in it; we demand it; and, precisely because we love it so much, we sometimes despair of ever attaining it. It is important that intellectuals lay a proper foundation for thinking rightly about progress, a foundation that accords with both high ideals and common sense.

I began with a quote from a chapter of The Constitution of Liberty entitled, "The Common Sense of Progress." I think this essay is a fantastic read, and it's worth reading all the way through, but I think one can also distill from it a few basic principles that are worth repeating. Here they are:
  1. Progress is necessary. No, it isn't inevitable, and no, it doesn't come by simply demanding more of it, but it is what we want, and that's both natural and healthy. As Adam Smith pointed out years ago, a static society is awful for those who are least fortunate, and a regressive society even worse. The only way we can meet the needs of the many is to continue to make progress.
  2. Progress is unpredictable. Just because I think I know how to solve a problem doesn't mean I will. A much bigger point is that many problems cannot even be named, much less solved, until I solve other ones. I won't even know what further progress means until I overcome today's problems.
  3. Progress does not always satisfy. Sometimes, in solving the problems of the day, I may just wind up wishing I hadn't. But if we always knew this ahead of time, there wouldn't be any need for progress in the first place; we'd already know everything we need to.
  4. Progress is nonlinear. Just because we improve in one way doesn't mean we improve in every way. Sometimes in order to make progress in one area, we end up stagnating or even regressing in another. It is impossible to know ahead of time how this balance will play out in the long run.
  5. Progress begins locally. No innovation can immediately affect everyone, but it must undergo a refinement process which always starts with the people with enough expertise to understand the innovation. I think this even applies to moral progress: it is only through determined visionaries, who see the problems of society in a specialized way, that movements can arise to reform society.
  6. Progress is good. Even though we can't say this without qualification, it is nevertheless true that progress is good. If for no other reason than the mere satisfaction of learning something new, progress is a good thing that will always continue to attract the imagination of human beings.
Hopefully these principles are a reasonable enough baseline for thinking about progress in the modern world, so that we as intellectuals can actually say things with both confidence and realistic expectations. Nothing we do will ever result in quite the thing we wanted or expected, but that is no reason not to do it. Nothing we believe is ever invulnerable to criticism or change, but that is no reason to believe nothing. The more realistic we are in our desire for change, the more hopeful we can be that change is possible. We will never know in our lifetimes whether it was all worth it, but we can be sure that such was true also of our heroes of the past.

As for me, I would like to believe that there really is some meaning behind all of our history, civilization, and progress. If we in the modern world have trouble believing in God, then I would rather that we at least believe in something that extends beyond ourselves. And since we are so prone to believe in progress, it would help if we at least believed something true about it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Drug legalization: the moral argument

As I've just read in the news that Pat Robertson, of all people, has come out in favor of legalizing marijuana, I thought I would take a stab at the issue generally. There are many angles from which you could approach this issue: social, political, moral, medical, and even fiscal concerns come into the picture. While I think all of these are important, I want to stick with the moral/political side of things, because this is where our principles are really put to the test.

So here's the claim: drugs should be legalized, with certain regulations as necessary to prevent harm to those who are particularly vulnerable (such as children). Some positive arguments, as Robertson himself elucidates, include the following. First, it would reduce our prison population, saving us lots of money which we currently spend needlessly. Second, it would prevent violence in the form of "drug wars" between black market rivals or between drug dealers and police. Third, it would eliminate the rather obvious disparity in the legal system between wealthy drug users who find it easy to get away with and those in the lower class who are easy targets for police. Beyond these, legalization would probably also have a good effect on our economy, by creating more legitimate jobs, as unsavory as it might sound to most people.

Now let's deal with three objections. First, there's the paternalistic objection: shouldn't we save people from themselves? After all, drug addiction is pretty bad, and everyone hooked on drugs could use a little incentive to get off drugs. Do we really want to leave people alone while they ruin their lives, and possibly impose costs on the rest of us due to their poor health and poor decisions?

The answer to this is pretty clear: we don't need to make something illegal to help people stop doing it. On the contrary, it would probably be easier to help people quit their addictions if drug use were legal, since it would be easy for people to be out in the open about their use. If you want to be paternalistic, then let's have a compromise: instead of spending government funding on guns and prisons, let's spend it on rehab centers. Alcoholism is a real problem for many people, yet we don't arrest people for drinking. (We tried that before, it didn't turn out so well.) Or take smoking as an example: an entire industry has built up around helping people to quit, from nicotine patches to chewing gum.

A second objection has to do with law and order: aren't drug users more likely to be involved in other crimes? Well, let's weigh the moral merit of such an objection. Is it right to punish people for doing something they are going to do? Should I punish someone for using drugs because I think it will lead to violence? Again, take the issue of alcohol use. We punish people for drunk driving, but not for drinking. That's because drunk driving endangers lives, while drinking does not. But doesn't drinking lead to drunk driving? Well, in general, no. There is a pretty clear dividing line between the choice to use drugs in the privacy of your own home or private club, for example, and the choice to drive a two-ton piece of machinery down the road while intoxicated. One should not be punished because of bad associations between two distinct activities.

Thirdly, there is the following objection, related to the first two: won't legalization lead to more drug use, thereby degrading the morals of society? Some will answer this by pointing to studies that show eventual declines in drug use in countries where it has been legalized. However, let us make a more philosophical point in response to this objection. It is obvious that we cannot make illegal all things which are wrong. How can we possibly draw the line between things which should be legal and those which should be illegal?

To solve this puzzle, I propose the following test: is it peaceful? As someone with libertarian leanings, I believe that society must work first to be a peaceful society, and then we can focus on solving particular moral problems. Progress is best made through peace. When people feel coerced into abiding by a particular moral code, they tend to resent whoever assumes this moral authority over them. Within certain institutions such as the family, this can be a necessary and even healthy thing; but between existing communities of people, this is an unhealthy relationship which can only cause long-standing tension.

I have never used any drugs other than alcohol; I've never even smoked. But there really is virtue in tolerance, by which I mean permitting other people to do things you actually do not prefer. I grow increasingly discouraged that tolerance has fallen out of favor in our society; we seem to be forced to choose between endorsing or forbidding. If everything we find disgusting must be illegal, and likewise everything we make legal must be actively accepted as good, then our democracy will surely deteriorate (as it has done) into a tug of war, to which there is no end. I refuse to hold any stance on drug use other than tolerance: I think drug use is wrong, and I think it should be legal.

Simply ask yourself, do you really want men with guns locking someone away merely for possessing a substance which has certain negative effects on the human body when consumed? Does this punishment fit the crime? Perhaps a tax is a more fitting punishment; or, just maybe, the mere use of drugs is benign enough to simply be left alone, as are most activities done in private.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

In praise of the Living Wage campaign at UVA

You might be wondering what a guy with libertarian leanings, who has actually defended the abolition of minimum wage laws, is doing praising the "Living Wage" campaign at the University of Virginia. That might be because you, like me, initially assumed upon reading the words "living wage" that the activist organization demanding better pay for UVA employees is another political action team wanting to get legislation passed to achieve their objectives. Or it might be because you, like so many of us in this world, have been fooled by stereotypes, having been taught through a steady diet of mainstream media that libertarians are greedy, selfish jerks who think everyone should have to fend for himself. Whatever the reason you're surprised, if indeed you are, I hope to explain clearly and succinctly why you shouldn't be.

The Living Wage campaign exists for the purpose of demanding better pay for employees of the University of Virginia. Its specific wage demands (which can be read here) are based on the Economic Policy Institute's estimation of what it costs to live in Charlottesville and raise a family of four. It further demands structural changes in the university that will make the improvement of wages an ongoing process. The rationale behind these demands is simple: we, as a university, ought to live up to our stated goal of being a "caring community."

Why I support this. I have joined 2,255 other people in signing a petition that the university meet Living Wage standards. As a Christian, I believe all human beings have a responsibility to care for the poor among us, and we as Christians are particularly responsible for advocating for those less fortunate. I also believe it is our duty to take part in shaping the institutions of which we are part. Communities are shaped by powerful institutions, and we have a moral obligation to insist that those institutions adhere to good and just principles. Human beings cannot thrive without communities that look out for the common interest.

As a libertarian, I believe it is vital for individuals to be active on the ground in making the world a better place. Indeed, it is our general complacency about the needs of our own communities that invites greater and more intrusive intervention from the state. From my point of view, the point of libertarianism is not for us all to float around in an atomistic world of self-interested individuals with no ties to any institutions or communities. No, the point is for all of us individuals to be free to create, shape, and reform those institutions with which we are naturally affiliated. If the university of which I am a part does not reflect the morals which I hold dear, then I have a right and even a duty to make this known to the community.

Response to objections. So what about economics? What about the minimum wage? Doesn't that do more harm than good? (I've seen posters on campus suggesting exactly that.)

I think this is based on a misunderstanding of what is being demanded. The Living Wage campaign exists to change the values that govern UVA's policies, not to change laws. It is more than probable that many activists in the campaign would disagree with my political views very sharply. But as far as I can see, despite whatever traditional ties there may be between this kind of activism and leftist politics, the purpose of the campaign is not explicitly political. And anyway, I don't see why we libertarians can't take back some of that moral high ground that the leftists want to take from us.

(I was particularly agitated in my soul when I read this statement on the campaign web site, from an anonymous employee of the university: “The problem is that so many workers get locked into the low wage that stays there… you end up losing ground financially because of inflation and such… and so a lot of people are making less money then they were making years ago.” [Emphasis mine.] And people wonder why we Ron Paul fans keep going on about monetary policy...)

So in response to the economic argument, I would say it is not correct that a university policy of paying its employees well would do more harm than good. UVA must decide, as all firms must, how it will allocate its resources, based on its guiding principles. The Living Wage campaign simply pleads that one of those guiding principles be that we care for the needy in our community. That is a proper moral stance, and if "economics" is ever used as an argument against your morals, you must always side with your morals.

The reason minimum wage laws don't make sense (to me) is that the government can't possibly know all the legitimate exceptions to the rules they make up. What if a young teenager wants to try working on a farm one summer? What if young woman fresh out of college is willing to work a low-paying internship just to gain skills that will and her a fulfilling career? What if a young immigrant is willing to work for next to nothing because it's actually worth quite a bit in his home country? In all of these cases, it's none of the state's business if these individuals choose to take on a particular risk or hardship. Provided individuals are free to choose between competing firms, the government should have no say in their personal decisions.

But again, we have the right and the moral responsibility to help shape the values that guide our own institutions to which we belong. So long as the goal isn't the use of coercion, I have nothing but enthusiasm for a campaign to increase the welfare of the community.

I know of no other reasonable objections to the Living Wage campaign, but if there are any, I'd love to hear them. For now, at least, I'm a supporter, and I look forward to receiving campaign updates. I can only give my apologies to those (particularly of my friends) who have been active in campaigning, including the recent hunger strike, as I am a relative late-comer to this cause.